Dr. Elliott E. Johnson is Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has given a career of study to biblical and philosophical hermeneutics and Bible Exposition. He has been a member of his church since the mid-1960’s, and there he has given himself to more than 40 years of discipling men, and training teachers to understand the Scriptures and teach it to others. Over two decades ago he authored Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Zondervan), in order to explain the workings of the art and science of interpretation. He graciously has agreed to an interview related to current discussion in hermeneutics. (I will post the interview intermittently rather than in its entirety immediately.)
1. Dr. Johnson, thank you for taking time for this interview. Explain where your love for hermeneutics and Bible exposition began.
I graduated from a program in engineering at Northwestern University with a sense of a call to ministry, but very little exposure to the Scripture. In addition, I had grown up in a church denomination that was emotion driven, and in the years since its revivalistic beginnings, it had been in decline in spiritual fervor. Was there any normative authority to maintain stability? And this was combined with my own personal spiritual struggles. Was there no one or nothing to help me?
At that point I began attending another church which impressed me with two characteristics: living Biblical sermons and men and women who gave evidence in their lives of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I began to grow as a Christian as I completed the program in engineering. As I read the Bible on my own, more and more fresh ideas struck me in a small group Bible study. Nonetheless, I had so many questions that weren’t yet answered. As I arrived at graduation I came to two conclusions:
- I was called to some form of ministry, and
- I needed to learn the Bible
The next really big step came in the realization that I needed the combination of personal Bible study as well as study at the hands of others in classes or in commentaries. The personal side of the study really exploded. I suppose part of the influence came from the technical education. Ideas like:
- It is more important to know how to find an answer than to have all the answers
- In order to grasp the meaning of a part of the design, that part must be seen as a component of the whole
These ideas and others directed my interest toward hermeneutics and exposition of biblical texts. Hermeneutics considers the strategies for reaching valid conclusions about textual meanings. While this study considers any text (general hermeneutics), more commonly the study is limited to biblical texts (sacred hermeneutics). Yet it remains to ask, “And how does sacred hermeneutics differ from general hermeneutics?”
Exposition is the unfolding of the meanings of biblical texts, but the task is more completely accomplished when the component texts are recognized as parts of a whole text. The metaphor of “unfolding” presents the image of a whole, a closed envelope that is opened portion by portion. Then the whole is recognized as a combination of all the parts that have been unfolded. At the outset, the whole was seen as a compact folded up whole. Exposition is the unfolding.
These considerations grasped my imagination in the years that followed. It has been an adventure that guided the development of my personal growth in Christ, as well as development of a ministry of Bible teaching. If this is your calling, let’s talk about aspects of the journey along the road to becoming a bible expositor.
2. What do you mean by “meaning” and “exegesis” in the task of hermeneutics?
Two important terms need to be defined: “meaning” and “exegesis.”
Meaning is the stuff hermeneutics is working with. It is an abstract term and thus hard to get your mind around. So here goes: Meaning is what a person is conscious of or is in search of. The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines the verb, to mean, and the noun, meaning.
The verb, mean, is to have in mind, as a purpose, intention;
Or, mean is to intend to convey, show, or indicate.
In both definitions, we use language. Commonly language is used to think or to communicate. Thus, hermeneutics limits the considerations to verbal meaning.
The noun, meaning, is related to the three basic components in verbal communication: Author, Text, Interpretation.
The author defines verbal meaning; it is the thing one intends to convey by language.
The text determines and shares what is meant; it is the thing that is conveyed or signified by language—the purport.
The interpretation decodes the language to recognize what is meant; it is the sense in which something is understood.
So verbal meaning is what the author intended to communicate as he composed the text.
Exegesis is like exposition, but with a narrower focus. Both terms refer to tasks of interpretation of a verbal text, and both terms refer to tasks of unfolding meanings which the author intended to communicate as he expressed it in the text. The focus needs to be both in the particulars in the text and on the larger segments of literary composition as well as the text as a whole. Exposition focuses on these larger segments while exegesis unfolds the component meanings of individual texts. Such careful readings of texts are essential in biblical interpretation where individual statements of revelation are often critical to the message communicated.