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All interpretation is theological

This is a repost of Theology - the end of the process??

Is “systematic theology... the end process of exegesis and biblical theology"??  Ben Myers writes brilliantly against such a conception.  To imagine that a pure biblical scholar can dispassionately read off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive tools is ludicrous.  To imagine that then the systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order is similarly misguided.  As Myers says 'It's theology all the way down.'  Theological pre-suppositions and commitments necessarily guide and shape all Christian activity from exegesis to exposition to pastoral work, to evangelism to hospitality to everything.

And yet the idea that the Bible can be neutrally read is so tempting.  We would love to conceive of revelation as propositions deposited in a handy compendium simply to be extracted and applied.  Yet the Word is a Person.  And His book is Personal (John 5:39).  It's not something we judge with our double edged swords - the Word judges us. (Heb 4:12)

Now Jesus thought the Scriptures were absolutely clear.  He never made excuses for theological error.  He never gave even the slightest bit of latitude by conceding a certain obscurity to the Bible.  He never assumes that His theological opponents have just mis-applied an interpretive paradigm.  If they get it wrong He assumes they've never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)!  So the perspicuity of the Bible is not in dispute. 

But Jesus tells the Pharisees why they get it wrong - "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (Matt 22:29)  And, again, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:39-40)  They are wrongly oriented to the Power of God and the One of Whom the Scriptures testify - Jesus.  This is not simply a wrong orientation of the intepreter but of the interpretation.  Scripture reading must be oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  Within this paradigm - a paradigm which the Scriptures themselves give us - the Bible makes itself abundantly clear.

But this paradigm is an unashamedly and irreducibly theological one.  It is the result of exegesis (e.g. studying the verses given above) but it is also the pre-supposition of such exegesis.  Theology is not the end of the process from exegesis to biblical studies and then to the systematician! 

And yet, I have often been in discussions regarding the Old Testament where theologians will claim an obvious meaning to the OT text which is one not oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  They will claim that this first level meaning is the literal meaning - one that is simply read off the text by a process of sound exegesis.  And then they claim that the second meaning (it's sensus plenior - usually the christocentric meaning) is achieved by going back to the text but this time applying some extrinsic theological commitments.

What do we say to this?  Well hopefully we see that whatever 'level' of meaning we assign to the biblical text it is not an obvious, literal meaning to be read off the Scriptures like a bar-code!  Whatever you think that first-level meaning to be, such a meaning is inextricably linked to a whole web of theological pre-suppositions.  The step from first level to second is not a step from exegesis to a theological re-reading.  It is to view the text first through one set of pre-suppositions and then through another.

And that changes the direction of the conversation doesn't it?  Because then we all admit that 'I have theological pre-suppositions at every level of my interpretation.'  And we all come clean and say 'Even the basic, first-level meaning assigned to an OT text comes from some quite developed theological pre-commitments - pre-commitments that would never be universally endorsed by every Christian interpreter, let alone every Jewish one!'  And then we ask 'Well why begin with pre-suppositions which you know to be inadequate?  Why begin with pre-suppositions that are anything short of 'the Power of God' and 'the Son of God'?   And if this is so, then why on earth do we waste our time with a first-level paradigm that left even the post-incarnation Pharisees completely ignorant of the Word?  In short, why don't we work out the implications of a biblical theology that is trinitarian all the way down?  Why don't we, at all times, read the OT as inherently and irreducibly a trinitarian revelation of the Son?


0 thoughts on “All interpretation is theological

  1. bobby grow


    couldn't agree more . . . I've been banging my head against the wall with some "Fundy" folks who just can't "get" (because they don't want to) what you are articulating here . . . they would just write what you're saying here as "theological jumbo mumbo;" which is really one of the most arrogant and ignorant approaches I've come across (e.g. "anti-intellectual" or better "anti-theological," but not really since we're all theological as you underscore).

    Anyway, thanks for letting me vent . . . it is places and brothers like you where I come to find some relief and refuge from my "Fundy" past ;-) (and "Fundy" certainly is an elastic term as well, there is a continuum).

  2. codepoke

    Ah. I lost my comment. :-/

    Oh well.

    It was full of approval and questions. The main question was this:
    Are you assuming that the author of Haggai, for example, had a rich Christology? Assuming you are not, how do you see the Spirit's inspiration of Haggai? Do you discount the process of analysing his conscious intent in writing?

    Great questions!

  3. glenscriv

    I hate it when that happens.

