Matthew R. Perry

Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology (Book Review)

In Book Review on January 13, 2007 at 4:17 pm

080102197901lzzzzzzz.jpgKaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981). 261 pp. $25.99


Walter C. Kaiser Jr. serves as president and Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Told Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is the author of numerous books and publications, as well as one who serves on the board of many Christian organizations. Kaiser’s purpose for this book is to bridge the gap between the hermeneutics and homiletics departments of our Bible colleges and seminaries.

It is hoped, then, that this volume will be useful to those who are already in the pastorate and who are struggling week after week to resolve just this problem. But the main object of our work must be the scores of those men and women who are currently enrolled in Biblical and theological studies at the collegiate or seminary level (22).

Kaiser desires this work to be a “type of firstfruits to the Church at large … [to] either rectify the situation with a good theory of exegesis” (22) in bridging the gap between hermeneutics and homiletics, “or to drop all professional pretensions from our Biblical and theological departments and offer only research-oriented degrees leading to teaching and writing posts in academia” (23).


Kaiser divides Toward an Exegetical Theology into four parts. Part I presents Kaiser’s introduction to this work. This chapter deals with the decline in the area of hermeneutics to discover the authorial intent of the text from the Puritan age until the present. Kaiser notes the “crisis of the pulpit” (36). Far too many pastors ignore the Old Testament, deem the Old Testament irrelevant, or only relate it through the eyes of the New Testament. Chapter Two deals with the definition and history of exegesis. Kaiser states, “The sole object of the expositor is to explain as clearly as possible what the writer meant when he wrote the text under examination” (45). This statement for Kaiser defines exegesis, and then methodically takes the reader through the various eras and stages of exegesis through church history.

Part II, entitled “The Syntactical-Theological Method,” contains six chapters dealing with various types of analyses which connect syntactical issues with biblical theology. Chapter Three addresses contextual analysis. “Good exegetical procedure dictates that the details be viewed in light of the total context” (69). Chapter Four deals with syntactical analysis and the various literary structures in Scripture such as prose, poetry, narrative, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature. “Each of these literary forms has a distinctive shape and style; accordingly, the approach to each form must be modified to meet its particular needs” (91). Within these forms, he notes that “the unit of concern must be the paragraph” (95) for paragraphs help the reader understand the flow and the theme of the ideas presented. Chapter Five addresses verbal analyses. Kaiser states, “Words and idioms are the most basic of all the linguistic building-blocks of meaning” (105). He notes the importance of noting the surrounding words in understanding that word’s meaning. Chapter Six addresses theological analyses, which Kaiser calls “the missing ingredient in most sermon preparation” (131). He notes “exegesis is never an end in itself [but] must come to terms with the audience as well as with what the author meant by the words he used” (149). Chapter Seven then deals with this stage of preparation in dealing with homiletical analysis — an area which in Kaiser believes theological education has failed. In this chapter, he presents to the reader “’Preparations for Homiletical Usage’ [where] the basic thrust of the chapter will be … principlization,’ the final task in the exegetical process” (150).

Part III outlines special issues in expository preaching such as the use of prophecy, narrative, and poetry respectively in chapters nine, ten, and eleven. Kaiser notes in chapter nine that while preacher should preach prophetically, he must take care not to preach solely against institutional and cultural structures. Old Testament prophets made their primary appeal “to the individuals who made up those communities and institutions” (187). In chapter ten, Kaiser notes, “What is needed in preaching on … narrative portions is some method of pointing out the abiding meanings and continuing significance for all believers” (197). Chapter eleven outlines how to preach Old Testament poetry expositionally, directing the preacher to know how “parallelism … is the dominant stylistic feature” (212).

The conclusion of this work is found in Part IV. Chapter 12, entitled “The Exegete/Pastor and the Power of God,” serves as the last chapter of this work and possesses a pastoral tone to the expositor in seeking the Holy Spirit for his power in the pulpit. “In all good conscience point to the presence of the Holy Spirit as the source of any confidence that we might have in our message even after we have acted most responsibly in the study and preparation of the text for proclamation” (235).

Critical Evaluation

As stated earlier, Kaiser’s aim in this work is to help bridge the gap between the hermeneutics and homiletics departments of our Bible colleges and seminaries in the area of biblical exegesis – and he succeeds! In the preface, Kaiser believes that in order for one to be a proper exegete of the Scriptures, he could not “hope to begin unless and until he is able to translate the text from Greek to Hebrew” (9). He grants though that many pastors, teachers, and missionaries are not able to partake of these educational opportunities. Given these issues, Kaiser notes that “the method expounded in this book can be profitably employed even if one has access only to a translated version of the Scriptures” (10). Kaiser finds a tremendous balance in providing solid help for those in all levels of biblical scholarship.

