Reading the Bible Theologically Does Not Mean Being Married to Your System

Last week, I went to the annual ETS meeting, which was held in San Antonio this year.  I will get around to writing a summary post about it, but for now I’d like to focus on one particular session that was interesting but that ultimately made a failed argument, in my estimation.

Matthew Barrett, a Reformed theologian, gave a presentation titled, “Should We Read the Bible Theologically?  Debating Whether Dogma Should Inform Hermeneutics.”  He argued that, contrary to many biblical theologians who decry allowing prior theological commitments to guide the interpretation of a text, Christians should read Scripture theologically.  Barrett presented well and he is very intelligent, and I appreciated his clear speech.  On the face of it, I agreed with his general point.  However, for him, “reading theologically” means having a full blown system in mind, and while that may not be always wrong in itself, he gave very little instruction on how to evaluate any system because he conflated issues and gave a murky methodology.

The Importance of Approaching the Bible Rightly

I will try to present Barrett’s case as accurately as I can, though I have no notes and have to go from memory.

Barrett spent a lot of time criticizing what he felt was the tendency of biblical theologians and other evangelicals to demand that we simply “teach the text” or “go back to the text.”  To let prior theological commitments dictate interpretation would be to perform eisegesis and not exegesis, they say.  He said this was an understandable reaction against post-modern theology, in which the text is twisted heavily by prior commitments, but he cautioned against retreating back to a modernist fantasy that one can come to Scripture with a “blank slate,” devoid of any presuppositions.  Barrett argued that both progressive/liberal Christians and conservative Christians make the same methodological mistake of being suspicious of prior theology, even though they come to wildly different conclusions.

The fact is, he argued, some theological understanding is needed in order to read the Bible correctly.  The early church, for example, had the “rule of faith,” a few basic beliefs about the Trinity and the Gospel, which was helpful in interpreting Scripture.  Also, approaching Scripture with the understanding that it is God’s authoritative and infallible Word goes a long way in interpreting it correctly.  Coming to the text with a so-called blank slate is not only impossible (we all have presuppositions whether we are aware of them or not), it also isn’t helpful in interpretation even if it were possible.

From this, he made the case that dogma should inform our interpretation of Scripture.  In particular, he advocated that full-blown systems can be very helpful in deciphering the Bible.  Even though biblical theologians are often suspicious of systematic theologians for forcing texts to fit into their systems, in reality Barrett argued that systems can really elucidate the Bible because they treat the Bible as a unity with a divine author.  He did not dismiss the importance of considering the human author and his cultural and historical context, but Barrett sees no problem in using one’s theology to guide interpretation.

If I may try to illustrate it as I understood him, he argued that the more naive, “blank slate” approach to interpretation and theology looks something like this:

Interpretation of text -> Biblical theology -> Systematic theology

But in reality, it should look more like this

Systematic theology -> Interpretation -> Biblical theology -> More Systematic theology -> Back to interpretation -> So on.

Conflation, False Dichotomy, and Murky Method

Barrett made some good points: He was right that biblical theologians can be overly suspicious of systematic theology, and he was right that it is not wrong per se to allow one’s system to aid in interpretation, particularly of difficult texts.  He was also correct that it is naive to think that one can come to the text with a “blank slate.”  Furthermore, I agree that it is important to approach the Bible with the right attitude (namely, that it is God’s Word).  However, beyond that, I thought that he conflated issues and then presented a false dichotomy.  Because of that, he was unable to give a consistent method of evaluating systems when he was asked about it later.

I think it was obvious what system he had in mind, though he did not come out and say it: Reformed theology.  I say this not only because he quoted a myriad of Reformed scholars and because he himself is Reformed; I am also aware of the fact that several Reformed scholars have unapologetically proclaimed that they read Scripture with a Calvinist lens and they see nothing wrong with that.  Now, this supposition of mine isn’t especially important because even if I’m wrong about it, the following criticism would still apply, but it is helpful to see what I think he’s trying to defend: He wants to be able to deflect criticism that coming at a text with a very strong Reformed commitment is illegitimate eisegesis.

Barrett spent a lot of time criticizing the “blank slate” approach, but it invites a question: Who, exactly, is advocating that among biblical scholars?  While he quoted a lot of Reformed scholars that supported his point, there was precious little in the way of quoting people who were actually saying this.  While I agree that biblical theologians are sometimes too suspicious of systematicians, their suspicion is reserved for systematic theology, not presuppositions in general.  I think many conservative biblical scholars would be more than happy to say that Christians should approach the Bible with faith and with submission to its authority as God’s Word.  What they would have a problem with is coming at a text married to a system, which may tempt one to force-feed that text into it.

