Deep Exegesis (Book Review)

Theologian, author, and pastor Peter J. Leithart is a controversial guy.  The reason is partly because he is not afraid to learn from thinkers outside of his faith tradition (Presbyterian and Reformed).  In his circle of influence he acts as a sort of Reformational-Medieval gadfly, with one foot in the heritage of the Protestant Reformation and the other dialoging and learning from the early church fathers, the medieval scholastics of Christendom, and even the Orthodox in the eastern branches of the Church.  His broad reading and teaching sometimes gets him into ecclesiastical hot water (and I might add sometimes for good reason since he clearly enjoys pushing people’s buttons–it’s his style).  But much of his writing is refreshing in perspective for those of us who mostly read  popular reformed authors and books by their publishers (P&R, Crossway, Reformation Trust, etc).

Leithart’s method of reading Scripture (his hermeneutic) doesn’t stop at the grammatical-historical method.  He seeks to engage the text in a Christo-centric way by reading texts theologically, but not before reading deeply into the words on the page and reflecting on the world in which they were written and read.  His book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, seeks “to train readers to hear all that is being said within a written text.”

From the back cover:

Peter Leithart advocates a hermeneutics of the letter that is not rigidly literalist.  Deep Exegesis explores the nature of reading itself–taking clues from Jesus and Paul on the meaning of meaning, the functions of language, and proper modes of interpretation.  By looking (and listening) closely, and by including passages from the Bible and other literary sources, Leithart aims to do for the text what Jesus did for the blind man in John 9: to make new by opening eyes.

The book begins with a chapter on the impoverished state of modern hermeneutics which treats the text as a husk–something in the way, to be discarded so as to find the true meaning of the text.  Leithart argues that on the whole critical scholarship continues to treat the Bible this way (albeit with different agendas based on the philosophical leanings of the interpreter), and that many evangelical scholars seeking relevance in the academy have adopted the methods of higher criticism but baptized the method in orthodox confession.  Leithart calls the reader away from this pseudo-scientific approach to something deeper–to read the Scriptures as Jesus and the apostles read them.

The remaining of the book fleshes out what this kind of reading looks like, and demonstrates the deep exegetical method in the laboratory of John chapter 9.  Leithart builds a case that texts are “events” to be read typologically, texts are “players” to be viewed as actors on a stage, texts are “jokes” to be read in the context of not just the surrounding text but in the context of everything, texts are “music” to be listened to for their beautiful and revealing structure, and texts are “christo-centric” because they are all about the person and work of Jesus.

To use a baseball analogy, I think Leithart swung for a home run in this book but managed only a triple.  This is not a strong criticism, for baseball fans love triples.  But he comes a little short of home plate because he overreaches in the last chapter.  Leithart wants to make the argument that all texts are about Christ, rather than that all Scriptural texts find their meaning in Jesus.  Therefore he spends a fair amount of space showing how the Total Christ of John 9 can be read into the Greek myth of Oedipus.  Leithart certainly finds some interesting analogies between the two stories, but I think he fails to make the case that because Christ is Creator and Lord of all therefore he is found in all (biblical and extra-biblical) texts.  Particulars don’t have any meaning if they cannot be contrasted with something else.  In other words, if the message, person, and work of Jesus Christ can be found in all texts (secular, religious, mythological, etc), then he cannot be found anywhere.  If all is Christ, then nothing is Christ, for then Christ doesn’t mean anything.  This is not Leithart’s only point in the chapter about christo-centric reading.  Elsewhere he makes more modest claims that hints of redemption (which find their ultimate meaning in Christ the Redeemer) can be found throughout extra-biblical texts.  If this is all he is trying to say, then I agree that Christ is the form who casts his shadow everywhere.  This is not controversial.  But it seems to this reader that Leithart is proposing that the Total Christ may actually be found everywhere and this is the right way to read all extra-biblical texts.  Of this I am not convinced.

But don’t let this criticism deter you from profiting from Deep Exegesis.  It is a fine book with a message that many literalist interpreters need to read.  Such a perspective will broaden the reader’s horizons to see in the Bible what Jesus and the apostles saw.

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One Response to Deep Exegesis (Book Review)

  1. gold price says:

    This is one of the best books on understanding the Bible that I’ve read. Leithart goes through different aspects of understanding the biblical text, constantly coming back to John 9 in order to illustrate what he means.Leithart starts off by arguing that the text of Scripture is important: we ought not view it as a husk to be stripped away and discarded in order to get at the kernel. He then suggests that texts add meaning to what has gone before. So, in John 9:14 we are told that Jesus had healed the blind man on the Sabbath day. This crucial piece of information had been withheld until now, and it colours all that goes before. Meaning emerges as we read through the chapter.Leithart then proceeds to discuss poetic meanings (like John pausing to tell us what the name of the pool means in 9:7) and intertextual allusions (such as creation out of dust in John 9:6 and Genesis 2:7). He also looks at structure, and notes that the interrogation of the blind man’s parents forms the hinge of a chiasm. Leithart concludes by asserting the Christ-centred nature of all sound interpretation.At times Leithart seems to get bogged down by talking about people like Spinoza and Oedipus, but this is still an excellent book for those who read theology at a first-year seminary level.

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