Critical realism and exegesis

Ben Meyer, N. T. Wright, and other NT scholars whom I respect advance a view of epistemology usually called critical realism, which has a lot to say about how exegesis should be done. It is realism in that it accepts that there is something out there other than myself. There actually is an author and a text with a meaning that can be known. (You'd be surprised how debated this is!) It is critical in that it recognizes that any judgments an interpreter makes should be open to investigation and revision. On the surface an exegetical method which applies critical realism appears rather simple. When an interpreter reads a text, they have an insight into what the text means. This is then evaluated against the evidence of the text itself. Based upon that evaluation, the interpreter can make a true judgment about the meaning of the text and then advance in understanding. This simplicity belies the complexity of the inner workings of the process. It can be divided into four steps.

  1. The interpreter reads a text and has an insight into its meaning. There is little actual method to this step. Because we desire to know and understand what we read, we naturally make guesses and construe insights into meaning. At this point we have a hypothesis about meaning which has to be tested.
  2.  Here's where it begins to get interesting. Next the interpreter must enumerate all the conditions which must be met in order for the hypothesis about meaning to be true. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It requires a rather thorough knowledge of a text and many of the particulars which attend the text, but it also requires thorough knowledge of the interpreter. Sometimes at this stage we are limited because we don't know exactly what questions to ask. We don't know where the tension points are in a text. This doesn't mean the process can't move forward, but it does mean that the process won't move as far forward as it could. (In reality this is acceptable because critical realism accepts that interpreters are limited and imperfect. Any judgments made about meaning are subject to further investigation and revision.)
  3. Then the interpreter must examine the text and its data to see whether those conditions have been met. This is the hard-scrabble work of exegesis that many are familiar with: looking deeply into the text to find data to confirm whether an interpretation is valid.
  4. Once the interpreter finds appropriate data, they are in a position to make a judgment about their interpretation of the meaning. They could affirm that the conditions have been met and thus affirm the interpretation itself, or they could find that the conditions have not been met and conclude that the hypothesis needs revision. At the point the process would start again.
In my opinion the most difficult part of the process is step 2. In light of that, a mature exegete works to cultivate a deeper understanding of what makes interpretations valid and what blind spots they may have in this process.