    I think Haggai has a rich Messiah-ology and Ruah-ology. ;-)

    It might not sound like Nicea or Chalcedon but I assume that from Genesis onwards the people of God know the LORD's multi-Personal nature and they know that the Seed/ King/ Messiah/ 'Desired of all nations' is their true hope. (I write loads on this on the 'Christ in OT' page above). We might retrospectively award Chalcedon- sounding language to Haggai that he didn't have. But I don't think we have to retrospectively award a 'conscious [Messiahlogical] intent' - I think from the outset that the authorial intent of the prophets was already and inherently Messiah-focused.

  4. bobby grow


    I think those are good questions, and revolve around an whole host of other questions. Really, and this is what Glen was getting at with the amil thing ;-) . . . what is at stake is if we view the NT usage and identification of fulfillment of promises (in the OT) as the norm and broader intent and reference of what the OT is talking about. Basically what Glen is appealing to is an sensus plenior, a "fuller meaning approach," so that while there was an original referent, there is a "fuller sense," and that sense finds its ultimate reference in Christ . . . so that the way the NT authors interpret and use and apply the OT promises becomes the "fullest sense" and meaning of the whole canon --- and becomes the normative interpretive grid through which we all should interpret the OT (and all of scripture), so called, Christocentrically.

    At this point I think I would be more comfortable with a referensus plenior, "fuller referents." So this appreciates both the historical referent and the future referent (in the NT), and sees "sense" or "meaning" doing double-duty --- and better emphasizes original intentionality, while at the same time allowing for appreciation of its whole meaning relative to intention.

    My distinction might just be a matter of semantics, but I'm just more comfortable with focusing on the referent vs. sense relative to authorial intention.


    I don't know, I'm still thinking; at this point I think some of the fundies I'm referring to wouldn't be surprised if I was an amil, it would only reinforce their suspicions ;-).

  5. glenscriv

    It's not popular these days but I reckon the authorial intent includes the christological sense. Yes Haggai has in view the present temple, but he also has in view the day when the heavens and the earth are shaken and the Desired of all nations comes in. That sensus plenior is also included in his authorial intent.

    Think of Gen 49:10 - there will be lots of kings that warm the throne for *the* Universal King. When the Israelites think of 'the king' they're thinking of contemporary kings yes, but they are also told to see through the contemporary circumstances to the Messiah. It doesn't have to be the *NT* that gives the sensus plenior - the OT also gives it in advance and the faithful grasped it.

    Think of how Peter spoke of Psalm 16:

    "Seeing what was ahead, David spoke of the resurrection of the Christ." (Acts 2:31)

    Seeing what was ahead! The apostles don't just say that the christological meaning can be restrospectively awarded to the OT. They say it's there in the authorial intent of the OT.

    (see also 1 Pet 1:10-12 - they speak of the sufferings and glories of the Christ, they don't happen to know the time and circumstances).

  6. bobby grow

    Oh Glen, quit making so much sense all the time ;-).

    I guess my biggest hang-up is interpreting OT promises that the NT hasn't, the same way that the NT interpreted similar passages (e.g. in re. to Christ and the "Land", etc.).

    In other words, the NT authors don't always engage in "sensus plenior," sometimes its pesher; and sometimes they use the LXX's instead of the Hebrew --- so then its an issue of Text-types. Often I think I might be over-thinking this . . . but that's where I'm at :-).

  7. Perry Robinson

    While I agree with the general conclusion there are some problems to consider.

    If all interpretation is theological, then there are no hermeneutical methods that are theologically neutral from the get go. This means that interpretive principles will imply and guide one to a specific view of Christ. Heterodox views of Christ then are a function of specific interpretive principles.

    Second problem. If every passage is interpreted within a framework, and there are no passages interpreted apart from a framework or theological grid, then how is one to find out which framework is the right one? Tradition seems to play a crucial role here.

  8. glenscriv

    Hi Perry,
    Welcome to the blog. Those are very good problems to raise. I don't really know how to solve them but only a few vague ideas about how to explore them.

    * I guess what I'd say is that there are heterodox interpretive principles just as there are heterodox christologies - and they hang together. (Correspondingly, orthodox christologies and hermeneutics will hang together).

    Now to treat the Word of God eternal and the word of God written according to their true nature I say we ought to hold to Solus Christus and sola Scriptura. And that following the latter will lead to the former. Of course these are confessions of faith. They do not come at the end of empirical testing. But in hope we follow our faith commitments and find confirmation along the way.

