Martin Shields offered a series of very thoughtful concerns in response to the last post in my series on impassibility. In the process, he raised a bunch of key issues to do with how we read the Bible. His concerns are profoundly important questions that affect far more than the issue of impassibility. So I’m going to offer in these four posts what I think is at stake in Martin Shields’s concerns and why I disagree with him in the hope that the debate might stimulate all of us forward as we live in the knowledge of God.
Martin Shields’s first concern was to do with how theology and exegesis should relate:
1. Much theologising, particularly in this realm, is somewhat troubling because it is not derived from exegesis so much as an imposition of a framework on exegesis. One example of this has always been the treatment by some theologians and exegetes of the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of God in Genesis 1. It can also be seen in some theological treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity, but perhaps most pervasively it appears in theological treatments of the impassibility of God.
My problem with the concern here is that we are given two alternatives. Either theology is derived from exegesis or it imposes a framework upon exegesis. It’s one or the other. But I’d argue exegesis and theology arise together, and it’s hard to unpick the relationship between the two. Good exegetes (Bible readers) are usually decent theologians (people with a good handle on the Bible’s message as a whole). Good theologians are rarely incompetent exegetes.
But let’s imagine that the relationship only works one way. If exegesis only ever produces theology, and theology never helps make exegesis possible, then the best Bible reader would be someone who does not know God at all but has great comprehension skills, is comfortable across a wide range of literary genres, and has a good handle on the history of Israel up to the first century CE. Tone that description down just slightly and you have almost any Bible study group made up of late teen/early 20s university students from a Christian background. They’re fairly competent readers, but aren’t cursed with too much knowledge of what the Bible says. In my experience, such a demographic can make great strides in advancing in the knowledge of God—their exegesis can produce good theology. But they’re hardly my ‘go to’ people to resolve exegetical questions or tricky questions about God, the world and life. They’re good, but I wouldn’t pull a group of them together to write either a commentary or a work on a theological topic.
What is missing in this view that theology derives from exegesis but must not establish frameworks for exegesis is that ignorance may be bliss, but it’s still no virtue. The more I am familiar with something, the more I know it, the better I can see it and understand it. This is true of Shakespeare: most good readings of Shakespeare come from people who have sat with his plays for decades and are on top of Shakespearean scholarship. It’s true of science: most groundbreaking research comes from people who have already have a good grasp of the ‘state of the art’ of knowledge in their field. It’s true of people: those who already know us best are usually better able to ‘read’ our moods and actions than complete strangers. And it’s true of the Bible: most people can read the Bible much better after they have been reading it for a long time and have already come to a lot of conclusions about what it is saying than when they first began reading it and it was all strange to them. They also read it better if someone gives them a head start by teaching them what the Bible says, how it holds together, what the pivot points are and the like, and that then forms a framework for their Bible reading.
Now, of course, there are exceptions: familiarity can breed contempt, and people can try and force something or someone to be nothing more or less than what they already think it is (one reason why a prophet is without honour in their own country). So existing knowledge can actually stop new insights being generated. On the other hand, someone with immense natural flair and aptitude, but little knowledge, can come in fresh and see something everyone else has missed, and so generate an important new element in future bodies of knowledge. But these are exceptions, not the rule. They are singular signs of how truth cannot be domesticated by us, but stands apart from us and over us. However, if they were the rule, then we would never preach or teach the Bible; we would just hold classes on exegetical skills, give people a Bible, and tell them to go away and get on with it.
If someone wants to be a good reader of the Bible, they simply have to equip themselves with a least a working theological framework. The creeds, the confessions, sermons we listen to and books we might read are not impositions upon Scripture, but windows into it: they attune us to the message of the Bible, help us understand what we are seeing, train our eyes to see things that we’d miss if we came to the Bible not knowing anything. Like all of life, good exegesis involves both pre-existing knowledge and skills. The frameworks that theology offer to exegesis are not impositions that warp exegesis, but empowerment that keep exegesis from constantly reinventing the first baby steps in the knowledge of God as we all blunder around, not really sure what the Bible’s message is or what it is we’re looking at.
