Subscribe to Christianity Today
Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture
Peter J. Leithart
Baylor University Press, 2009
261 pp., $29.95
Loving the Letter of the Text
A scholar friend of mine likes to recount an exchange he once had with a prominent systematic theologian. In a lecture, the theologian had argued vigorously for the reintegration of the discipline of biblical studies with the related but distinct discipline of constructive, confessional Christian theology, in defiance of modernity's sundering of the two. Afterward, my friend approached the lecturer. Who, he asked, are some exemplary practitioners of the integration you're proposing? Where are the models we might emulate? Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth, came the reply. Frustrated, my friend walked away wondering, Have we learned nothing about biblical studies and theology since the era of Barth? Who are the bridge-builders now?
While the reader ponders my friend's question, let me nominate Peter Leithart as one such exemplar. Trained in systematic theology at Cambridge under the supervision of John Milbank and now taken to writing biblical exegesis of a high order, Leithart has been cross-pollinating the fields of ostensibly separate Christian academic disciplines for some time now. (His commentary on 1-2 Kings for the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series is, in my judgment, not only one of the finest in that series to date but also one of the best theological commentaries on an Old Testament text that I have yet encountered.)
In his latest book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Leithart for the first time steps back to self-consciously reflect at some length on his craft and to offer counsel for those wishing to cultivate it themselves. The book's central thesis is a simple one: Taking cues from the way Jesus and Paul read the Old Testament, interpreters today ought to pay attention to the letter of the text—its particular form, the way the words go—and not only the supposed matter underneath that form, its "spirit" or "content." Or, rather, "attending to the specific contours of the text—the author's word choices, structural ...