    * To 'hit upon' the right hermeneutic will be strictly parallel to 'hitting upon' the true Christ. ie it will carry a Spirit-given self-authentication.

    * Now that authentication is not simply an individual thing, it is worked out in community. And so listening to tradition has an important role. Though as someone committed to sola Scriptura - that role goes only so far. (Perhaps here is a source of disagreement between us? Not sure).

    * The Scriptures themselves give us plenty of teaching and worked examples of how to handle Scripture. From the Scriptures it is possible (and necessary!) to condemn false hermeneutics just as it is possible (and necessary) to condemn false christs.

    * We can see in practice that those who handle the Scriptures spiritually (not according to the flesh but according to its true nature as witness to Christ) converge in their understandings of Christ and bible in a way quite unknown to those who handle them 'naturally'. This seems to be some kind of confirmation of our original faith that the Scriptures are perspicuous and Christ-centred.

    Those kinds of thoughts.

    So I guess the self-authentication of the Spirit is at the heart of my answer. You'd like to see me give more room for / thought towards the tradition of the church?

    Always good to be challenged,


  9. Perry Robinson


    If Christologies and interpretive principles are mutually interdependent, then it seems that there will be no way to start with interpretive principles that do not from the get-go imply a specific Christology and vice versa. One could then just as justifiably being with a specific Christology and read the text accordingly.

    Following sola scriptura may lead to solus christus, but there are a number of things to consider here. First, we’d need to know on some other basis than scripture that solus christus was the appropriate place to end. If Rome could be wrong, the Reformers most certainly could have been. Second, it may lead to it, but then again, it may not or it may lead to a specific Christology and that may not be the correct one. Third, it may lead to solus christus, but so may other views such as prima scriptura held by say Aquinas or the Caroline Divines.

    The theanthropic nature of inspiration of the Word of God seems to be a function of how one sees the thanthropos himself. Inspiration is a function then of Christology, or so it seems to me.

    Self authentication doesn’t seem to do any good argumentative work. First its subjective which would be fine if the church were merely an atomized and extrinsically related group of subjects, but given the NT language on the nature of the church, this seems not to be the case. Second, one can think that they have self authentication and in face not have it and given that the mechanism for adjudicating claims comes after the ground of self authentication, there appears no way to divvy up the genuine cases of self authentication from those that are not. Third, if we need to appeal to tradition to sort out self authentication then it seems that the latter really isn’t doing any of the work but tradition is. Self authentication is an explanatory dangler. And then we will need to know the kind and degree of normativity of the tradition. If it is lesser than the self authentication, then we have the normative cart before the horse and we will be subjecting the divine voice to human masters or if it is equal to or greater then this will preclude the kind of private judgment entailed by sola scriptura, and hence sola scripture also.

    The examples of scripture’s teaching will be interpreted in light of our theological commitments, won’t they? If so, an appeal to them as a basis just brings us back to the original point, doesn’t it? There are no theologically neutral interpretations.

    If we can see in practice those who handle scripture spiritually as a witness to Christ, won’t this depend on first knowing what the true doctrine of Christ is? And the scriptures may be perspicuous, but the mind of the reader may not be. If the bible is like a mirror, you can’t have an ape looking in and an apostle looking out.

  10. glenscriv

    Hi Perry,
    You have so many rich points in there. It's a real education just to read your comments - I'll have to dip into your blog some more.

    I just have a few reservations.

    First, it is certainly circular to say Christ must be known biblically and the bible interpreted christocentrically. But theology is full of such circularities (e.g. The Son is the way to the Father, the Father must draw you to the Son). In both, the Spirit's role in Scripture is vital.

    Now what I don't want to do is simply dissolve the circularity by saying either

    * there is a 'safe' neutral hermeneutic from which we can read off scientifically verifiable truth
    (not unless you can show from Scripture that this is indeed the Scripture-given hermeneutic - in which case you haven't gotten rid of the circularity)


    * there is a 'safe' church tradition from which we can derive assured truth
    (not unless you can show from Scripture that this is indeed the Scripture-given truth - in which case you're still within the circularity).

    (These thoughts are coming from a probably misremembered and misunderstood reading of Barth's I/1 - negotiating a path between 'Enlightenment rationalism' on one hand and the magisterium on the other)

    Perhaps a simple way of putting my point is to consider that Christ treated the Scriptures as:

    * authoritative,
    * God's own word,
    * binding,
    * all about Him,
    * all to be fulfilled (by Him),
    * necessarily related to an appreciation of "the power of God",
    * above the traditions of men which threaten to nullify God's word, and
    * completely perspicuous such that He assumes His opponents must never have read them.