Kaiser’s work rightly advocates allowing the Scriptures to develop the framework for the preacher’s and the listener’s theology. First, he addresses in Chapter 1 the current crises in exegetical theology and notes the “yawning chasm between understanding the content of Scripture as it was given in the past and proclaiming it with such relevance in the present” (18). Kaiser notes, “We contend that the theology must be objectively derived from the text; not subjectively imposed on the text by the interpreter” (137). These impositions on the text also happen with narrative passages. He understands the temptations many preachers face and addresses them directly. “The exegete must resist the temptation to impose a mold over the text by forcing that text to answer one of his favorite questions or to deal with one of the contemporary issues that our cultures wants to have solved” (153).

His solution to this temptation involves determining the theme of each paragraph, looking for repeated terms which are stressed or defined, and looking to see what how these paragraphs fit into the overall book or section in which they are found. This theme runs continually through this work, reinforcing this all-to-important principle that the Christian’s theology must arise from the text. He rightly believes that a procedure must be in place to help understand the core meaning of the text will the preacher derive his theological framework. The interpreter accomplishes this analysis through studying the terms, events, quotes and covenants found in the text, engaging in a “full involvement of Biblical theology as part of our exegesis” (137).

His chapter on “The Definition and History of Exegesis” contains some excellent material which lays the groundwork for not only the rest of the work but for a career’s worth of work on the part of the exegete. He includes a wonderful paragraph that the preacher and exegete would do well to display in a prominent place for easy reference:

To begin with, let it be stated as a sort of first principle that preparation for preaching is always a movement which must begin with the text of Scripture and have as its goal the proclamation of that Word in such a way that it can be heard with all its poignancy and relevancy to the modern situation without dismissing one iota of its original normativeness (48).

He provides a helpful history of exegesis. Though this overview is not as comprehensive as Sidney Greidanus’ overview in Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1999), its inclusion in this chapter immediately the section on the definition of exegesis bolsters Kaiser’s argument concerning the nature of good exegesis. For instance, Kaiser defines exegesis as seeking to “identify the single truth-intention of individual phrases, clauses, and sentences as they make up the thought of paragraphs, sections, and ultimately, entire books” (47). As he examines the five stages of Christian history, Kaiser wonderfully extracts the positives and negatives that arise from each stage of history and shows the lesson that deviating from authorial intent takes the interpreter down a problematic path — all the while showing the worthwhile intent behind such a method. He presents both sides, yet does not give too much ground to the incorrect view. The preacher and exegete will benefit from such a balanced presentation.

Another strength with Kaiser’s work is his use of humor and metaphors periodically in his explanations. This book contains technical information about the study of exegesis, so by Kaiser using humor and word pictures, he allows the reader slightly unwind as he absorbs the content. For instance, in chapter five in his discussion on verbal analysis, he discusses the importance of the surrounding words in determining the specific meaning of a word. With levity, he notes, that “words, like people, are known by the company they keep” (106). Another example is found in Chapter 6 when he uses a stirring metaphor in describing the trained clergy’s failure to connect biblical texts to today’s situations and their “Achilles’ heel” (131). The inclusion of these word pictures among the norm of dry, academic language that so pervades these types of works.

With the strengths found in this volume come the weaknesses. The most glaring weakness is the placement of the contents of chapter twelve. The topic of this chapter addresses the exegete/pastor and the power of God. In a quote above, Kaiser noted that for the pastor, the Holy Spirit is the source of confidence in our message regardless of the number of steps taken in preparation. Considering the importance of the presence of the Holy Spirit, Kaiser should have placed this chapter toward the beginning of this book rather than at the very last chapter. Jesus did not say, “Proper sermon preparation and exegetical work will teach you all things.” Rather, Jesus says in John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV). Kaiser fully agrees with this verse. Given this sentiment, the placement of such an important understanding at the very end of this work is puzzling.

While Kaiser notes the importance of biblical truths guiding one’s theology, he strays from this philosophy not once but twice in reference to the same passage: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. In making the point that the exegete should pay “close attention to each subtle nuance that may aid us in detecting sectional divisions” (77), he proceeds to engage in extra-biblical speculation. He wonders aloud, “Could it not be that the debated passage of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a quote from Rabbinic law?” with no rationale on how he arrived at this point. He then proceeds to connect this passage with other passages from 1 Timothy 2:8-11 as well as 1 Corinthians 11:4-5. He also addresses these same verses on pp. 119-120, apparently to show how to apply the principles of verbal analysis. Kaiser violates his own principles for confuses Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 with men and women who pray during their own private worship with principles Paul lays out for public worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26-35.


I would highly recommend Kaiser’s work as a good starting point in understanding how to construct a sermon that bridges the ancient text of Scripture to contemporary times. He correctly diagnoses the issues facing the contemporary preacher and then proceeds to help the preacher in a methodical fashion overcome the obstacles facing him in dealing with Old and New Testament exegetical problems. The pastor and seminarian will benefit greatly from the groundbreaking contribution.

  1. Thanks for the great review. I am currently studying this book as I work toward my Master of Ministry degree.

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