Theology and Exegesis: an example

Posted on March 22, 2012

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To pick up on the theme of my earlier post on the place of theology in exegesis, Justin Taylor has a blog post up today on the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, which serves as an ideal example of what I was talking about.

Justin frames the question by asking ‘is [eternal generation] really a Biblical idea?’ He notes that the idea has been seriously challenged in contemporary theology, but suggests that, although he lacks space in the post, a ‘full exegetical defense’ could indeed be offered. (‘Eternal generation’ is the doctrine that the Father’s begetting of the Son is an eternal act; it is a necessary doctrine in classical Trinitarianism.)

If ‘biblical idea’ means ‘a doctrine that could be derived by exegesis,’ then I don’t think eternal generation is a Biblical idea – although I have nothing invested in this opinion, and would be happy to be proven wrong. I am fairly sure that no-one in the fourth century thought they could read eternal generation off the pages of Scripture – indeed, it was more often an idea defended in the face of apparently-clear exegesis: Prov. 8:22, a central text in the debates, seemingly teaches a creation in time of Wisdom/the Son (pretty much everyone agreed that Wisdom here is to be understood as the Son – they were apparently less worried about the Bible using feminine pronouns for persons of the godhead than we are). I do, however, think eternal generation is (very close to) a necessary idea, in that we need to believe it (or something extraordinarily similar to it) to have any chance of understanding the Bible. It is one of those ideas that I described in the previous post as ‘imagining what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true’.

(Why the parenthetical hesitations? On the one hand, I feel compelled to assume – for theological reasons; see my Listening to the Past – that the Trinitarian settlement reached at Constantinople was a wholly successful doctrinal development; on the other, as an evangelical, I have to accept the possibility, at least, of a different conceptual development that was similarly adequate to naming the God we meet in Scripture – one based, perhaps, on Chinese or African philosophy rather than Greek. Such a development, though, would have to affirm that the Father-Son relation always is, and that it is a relation of origin, so would have some doctrine very like eternal generation.)

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