Saturday, December 15, 2007

Franke on Biblical Interpretation

I am (hopefully) taking a course with Donald Hagner this next quarter which is called "History of NT Research." One of the assigned textbooks is History of New Testament Research: From Deism to Tübingen by William Baird. In this book, which is the first of a two volume set, Baird goes about the nearly impossible task of selecting, introducing, and analyzing important scholars with regard to the study of the NT.

In the chapter on the Pietists, Baird explains the method of biblical exegesis undertaken by August Hermann Francke, who was born in 1663 and died in 1727 (62-69, especially 65-69). I found the method of Francke very interesting and, thus, figured that I should share it with whoever may read this blog.

In 1693 Francke published a handbook on interpreting the Bible entitled, Manuductio ad lectionem scripturae sacrae. The book is divided into two sections: the first deals with finding the literal meaning of the text itself and the second with the readings which build upon this literal meaning. In his handbook, Francke proceeds to explain the steps one should take in order to rightly read and understand the Bible.

First one begins with an understanding of the grammar of the text. Thus, a good exegete must have a solid working knowledge of Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. This does not have to be done alone; the interpreter is free "to make use of the best linguistic and grammatical tools available" (Baird, 67). Next the exegete goes on to examine the historical meaning of the text. This means that one must attempt to discern the relevant background information of the biblical books (setting, occasion, author, etc).

Then an analytical reading of the text is to be undertaken. This means that one should identify the genre of a biblical book and interpret it in due course. The literary types that Francke afforded were the "doctrinal, historical, and prophetic" (66). It should be noted, however, that Francke was not indicating that the biblical authors were mimicking their contemporaries, only that their divinely-inspired words tend to fall into one of three categories indicated above. After determining the genre, the reader must also determine the smaller units inside the document. In so doing, one is to "(1) determine how the particular passage relates to the argument of the whole book; (2) note how the text is related to the immediate context; and (3) analyze the basic proposition of the argument," including doing a bit of mirror-reading if a text includes polemic (66).

In the second part of the handbook, Francke starts with the expository reading, by which he means "what the Spirit purports to say" through the text (67). This sense is different than that found in the first part, since the latter deals only in grammar and history while the former is all about "the true, spiritual meaning of the text" (67). The best way to find this meaning when dealing with a difficult text is to allow the Bible to interpret itself. Since the Bible is "a harmonious entity" (67), one text can shed light on many others and vice versa.

The next three readings can be covered quickly. Next one should engage in a dogmatic reading where s/he attempts to understand the timeless truths of the passage. Following this one should begin the inferential reading, by which Francke means that certain other truths may not be stated literally in the text but may be inferred by it. Lastly, an exegete must engage in the practical reading of the text. This last step is the application of the text to faith and life, sometimes even bridging "the gap between one world and the other" without batting an eye (68).

Outside of the handbook Francke also includes two other types of readings -- the mystical and spiritual. These can only be acquired through the experience of the Spirit but "cannot differ from the one literal meaning of the text" (68).

I do not know about you, but Francke's method is strikingly similar to those I learned in seminary. Furthermore, I would venture to say that if more pastors did this sort of preparation for their sermons, then we would not have as many cockamamie interpretations floating about out there!

I applaud Francke for his courage, which may not be easy to detect today. However, Francke wrote in a time after Deism had challenge many strongholds of the Church (like prophecy fulfillment and miracles) and he also wrote from the midst of a tradition that was reacting very strongly against these attacks. Thus, Francke's controlled reliance on reason and his unabashed belief in the authority of Scripture are to be praised!

What do you make of Francke's method? How similar is it to the methods you have learned?

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