The Exegetical ProcessMany people begin their study of the Bible by immediately asking what it means to them and how they can apply it to their life. While that approach to Bible study is well intentioned, it’s also incorrect. Before you can begin looking for a personal application or seeking to determine how the passage you’re studying applies to you or others, you need to figure out what message the author of that passage was trying to communicate to those who were his original audience. To do this involves working your way through what many students of the Scriptures refer to as the exegetical process. The exegetical process involves the study of a portion of Scripture in its original grammatical, historical, cultural, and literary context. In order to successfully accomplish this process of study I follow several steps that I have outline below. Step 1: Select a text and read the text at least four or five times in several modern, formal-equivalence translations. Step 2: Develop your own translation of the text from the original languages. In the event that you’re not able to work from the original languages or are a little rusty on your use of them try consulting a good interlinear translation or a good Bible software program such as Logos Bible Software or Bible Works. While developing your translation also give attention to critical problems and significant textual variants among the available manuscripts. The textual apparatus in most original language editions of the Bible is a good place to start with this. Step 3: After translating the text from the original languages diagram the phrases and parts of speech in the passage. Step 4: With this diagram as a guide outline the text in as detailed a manner as possible. This involves gathering a list of the main ideas or main events of the passage, as indicated by your diagram, and organizing those ideas or events in a logical manner. Step 5: Develop a list of key terms that seem to stand out in the passage, as indicated by your diagram and outline. Then develop a detailed study of these terms by looking at their use in other parts of Scripture. During this step also look for inter-biblical allusions or direct quotations from other portions of Scripture and examine the passages those quotes or allusions come from to see what light they might shed on the passage at hand. Step 6: Look at the historical, cultural, and literary context of the text by examining issues pertaining to the author, date of writing, place of writing, recipients, purpose of writing, literary genre, and canonical context. Step 7: Examine the overall literary structure of the book in which the passage is contained and determine how the passage under question fits into that larger structure. Also, seek to determine if anything about your interpretation of the passage needs adjustment based on your knowledge of the literary form and structure of the text. Step 8: Summarize the passage in your own words in a sentence or two or in a paragraph or two for a whole book, attempting to identify the main idea or overarching theme of the passage in question. Step 9: Develop a personal commentary on each verse of the passage that seeks to determine the biblical-theological meaning of each verse and how that meaning relates to the passage and the book as a whole. During this step try to combine information gathered from your own research on the text as well research contained in good exegetical and expository commentaries and theological journals. I also like to consult the works of various pastors or theologians throughout church history to see if they have dealt with the passage in any of their writings or sermons. A few examples of people like this that I often turn to for insight are Augustine, Chrysostom, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Geerhardus Vos. After the exegetical process described above is complete, many students of the Bible tend to conclude that their study of the passage is over and that the process of drawing applications from the text can begin. On the surface, this seems like it makes a lot of sense. After all, by this point, if you’ve carefully followed each step in the exegetical process you will likely come away from the text with an excellent grasp of its original grammatical, historical, and literary context and an in-depth understanding of the author’s intended message to his original recipients. But your study of a passage shouldn’t stop there. Once the exegetical process is complete we need to go to the next level in our study to determine the full redemptive-historical context of a passage.
