Exegesis: Theology’s Science

The so-called soft sciences, such as history or anthropology, have a common issue: the lack of experimental controls. That is, there is no “standard” to compare it too. Unlike empirical sciences, like biology and physics, there is no way to repeat history and only change small variables in the process. This does not mean that the soft-sciences cannot generate reliable data and results. It does mean, however, that they are more susceptible to imagination and speculation rather than fact.

Theology has the same problem. Only this time, because we assume the supernatural, now we have another layer of evidence (like revelation). And it is obvious that the wide array of theological beliefs testifies to the immensity and variability of the data. The question is, how do we establish a norm by which we evaluate theological claims? Or really, can we?

In the Christian tradition, we claim that the Scriptures are the norm by which we evaluate theology. And for the purposes of this post, I am assuming this. But even within this group, we have a wide verity of beliefs. How do we know what beliefs are right?

This is where the exegetical control comes in: the standard by which everything is compared. There are many different standards which we hold. And below is brief taxonomy:

  1. Subjectivism. The fundamental question here is “what does the text mean to me.” Little to no context is desired or even required for this exegetical control. Ultimately, the interpreter himself is his control. Think Instagram pictures with verses on them.
  2. Successionism. (This is not secessionism for my fellow Southerners). The fundamental question here is “what does the church teach about this passage?” This views the church and its traditions as the exegetical control of the Scripture. This is because it can trace its successive lineage all the way back to the Apostles. Think Roman Catholic Church.
  3. Confessionalism. The fundamental question here is “what does the confession/catechism teach about the text?” When [insert theologian(s)] wrote the [insert title] Confession, they were brilliant men who spent many years developing and hammering out theology. Because of their monumental effort, we should look to them for guidance on questions of interpretations. Think Reformed or Lutheran churches.
  4. Applicationalism. The question here is “how does this apply today?” This view prizes its applications above that of Scripture. Whatever the Scripture says, it must apply to us today. Further, this application must fit what we already believe is true. Think Fundamentalism.
  5. Historicism. The question here is “what did the text mean to its original audience?” This is the view that whatever the text said, it said to a limited audience in whatever time period it was written in. So, in order to understand the text, we must also understand its history.

While no Christian can operate aside from everyone of these categories, the question is which should take precedent? Which should we use as the standard by which to correct the others?

My answer? Historicism. It is, as far as I can tell, the closest thing to an objective reality to which we can evaluate our theology. All the others rely exclusively on persons. As such, they can (and have) incorporate error. And once that error becomes established into a formal position like a confession, it is well neigh impossible to pry it off. The confession receives a sacrosanct position which cannot be questioned.

Historicism, on the other hand, is an active endeavor to find out what the text meant. As such, it is not encumbered with the necessity of defending a relatively modern cannon. It simply asks, what did this mean? We use relatively objective tools, like philology and comparative literature, to establish that meaning. When we do, then we can talk theology.

Here’s another way to look at it: We need to ground the text as best as we are able by the verifiable data from history. And when we do, our claims about the unverifiable supernatural will be closer to the truth. If we do not understand the physical/historical data, how will we understand the supernatural data? If our exegetical control does not include the reality which we do see, what will ground us in a reality in which we don’t see? 

For example, let’s say a text gives five different possible interpretations grammatically/syntactically. How do we decide on the right one? Well, a thorough investigation into the history of the text, the particular use of the language, and other comparative literature may eliminate 2 or 3 possibilities. Thus, we are left with only two options and have a better chance at selecting the right one.

Does this mean we leave the text in the back-then? No! Of course not! We can draw application to today. But setting the text in its historical context limits our applicational freedom. For example, we often misconstrue the first commandment when we preach it: “Thou shalt have no other God before me.” Nearly every sermon that I’ve heard launches directly into “idols of the heart” or “don’t make your life/desires your God.” This is wrong on two counts. First, idols are dealt with in the second command “make no graven image.” Thus, Paul’s statement about “coveting being idolatry” falls under this purview.

Second, this is not what the people of Israel would have understood. When it says “gods” they thought of second rank supernatural beings which rule over individual nations (Deut 32:8). How is this useful? If we were to develop theology from this, it means that we are not put supernatural beings before the Most-High God. In the Christian context, this argues against the prayer and veneration of saints and Mary. This conclusion is derived from placing this passage back into history. If we simply repeat what tradition tells us to preach, then we miss the point of the passage and thus the point that God is trying to make.