    Now for this observation to get off the ground, I don't need to have a detailed christology. I just need to see Christ as my authority. And therefore if I want to honour this Christ well then I'll honour the Scriptures that He honoured in the same way.

    And I know that it sounds completely simplistic, but I think Jesus expects us to understand the bible. He didn't fight the Saducees by exhorting them to be more like the Pharisees or Rabbi Hillel or whoever. He just thought they needed to read the bible. If they got it wrong, He just assumed they'd never read the bible. Jesus thinks it's a discipleship issue not to understand the Scriptures.

    Similarly I don't think Scripture leaves us with a hopeless multitude of possible hermeneutics. I think if we allow Scripture itself to teach us to interpret Scripture there will be remarkable convergence of interpretations.

    I know how naive that sounds. But I think even the tradition can bear this out.

    How did we get to Nicea? Was it not a pouring over Scripture to the point where the Arian reading was seen as untenable - it could neither account for the Scriptures nor the Christ which the church confessed as authoritative. Again, perhaps I'm being naive. But for me, I seek to honour this tradition by treading this path - never leaving its findings behind but continuing today to rigourously, prayerfully and communally read Scripture in light of Scripture.

    I'd be interested to hear you positively state your way through these particular issues.

    Thanks very much for the interactions. I'm learning lots.


  11. Perry Robinson


    I wasn't driving at a charge of circularity, but rather to point out the necessity of an apostolic tradition regarding Christology. It would be akin to selecting canonical works on the basis of what Christ they set forth. That isn't circular. If there isn't any "safe" church traditon, then scripture is not either.

    If the formal canon is fallible and in principle revisable because of its fallibility, I am not sure how it can be read as absolutely binding. Pragmatically perhaps, but it is provisional at best.

    Seeing Christ as one's authority will depend on who and what Christ is. There is no generic "Christ" with a generic authority or some neutral relation betwixt me and Christ.

    I think Jesus expects us to understand his Word, and the Word that was *preached*. Jesus' criticisms of the ruling Jewish leadership just otivate his replacement of them with his Apostles and the 70 as a new sanhedrin.

    If scripture didn't leav euntouched the formal hermenutical question, then we wouldn't require extrabiblical terms since the terms of scripture would be sufficient, but they aren't.

    Scripture is a rule to be applied and used by persons and so what counts as scripture interpreting itself will therefore vary in accordance with those who use it. A variety of hermenutics will converge, but not all. And even if they did, convergence is insufficient to imply truth. Furthermore, convergence will be grounded in Christology, so it will be a funciton of Christological sameness or identity. If not, then Christ isn't the center and funnel of Scripture.

    We got to Nicea because of an attempt to mesh Christian theology with philosophy via Origen, Lucian and then Arius. The latter lacked a concept of person and so had to gloss the paternal-filial relationship in terms of an extrinsic relationship of a secondary power. That the Arian interpretations were consistent I don't doubt since there is no essential or necessary connection between the signifier and the signified in natural languages. This is why computers can grasp syntax, but not semantics. Th problem was that the Arian glosses were inconsistent with the preceding tradition of monotheism, identifying Christ with deity and liturgical adoration of Christ.

  12. bobby grow

    Perry said:

    I wasn’t driving at a charge of circularity, but rather to point out the necessity of an apostolic tradition regarding Christology. It would be akin to selecting canonical works on the basis of what Christ they set forth. That isn’t circular. If there isn’t any “safe” church traditon, then scripture is not either.

    I would not argue against the idea that there is apostolic tradition, but that this "tradition" becomes normative within an ecclesiological framework --- so that the esse of the church is identified with the normativity of this tradition as self-same with Christ. The Apostolic Tradition, deposited in the scriptures, 'self-authenticates' insofar as they both bear witness to the Christ they declare. So what then is actually normative is not "the tradition" but whom they bear witness to (whether that be the oracular tradition of the Apostle's or the written tradition of the Apostles we find in scripture --- which are univocal realities) . . . and whom they bear witness to, is in fact the One who bears witness to Himself, along with the Father (for us by the Holy Spirit) --- this is the esse of the Church (e.g. God's life), not "Apostolic Tradition" per se.

    I think this thread has digressed into an issue of ecclesiology and not hermeneutics; although these two loci certain impinge upon each other at an a priori level.

    There's my two cents.

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