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Interpretation is theology all the way down – a repost

It would be tempting to think of theology as a two stage process.  First a pure biblical scholar can dispassionately read off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive toolsThen a systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order.

But Ben Myers writes brilliantly against such a conception.  'It's theology all the way down', he writes.  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 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 “Interpretation is theology all the way down – a repost

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  2. The Orange Mailman


    The answer is that in the garden of Eden, while the trinity can be deduced simply from the description of God, there is no mention of a Son. He is known as the LORD God who walked with Adam and Eve, talked with them, breathed into their nostrils the breath of life, planted a garden for them to tend, etc. but nowhere is the term "Son" used.

    So there can be no trinitarian revelation of the Son when the term Son was not used in reference to God at least until the exodus. This is where I say that the foundation of God's covenant plan in the garden of Eden should illuminate everything that came after, sort of like a foundation. There is much to be discovered in those four chapters that would eliminate a lot of "sensus plenior" accusations. Instead of being accused of bringing out a deeper meaning, I would say I am applying the proper outcome with the proper foundation, that of a Coming One who would undo all the ramifications of the fall (rebellion).

    So in saying that the Son is there in the garden of Eden, aren't you falling victim to the very thing that you are most often accused of? In your answer, please realize that I believe that the pre-incarnate Christ (or whatever you want to term Him) was the One who is referred to as the LORD God from Genesis 2:4-3:24.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  3. Paul Blackham

    Orange Mailman, I'm not sure that I'm understanding you so please be patient. Are you saying that Moses was writing about Christ in Genesis, right from chapter 1, but that Moses did not speak of Him as "the Son" until he wrote Exodus? I can see that the presentation of Christ as the Son does come out in clear terms in Exodus but I'm not sure why you exclude that from Genesis. I'm not clear on that line of reasoning.

    As a point of history, Philo of Alexandria built his understanding of God the Father and God the Son on the early chapters of Genesis.

    For example - "For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the Eldest Son, whom, in another passage, he calls the Firstborn; and He who is thus born, imitating the ways of His Father, has formed such and such species, looking to His archetypal patterns." [On the Confusion of Tongues, XIV, 63]

    The same understanding of the Son - as the Word or the First-born Word comes repetitively in Philo - and mostly from Genesis.

    "And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born Word, the Eldest of his Angels, as the great Archangel of many names; for he is called, the Authority, and the Name of God, and the Word, and Man according to God’s image, and He who sees Israel. For which reason I was induced a little while ago to praise the principles of those who said, “We are all one man’s sons.” For even if we are not yet suitable to be called the sons of God, still we may deserve to be called the children of his Eternal Image, of his most sacred Word; for the image of God is his most ancient Word." [On the Confusion of Tongues, XXVIII, 146-147]

    Philo, o. A., & Yonge, C. D. (1996). The works of Philo : Complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.

    Philo's argument seems to be something like this [though I'm no expert on Philo]
    1. Humanity is made by God, not in Himself but in His Image.
    2. His Image is distinct from Himself, but is also God.
    3. From the very beginning fathers beget sons in their own image.
    4. The Son [the Image of God; the Word of God] is begotten of the Father.

    From what I can follow, to me Philo seems to make sense and seems to be expressing the intent of Genesis. Why is the father-son relationship so emphasised in those early chapters if it is not teaching us fundamental realities? Why is the doctrine of the second person so elaborated in so many ways if we are not to learn a rich theology of Him?

    I fear that I've already misunderstood Orange Mailman because "please realize that I believe that the pre-incarnate Christ (or whatever you want to term Him) was the One who is referred to as the LORD God from Genesis 2:4-3:24."

    I certainly agree with that but I'm not sure I would want to limit the titles of Christ. If someone was going to be picky, why choose the title 'Christ' for Genesis 2-3?

    In my own studies of Genesis there seem to be a whole variety of ways that Christ is presented. To pick just the obvious ones, He is presented as Word, Image and Light [chapter 1]; Voice [chapter 3]; Son and LORD-Man [chapter 4] and then in the story of Abraham the titles are emphasised and expanded - Visible LORD [chapter 12]; Priest of God Most High [14]; Word of the LORD [15]; Angel of the LORD and El-Shaddai [16]; LORD on earth [19]... etc. etc.

