The true Church of Christ teaches the gospel. The Bible is the sacred and canonical witness to the gospel. Therefore, the teachings of the Church accord with the teachings of the Bible. This simple syllogism provides the rationale for theological exegesis. And not just the rationale, but also the challenge. For the accordance of doctrine and Scripture is by no means obvious. At times, what Scripture says is opaque, but doctrine is clear. At other times, what the Church teaches is either puzzling or undeveloped, but the plain sense of Scripture seems perspicuous and compelling. At still other times, the Bible seems to blatantly contradict dogmatic claims, or strike at oblique angles, or even hover with perplexing irrelevance. Just think of the Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption of Mary. Difficulties stimulate the mind, and we certainly face lots of hard questions when we assume that Scripture and doctrine teach a single, unified truth.
Take an example from my own effort to write a commentary on Genesis as part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series: How can the description of God’s spirit hovering over seemingly preexistent waters on the first day of creation (Gen. 1:2) be squared with the Nicene affirmation of creation out of nothing? My answer involves a long digression into the biblical roots of the doctrine of creation, as well as an argument about how particular verses of Scripture fit within an overall interpretation of the Bible.
Or consider Ezekiel 22, where we read that God is at once attacking Jerusalem and searching for a righteous man to stand in the breach and defend the city. It seems a hopeless confusion: God is outside the wall of the city, pressing his attack, and at the same time he is inside, seeking to save his beloved people. As Robert Jenson suggests in his commentary on Ezekiel, also part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, this double role is not so much resolved as made clear and explicit in the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.
Perhaps my efforts, or Jenson’s, or the efforts of others pursuing theological exegesis, fail to persuade. But we need hard questions—intellectually challenging and spiritually serious questions—and these theological exegesis provides. When we allow Church teaching and biblical proclamation to share in a common claim to truth, the obvious differences, the puzzling divergences, and the unexpected harmonies will naturally compel our minds and draw us into elaborate arguments that interweave theological and biblical analysis.
The accordance of doctrine and Scripture motivates the project of theological exegesis and not only raises difficult and puzzling questions but also provides resources for genuinely biblical answers. All efforts of interpretation try to say something true about the material under examination, whether these truths are grammatical, text-critical, form-critical, historical, moral, political, or theological.
To do this, we undertake our interpretations against the background of implicit economies of truth, some of which are very limited and particular in scope and thus do not much affect our conclusions, and some of which are quite wide and universal and therefore consequential. For example, one can pursue philological analysis only under guiding presumptions about how grammar works and languages evolve. It turns out, however, that these presumptions fit nicely with a wide array of different and perhaps even contradictory metaphysical schemes, and I doubt the arguments in the area of Hebrew philology change much if one is an ancient Platonist, a medieval Aristotelian, or a modern-day logical positivist.
This metaphysical agnosticism diminishes as we develop larger-scale interpretative arguments, all of which draw on often unspoken, even unconscious, assumptions about the way human history and culture unfold. Historical-critical scholars rely on beliefs about culture, tradition, and historical development that form a metaphysical horizon. When a New Testament scholar presupposes that the prophecies of the destruction of the Temple provide decisive evidence for authorship after A.D. 70, for example, this critical principle is based on the proposition that prophetic knowledge of the future is impossible. Claims about what can or cannot happen are, by definition, metaphysical statements.
The influence of metaphysics is as it should be. To try to read any text without drawing on an implied metaphysical horizon is like trying to walk without legs or see without eyes. With texts we hold dear, however, we become more anxious about the role of the implied metaphysical horizon. We don’t just want to read Shakespeare in light of our assumptions about culture, history, and the human condition. There are profound truths in his plays, and we want these truths to influence our metaphysical horizon rather than simply be interpreted by it. We want to think about Macbeth or King Lear in a Shakespearean way.
This disposition of interpretive submission and obedience becomes acute when a reader approaches the Bible as the word of God. The Bible provides the master code for reality, and therefore we want the metaphysical horizon we use to frame our more ambitious and large-scale interpretations of the Bible to be itself biblical in substance.
The Nicene tradition provides just such a metaphysical horizon, one biblically saturated from the outset. Origen wrote On First Principles, the first sustained Christian effort of speculative theology, at the beginning of the third century. He states that his approach has “no other source but the very words and teachings of Christ.” The result is a grand theology of creation, time, and embodiment as well as evil, redemption, and consummation: a metaphysical horizon that allows us to read the Bible biblically. Think of reality this way, Origen should be read as saying, and you will be able to enter more fully into the wisdom of the Scriptures because you will be thinking scripturally; you will approach the Bible with a biblical view of reality.
We may judge Origen mistaken at certain points, as did many in the centuries after his death. Moreover, we can engage the complex and unruly body of teachings called the Nicene tradition and, after analysis, determine it confused, ill-developed, and in need of correction by a more thorough interpretation of Scripture. Indeed, to a great extent, the Nicene tradition has been an argument carried forward through many generations about how best to account for the truth of scriptural teaching, Church practice, and proclamation, involving constant restatements, reconsiderations, and revisions.
The debates are ongoing (not the least those about the ecclesiological question of what counts as Church doctrine), but this does not prevent the Nicene tradition from providing a reliable biblical horizon for biblical interpretation. Indeed, more than reliable; peerless. The Nicene tradition has struggled for many centuries to discipline its concepts so that they fit with the Bible, so much so that it is difficult to identify a way of thinking about God, history, and human destiny that is at once more metaphysically self-conscious and more thoroughly and constantly invested with exegetical substance.
