Peter J. Leithart is the organizing pastor at Trinity Reformed Church, a Christ Reformed Evangelical congregation, and the Dean of Graduate Studies and Senior Fellow of Theology for New Saint Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. Deep Exegesis is a clear, optimistic, and well-written book, with wide-spanning and interdisciplinary implications. Impressively, Leithart returns frequently to his exegesis of the blind man in John 9, which provides traction for the interconnecting logic of his book. As we witness the opening of the blind man’s eyes, Leithart steers his hermeneutic through each chapter and directs our attention to the “rich and richly varied sensus plenior of the sacramental word” (vii). Leithart balances and harmonizes pastoral, academic, and literary aims in this new work that is written for a diverse audience, “the scholar, pastor, reader, believer alone with Bible” (208). Leithart avoids hasty, beeline interpretations; rather, he insists that the art and skill of interpretation requires time spent carefully pouring over the contours of the text. Consequently, Leithart, who wants “to contribute to the recovery of Scripture as the world-forming book it was intended to be” (34), focuses his energies primarily upon advocating a hermeneutic of the letter, that is, the “husk,” which he believes is “very similar to the four fold method” or quadriga “developed by medieval Bible teachers” (207).
Both the Bible and biblical interpretation have a history, but before Leithart takes on the narrative yoke of telling it, he provides six concise pages in his first chapter that describe the Bible’s contemporary impotence. He writes: “It [the Bible] no longer shapes our imaginations, poetry, or our politics” (6). According to Leithart, this was not always the case; he believes that in the past, the Bible was “much more than a ‘standard of authenticity;’” it was also a “civilization-building book as well as a critical tool” (1), and that “Protestant biblical interpretation was also broad enough to encompass political and social concerns” (2). This shift is a sad reality, but Leithart demonstrates his maturity as a historian and critic by avoiding oversimplified and surface-level critiques of this reality; he maintains that secularists are not solely culpable for the Bible’s waning influence and argues that “the church is at least a sculpable” (3).
After establishing this, Leithart goes on to summarize the history of the “battle for the Bible,” in which he includes both common and uncommon characters like the Dutch Lutheran humanist Lodewijk Meyer, the apostate Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza, Galileo Galilei, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Christoph Wittich, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Immanuel Kant, James Barr, and Peter Enns (7-34). As Leithart carefully traces this history, he describes how the letter of Scripture was discarded as a “husk” in an attempt at getting to the “kernel” of Scripture. That is why Leithart believes that both believers and non-believers alike, comprised of accommodation theorists, rational and philosophical scrutinizers, unbalanced tropological interpreters, English deists, and individuals coolly interested in the moral message of the Bible have brought the Bible to its knees. Leithart notes that in some of these individuals there is either a latent or blatant idea that the text is a husk to be shed and thrown away; Leithart believes they have “detach[ed] the message from the medium,” and, as a result, “muzzle[d] the message itself” (34). Leithart’s Deep Exegesis stands in opposition tosuch muzzling and with the ensuing five chapters he hopes to “enrich the reading of individual believers, pastors, and theologians by encouraging devoted attention to the husk”(34).
After establishing that the text is not a husk to be thrown away, in his second chapter Leithart creatively provides his first of five positive assertions about his hermeneutic of the letter: Texts are Events. The first thing Leithart does in order to prove this assertion is delve into the logic of apostolic reading, which he calls typological. He goes on to argue that this approach in reading is not limited to Scripture, but that it is “a mode of reading in general”(39). Typological readings are justifiable; this realization is obvious “by highlighting the crucial factor of time in interpretation” (39). Texts are Events, which “change over time, taking on new properties because of later events” (41). Consider the First World War, the War to End All Wars; both its interpretation and its name changed over time and took on new properties because of later events such as the Second World War. Leithart cites Arthur C. Danto’s Analytical Philosophy of History in support of this, explaining that events in the past are fixed and stable (so are texts), but our understanding of fixed events in the past grows richer with the passing of time. So too, our understanding of Scripture, and reading in general, changes with the passing of time. This is why “The authors of the New Testament do unconscionable things with the Old Testament” (35): for example, Paul says the “Rock” in the wilderness was “Christ” (1 Cor. 10:1-4); before the time of Christ that would not make sense, but after Christ it does make sense. That is why “typological reading is simply reading of earlier texts in the light of later texts and events” (74), and that is why Texts are Events.