Now, come my admissions. First, Historicism won’t answer all the questions. It can’t. It merely is control by which we can test our interpretations. Second, we must not reject the tradition or the confessions of the church. The fact is, these are learned men who have thought deeply and graciously on the subject. We should not fear to critique them. But we should not reject them. Third, the final-form of the text must reign supreme. Whatever your belief is on the prehistory of the text, we all should agree the final form of the text is authoritative. Thus, the historical context is the historio-theologian’s primary interest.

Fourth, all this must be done in humility and subjection to the Holy Spirit. The truth is, we cannot do our work apart from him. We cannot begin to understand what is truth unless we rely on him. As Paul points out in Romans 1, we are hopelessly irrational by ourselves apart from God. Therefore, we must pray and ask the Spirit to open our minds to understand truth.

On a practical note, this is what is needed in Fundamentalism–the tradition I grew up in. Fundamentalism, despite its namesake, is concerned with applications. The primary goal of exegesis has been to find applications. Our sermon points must be applicable, timeless truths. Our main points must have applications. And if our studies (even on a doctoral level) do not produce materials that can be applicable, then they are useless. This, however, leads to many exegetically tenuous propositions that cannot be supported by the text. And in a strange way, it undercuts the authority of the Scripture–the very thing that Fundamentalism has sworn to protect. It is no longer the Scripture that has the control, but our definition of morality.

This is why dedication to the text as it was originally, historically intended is absolutely necessary. Only after this is found to the best of our God given abilities–only then can we apply it with any confidence that we are speaking what God says.

For my critical articles on bad exegesis see Paregesis and Mafia-Style Exegesis.

Cover Photo: KimManleyOrt “At the Math Grad House” https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimmanleyort/13148718593

6 thoughts on “Exegesis: Theology’s Science

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  1. Knowledge of authorial intent and the original audience are vital to coming to an objective biblical understanding. The practice of objective historical investigation, however, can be taken to an extreme (i.e., Johannine community theory). I’m currently reading N.T. Wright’s “New Testament in Its World” and his historical approach are many times as subjective as it is objective.

    The theological interpretation of Scripture movement (TIS) if taken to an extreme will also have its problems. So, I find myself somewhere in between the two. Here is a podcast conversation between Mark Ward and Brian Collins regarding TIS: https://sermons.faithlife.com/sermons/505194-interpreting-the-bible-theologically-brian-collins-or-s1-e6

    Carson’s “yes, but” caution about TIS is also helpful: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/so-what-is-theological-interpretation-of-scripture/

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    1. Hehe. I knew I’d get you to comment! So here’s the deal, I’m in total agreement with you that historians like those who support the Johannine Community have gone too far. But this because they’ve gone beyond the data into speculation. I’m not say just accept the conclusions from these guys just because they wear the Historian badge. What I am talking about is with the canon, we need to pursue the historical circumstances first and limit our conclusions by them. Else, we will run amok with brilliant theological speculation. And just like those speculative historians, we cannot prove our thesis.
      The problem with starting with theology is that you are starting with secondary data. And this data has been filtered through the subjective influences of another theologian. And now you take that theologian’s filtered theology and filter it again yourself. And you can end up in weird places.
      Rather, starting with the historical data is critical. Yes, you can be subjective, and many parts are. But using it properly, knowing the limits of the data, and above all submissions the Scriptures—these things increase the probability that you can derive objectivity in your approach.
      At the very least, it’s a control outside of a person by which we can test our theological conclusions. If we rely on theology, then we base our discussion on the thoughts of men—brilliant men, but men nonetheless.

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    2. As for TIS, I found it too subjective. There is no way to test whether or not the conclusions they draw are true. Anyone can string together a colorful picture from the stories in the Bible. But that doesn’t make it true. I’d rather be able to test my idea with the data found from history before I launch into speculation.

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      1. This is true… I’ll admit I am a bit circular. My theology (ie inspiration) informs my historical approach. So it’s not that I don’t value the theological approach, I give primacy to the historical data. And by historical data, I mean data… not the interpretation thereof.

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