12 Components of Interpreting the New Testament
We can break down interpreting the New Testament into twelve components. The first eight components are aspects of exegesis:
- Genre. Establish guidelines for interpreting a passage’s style of literature.
- Textual Criticism. Establish the original wording.
- Translation. Compare translations.
- Grammar. Understand how sentences communicate by words, phrases, and clauses (especially in the Bible’s original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).
- Argument Diagram. Trace the logical argument by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing.
- Historical-Cultural Context. Understand the situation in which the author composed the literature and any historical-cultural details that the author mentions or probably assumes.
- Literary Context. Understand the role that a passage plays in its whole book.
- Word Studies. Unpack key words, phrases, and concepts.
The next four components are each distinct but interrelated theological disciplines:
- Biblical Theology. Study how the whole Bible progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ.
- Historical Theology. Survey and evaluate how significant exegetes and theologians have understood the Bible and theology.
- Systematic Theology. Discern how a passage theologically coheres with the whole Bible.
- Practical Theology. Apply the text to yourself, the church, and the world.
Intuitive and Integrative
It’s somewhat artificial to break down exegesis and theology into twelve steps because in practice I don’t know of any New Testament scholars who think, “OK, step 1: What’s the genre? Step 2: Are there any text-critical issues?” And so on.
It’s like asking Lionel Messi—arguably the best soccer player in the world—how he plays soccer. He doesn’t think, “Well, step 1 is that I dribble. Step 2 is that I run and dribble at the same time.” There are so many facets to playing soccer at a high level. That’s why soccer players can improve their overall game by focusing on individual areas such as dribbling and passing and sprinting and cutting and shooting and lifting weights and studying strategies to win. But in the heat of the moment during a game, soccer players aren’t thinking, “Step 1: do this. Step 2: do that.” At that point they’re just playing by instinct and employing all the skills they’ve developed as best they can. They go with the flow of the game and adjust to their opponents’ defensive schemes and strategize how to improve on both ends of the field. But they’re not following a clear twelve-step list.
So it is with exegesis and theology: When a world-class scholar exegetes a passage, he is not thinking, “Step 1: do this. Step 2: do that.” After decades of exegeting the Bible, he has found that the exegetical process has become more intuitive and integrative for him. After decades of exegeting the Bible, he has found that the exegetical process has become more intuitive and integrative for him. Click To Tweet
But most of us are not Bible scholars. So it’s helpful to break it down into logical steps so that we can analyze the whole process piece by piece and see how it works. Focusing on these steps one at a time is like a soccer player’s focusing on aspects of soccer one at a time: dribbling, passing, shooting, and the like.
So these twelve steps are “steps” only in theory. They are interrelated. And you won’t necessarily need to spend time on each step for every passage you exegete or even deliberately proceed from one step to the next, checking off items on a list as you go. But presenting twelve steps like this helps us focus on various aspects of exegesis and theology as we attempt to understand the process better.
The only sentence that many people know from John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad is a great one: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” That’s true for exegesis and theology, too. Exegesis and theology exist because worship doesn’t. The whole point of exegesis and theology is to know and worship God. It’s not to master God’s word but for God’s word to master us. When you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer.
For more on how to do exegesis and theology (and how they interrelate), see Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology.