Scholastic Exegesis

Scholastic Exegesis October 24, 2014

Scholastic and exegetical theology are sometimes contrasted. Scholastics reason logically from axioms; exegetical theologians go wherever the text takes ‘em.

While the contrast may have some rough truth to it, it’s never been an absolute one, and can be misleading. Scholastics deal with biblical texts. More importantly, exegetes have to act like scholastics.

For example: “Do not answer a fool according his folly (Heb. ke’iwwalto), lest you will also be like him.” And,”Answer a fool according to his folly (ke’iwwalto), that he be not wise in his own eyes.”

Bad enough that these verses are both in the Bible. Worse that they are both in the same book. Worst of all, they are successive verses of Proverbs 26 (vv. 4-5).

What to do? One might conclude that Solomon or “Solomon” is too dense to notice a contradiction. Given the intricacy and shrewdness of the rest of Proverbs, that’s a tough case to make.

You can just leave them be. Proverbs says both; we memorize both and move on. Maybe the right one will come to mind when we most need it. 

But the very form of the text demands more than that. The contradiction is a provocation, a riddling word of the wise that demands a response from the reader.

One might ask, In what sense does verse 4 mean “answer” and is it the same sense as verse 5? Does “according to folly” mean the same thing in both verses? Perhaps it means “don’t answer a fool foolishly” and in the second it means “show the fool his folly by your answer.”

Is there some subtle hint that the “answer” that we should give is silence – that is, the answer is not to answer? Perhaps different circumstances demand different sorts of responses: Though in situation X you should not answer, in situation Y you should? Or perhaps the two verses are implicitly addressed to different sorts of people, one who is quipped to answer fools without becoming one and one who is not.

I’m not here to answer the questions, only to point to the process. You can’t deal with the passage without sorting through these sorts of questions. Which are scholastic questions – probing different meanings of words, different applications of concepts in different circumstances, seeking to harmonize the apparently contradictory.

All an exegete needs is to sprinkle in some “videturs” and some “sed contras” and some “respondeos,” and he’s ready to turn Thomas Aquinas.

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