The Scriptural Basis for Redemptive-Historical InterpretationThe term redemptive-historical is one that some Christians may be unfamiliar with, although its use has grown more common in recent years. In a nutshell, redemptive-historical biblical interpretation starts with the belief that Scripture interprets Scripture and that the Scriptural canon, while containing many books describing a host of events and providing a growing body of revelation about God, fits together to form a cohesive whole that presents us with one Word of God and one unified message. Redemptive-historical interpretation then goes on to identify that message and locate it in the person of Jesus Christ as the central figure of the Bible. Therefore, according to a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture, God’s eternal plan of redemption through the person and work of Christ functions as the one overarching theme or grand-storyline of Scripture that gives meaning to everything else. This means that whenever we seek to determine the context of a passage of Scripture and the meaning of that passage we must not only determine the immediate grammatical, historical context and the author’s original intent, but we must also determine the fuller redemptive-historical context and divine intent. And given the unified message of Scripture with its one central figure and overarching redemptive theme it must be concluded that the fuller redemptive context of any passage is the gospel, namely the person and work of Christ that the gospel proclaims, and the divine intent of a passage serves always to point to or reveal certain truths about the gospel itself or truths that flow out of or are related to the gospel. So in the final analysis this means that if we’re going to interpret and apply Scripture properly we need to interpret it, in every instance, in light of the person and work of Christ, and until we have done that we can’t say that we’ve properly studied or properly understood the context of any portion of Scripture. This way of interpreting Scripture finds its basis in the teachings of Jesus Himself in places like Matthew 5:17-18 and Luke 24:25-27, 44-49 and elsewhere in the New Testament in places like 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:12, 10:1-4; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Galatians 3:7-9, 19, 29, 4:21-26, 6:14-16; Colossians 1:28; Hebrews 7-10; 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9; Revelation 1:5-6, 5:9-10, etc. These passages, taken together, along with the overall typological nature of the New Testament, establishes the truth that all Scripture points to Christ and does so not just in some broad, general way, but in every detail and at every point along the way throughout redemptive history, in nearly every person, event, institution, promise, and covenant that is revealed, as well as in the totality of the message proclaimed. Whatever God has revealed in His Word, ultimately, it is all about the person and work of Christ. This is the method of Bible study that Christ taught the disciples and that the disciples practiced in the early church. It was in turn the method of study passed down by the disciples and maintained by many through the centuries of church history. It hasn’t always been practiced as carefully as it ought to have been. Some have even argued that this method of interpretation shouldn’t be practiced at all by believers after the apostolic period. It’s my belief, however, that since this is the method of study that the Bible itself presents us with and since nothing in Scripture indicates that any other method of study should be followed, it ought to be the method we apply to our own personal study of the Scriptures today.
The Redemptive-Historical ProcessI have listed below several steps in the redemptive-historical process, like the steps listed above in the exegetical process, that I follow in order to guide me through this type of study and help me to discern the fuller redemptive-historical context of a passage of Scripture. Step 1: Ask if the passage you’re studying predicts anything about the person and work of Christ. Step 2: Ask if the passage in some broader way points to or reveals something about what Christ will do or bring about as a result of His person and work. Step 3: Ask if the passage describes an event that moves forward God’s plan of redemption and consider where the passage fits in redemptive-history. Step 4: Ask if there is anything in the passage that serves as a type of Christ. 1. A type is any person, event, institution, structure, place, ceremony, promise, covenant, and theme that corresponds to, prefigures, or foreshadows the person and work of Christ or things that come as a result of the person and work of Christ. 2. Examples of Old Testament types: People: Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Melchizedek, Joseph, Moses, the high priest, Job, Boaz, David, Solomon, Jonah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, Mordecai, etc. Events: creation, the flood, the Passover, the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, the wilderness wanderings, the conquest of the land, the period of the Judges, the reign of the kings, David’s battle against Goliath, the exile and return from exile, etc. Institutions, structures, and places: the garden of Eden, the nation of Israel, the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the tabernacle, the temple, the city of Jerusalem, etc. Themes: representative headship, the seed of the woman, blessings to the nations, salvation out of judgment, imputation, death and resurrection, new-creation, the suffering servant, the obedient servant, the spread of God’s kingdom, God’s glory, etc. Step 5: Ask if there is anything in the passage that is produced in our lives as a result of the person and work of Christ. 1. This applies especially to the commands of Scripture or statements of ethical and moral responsibility that we have as Christians. 2. Consider what gospel truths each command or exhortation flows out of by asking what Christ has done, what you possess in Christ, or what change has taken place in your life because of Christ that makes it possible to obey that command. Step 6: Look for the “fallen condition focus” of a passage, which is whatever aspect of a passage points to our need as fallen, sinful, humans or points us to some aspect of the grace of God and the spiritual benefits that come to us in Christ. Once this process is complete it’s finally time to begin drawing applications and asking what this passage of Scripture means for me or my listeners, although the answers to those questions will most likely flow naturally from the steps involved in the redemptive-historical process. You may also notice that if the redemptive-historical process is followed carefully it will result in some significant theological implications that come as a result of seeing the Bible as one story of God’s plan of redemption in Christ. I will leave you with a list of what I think are some of these necessary implications and allow you to think through the ramifications such truths might have for the way you preach, teach, study the Bible, or even the way you do practical ministry. There are many more implications that could be listed, but if just the ones I’ve included here are taken to heart, and if the conclusions that I think flow out of them are taken seriously, it will, in my opinion, produce a truly gospel-centered theology and gospel-centered ministry.