Continuing with his protean chapter headings, Leithart argues in his third chapter that Words are Players. Words are “rounded characters” (108), and they have “rich, perhaps contradictory personalities and behaviors and hidden but influential pasts” (108). Words have hidden backgrounds and have the ability to say new things, providing us with insight into meaning. Leithart provides several examples of rounded characters from the Gospel of John by highlighting double entendres, such as the translation of Siloam, John’s poetic artistry, and other etymological and hermeneutical comments from chapter 9, and concludes: “The Bible is closer to poetry than to a scientific manual, and the biblical writers’ use of words is more like that of poets than of linguists or scientists . . . . how can we hear good news as news if the Bible’s words are not permitted to say anything new?” (108, italics original). Chapter 4 tackles intertextuality, asserting that The Text Is a Joke. Jokes are haunted with outside information; for a lawyer-joke to be funny, it usually requires that additional information about lawyers be brought immediately to mind. Texts are like this; meaning relies upon connections between text, speech, and information outside of the text. Interpretation, therefore, is not always straightforward; like a joke, sometimes interpretation requires “getting it.” Scripture is the “first context” for biblical interpretation (138), which is why Leithart believes modern hermeneutics, which relies heavily upon method, falls short. If a “person’s main problem is not a technical but a spiritual one,” then “only the glad of heart make good readers” (139). That is why the Patristic commentators were such good readers—the aroma of Christ and Scripture saturated their lives—they had invested time and patience pouring over the Scripture. Hence, they got the jokes.
In chapter 5, Leithart asks the question, what “if God is telling us more than one story at the same time” (143)? In order to hear all of them, Leithart says that Texts are Music. Texts, like musical pieces, utilize “multiple structure” (143-144) and “non-identical repetition” (144-148). Their “arrangement” repeats themes and patterns (148-153). Commonality exists between text and music, and Leithart illustrates this by referencing the works of Bach and Mozart (he even adds sheet music to the Appendix) alongside his commentary on the “music of John 9” (161-166). Not only does Scripture employ multiple structure and double narrative, so does James Joyce’s Ulysses (159-160); this observation reinforces Leithart’s claims that “many texts, and almost all texts of enduring literary value, have multiple structures”(158). Hence, texts are polyphonic, and that is why Leithart believes Texts are Music.
Chapter 6 is the final chapter, and, like a well-outlined sermon, Leithart closes this well-written book with an application: Texts Are About Christ. Leithart reminds us that Scripture is about Christ and his body (totus Christus), but he does not stop there. Scripture is about Christ, “who is head over all things for his church, the one in whom everything holds together” (206), and that means that Scripture is not only about everything but is also applicable to everything. Thus, Leithart pushes this principle further and boldly concludes:
Jesus is also head of all things for the church (Eph 1:21-23) and the One in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). Jesus sums up not only the history of Israel and the aspiration of the people of God, but the history of man and the aspirations of the human race . . . . the totus Christus principle thus opens out into a biblical theory of history, a biblical literary and cultural criticism, a biblical political theology (180).
In this quote, we see Leithart reverberate his belief that biblical interpretation is “broad enought o encompass political and social concerns” (2).
At the end of chapter 1 Leithart stated his aim for the remainder of Deep Exegesis, but it is not until chapter six that the full scope of that aim (“recovery of Scripture as the world-forming book it was intended to be”) comes into sharp focus. Is Scripture a world-forming book? Yes, especially if you warrant Leithart’s application of totus Chrisus. However, mystery remains as to whether academic, pastoral, and lay-reading individuals will find Leithart’s ideas compelling. That mystery will unfold with time, but until then, I encourage readers to examine the mystery of reading Scripture presented in Deep Exegesis.