J. I. Packer on the Exegetical Task

In God Has Spoken, J. I. Packer wrote:

Because the Bible is a human book, God having chosen to convey his teaching to us in the form of the inspired instruction of his human penmen, the way into his mind is necessarily via their minds. So the basic discipline in biblical interpretation must always be exegetical analysis–that is, the attempt to determine as exactly as possible just what the writer meant by the words he wrote, and how he would explain the sense of his statements could we cross-question him about them. Exegesis involves, on the one hand, setting each passage against its external background (historical, cultural, geographical, linguistic, literary), and, on the other hand, determining from its intrinsic characteristics its aim, scope, standpoint, presuppositions, and range and limit of interest. The first part of this task may call for a good deal of technical learning, but this does not mean that exegesis is work for scholars only; the decisive part of the task is the second part, for which the first is, at most, only ground-clearing, and in this the professional scholar does not stand on any higher footing than any diligent student of the text in any language. The supreme requirement for understanding a biblical book–or, indeed, any other human document–is sympathy with its subject-matter, and a mind and heart that can spontaneously enter the author’s outlook. But the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of Isaiah, or Paul, or John, and see with his eyes and feel with his heart is the gift, not of academic training, but of the Holy Spirit through the new birth.

p. 121-122

Packer explains that biblical interpretation involves three moves: exegesis, synthesis, and application. First, you reach back, then you consider the meaning of a given verse, passage, or book in light of the Bible as a whole, and lastly you work out the meaning of the text practically in the life of the individual and for the church.

I’m with Packer, in that I think that words have meaning, and that authorial intent should be discerned and honored when deriving an interpretation of any text. But I think he makes one more claim that we should pay careful attention to: the role of the Holy Spirit in the task of biblical interpretation.

When we read the Bible, we should pray, asking God’s help to discern the meaning. And while we should hold our deepest convictions firmly, we should also offer them humbly. If we have discerned what is truth, this is a gift, as Packer says. While we may read by ourselves, we should never read alone. Rather, we should ask the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, and read alongside brothers and sisters who share in the same Spirit, discerning both individually and corporately how best to live in response to God’s Word as it is revealed in and through the Scriptures.