Post Written by Stephen T. Hague
As seminary educators, we believe that it is imperative in these times to continuously remember our primary objectives of advancing knowledge of the Bible and the ability to interpret the Bible, and especially gaining skill in teaching others how to interpret it for themselves. This is especially so in a generation of dramatically increasing biblical resources paralleled by a dramatic decline in biblical knowledge and understanding.
Since there are numerous tertiary interpretive issues that divide Evangelical Christians today, it is especially important to identify what can unite us (in addition to the “fundamentals”) around the study and interpretation of the scripture. It is our conviction that we all love the inerrant Word of God and the unerring God of the Word. On that foundation, we can construct a four-fold ideal for all of our curricula, scholarship, teaching, and writing. This is not to say that with such an emphasis we will ever come to agreement on all the tertiary matters that divide Christians, but that we can covenant together to seek to know and understand God’s Word as our priority, within the context of, and guided by, the following interdependent, four-fold ideals:
- Biblical hermeneutics
- Biblical history
- Biblical theology
- Biblical exegesis
I. Biblical hermeneutics
With biblical presuppositions and principles we are equipped with tools to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Ti 2:15, NIV “Correctly handling,” KJV – “Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth”), ever relying on the Spirit of God to illumine our understanding. Those born of the Spirit are ever dependent on the Spirit to have and maintain the mind of Christ (2 Cor 2:15-16). At no point can we say that are have “finally arrived” or have exhausted the mind of God, but we can confidently affirm that a sufficient understanding of the Scripture is attainable. This points us to the promise that the Scripture is sufficient, but we must study it and meditate upon it in order to find its sufficiency. It may not, in practice, be sufficient for many Christians because they have not learned how to gain adequate understanding due to faulty or insufficient methods of interpretation.
The goal of hermeneutics is not to acquire all the answers, or comprehensive knowledge, since both are impossible. Hermeneutics is not an infallible science, but rather an attempt to arrive at principial guidelines that are soundly based on proper logic that is consistent with God’s nature and God’s revelation. Interpretation is two-sided: the positive/perfect logic of God meets with the negative/imperfect logic of sinners. Thus, the logic of hermeneutics involves the unity and diversity intrinsic to God’s nature and revelation (one divine author, many human authors of the text), as well as the disunity and diversity intrinsic to human interpreters. Redemption-history also has a diversity of forms, and thus adequate principles must be applied to interpret properly both form and content.
Hermeneutics also involves the function of the Bible in the life of believers and the church. There is an intrinsic need for our hermeneutics to correlate with life lived and the need for it to transform and conform us. That is, hermeneutics must incorporate the goal of exegeting God’s revelation for the church – a divine necessity – to bring the Word of God to God’s people with contemporary clarity and conviction.
Biblical history and biblical theology are at the heart of a positive biblical hermeneutic, in which we seek to understand every text in its context in the history of redemption. That is, we ask the question of every text, “What is its context, its role, its significance in the history of God’s work of redemption?” Exegesis seeks to answer such questions.
II. Biblical history
“What we think of history is inseparable from what we think of the meaning of life.” “The biblical view is that history had a beginning and will have an end, and that both the beginning and the end are in God’s hands.” 1
A fundamental truth we must affirm in our fragmented times is the unity of the Bible, and that would include its history, theology, and texts. In the linear history of God’s people, it relays the historical creation, fall, and redemption of God’s people. The creation and redemption purposes of God unite the historical process for both testaments. That there is a single divine plan of salvation in Jesus the Messiah: the way of redemption was essentially the same for those who lived under the old covenant as it is for those in the new covenant. Also, the new creation will be the historical culmination of all God’s redemptive purposes for his people and his creation in that everlasting new Paradise.
The Bible is the partial, but sufficient, historical record of God’s redemption of his fallen creation. It is revelation; as G. Vos has expressed it, revelation is the interpretation of that history of redemption. Revelation and redemption must therefore proceed side by side (although redemption continues even when revelation has ceased, as in the case of the canon. There are different types of revelation: word-revelation and act-revelation. God speaks and acts his purposes of redemption. “The OT brings the predictive preparatory word, the Gospels record the redemptive-revelatory fact, the Epistles supply the subsequent, final interpretation.” 2
Looked at in this way we must see that God’s redemptive plan has purpose and progression. It is not haphazard or directionless. It is interconnected in sequence and thus has continuity from beginning to end. There is an organic nature to God’s redemption; it is like the organic progress of the seed which grows to full form. Each aspect of the development depends on the previous and cannot be separated from it. There is a progression. Everything is not revealed at once (but, this is not an evolutionary progress from imperfect to perfect).
God’s revelation of redemption-history is inherently practical and adaptable; it is thoroughly practical for God to save his fallen creatures.
Biblical theology and biblical exegesis depend upon the coherence and unity of biblical history. We must consider the priority of the unified redemptive historical context of every passage, book, doctrine, concept that is revealed by God. Everything derives its meaning from its context. There is no adequate understanding, or contemporary relevance, of the Bible apart from such a historical approach.
III. Biblical theology
Biblical Theology (BT) forms some part of every course of the seminary curriculum. This is not to say that every course is a course in BT, but that BT informs every subject related to the Bible.
BT is theological-hermeneutics that attempts to read and interpret the whole of scripture as one progressive history of redemption of one people of God, taking that history on its own terms as a unified text and theology that testifies to Jesus Christ. The logic of biblical theology is the history of redemption itself – Creation-Fall-Redemption – which follows the pattern of history. BT is essentially the re-telling of the redemptive-historical story as it is unveiled/revealed in the whole of the Bible. BT depends upon careful grammatical-historical exegesis of the biblical text (this includes literary analysis, cultural backgrounds, theological analysis), and it intrinsically corresponds to systematic theology by both informing it and being formed by it. That intrinsic interrelationship between ST and BT is to be strongly affirmed.
Biblical theology is explored through careful exegesis of the unified history of redemption, and guided by sound hermeneutical principles, to proclaim the whole gospel for the whole person to the whole world. BT is the whole Word of God for the whole person. BT is our testimony to the contemporary world of God’s purposes accomplished.
IV. Biblical exegesis
To exegete: “to draw out,” “to lead out.” In exegesis, we seek the meaning of the biblical text through sound hermeneutical principles, guarding against errors of partial exegesis or eisogesis, as well as evaluating previous scholarly exegesis, in preparing to both teach and preach God’s revelation. The work of exegesis assumes a previous exposure to, and some mastery of, higher and lower criticism in biblical introduction, as well as the biblical languages. Exegesis is the foundation of systematic and biblical theology; though it can be said that they inform and validate/invalidate one another through a symbiotic and ongoing testing.
Exegesis involves the study of select passages, as well as entire Bible books. The text is studied in light of grammatical, historical, syntactical, and theological aspects. The comparison with any select text with other texts also is an inevitable part of the exegetical process resulting in systematic and biblical theology. “Bringing every thought captive to Christ,” we seek to evaluate all theological ideas through proper exegesis. An important point to keep in mind is that we are not seeking to become the dispensers of all knowledge and truth, but rather to get/develop exegetical and ministerial tools and skills that enable us to empower others in reading and living the scripture for themselves as faithful apprentices to Christ. After all, the goal of seminary training is to be properly and adequately equipped to “rightly divide the Word” and to teach others to do the same for themselves.
Exegesis is the culmination of the entire seminary curriculum; its fruits are a coherent and consistent biblical theology of biblical history based on sound biblical hermeneutics and careful study of the biblical text in our contemporary context.
1 Schlossberg, Idols For Destruction, p.12, 27.
2 Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 7.