A Backward or Forward Movement in Scripture Interpretation?” by Dean Deppe

Dean Deppe
Dean Deppe

Calvin Theological Seminary professor Dean Deppe here discusses the widening cultural gap between Bible scholars (who grow ever more sophisticated in their exegetical methods) and everyday folks (who grow less and less familiar with the basic biblical concepts). It is this disconnect that has inspired his latest book, All Roads Lead to the Text: Eight Methods of Inquiry into the Bible — a user-friendly beginners’ guide to biblical intepretation. 

The Bible has been the most popular book in the history of civilization, yet two trends are altering this phenomenon in our day.

On the one hand, biblical illiteracy is championing the day in areas of the world where the Bible once was everyday reading. A Gallup survey reveals that fewer than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only one-third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (many named Billy Graham, not Jesus), and one quarter do not know what is celebrated on Easter. Most of the participants in a Kelton Research survey recalled the names of the four Beatles and the main ingredients in a Big Mac but could not remember one of the Ten Commandments. In a report on America’s religious illiteracy, USA Today reported that 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

On the other hand, those most skilled in interpreting the Bible have employed a method that increasingly falls prey to a form of technologism and esoteric language that cuts off its results from the church for whose life its results are of utmost significance. Walter Wink in his book The Bible in Human Transformation (pp. 10-11) points outs that “Historical criticism sought to free itself from the community in order to pursue its work untrammeled by censorship and interference. With that hard-won freedom it also won isolation from any conceivable significance.”

When these two movements converge in history, the Bible loses all relevancy and its popularity plummets. How can Bible study be revived?

I have written a book entitled All Roads Lead to the Text which attempts to combine a systematic approach to Scripture which views it as a text that must be studied along with an emphasis upon “spiritual exegesis” where the reader is exegeted by the text. Now, when I say that a reader ought to be “exegeted,” what I mean is this: the Bible is not just an ancient text that we need to analyze and critique. We must also place ourselves into the narrative and allow the text to analyze and critique our attitudes, our world view, and our behavior. My thesis, then, is that there must be a back and forth movement whereby the Bible is both the object of study and an agent of study — with the subject interpreting the reader. Is this a step backwards into a pre-modern reading of the Bible, or is it a step forward that will again captivate readers with the depth and importance of the Scriptures?

In the first few chapters I instruct readers in the craft of biblical interpretation, as together we add a series of lenses to our metaphorical exegetical cameras that allow us to investigate the text from various angles:

  • We must use an infra-red lens to discover what cannot always be seen in natural light like the importance of genre or hidden literary devices.
  • The use of an exegetical microscope scrutinizes the details of a passage from words, to phrases, to clauses until we arrive at various translations of the text.
  • In addition, a skeleton snapshot of the text offers a picture of the structure of a passage while a wide-angled lens probes the context before and after the pericope.
  • Finally, we utilize a telescopic lens to explore the cultural and historical background and roll out the motion picture exegetical camera to study how commentators throughout the various periods of church history interpreted the text.

To keep readers interested, I do not rehearse the theoretical principles involved in interpreting the Bible but instead employ a whole series of biblical examples to demonstrate how these exegetical lenses influence interpretation.

We must also, however, employ “spiritual exegesis” which benefits from other skills than those employed by the historical-critical method. I acknowledge that it is rare for a volume to treat both scholarly exegesis and those spiritual disciplines that will affect the reader in interpreting the text. Yet my chapter on “spiritual exegesis” does just this, proposing seven strategies in addition to grammatical–historical exegesis that can impact interpretation and application. These spiritual disciplines include:

All Roads Lead to the Text
All Roads Lead to the Text
  • Employing a practicing faith perspective
  • Personalizing the text
  • Praying Scripture
  • Picturing concepts through meditation
  • Listening prophetically
  • Building paradigms through mirroring
  • Applying the text imaginatively

This x-ray of our personality, presuppositions, and spiritual makeup certifies that we are not deceiving ourselves and that this whole process is not just an intellectual exercise completely separated from our life experience.

Does talk about “spiritual exegesis” belong in a book on hermeneutics? It’s a crucial question.

Here’s another: what will move people to pick up the Bible and be fascinated by its contents?

And yet one more: what will motivate the best interpreters of God’s Word to again attempt to be relevant to the ordinary reader of the Bible?

I hope that the approach I’ve taken in this book will begin to open all of these crucial questions up for broad and continual discussion. Given the current state of biblical studies in our society, it’s a discussion that needs to take place.

Click here to order Dean Deppe’s All Roads Lead to the Text: Eight Methods of Inquiry into the Bible.

Click to read Jayson Bradley’s two-part interview with Dean Deppe at LogosTalk, the Logos Bible Software blog: part 1 and part 2.