Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture

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Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture. By Peter J. Leithart. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009, viii + 254 pp., $19.95 paper.

"It is written that the letter kills but that the spirit gives life. As the letter cloaks the spirit, so a husk veils corn." With these words, Gregory the Great advised readers of the Song of Solomon to peel away the literal meaning of Scripture so one may look deeply at the true, spiritual sense that is obscured by the letter (Coram. Cant. 4; trans. David A. Salomon, available at Peter J. Leithart, Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, also wants to look deeply into Scripture, but his method directly contradicts that of Gregory. Instead of peeling away the husk of the letter to reveal the spiritual "corn," Leithart advocates "devoted attention to the husk" and aims "insistently, manically" to present "a hermeneutics of the letter" (p. 34).

Deep Exegesis contains six chapters bookended by a preface and an epilogue. In the preface, Leithart tells us that his aim in this book is "to describe and defend the ways biblical writers themselves read the Bible" (p. viii). However, he does not spend much time dealing with apostolic exegesis of the OT, as one might expect from this statement. Rather, he concerns himself with how the biblical authors construct meaning, how they convey information to their readers through the "husk." Actually, he does this on an extended basis only for the story of the blind man in John 9, a passage to which he returns in nearly every chapter.

As Leithart makes clear in chapter 1 ("The Text Is a Husk: Modern Hermeneutics"), he wants to develop a literal but not literalistic hermeneutic, one that pays close attention to the words on the page, following the clues inherent in them to discover not just the bare minimum of what Scripture conveys "in the letter," but all that God wants to communicate to us. In Leithart's view, the "husk" of the letter constitutes an essential part of the divine message, and it is by detailed consideration of this husk that the reader gains insight into deeper matters. The seventeenth century becomes the definitive era during which the letter was equated to the husk that could be discarded, though, as Leithart admits (p. 214, n. 9), similar ideas feature in all periods of Christianity. Chapter 1 focuses especially on Spinoza and Kant as those who grounded "true religion" in philosophy and morality, with Scripture subservient to these principles. If the wording of the Bible presented an obstacle to rational religion, one should seek a deeper message not dependent on the letter. The implication of Leithart's analysis here is that evangelicals (Leithart's primary audience) who downplay the details of the biblical text in the pursuit of truth are following in the footsteps of Spinoza and Kant, and the examples of "Kantian evangelicals" include Peter Enns and Richard Longenecker (pp. 29-34).

Chapters 2-6 spell out Leithart's proposed hermeneutical method. Chapter 2 ("Texts Are Events: Typology") argues that the meaning of texts changes based on subsequent events, just as attempted murder becomes an assassination only when the victim dies. …