—This is part one of a three part series on the topic of retreival exegesis—

Todd Billings poses the following question in The Word of God for the People of God, “If the idea of reading very old commentaries on Scripture is new to you, it may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to interpret the Bible as God’s word for today?”[1] This question frequently enters the pastor’s study as they study God’s word so as to say something meaningful to today’s struggles, problems, social issues, and more. Why would we even dare to consider reading something a bit more antiquarian?

But this is what I, and others, dare to suggest.[2] A way to move forward and vivify the readings of Scripture is to break open the treasure trove of the past.

Therefore, some groundwork needs to be cleared before an argument for exegetical retrieval can be of value. For some, the ancient authors seem weird and offer counter intuitive readings of Scripture. For others, why would we read ancient interpreters when they are distantly removed from our current historical situation?

Permit me, then, to offer a few comments as to what retrieval exegesis is not and what it is. First, retrieval exegesis is not a blind acceptance of all ancient readings of the Bible. I often hear an objection to reading early interpreters of the Bible as fanciful or imaginative exegesis. Sometimes this is true, but they sometimes offer more intensive readings of the Bible and make different connections between passages than modern readers—both allegorical and literary.[3] Second, retrieval exegesis is not chronological snobbery to say older is better than newer—even though it can be in some cases. Third, retrieval exegesis does not have to jettison modern methods of reading the bible. Rather, retrieval exegesis, and other expressions of Theological Interpretation of Scriputre, do not call for a full exegetical method replacement. Rather, it calls to add to the interpreter's tool box.

Thus, retrieval exegesis is hearing and listening to voices of the past for one’s current understanding of the Bible. Retrieval exegesis is mining the past to allow an ancient figure to shape, influence, and contribute to the current repository of readings.

The next post in this series will survey the philosophical foundations for retrieval exegesis. The final post will offer practical ways for pastors and students to participate in retrieval exegesis as a part of their weekly Bible reading.

About the Author:
Shawn Wilhite

Shawn Wilhite is currently a Ph.D. student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests coalesce around New Testament and early Christian origins, the Epistle to Hebrews, History of New Testament Interpretation, Theological Interpretation of Scripture and Early Christian Hermeneutics, and Greek and Latin Studies.

Doctrinae Coram Deo

  1. J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 151.  ↩

  2. Michael Allen and Scot R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).  ↩

  3. See more from John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), ch.3.  ↩