Contemporary biblical scholars have a difficult time accepting theological exegesis. Needless to say, secular scholars do not entertain the notion that the doctrines of the Church state important truths. Yet even biblical scholars who believe in and trust the main lines of the Nicene tradition are uneasy about theological exegesis because they fear more will be lost than gained by the introduction of doctrinal concerns into the practice of interpretation.
In The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age, the Old Testament scholar John Collins observes that the rules for historical study are academic rather than confessional, based on modern canons of historical analysis rather than classical principles of faith. These rules have “created an arena where people of different faith commitments can work together and have meaningful conversations.” A Jew, a Christian, and an atheist can agree about what counts as a good argument for determining the sources for the J writer, for example, or the Sitz im Leben of imprecatory psalms.
Collins is surely right that the conversations and debates made possible by the modern critical tradition have injected fresh insights into old theological debates. The new consensus about Paul played a decisive role in overcoming confessional divides in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. I can imagine a different but equally significant consensus, about covenant and Christian supersessionism, emerging out of the new participation of Jewish scholars in New Testament study. Fruitful as this work may be, however, Collins makes the unwarranted assumption that modern biblical study is intrinsically antithetical to theological exegesis when in fact only the historical-critical claim to final interpretive authority contradicts a theological approach.
Collins is by no means alone. It is an unfortunate fact that most modern biblical scholars presume the supreme authority of their discipline. Reviews of some of the early volumes in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible exemplify this false assumption. In many cases, reviewers trained as modern biblical scholars have objected to what they take to be spurious typologies, unwarranted intrusions of Christological claims, and a general tendency to move from the biblical text to theological analysis. These reviewers have tended to assert their interpretive authority, unconsciously making the inference that, because the historical-critical method would not lead one to say this or that about the book of Jonah or the Gospel of Matthew, therefore it cannot be said.
Historical study of the Bible certainly remains legitimate and perhaps necessary. But as a mode of interpretation it cannot serve as the final authority for Christian readers. Because the Church claims to teach apostolic doctrine, efforts by Christians to explain what the Bible fully and finally says require addressing Church teachings and explaining their truth in relation to the Bible. To do this, we cannot play an ad hoc game of match the doctrine to the verse. We need a biblically shaped metaphysical horizon for biblical interpretation, which is what the Nicene tradition provides. In this instance, as in others, theology remains the queen of the sciences.
Biblical scholars also worry that theological exegesis will divert attention away from the Bible in its particularity. They worry, for example, that Christological readings of the Old Testament bounce from the Old to the New Testament and back again without regard for the vast differences of cultural and historical context. Even a decision to comment on the canonical texts of Genesis or Isaiah can rankle because it seems to ignore the multilayered, sedimented reality of tradition and redaction that make up the final form of the Bible.
Worrying about the loss of textual particularity reflects a healthy concern about the role of the Bible as the real authority and living source for Christian faith. The Bible does not speak to us in pithy doctrines. It is not a catechism thrown into narrative, poetic, or legal form. On the contrary, it is thickly forested, and biblical scholars like to view their own training as sustained immersion in its endlessly multifaceted and plural worlds. We fail to read fully and deeply, argues the modern biblical scholar, if we fail to enter into the almost trackless but beautiful wilderness of the Bible.
Yes, but beware modern self-delusions. It is not the case that modern biblical study refrains from abstractions and remains intimately engaged with the biblical text. Efforts to reconstruct the original context for the book of Exodus or the Gospel of John are elaborate speculative enterprises that rely on countless sociological, psychological, and theological assumptions. Redaction criticism can be used to dismember books of the Bible, and one often finds modern scholars using this technique to explain away rather than interpret passages. The modern genre of historical-critical commentary has become ossified, and the vast majority read like summaries of recent scholarship rather than fresh engagements with the biblical text.
Troublesome as these tendencies may be, there is a still greater danger. The natural subject matter for those who cleave to historical methods is not the Old and New Testaments in themselves but rather the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures out of which they emerged. Today’s graduate programs are evolving away from the old categories of Old and New Testaments and toward more broadly conceived forms of cultural studies. This trend may produce fresh historical insights, but it will not encourage the Bible-focused mental habits many wrongly imagine intrinsic to the modern historical-critical tradition. Future scholars will be expert in topics such as the material culture of ancient Palestine or the religious politics of ancient Alexandria, but not in the synoptic gospels or the letters of Paul.
Theological exegesis, at least as I have defined it, gives us an intellectual justification for the development of an ever richer, ever deeper understanding of the Bible. It does not approach the Bible with predetermined interpretations that glide smoothly over its surfaces. The contrary should be the case. Because theological exegesis presumes that Church and Bible are on the same page, so to speak, it encourages rather than discourages a proper concern for nuance, detail, and historical particularity.
Given the principle of accordance, judgments about how to read the Bible must invariably influence the ways in which we interpret doctrine. And, conversely, our always ongoing efforts to understand the Nicene tradition should leaven our necessarily incomplete interpretations of the Bible. The overall effect, it seems to me, will be neither wooden applications of doctrine to exegesis, nor a systematic neglect of the organic diversity of the Bible, but rather a theology vivified by Scripture.
All but the most virulent intellectual ideologues hope to produce good interpretations of the Bible rather than to advance various labels and methodological formulae. After all, truth rather than disciplinary purity is what we seek when we engage our minds to read and understand the word of God. There is obviously a historical dimension to this truth. Nevertheless, to be a Christian is to believe that the truth found in the Bible is the very same truth we enter into by way of baptism, the same truth we confess in our creeds, the same truth we receive in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Theological exegesis, therefore, is not a method at odds with historical investigationsor metaphysical speculations, for that matter. It is simply an approach that accepts the truth of Church teaching when embarking on the difficult and daunting task of trying to discern the truth the Bible teaches.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.