Some Necessary Implications of Redemptive-Historical InterpretationSince Christ is the central figure of Scripture and God’s eternal plan of redemption through Him is the central storyline of the Bible then… 1. The salvation of God’s people has been ordained from eternity and is entirely outside of anyone’s control to effect by their own wills or works. 2. There can be only one elect people of God spread throughout all redemptive-history, all of whom, by union with Christ, are joined together as one spiritual body in Him. 3. All has been fulfilled in Christ and nothing awaits fulfillment accept His return and the consummation of all things. 4. The final victory over death, hell, Satan, and all the forces of evil has already been won, having been ratified in Christ’s blood and witnessed by the spread of the gospel through the earth, and only awaits its consummation with Christ’s return. 5. Those who are truly Christ’s will face no judgment or condemnation in the world to come and will be kept by the power of God to be with Christ for eternity, and are now spiritually present with Christ in the heavenly realms by virtue of union with Him, awaiting only the consummation of that which has already been received. 6. There is a great need and urgency for the gospel message of the person and work of Jesus Christ for eternal life and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed to all, for the glory of God.
 Most of the steps in the exegetical process listed here have been adapted from information contained in Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, by Douglas Stuart; New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, by Gordon D. Fee; and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.  Examples of formal equivalence translations are the NASB, ESV, NKJV, RSV, and NRSV. For a helpful explanation of the translation philosophy behind such versions and the benefits of formal equivalence translations see the short booklet Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences, by Leland Ryken.  There is an important caveat on this point that needs to be taken into consideration when doing a literary analysis of a passage of Scripture. Special care should be exercised when examining the literary form and structure of a text that such information (which sometimes includes comparative studies with literature outside the Scriptural text) does not take precedence in the interpretive process. The principle that Scripture interprets Scripture should always be maintained, even while giving attention to literary matters. Therefore, if other portions of Scripture shed light on the meaning of a text, that meaning should be given priority, even if the information gained from a literary analysis of the text may seem to indicate otherwise. This is especially true for how one interprets Old Testament revelation in light of subsequent New Testament revelation.  Some of my favorite commentary series are the New American Commentary and the Word Biblical Commentary, and my favorite theological journals are the Westminster Theological Journal and the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.  For more information on redemptive-historical biblical interpretation see the following books: A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New and Handbook of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, by G. K. Beale; Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson; Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: the Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.; According to Plan: the Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible and Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, by Graeme Goldsworthy; Biblical Theology and Pauline Eschatology, by Geerhardus Vos.  It goes beyond the scope of this post to discuss in further detail the many issues raised here, but at least one point that I think should be noted is the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible as Christians. In other words, even when seeking to determine the original intent of Scripture, we should never approach that study, especially when dealing with passages in the Old Testament, as if the New Testament and the revelation given in it about Christ doesn’t exist. It is true that such revelation (at least in the minds of the biblical authors) didn’t exist during the Old Testament period. But the fact is, it exists now! Therefore, the Old Testament cannot be divorced from the unity it possesses with the New Testament without doing serious injustice to the meaning of Scripture! For more on this point see the article “Types of First and Second Readings,” by Camden Bucey, available at http://historiasalutis.com/2012/03/08/types-of-first-and-second-readings/.  For additional information on the New Testament’s typological interpretation of the Old Testament see the sections on biblical typology in Him We Proclaim, by Dennis Johnson and Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, by Graeme Goldsworthy, as well as the articles “Typology: A Step-by-Step Guide,” by David P. Murray, available at http://headhearthand.posterous.com/typology-a-step-by-step-guide and “Preaching and Biblical Theology,” by Thomas Schreiner, available at http://beginningwithmoses.org/oldsite/articles/preachingbt.pdf.  For more on this topic see the article “Is There an Apostolic Hermeneutic and Can We Imitate it?” by R. Scott Clark, available at http://heidelblog.net/2014/01/is-there-an-apostolic-hermeneutic-and-can-we-imitate-it/.  Most of the steps in this process (questions really, which are asked of the text) I’ve adapted from the books Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Message, by Bryan Chapell; Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching, by Graeme Goldsworthy; and Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, by Dennis Johnson.  This is a phrase coined by Bryan Chappell in his book Christ-Centered Preaching.  This point touches upon the ‘already/not yet’ aspect of Scripture as well as truths surrounding the inaugurated kingdom and the inaugurated blessings of the eternal state that believers possess in Christ now, which is another set of topics that is beyond the scope of this post to address. For more on these and other related issues see A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, by G. K. Beale.