Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture
(Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 232 pages.
Rev. Dr. Peter J. Leithart is a prolific writer and is one of the most fertile minds in biblical and theological scholarship today. He has written on systematic theology, literary criticism, and historical theology as well as commentaries in the Old and New Testaments. Despite his rather unique interpretive method, Deep Exegesis is his first book-length treatise on hermeneutics.
Leithart begins his major work on hermeneutics by establishing two foundations: first, his is a “hermeneutics of the letter,” and second, he intends to “learn to read from Jesus and Paul” (vii). He develops his first point in chapter 1, in which he explains that he locates meaning in the text itself and relies less on the intention of the author (cf., 36). This will become important for him later as he seeks to develop his typological approach, noting that the meaning of a text changes as time progresses. On his second point, Leithart is clear that he is developing a general, not specific, hermeneutic. Yet, instead of starting with other texts and moving toward the Bible, Leithart starts with the Bible under the assumption that a biblical hermeneutic will be able to contain all other texts (viii). “Comprehensive theological hermeneutic” might be a better term for Leithart’s goal—comprehensive in that it includes secular texts, and theological in that it is informed by the Bible with theological reflection as its goal.
Leithart’s second chapter concerns typology. Texts, like events, change in meaning as they come in relation to subsequent events. For instance, a “shooting” at 10:00 AM becomes an “assassination” when the victim dies at 1:00 PM (41–42). The skeleton of the event has not changed, but the flesh certainly has, for a shooting is distinctly different than an assassination. Likewise, texts, as they unfold in time, take on different meaning. Temporality is critical, according to Leithart, and it is our bizarre notion that texts are timeless instead of temporal that makes typology appear strange (39). He compares the temporality of texts to the performance of music. Music unfolds in time, and we cannot grasp it at once. This trains us in patience: “[Music] trains us in waiting for the climax, waiting for beauty to build and build. It trains us not to seize. Music trains us in good sex, sex that takes time” (53). He relates this to biblical texts by arguing that the meaning of these texts unfolds in time and reaches its climax in Jesus (44). And like a good detective novel, once the story has been revealed, one can never read the story without the conclusion in mind; the details take on new significance that cannot be ignored (66). Anyone who has read any of Leithart’s works will recognize that typology is a reoccurring theme and is a (the?) central concept for his hermeneutic.
Leithart’s third chapter concerns the nature of words. He argues that words bear a history that occasionally bubbles to the surface (75). They can surprise us. They do not always conform to our expectations, but rather interact with other players on the stage (text) (82). Leithart makes much of the way poets use words; poets are not so confined and restricted as modern biblical exegetes. They use words in startling ways, and in ways that draw on different meanings, both past and present. Double entendres and etymologies are only two such examples, and Leithart argues that we should not assume they are the exception rather than the rule (99–100). Thus, Leithart is willing to allow words to fill up with meaning drawn from their history and other contemporary definitions.
Leithart’s fourth chapter is on intertextuality. Leithart develops his form of intertextuality by noting the hermeneutical principles at work in jokes and applying them to other texts. For instance, he notes that jokes depend on crucial background knowledge that often leads to certain expectations, which are then reversed. In other words, good hermeneutics will require “eisegesis,” because no text includes everything necessary to interpret it, but rather assumes much more, which the interpreter needs to bring to the text. Important, however, to getting a joke, is not simply having knowledge, but having the right knowledge and knowing when to draw on that knowledge. Furthermore, Leithart insists that to understand fully what the text is saying we must trace out all possible connections (112). These include connections within the text, connections to other texts, and connections to history or other pertinent information (115–19). However, he argues that intertextuality does not overthrow authorial intent, since intertextuality must be constrained by that to which we suppose the author intended to allude (124). It is further constrained by the text itself, historical context, and literary conventions (136). And yet, interpretation is an act of hypothesizing—of making theories and testing them (133)—and therefore best performed by those with an active imagination, who are saturated in Scripture, and for whom Christ and his salvation have become a reality (133–34, 139).
Chapter 5 is about structure. Drawing on music analysis, Leithart makes the argument that texts have multiple, overlapping structures to them, and thus simultaneously tell different stories (148). He has a high regard for chiasms and also makes regular use of numerology to identify underlying structures (166–71). He observes that the structure of a passage is critically important; a different structure would yield a very different story, because authors often reveal information at particular times in order to achieve certain rhetorical effects (152). Whereas most interpreters would probably be satisfied, even insistent, on one particular structure, Leithart has a both/and approach. Just as master composers like Bach can construct compositions with multiple structures, so too can master writers like Homer, James Joyce, and the Apostle John (144, 171).
Leithart concludes his book with a chapter on application and an epilogue. Here Leithart urges a return to the Augustinian principle of totus Christus, by which he means that the whole Bible is about Christ. Yet, it is also about the church, since the church is the body of Christ (173–74). He presses this point even further, though, by arguing that “if the Scriptures speak about Jesus, and if Jesus is the head of all things for the church, then the Scriptures speak about everything” (180). He illustrates this by relating John 9 to the story of Oedipus, and critiquing, by means of John 9, certain Enlightenment philosophies and contemporary politics (180–206). As his last point, he notes that all interpretation is ultimately performance, and as such, is done before an audience that can respond and critique the performance (208).
As always, Leithart is clear, engaging, and provocative. His book is a pleasure to read and stimulating from page to page. There is little in Leithart’s hermeneutic with which I explicitly disagree. Rather, I find myself convinced of his theory and invigorated by his practice. Thus, I will offer only a few questions and constructive critiques.
First, Leithart has written that he wants to “learn to read from Jesus and Paul.” While this is certainly a noble goal, it does suggest one caution: Leithart makes regular use of numerology, but neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor even hardly any other biblical writer makes explicit use of numerology. Daniel and Revelation are two notable exceptions. This should not lead us to conclude that numerology is invalid, but it does suggest that it should be employed sparingly and with extra caution.
Second, Leithart puts so much weight on typology that we must say something about it. Although, I do not wish to accuse Leithart of this, I do fear that typology could become a form of textual showmanship without explaining what the interesting features in the text mean. One could draw all sorts of interesting parallels between the lives of Jacob and Jesus, for example, but how do those parallels illuminate the text or contribute to our understanding or theology? Is this artistry just for the sake of artistry? Additionally, is typology just a way of illustrating NT truths? What do we gain from typology? Often Leithart’s Christological interpretations of an OT type seem to merely confirm what we already knew, and thus make the OT type little more than a biblical illustration of the Christological truth. Leithart might respond that typology allows us to preach Christ from the OT with a clear conscience, and that is certainly a worthy goal, though I expect Leithart wants to say more than that. Yet, it is not clear what some of these typological interpretations add to our understanding.
And finally, there seems to be a danger that typological connections might arise only because of how we talk about things. In other words, one can summarize or paraphrase two distinct biblical events making them appear more similar than they are. Is there a risk that we might identify connections, not based on the biblical text, but based on our own descriptions of the biblical text? This applies equally well to chiasms and suggests that chiasms, like numerology, should be used sparingly and with caution.
Leithart’s purpose was to lay out a hermeneutical method that allows us to plumb the depths and beauty of the Bible. In that purpose, I judge him to have succeeded. The book’s target audience is pastors, seminary students, and upper-level college students. This is a book that deserves more than one reading, and so I recommend it for purchase. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
See also page 39 in which he contrasts learning “how to read double-authored texts” (i.e., the Bible) with learning “how to read,” which is what he seeks to do.