As I look at today’s church and what I think of as the ‘core Sola Panel’ circle of readers, the last thing I think we’re in danger of is theologizing on the basis of a framework that is not driven by exegesis. Our bigger danger is to do exegesis with a fundamental suspicion of theology—to see theology as, at best, a necessary evil. Such a view means we are constantly in danger of reading the Bible with no commitment to knowing God or to knowing ourselves in light of our knowledge of God. The Bible is given, not so we can answer questions on “What is the meaning of Luke chapter 11?” but so that we can know God, know ourselves, and live rightly in light of that twofold knowledge. That’s theology. Without theology, exegesis is nothing more than an exercise in looking in the mirror and then forgetting what one looks like when one walks way.
Theology that does not arise out of exegesis of Scripture is unbelief. So is exegesis of Scripture that is not done in the service of theology and under the guidance of theology. And my observation is that we are far more in danger of the latter than the former.
Yes, theology offers frameworks for exegesis. And yes, those frameworks are not simply derived from exegesis. But I disagree that those frameworks are therefore imposed upon the Bible. Let me offer a couple of examples:
- Why do I read Scripture as a single work—66 books that are referred to as a single book, ‘the Bible’? That’s a framework that profoundly shapes my exegesis. Has it been imposed? Can exegesis on its own somehow show me that all these 66 books and no others should be treated as a single meta-literary item?
- Why do I read Scripture as though it is Scripture? Exegesis cannot establish this. Just because Scripture claims to be Scripture and presents itself as being Scripture doesn’t make it so. To treat it as Scripture is a framework that cannot be derived simply by exegesis—but is that framework imposed?
- Why do I read Scripture as though it does not contradict itself? Even if it is a single work and is Scripture, how could exegesis ever establish that a work as complex as Scripture does not fundamentally contradict itself at any point? That’s a framework that shapes exegesis, and cannot be simply derived by exegesis. But is it imposed upon Scripture?
- Or take Goldsworthy’s biblical theology framework. You can’t simply derive that from exegesis. But is it imposed? Does it fundamentally warp our ability to read the Bible, or does it basically help us read it better than if we just treated the Bible as a collection of writings with no central plot line that governs how we read them?
There are options for theological frameworks beyond ‘derived from exegesis’ and ‘imposed on’. By and large, theological frameworks are simply recognition statements: “This Scripture doesn’t just claim to be the word of God; it doesn’t just act as though it is the word of God”, *smacks head*, “By Gum!!! It really is the word of God! Boy, that’s going to change how I read it …”
As a human being, we have to have frameworks. We read the Bible as human beings with a framework of rationality already in place. That rationality was developed through long efforts by adults who brought us into some kind of adult rationality as we grow up. That’s not a bug that tragically cuts us off from hearing God; it is a feature that the Bible presupposes when it speaks to us in human language and uses human rationality in its arguments, commands, rebukes and teaching. It draws upon our rationality to communicate with us even as it rebukes and corrects that rationality in light of the knowledge of God.
As Christians, we have to have frameworks. We are brought into the household of God by believers who teach us a framework for understanding what the Bible says (not least by bringing all 66 books into a single meta-book). Sola scriptura does not mean tabula rasa (blank slate)—as though the best Bible reader would know nothing and have no preconceived ideas.
I suspect that the contemporary obsession about theology’s frameworks being imposed upon the Bible among modern evangelicals (I say that because I’ve heard the kind of complaint captured so well in this point so often that it’s now a pleasant surprise to hear someone demur from it) is not an expression of some great commitment to Scripture’s authority that has blossomed because we take the Bible so much more seriously than our spiritual forefathers did who did all that bad theologizing stuff. I think it is a sign of our cultural captivity and how much a rampant individualism has hold of us.
Like our society at large, we don’t want to have to stand on the shoulders of those who went before us; we want to pretend that they are all dispensable: it’s just me and God. “I did it my way” is our view of how we relate to God; it’s just that we co-opt the Bible to justify it: “I relate to God without imposing a framework, but as I see what the Bible says”.
Like our society at large, we have lost confidence that ‘Truth’ can be known, and content ourselves with just knowing truths. So we ask, “What does Paul say about this?” and we ask “What does Isaiah say about this?”, but we are suspicious of anyone who says, “This is what God says as a whole about this, and you should read the particulars accordingly”. Our practice might be exegesis of a collection of human authors, but it’s not exegesis of the one word of God. Exegesis of the word of God requires us to compare text with text, and think about the implications of what is being said to come up with a single, consistent answer. And that’s a theological framework—a framework that serves exegesis, not imposing itself upon it.
So it’s not either/or. Theology is derived from exegesis and creates frameworks for exegesis. And that’s a good thing.