How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology

Written by Andrew D. Naselli Reviewed By Paul S. Jeon

Andrew Naselli’s recent publication How to Understand and Apply the New Testament is one of the best introductions to the topic in recent years. For brevity, in this review I limit my comments to what comes before and after the main body, namely the analytical outline, introduction, Appendix B, and glossary. This gloss over the “meat and potatoes” reflects my endorsement of the main body.

The main body of the book initially follows the sort of outline found in any standard exegetical resource—genre (ch. 1), textual criticism (ch. 2), translation (ch. 3), etc. What is distinct about Naselli’s organization is the way he transcends “pure” exegesis to include the important categories of biblical theology (ch. 9), historical theology (ch. 10), systematic theology (ch. 11), and practical theology (ch. 12). Few books on NT interpretation devote enough attention to these categories. Naselli’s work, however, walks a student not just through exegesis but all the way to the “end”—application benefiting from the rich interplay between exegesis, biblical theology (BT), historical theology (HT), and systematic theology (ST).

The analytical outline is the sort of outline a professor distributes at the beginning of a course. As such, it is useful for students who want to see how they are progressing in the topic. But it is also helpful for professors who teach NT exegesis (though Naselli states that this book is for “students … pastors and people with theological training … [and] thoughtful men and women who have little or no formal theological training,” p. xxv). A professor in Greek exegesis can compare his or her analytical outline to Naselli’s and benefit from possible points of difference in pedagogical organization and emphasis. One suggestion for a revised edition would be to have the roman numerals in the analytical outline correspond to the body chapters.

The introduction is packed with rich information and pastoral wisdom. The following are just a few examples. Naselli asserts: “Before you teach the Word to others, you need to practice it.… But before you practice and teach the Word, you have to know what it says.… That’s what this book is about” (p. 1). Here, Naselli states not only the book’s goal but one of the key insights into sound exegesis—praxis. Pastors and preachers know perhaps better than professors how experience and exegesis inform and shape one another. Naselli’s appreciation for the “need to practice [the Word]” (p. 1) permeates his book, which constitutes one distinctive.

Similarly, in the introduction, Naselli makes a sobering observation. He asserts that it is only “after decades of exegeting the Bible, [a world-class scholar] has found that the exegetical process has become more intuitive and integrative for him” (p. 4, italics mine). Cal Newport makes a similar point in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (New York: Business Plus, 2012). Newport argues that any apparent virtuoso is really the product of decades of focused discipline. As Naselli and others have argued, exegesis is “both a science and an art” (p. 4). However, it does have to begin more as a science—as “a mechanical, robotic process” (p. 4). In this sense, I echo Naselli’s concluding exhortation, “So practice, practice, practice” (p. 332).

In his discussion on exegesis being both a science and art, Naselli makes the following exhortation: “Approach the exegetical process humbly and prayerfully. Ask God to open your eyes. You need the Holy Spirit to illumine your mind” (p. 4). Naselli is exhorting contemporary interpreters, who are sober about their own sinfulness and the sinful idols pervasive in the academic world, to ask the Spirit’s protection against heresy and speculative exegesis. In sum, the act of praying before, during, and after interpretation should never be construed as a mere formality. Naselli does a good job of underscoring the need for piety in the interpretive process. This is a point that is especially worth reiterating in an introductory book on exegesis.

One last note regarding the introduction. In the penultimate section, Naselli poses the question, “How Do Exegesis and Theology Interrelate?” (p. 5). Some exegetes tend to approach the Bible with a low view of ST and HT. Sometimes it’s put along these lines: “I just want to be faithful to the Bible and not feel constrained by dogma.” As Naselli observes, “No exegesis is ever done in a vacuum.… It is absurd to deny that one’s systematic theology does not affect one’s exegesis” (p. 6). Moreover, exegesis that is done in deliberate interaction with BT, HT, ST, and practical theology always yields richer conclusions than “isolated” or supposedly “pure” exegesis. Problems tend to arise when scholars from these different fields stop dialoguing with one another. Moreover, exegesis done in close conversation with especially systematics has the twofold benefit of helping an exegete both to see if he or she is straying from “sound doctrine” and to become more self-aware of the presuppositions underlying his or her own exegetical approach. We should commend Naselli for making—and emphasizing—this important point of “holistic” exegesis at the outset of his book.

Regarding Appendix B (“Why and How to Memorize an Entire New Testament Book”), I had the privilege of learning hermeneutics from Vern Poythress. Among the memorable takeaways from the class, I recall both his exhortation to memorize not just chunks of the Bible but entire books. More so, he modeled this through his life, systematically working to memorize the entire Bible. Those who have practiced this discipline know that it results in developing “biblical instincts”—an intuitive sense of which way to go and which way not to go—when studying a text. Quoting Jon Bloom, Naselli puts it this way: “memorizing big chunks of the Bible ‘will fine-tune your hooey gauge’” (p. 340). This consistent discipline over a long period will yield an inestimable spiritual benefit. Naselli’s treatment of memorization is helpful (pp. 340–42), especially the advice to “walk while you memorize” (p. 341). I would add to this list, “Memorize the Bible instead of spending countless hours on social media.”

Finally, the glossary is a gem. For this section alone, I would recommend the purchase of the book. Similarly, the selected bibliography is a repository of incredible sources not only for hermeneutics but also for biblical theology and systematic theology. In addition to everything I have written above, I would add that Naselli’s book is accessible, personable, comprehensive, devotional, and full of nifty diagrams and illustrations—all impressively compressed into a single volume.

Given the practical nature of the book, I would offer one suggestion (though Naselli touches on it in different parts of his book, especially in chapter 6 [argument diagram] and chapter 7 [literary context]): developing an analytical outline of a given book in the New Testament before exploring a passage in it. I recognize that this discipline might not be realistic, especially for lengthier books. Moreover, it is incredibly arduous and perhaps overwhelming for a new student in exegesis. Nevertheless, the process of outlining an entire book forces one to pay attention to the rhetorical flow of the book, to assimilate key themes and images, and to develop an intuitive sense of what the book is all about. Given the fundamental rule of “context, context, context” for sound interpretation, I would emphasize this discipline in an introductory book.

My last thought on the book is that Naselli might want to consider writing an abridged version. Alternatively, he could perhaps consider including another appendix where he condenses his rich chapters into a manageable checklist (though Naselli explains in the Introduction the liabilities of a “checklist approach”). But these minor points should not detract from this monumental work that has earned much praise and should have a lasting place in the shelf of every student of Scripture. It will serve as a rich resource for more seasoned NT exegetes and an ideal textbook to use in the classroom.

Paul S. Jeon

Paul S. Jeon
Reformed Theological Seminary
Washington, DC, USA

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