No Exegesis Without Theology; No Theology Without Exegesis

Students entering the seminary are often told that systematic theology should be rooted in biblical theology, and biblical theology in turn is grounded in biblical exegesis of Scripture. After all, Scripture is the source of Christian theology. It is suggested that the biblical interpretation and the theological enterprise follow three separate and distinct phases:

1) Exegesis: Linguistic analysis of the biblical texts, using Greek and Hebrew lexical tools to arrive at a reasonable and coherent meaning of a biblical passage in its original context.
2) Biblical theology: “Sets forth the message of the books of the Bible in their historical setting…expounding the theology found in the Bible in its own historical setting, and its own terms, categories, and thought forms. Biblical theology is primarily a descriptive discipline.” Donald Hagner in George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, revised ed. (Eerdmans, 1993), p. 20.
3) Systematic theology: Organizes and synthesizes key ideas of the bible in their logical relations in dialogue with philosophy and Christian theological tradition.

John Murray wrote that ‘Systematic theology will fail of its task to the extent to which it discards its rootage in biblical theology as properly conceived and developed.’ [Collected Writings, vol.4, (Banner of Truth, 1982), p. 19]. It may be concluded that the systematic theologian relies on the spadework done by biblical scholars in the exegetical vineyard.

However, it would be misleading to conclude that John Murray follows a process of three separate and distinctive phases in his interpretation of the bible and systematic theology. Anyone who reads his enduring Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1968), or his biblical theology of redemption [Redemption Accomplished, Redemption Applied (Eerdmans 1955)] should be impressed by how Murray tightly integrates biblical exegesis and systematic theology – his exegesis is much theology and his theology is much exegesis. [In passing, one may note that the reconstructed (and contestable) historical background, Sitz im Leben of Second Temple Judaism and the theology of Israel’s Exile play a no less determinate role in N.T. Wright’s exegesis of the Book of Romans than John Murray’s Reformation theology].

Some biblical scholars have complained that Murray’s commentary is too theologically prescriptive. However, it is the insistence that the biblical writings have something authoritative to say to the present which distinguishes Murray and other scholars of the classic Reformation and Puritan tradition from many contemporary biblical scholars who restrict their horizon to the historical context (the hypothesized Sitz im Leben), without giving much consideration for what the text may say to the present. John J. Collins rightly attributes the decline of ‘biblical theology’ to practitioners who reduce their discipline to a historical description and are therefore reticent about opening the text for prescriptive teaching to believers. [John Collins, Encounters with Biblical Theology (Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 11-13.]

Theologians like Murray have been criticized by methodological purists who insist that the three stages in biblical interpretation and theological formulation be kept distinct and ‘pure’, and envisage the scholar moving in a one-way street from exegesis to systematic theology. But in reality, the traffic moves in both directions.

Likewise, some biblical scholars assume a superior attitude towards systematic theologians because they claim that their exegesis is uncontaminated by theology, that is foreign and alien concepts imported into the biblical text. But is it not the case that theology is always and already inscribed in the texts themselves, and in the lexical tools which are used to exegete the text? It is granted that biblical scholars are not so naïve as to assume that they can carry out exegesis without presuppositions, but by the same token, it would be good for them to acknowledge humbly that their exegesis is not theologically neutral.

I end with an insightful comment by Philip S. Ross in his book, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Divisions of the Law (Mentor 2010), pp. 48-50.

Self-conscious purists may argue for a three-stage model where one stage is untarnished by the next, but this is a hopeless enterprise. Why should historic Christian doctrine comply with the self-authenticating strictures of academic biblical theology? Those who insist that theology must begin in a dogma-free exegetical laboratory, before the results are analysed by a closed-shop specialist in a subsection of a specific genre and only then passed into the contaminated hands of systematicians, are living in a fantastical hermeneutical utopia. Should a Christian interpreter actually come to the Pentateuch or the prophets without ever thinking about the ‘one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity’, or Jesus Christ ‘in two distinct natures and one person for ever,’ they are probably more ignorant than brilliant. Exegesis without dogmatic presuppositions requires the interpreter to do an impossible mind-clearing, exercise – only when the Christian exegete has abandoned the creeds of Christendom, set aside notions of creation, incarnation, redemption, and a multitude of other Christian dogmas, may their task begin. Ironically, the three-stage model is not even biblical within the context of canonical interpretation unless intra-biblical exegesis is itself unbiblical. Neither the psalmists and prophets who interpreted the Pentateuch, nor the Jesus and his apostles who interpreted the law and the prophets, did so uninfluenced by systematic presuppositions. That there was a prototypical pattern of sound words to be held (2 Tim. 1:13) indicates that dogma-free exegesis was not even on the apostolic agenda. In contrast to Bird’s idealism, Myers position reflects the reality of the two-way traffic between biblical and theological studies. Theologians who see Scripture as the ‘source of Christian theology’ will explore the exegetical and thematic works of biblical theology in order to develop, confirm, or transform the conclusions of systematic theology. Exegetes and biblical theologians who eschew systematic theology will approach the texts they study under the influence of dogmatic presuppositions – whether they like it or not.

[P]rior to this methodological schism [between exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology], a theologian or interpreter who showed more concern for what the Scriptures meant than what they mean would have been regarded as an anomaly – like a surgeon who devoted his life to dismembering cadavers without ever removing an appendix. For Christian theology, biblical theology that stops with what the text meant is no more useful than systematic theology that ignores what the text meant.