    Just for fun, here are a couple of fun Philo quotes that I came across recently.

    "Now the image of God is the Word, by which all the world was made." [The Special Laws. XVI, 82]

    "Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6).
    Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word of the supreme Being; since it is fitting that the rational soul of man should bear it the type of the divine Word." [Questions and Answers on Genesis, II, 60]

  4. The Orange Mailman

    Hello Paul-

    Like Glen writes, it's all theology. You can't read the Bible neutrally. You have a paradigm which you are presenting in your post which displays your theology.

    So, let me ask, where in the OT does it clearly state that God has an uncreated Son? I don't believe you will find it in the law.

    My point concerning Genesis 1-4 has a presupposition. Genesis 1-4 was handed down by oral tradition long before Moses wrote it down. These words were memorized by Adam and his descendants as they looked forward to the Coming One. Yet they had no knowledge that we can detect that God had an uncreated Son.

    I submit that to read every portion of scripture as a trinitarian revelation of the Son is to read into passages terms that are simply not there. Although the identity of the Son is the same, He is not so named. You make a good point about the term "Christ". There is no anointed one present in Genesis 1-4 either.

    Does that make my point clearer?

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  5. Paul Blackham

    Hello The Orange Mailman,

    Yes, the theology is the key to it all. Our theological paradigms may change as we constantly read the Bible, but our reading is always deeply theological. To go back to Glen's point, the Biblical studies department [in most cases] doesn't do enough explicit and confessional theological thinking, so their 'results' are of patchy value to the Church.

    I thought that Philo had shown how the Son was known in Genesis... or at least how Philo himself came to know the Son through Genesis. For myself, I find Philo's argument powerful and it helped me to understand the issues of 'image' and 'begetting' in Genesis 1-11. Once I saw how the Father's image is His Son then I could see why Adam's generation of image-bearing sons was so relevant to the story.

    To be honest it never crosses my mind to think that the titles of the Father, Son & Spirit are withheld or obscured at any point. I assume that they [the Father, Son & Spirit] are what they are at all times and that those who know them, know them as they are.

    I've yet to be persuaded of reading the Bible as if the only things known to the characters are the specific words used in the record of them up to that point. For years I used to have a big Bible family tree on the wall showing how Adam overlapped with Methusaleh for hundreds of years and Mehusaleh overlapped with Noah for hundreds of years... and I think Noah and Abraham do not quite overlap... I forget. So, as I read the Bible I thought how so many of the early church pastors from Adam right down to Abraham knew each other. Imagine how Adam would have spoken of his meeting with Christ in the Garden or what Noah would have said about the journey in the Ark. In a sense I assume that Adam had an incredible and glorious knowledge of the Father, Son and Spirit. He had known the Living God as an unfallen man! He had known what it was to commune with the Trinity with no sin or shame in the way. He had experienced a quality of divine fellowship that no other had done. He had also experienced the terrible loss of that. I imagine that his sermons to the early church would have been incredible... almost Chrysostom-like... maybe even better than Spurgeon!

    This helped me to understand why they do and say so may things that show a great understanding. For example, in Genesis 8:20 Noah offers a burnt offering of clean animals to the LORD, but there is no record of him receiving any instructions on how to do this. How does he know? How can he judge between clean and unclean animals? The same thing is seen in the patriarchs all the time. How do they know how to build an altar and make acceptable offerings? How does Abraham know to pay a tithe? How does Abraham have such a clear and certain confidence in bodily resurrection? If the book of Job is from the same kind of period as Abraham [given Elihu's presence], then think of the deeply theological understanding of Job himself and then Elihu? How does he know of his Redeemer [a key theological term] and how can he know so clearly that he will be physically resurrected to gaze on Him after his own decay?

    To take the specific example of Hebrews 11 and the new creation: I'm not aware that Genesis 1-11 ever speaks of a city with foundations whose builder and maker is God and yet we are told that Abraham was looking for it. Where did he get that idea?

