The place of theology in exegesis: reflections inspired by Kevin DeYoung

Posted on March 6, 2012


I have seen several references – all positive – on FB & Twitter to a recent blog post by Kevin DeYoung, in which he asserts that, for evangelicals, systematic theology is the result of exegesis, and then argues that theology should in turn shape exegesis. His point is a fairly standard one: all reading is shaped by our preconceptions, so allowing our theology to be involved is a good idea.

As I say, people I respect have praised the post; I find DeYoung’s account of the relation of Scripture to theology inadequate, however.

DeYoung begins:

Systematic theology looks at the whole Bible and tries to understand all that God says on a given subject (e.g., sin, heaven, angels, justification).

Exegesis is what you do when you look at a single text of Scripture and try to understand what the author–speaking in a specific culture, addressing to a specific audience, writing for a specific purpose–intended to communicate.

Good systematic theology will be anchored in good exegesis. The sum of the whole is only as true as the individual parts. No Christian should be interested in constructing a big theological system that grows out of a shallow and misinformed understanding of the smaller individual passages. I don’t know of any evangelical pastor or scholar who disagrees with these sentiments.

OK, I am an evangelical scholar, and I disagree with at least one thing DeYoung says – his opening sentence. Or rather, I don’t disagree with what it says, but it does not say so much that it is dangerously misleading.

Theology is not primarily an exercise in collating Scriptures, although good theology is certainly attentive to that. In a sense, real theology is what you do after the Scriptures have been collated. On all interesting matters, the witness of the Bible is complex – on many it can appear contradictory. God is sovereign, but human beings are free to chose as they will; Jesus is one with the Father, but says ‘the Father is greater than I’; God created all things good, but the world is broken by the power of evil; a final judgement and separation will come, but God will be all-in-all, and every knee will bow; the list could go on and on…

Theology is the task of coping with such complexity, and with the apparent contradictions. It is about the construction of conceptual schemes which enable all, not just some, of the texts to be taken seriously. The Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early centuries are deeply exegetical, in the sense that they turn on differing attempts to make sense of a (fairly quickly defined) set of apparently-contradictory texts. All the significant contributions to the arguments are essentially lists of proposed exegeses of texts, indeed. In each case, however, there is also the development of a conceptuality which will shape the exegesis, and offer exegetical possibilities that were not available before.

A couple of examples: first, Hilary of Poitiers is completely concerned with exegetical arguments in his reflections of the Trinitarian debates collected in De Trinitate; however, as he becomes more familiar with the Greek debates, he realises that certain arguments are not helpful (dropping the old Latin ‘X from X’ arguments, for instance). In Book VII, he suddenly stops, and offers careful reflection on how God is named, and what ‘birth’ means when applied to the divine. This gives him a set of concepts which allow for more adequate exegesis of texts he has already considered, which he then turns to offer.

Similarly, if we look at the Cappadocian theology that led to the Constantinopolitan settlement, it is about the development of concepts which will allow texts to be read better. This is true whether one agrees with Zizioulas that their core achievement was the development of a relational ontology, or whether one follows more recent historians of doctrine in finding accounts of how language applied to the divine to be central.

At the same time, adopted concepts limit possible exegesis. This is true of those judged by the tradition to be in error – Eunomius has a neoplatonic account of language which makes him unable to accept anything like Nicene doctrine – and by those judged to be impeccably orthodox: Athanasius and Basil both work with a two-state ontology (the only possible ways of existence are eternal, necessary, divine being, and time-bound, contingent, created being; there are no middle ranks) which rules out a whole series of possible accounts of the Father-Son relation which were being explored by their contemporaries. Because of this, theology has to be attentive, and in a sense responsible, to those conceptual possibilities that are live in a particular culture at a particular time.

So, theology is more than collating the Biblical passages; it is, in the classical tradition, mostly the task of trying to imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true. It is a creative task, requiring great efforts of imagination, as well as careful exegesis and precise logic.

(I don’t know how much of this DeYoung would disagree with – but I hear the claim that the task of theology is merely the collation of Scripture rather too often these days; if it is not one he would make, I have unfairly made him the occasion for this post, and I apologise.)

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