Symphonic Agreement of Expositional Strata
When faced with two differing exegetical conclusions, both of which seem plausible in light of the exegesis, how do you determine which one to hold to? Perhaps both conclusions fit with the message and application of the passage; so, you can acknowledge both without feeling the need to adopt a firm position. What happens when the differing conclusions lead to notably different understandings and applications of the Biblical text? How do you decide between the two? A personal concept that influences how I resolve such a question is the symphonic agreement of expositional strata. The meaning of this statement will be unpacked, and how it applies to exegetical conclusions will be explained.
What do I mean when I reference the idea of the symphonic agreement of expositional strata? When exegeting a passage of Scripture, I can’t help but notice the seemingly different levels of study to which I go. There is the literal-historical stratum, the semantical-lexical stratum, the intra-canonical themes stratum, the inter-canonical themes stratum, the redemptive-historical stratum, and the Christ-centered stratum.
The initial stratum is the literal-historical level. At this level, I am studying the Biblical text in light of the historical setting in which it was written and with regard to the genre of that book of the Bible. The background of the letter and perceivable circumstances of the audience impact how I interpret the passage of Scripture. I also read the letter in light of the genre of the book. So, I will read historical narratives with a predominantly literal mindset, books of poetry with a mindset taking into account poetic devices, etc. This is the stratum at which most routine, daily Bible reading takes place, at least for me.
Another stratum is the semantical-lexical level. At this level, I am likely reading the text in its original language. This allows me to comprehend components of the passage that may have gotten lost in translation, such as verbal aspect and the emphasis of the sentence. This level also entails studying lexical entries of key words and doing word frequency and usage searches. Engaging in this stratum does necessitate a familiarity with the original languages or a knowledge of how to use relevant lexicons and theological dictionaries.
The intra-canonical themes stratum has to do with themes present within the book of the Bible being studied. For example, a key theme of Colossians is how Christians are raised to new life in Christ; a key theme of Hebrews is how Christ is better than and the fulfillment of what came before in the Old Covenant. It is also important to be aware of various subthemes within a book that support the bigger theme(s). Ephesians has two broader themes of reconciliation to God through Christ and unity of the church in Christ. Smaller themes in the book, such as God’s election of believers and salvation being by grace through faith, develop and support one or both of those key themes. It should be noted that themes aren’t necessarily described explicitly in a book of the Bible; rather, they are perceived by the reader.
Another stratum is the inter-canonical themes level. The distinction here is these themes extend across multiple books of the Bible. For example, the theme of Jesus as the expected, promised messiah is evident in the various gospels. The theme of personal eschatology is visible in the gospels and various epistles. If a theme is perceptible in a few books of the Bible, it falls into this stratum; if a theme is evident throughout most, if not all, of Scripture, it falls into the next.
A stratum that overlaps with the prior is the redemptive-historical stratum. This level concerns itself with key narratives of redemptive-history which are present throughout most, if not all, of the Old and New Testaments. Some key redemptive-historical narratives are those of kingdom, covenant, and eschatology. For example, we see covenants appear repeatedly. It pops up in Genesis, 2 Samuel, the major prophets, the minor prophets, the book of Acts, etc. Within those books, the outworking of the lord-servant relationship of a covenant is seen and their eventual nexus in Christ is developed. In contrast to the literal-historical stratum, which concerns itself with the meaning of a Biblical passage in light of its more immediate historical setting and genre of the book; the redemptive-historical stratum concerns itself with the meaning of a Biblical passage in light of how it fits into, develops, and contributes to core narratives God has developed through the progressive development of Biblical revelation.
Finally, the last stratum is the Christ-centered stratum. This level has to do with how a section of Scripture is rooted in, pointing to, or fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus Christ. At this stratum, we are striving to interpret a passage of Scripture in light of Christ, that we may preach Him from it.
Now how does an awareness of these expositional strata impact one’s theological conclusions? Put simply, it can help one see which conclusion accords with a greater amount of Biblical support. For example, if conclusions A and B both appear valid at the literal-historical level; but I see that the particulars of the original language favor conclusion B, the themes of the book favor conclusion B, and the redemptive-historical progression of the Kingdom narrative favors conclusion B, I will embrace conclusion B as being more Biblical. To say it another way, if there is a symphonic (harmonious) agreement of the various strata in supporting a particular conclusion, I am likely to accept that conclusion as the most Biblical. Admittedly, one could just say that a thorough exegesis involves going through all the expositional strata. Therefore, holding to conclusion A in the prior example is just based on inadequate exegesis. However, given that most casual Bible study appears to take place at the literal-historical level, I do believe it is worthwhile to identify these other strata of study we can and should engage in.
Another benefit of studying Scripture at the various expositional strata is we can have greater confidence in our broader Biblical conclusions. When we know that our position on issues such as soteriology or eschatology is supported by the nuances of the original language, by themes present throughout the Bible, and by the progression of redemptive-history; we can have far greater confidence in our position than if we had only studied at the literal-historical level.
I encourage you, study Scripture at the various expositional strata. Be amazed that Scripture is deep and rich and necessitates study from various angles and depth. Formulate and hold fast to Biblical convictions in light of a deep study of God’s Word. If you need to grow your knowledge of redemptive-history or your ability to utilize the original languages in order to better exegete from the various strata, do so. Read books on Biblical Theology; read books on the original languages. May we be as equipped as possible for the study of God’s Word.