    The Orange Mailman, I like the way you enter into the Cain and Able story in your recent post on your blog -
    By entering into the story in that way, you discover all kinds of theological potential in the story. You imagine how Cain might have been thinking and the theological conclusions he might draw. I like that. I think it is quite right to assume that he had significant theological thoughts about atonement and mediation.

    I don't read the Bible looking for the specific words "Father" or "Son" or "Spirit" or "New Creation" or "Messiah" or "justification" etc. I'm looking for those realities and seeing how they are presented at each point. If I don't see those words at a particular point I don't assume that they were unknown.

  6. Rich Owen

    In addition to what Paul says above, I've always found it particularly relevant that Adam had that really weird experience of begetting Eve.

    He knew that she was flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, of one being and substance you might say, that she was from his side and distinct in person, yet one in intimate loving union. She came from him just as man is born of woman. This is the Divine image.

    Along with what Paul says about the immediate, personal, un-fallen "knowing as he is known" reality of Eden, this experience in his life must have surely made an impression on his doctrine of God.

    In Jesus


  7. The Orange Mailman

    Hey Paul-

    Thanks for the comments on my post.

    As far as this issue, my point is the assumptions that are made before we even get to a passage. I have been wary of assumptions after finding out that a good many things that the majority may cling to have been assumptions. So I have strived (striven?) xxxxxxx tried my best not to read anything into a passage that is not there.

    For instance, you have the assumption that Adam had knowledge of the trinity. There is no proof, yet there is nothing to the contrary, but much in your response is founded upon that assumption. Whether or not Adam knew of the trinity, the trinity was in existence at that time. The question becomes "what did Adam know?" This is something that cannot be proven one way or the other. I choose not to read into the story of the garden of Eden that Adam had knowledge that there was an uncreated Son of God. You choose to read that later revelation into it.

    Neither paradigm will alienate us from orthodoxy. I like Glen's often proclaimed point that the scriptures proclaim Christ without us having to pull deeper meaning out. That is the reason that the scriptures are there. However, when do we cross the line into placing an unintended teaching into a passage? I hope that explains my reticence to do so.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  8. John B

    Hi Orange Mailman,

    Your comments on this topic have resonated with me deeply. And your final paragraph in your latest comment here clearly and concisely summarizes my views as well.

    The meaning of any event is hidden from us unless God tells us what it means. The Bible interprets itself, and most clearly so in the NT interpretation of the OT. The account in Acts 8 of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch provides a powerful demonstration of this principle. The Apostles have been given a unique authority in interpreting the OT. We use every NT clue that we can to interpret the OT.

    "For he that is not against us is on our part. ... Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another." (Mark 9:40, 50 b)

  9. codepoke

    Hahaha! I don't have much time, Glen. I've only skimmed the post and have no time to read the comments.

    Still, I have to laugh (in a friendly way) at the world of discrepancy between a pair of my favorite blogs. I have a number of physical and virtual friends who translate for a living and/or hobby, and my friends would declare with equal vehemence the exact opposite point to yours. (And yes, some number of them believe to one degree or another the prophets knew Messiah would be God Himself. You would strawman the translating crowd were you to lump them all into the myth category.)

    I once waded into their camp and declared with vehemence interpretation without theological presuppositions is an exercise in self-delusion. They set me straight. They really, really set me straight. They taught me things about word and sentence and paragraph and book analysis I'd never dreamt - and not one of them from a higher-critical perspective. With reverence toward God and His original text, they proceeded to separate the meaning of each word from any beliefs they might hold, and pulled insights from the scripture I'd never hoped existed.

    Now you, of course, are not talking about translation, but interpretation. Who knows? Maybe the two really are that different, but I've come to place currency in a higher degree of objectivity than I ever imagined.

  10. Glen

    Sorry - very busy. Just time to splurge. Thanks for all the comments... :)

    In the beginning God. Which God? If we say uncreated creator, immense, eternal, blah-di-blah, we bring assumptions. If we say trinity we also bring assumptions. It's not wrong to have assumptions. It's inescapable. But it's a bit odd when people assume that the uncreated creator stuff is completely obvious/natural/exegetically-grounded and the trinity assumption is forced, anachronistic eisegesis. I just don't get that.

