Who has said this and is it true? New Testament exegesis and the search for answers

Unknown-1 Most of us who study the New Testament spent a portion of everyday simply reading over a text. Day after day week after week. We hope to find something new and helpful to say. It is a fact of scholarship that over time commentaries on particular books fall into ruts. A theological fight breaks out around a certain passage;they become the place where people like to discuss certain ideas. You want to talk about Christology? Go to Philippians 2:6-11. You want to talk about predestination? Go to Romans 8. Do you want to argue about the role of faith and works in salvation? Go to James. In some cases this emphasis is justified. These passages do provide much fodder for the theological imagination. But sometimes they are just places where certain ideas are discussed. This can cause what the passage actually says to get lost underneath the years of arguing about topics instead of texts. Here is where the PhD student may be of some help. He or she is not interested in just taking a side, but at looking at things from a different angle. The student is attempting to find fresh ways past old debates. We must do so or we will not graduate! So we look at the arguments and then at texts and then at the arguments and then at the text. Every now and get we get an idea, and in my case, a rush of adrenaline. Then comes the inevitable questions:

  1. Has anyone say this before? To answer this involves reading through every commentary on the passage in the last 50 or so years. Then comes the search through the monographs. Ideally, there is someone who said something close to what you said. Being completely alone is exciting, but it also may mean that you are completely wrong!
  2. Is it true? Ok, no one has argued for this, and it is original, but is it true? Of course it may have seemed a like good idea initially, but then you look over the data again. You ask yourself if you are chasing ghosts or bending the data. (a lot of my insights die at this stage).
  3. How do I prove it? You have satisfied yourself that it is true and new, but now you organize your argument in a clear and compelling manner.
  4. Why does it matter? How does this insight change the way we consider Paul, Jesus, or Christianity?

Once you have answered those questions you write up your insight and try to find the nearest conference to try out your idea before your peers. This gives you the chance to hear people ask questions from angles you have not considered. If you survive this you may be ready to put your little insight into print and open yourself up to a wider world of critique.

The final step for those of us who care about the integration of the academy and the church is to find out how you get your ideas into the hands of pastors, teachers, and lay people.  Hopefully your insights will help someone live a better life of service to God and neighbor. Once you have done that you can rejoice, go back to the text, and start all over again.

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

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