Thus, Barrett seems to have presented a straw man of the conservative biblical theologian who actually does not approach the Bible the same way a more liberal/progressive Christian does.  The former’s approach to Scripture is far more faithful and reverent than the latter.  He built this straw man by conflating full-blown systems with basic Christian doctrine.  The early church affirming something like the rule of faith and using it as a hermeneutical key is very dissimilar to using a system like Calvinism or Arminianism to do the same.  The rule of faith is a set of basic Christians truths that all orthodox Christians would affirm, and we believe that such truths are ultimately impressed on Christians by the Holy Spirit.  Systems like Calvinism do not fit that description, unless Barrett wants to make the leap that Calvinism is simply Christianity (which would lead to the conclusion that all non-Calvinists are not saved).  Barrett, I’d imagine, would not want to go that far.  However, if that’s the case, then the comparison he made does not at all support such a strong use of systematic dogma to interpret the Bible.

Due to this, he also presented a false dichotomy: Either one can agree with him that full-blown systems are vital for right interpretation, or one has to resort to the naive “blank slate” way.  There is no reason to think that these are the only two options.  In fairness to Barrett, it is difficult to address all of these issues thoroughly in a 30-40 minute time slot, but I think the logic he used to reach his conclusion was a bit sloppy.

This became even more apparent during the Q&A time, which unfortunately was not very long.  A man raised his hand and asked Barrett the million dollar question: Given this argument, in what way can we evaluate between systems?  His question can be paraphrased like this: “I’m a Reformed, second-amendment supporting, conservative Baptist.  And let’s say there’s someone else at my church who is a modern Anabaptist, and we both read Matthew 5:39 [where Jesus teaches people to turn the other cheek] and come to very different conclusions.  Who’s right?”

Barrett seemed to struggle with this question.  He essentially said that at that point, we would need to go back to the previous levels and see where things diverged… and those other “levels” are basically the levels of the text and biblical theology.  In other words, Barrett was basically saying, “Go back to the text itself,” which is exactly the type of attitude that he criticized in the first place.  It seems that in his desire to defend his Reformed, highly theological approach to interpretation, he gave no real way to critique other systems of evangelical Christians and how they interpret Scripture without simply assuming that one’s system is the right one.  Here, he might have even been helped by saying that one way to adjudicate between different systems is to utilize philosophy and logical argument, but just as biblical theologians can be overly suspicious of systematic theologians, systematic theologians are often too wary of philosophers, so it’s no surprise he didn’t go there.

Conclusion

Again, I don’t want to be uncharitable to Barrett.  This is a complicated subject, and I will not pretend that I have figured out a very clear, easily explained answer about the interplay between systematic theology, biblical theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics.  However, while I agree that reading a text through the lens of a system can be okay, one has to be careful about being married to that system.  As I stated above, it’s one thing to hold strongly to central Christian truths and quite another to hold to a system with the same kind of loyalty.  Being overly committed to one’s system is a good way to make exegetical errors, blind one to criticism, and maybe even breed a bit of pride.

A good example of this is how many Calvinists have read 1 John 5:1, which I discussed here.  Basically, they read in that verse an affirmation of their ordo salutis that regeneration precedes faith, a conclusion they reach on tense analysis of a participle and a verb.  This simply cannot be done for a variety of reasons, one of which is that such logic would make 1 John 5:10 unintelligible.  It is one thing to argue that from context (though I don’t think that ultimately flies either), but to do so from merely looking at the tenses is so simplistic that it is a bit surprising that so many Calvinists have made this argument and have put so much theological weight on this verse (John Piper called it the clearest verse teaching that regeneration precedes faith).  In a bit of irony, James White sharply criticized people who reject the Calvinist understanding here by accusing them of relying on their traditions, as if he doesn’t have one.  I think here we have a clear instance of how being married to one’s system actually does cause glaring interpretive errors.

A better approach would be to come to Scripture mindful of central Christian truths and with a deference to its authority as God’s Word and then trying to read texts contextually and faithfully in order to build theology.  Sharp philosophical and logical thinking can help systematize doctrine, smooth out logical puzzles, or alert one to an interpretive error if a contradiction arises.  Of course, if you are convinced that your system is correct, then it is understandable that you would use it to try to figure out hard passages because it is natural to think that whatever those passages mean, they will probably be consistent with what you have already figured out.  Still, problems arise when that system completely blinds you to criticism and causes you to find any way you can to make a passage fit into it.  At the end of the day, we are Christians first, not Calvinists, Arminians, Dispensationalists, or whatever.  It might be painful to figure out one day that your system doesn’t work the way you once thought, but humility demands that we accept this possibility and not equate our system with mere Christianity.

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2 thoughts on “Reading the Bible Theologically Does Not Mean Being Married to Your System

  1. Pingback: Summary of My First ETS Annual Conference | leesomniac

  2. This is a really good post. I think you made several helpful distinctions and I think you are right. At the end of the day, it’s okay to have systems as long as we make sure Scripture is the foundation of those systems. And if there are passages that don’t fit the system, we don’t first make the passage say something it doesn’t say. Instead we re-evaluate the system. We should only be married so to speak to God and His Word. Great thoughts here!

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