    How can it be that trinity needs 'reading in' while an essentially unitarian hermeneutic is the default option? Who gets to say that unitarianism is the default option. Especially when elohim is a plural. When the Spirit is there hovering. When God says 'Let us'. How did we ever come to think that unitarianism was the bedrock doctrine of God and trinity was the icing on the cake?

    Of course the vocabulary is different. But if this is a discussion about vocabulary I can point to many examples of later vocabulary being used to describe earlier Scriptural events: Hosea is clear that the God who wrestled Jacob is "the Angel" (Hosea 12). Genesis didn't tell him that, he read it in. Or Jude, when he says "Jesus saved them out of Egypt" (v5).

    I don't see a problem with vocabulary from a later era being used to describe earlier events. (I'm happy to say Abraham was called out of Ur - even though, at that stage, it was Abram).

    But if we set the vocab issue to one side - I just don't see why we can't assume that the God of Genesis 1 is the triune God

    People manage to assume that He is the "One God of Monotheism" readily enough and no-one bats an eyelid. But when we insist that He is specifically the Christian God we get nervous.

  11. John B

    Hi Glen,

    Most certainly the God of Genesis 1 is the triune God. We just don't know what Adam knew. Do we need to? Do we need to explicitly know Adam's doctrine of God?

  12. Glen

    Hi John,

    Everyone's got assumptions about Adam's level of knowledge. I'm not going any further than 'assuming' that this unfallen man in perfect fellowship with Elohim had an explicitly multipersonal doctrine of God. (Of course his vocabulary in articulating it would be different to Nicea, but the point remains).

    We don't need to "know" Adam's doctrine of God. But no-one can escape making assumptions about it. I just assume trinity. And I worry when theologians assume differently. I worry things like:

    * On what basis would they think it was sub-trinitarian? (it's likely some of the 5 myths are in play)

    * What is their definition of 'trinitarian' such that they can conceive of a valid sub-trinitarian fore-bear? (That one really fries my brain. I simply can't conceive of what sub-trinitarian doctrines of God might be, other than heresy).

    * Is this thinking based on an evolutionary model of religions?

    * Is this way of thinking running scared from seeing the Scriptures as *Christian* and prefering 'safer ground' by reading them as Judeo-Christian, (or even Abrahamic!)?

    The first two of my bullet points are my main concerns.

  13. John B

    Thanks Glen.

    I don't hold to any firm assumptions about Adam's level of knowledge. I know that God created Adam in his own image and blessed him.

    Adam was in fellowship with God, until he wasn't. Some understand the un-fallen state as probationary, which would imply that the communion wasn't perfect, but developing and maturing. Could Adam's imperfect knowledge of God have caused the Fall? Could Adam have known the love of the Father apart from the incarnation and work of Christ? Can we now know God through an understanding of Adam's immediate, personal experience in Eden before the Fall?

    So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)

  14. Jacky

    If I may humbly submit some views...

    Can we truly believe that we can read Scripture without assumptions at all? It doesn't seem like Jesus wants us to either (John 5:39). Even the very fact that we wish to be 'neutral' or 'objective' is charged with the assumption that it is, somehow, more honouring to Him to be 'neutral' and 'objective'.

    If we are therefore taught to have the *right* assumptions, then surely a Christocentric one (as Christ indicated) is the one we start with (unless otherwise proven)?

    But we could not see how anything is Christocentric, or bears witness to Christ, without directly relating to the other Two Most Intimate Persons communing with Christ - the Spirit who displays the mysteries of Christ to us - and the Father Whom Christ bears witness to (Matthew 11).

    In summary - a Christocentric lens, lends us to a Trinitarian assumption, unless otherwise proven.

