Technically only the first seven steps of the exegetical process are truly exegetical. In those steps we aren’t using anything but the text itself (though because of our limitations in connecting with the languages especially it is expected that we will use tools like lexicons and perhaps even grammars). In those steps, we have avoided referring to commentaries, because we can’t rely on the exegesis of others without ceasing to exegesis on our own. So with as little external aid as possible, we have sought to draw out the meaning of the text. And if we have done our job well to this point, we have a good handle on the passage we are studying, and we are ready to test our hypothesis of meaning.
In this eighth step, secondary verification, our job is to use external sources (like commentaries) in order to verify that we have asked and answered the right questions. The first seven steps are exegesis proper – primary verification. We verify meaning by appealing to the primary source: the text itself. Now we move on to secondary verification, where we appeal to external sources to test our work.
Primary verification (as worked out in previous steps) comes from the contextual examination of Scripture – first the immediate context in an exegetical verification, and then more far reaching contexts in a systematic verification. By this point primary verification should be effectively completed. Secondary verification offers a further opportunity to challenge one’s exegetical work by comparing it to the exegetical work of other learned exegetes.
Valuable external resources at this stage include introductions (generally to Old or New Testament studies), surveys (generally offering overviews of Old and New Testaments or individual books), handbooks and dictionaries (providing general outlines and definitions), and exegetical commentaries (providing verse analysis and other key exegetical information).
First, we should utilize a number of resources covering the selected passage. Avoid locking into one commentator, but rather utilize a multiplicity. Comparing an exegesis with only one commentator generally does not offer enough of a broad view to soundly test the exegetical process. The purpose of this process is not to simply find agreement with an esteemed commentator, but rather to provide a critical look at the exegetical work we have already done. We are not trying to confirm our answers; rather we are trying to make sure we haven’t missed any important observations.
Next, we should identify the hermeneutic method of the commentators. This is a vital step, not only in assessing a commentary’s validity and usefulness, but also in developing a critical approach to Biblical research literature. Developing an awareness of the commentator’s presuppositions, theological bents, and methodologies is key in both areas. While this can be a painstaking process, usually there are litmus test passages we can look at to quickly identify the commentator’s interpretive approach.
As we become familiar with various external sources, we should summarize agreements and differences in the interpretations of the commentators. Exegetically and critically examine each commentator’s agreements and differences. Have they covered key elements, or have they glossed over difficult or controversial issues? Particularly in light of the hermeneutic method utilized, certain conclusions can be expected. An allegorical approach will generally lead to replacement theology conclusions. Spiritualization will often de-emphasize primary applications. Theological hermeneutics can often lead to wild and unverifiable conclusions. Do those commentators using similar methodologies arrive at similar conclusions? Have any of the writers made observations or asked questions we haven’t?
Armed with answers to these questions, we now can defend our interpretation or alter it in light of the findings. If secondary verification uncovers holes in our exegetical conclusions, we need to go back and review our entire process to determine the cause. What we need is not only a refinement of the conclusions regarding the particular passage, but also a refinement in the overall process. We need to ensure that the next exegetical exercise is sounder than the previous. Ultimately, we simply need to observe well and answer questions properly. So we are using external sources to test whether we have been thorough, or whether we have left stones unturned.
I can’t emphasize enough that the point of this stage is not simply to look at the conclusions of other writers and gain satisfaction in agreeing with them. The point is to focus on their process, not their product. Just as in our own exegesis our goal is not to manipulate the process to arrive at a certain product, our goal here is to uncover the process of these other sources, for the sake of assessing and testing our own. It is for this reason that we delay using these resources until after we have finished exegesis.
Once we have examined the secondary sources, hopefully we find they confirm that we have asked and answered the key questions – that our process has been sound. If so, we move on to the final step (exposition), and if not, we revisit our work to refine and correct any deficiencies.