    With that very Trinitarian assumption in mind, this is the kind of jewel we are likely to find Adam preaching to his descendants than if we read Genesis 1-3 with other assumptions:

    "I believe in the invisible High God who is not alone (Genesis 2:18), whose divine community is begotten from Him (Genesis 1:21-22),

    His appointed Offspring who shall defeat the serpent (Genesis 3:15), such protection which cannot be achieved without being covered in the skin and blood of the innocent (Genesis 3:21), that life shall be born after deep sleep (Genesis 1:11, 29-30; 2:21; 3:20), that calamity must come before new creation (Genesis 1:6-8 to Genesis 1:9-13), and

    His Breath (Who is breathed into me - Genesis 2:7), in grace having brought me to life from dust to flesh, so that I may rest and worship Him (literal translation of Genesis 2:15) and look to the day when the curse of working on dust is removed (Genesis 3:23) so that I may instead eat of the tree of life (Genesis 3:24), whether that should happen during my life now or after I enter into deep sleep."

    Personally, I'd say this reading is comparatively more doxological and honouring to the LORD who has been planning our redemption from the creation of the world (Revelation 13:8).

  15. The Orange Mailman

    "Why don’t we, at all times, read the OT as inherently and irreducibly a trinitarian revelation of the Son?"

    I'm going to write just one more comment, and thank you Glen for humoring me.

    Adam did not know God as Father and Son. In fact, the words Father and Son meant nothing to him. Adam was not yet a father and he had no son. Not until the birth of his first son would he even begin to comprehend this concept in nature that was placed there by God to manifest the nature of deity. So to read the words "Father" and "Son" into Genesis 1-3 is reading into the text something that is clearly not there. The reason is clear why God did not define Himself as Father and Son. These concepts were not yet developed in such a way as to be able to convey the truth to Adam.

    Again, I ask "where in the law do we find God existing as an uncreated Son?" Not an uncreated God, but as an uncreated Son. Surely there is no God except the Christian God, and this is no attempt at presenting another God. But there is a clear difference between a truth being manifested from scripture and a truth being read into scripture.

    I like Jacky's comments above. To simply pigeon-hole God here as Father and Son is to miss the vast majority of what He is actually accomplishing in Genesis 1-4. He is creating, breathing, shaping, walking, talking, guiding, instructing, speaking into existence, banishing, punishing, pleading, etc. Clearly three different aspects of God can be identified. God as Creator, sitting back and commanding creation into existence. The LORD God, shaping, breathing, planting, walking, and talking with mankind. The Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. But Father and Son? The concepts are not yet there.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  16. Glen

    Hi Orange, Glad for the interaction (though I won't always be able to respond). Just wanted to say that "uncreated God" is not part of the vocabulary of Moses either. But that's ok, we can't escape using a vocabulary broader than Moses' - we're all involved in providing at least "an amplified translation" of Moses. And assumptions are necessary throughout.

    I guess a key one for me is that "uncreated Creator" is not a more obvious or foundational presupposition than trinity. So you'll find it in my "amplified translation". And in fact you'll find it a lot more than you'll find "uncreated God". But those are some doctrine of God issues we can discuss another time.

  17. John B

    Hi Orange Mailman,

    There seems to be three assumptions in view here about Adam's knowledge of God before the Fall. First, is that he was fully trinitarian in the sense (though not the particular language) of Nicea. Second, is that Adam lacked knowledge of the concepts revealed only later (*after* the Fall) in nature that are necessary for understanding the Trinity. Third, is that we don't know what Adam knew; and therefore don't read into, *or out of*, assumptions about Adam's knowledge of God. Scripture reveals something about Adam's relationship to God, but not his knowledge of him.

    I hold to this last view, while valuing the thoughtful reflections of those who hold to the other views. I don't consider speculative assumptions about what Adam knew to be a test of orthodoxy.

    I can't say that "Adam did not know God as Father and Son." Does the essence of the relationship of father and son have its substance only in fallen nature? Could it be that the natural is actually a reflection of the true reality in divinity? The Son is the uncreated image of God, eternally in fellowship with the Father. He does the Father's will through the creation and sustaining of the cosmos. Adam is the created image of God, called to exercise dominion over the world. Linked in image and calling, Jesus offers his own fellowship with the Father to those who believe in him! Might this be that fellowship which Adam and Eve enjoyed in Eden?

    That, and also of course, the mandate to "be fruitful and multiply" preceded the Fall, so maybe they knew something about parenthood after all!

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