Allow Biblical Theology to Shape Systematic Theology, Not Reverse

This week on the Bellator Christi Podcast, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Chad Thornhill. Dr. Thornhill is the Professor of New Testament Greek, the Chair of Theological Studies, and Associate Professor of Apologetics at Liberty University. Dr. Thornhill discussed his findings from his book A Chosen People: Paul, Election, and Second Temple Judaism as it pertained to the understanding of individuals in the Second Temple Judaist period.

In addition to his discussion pertaining to his research, one of the most important points made by Thornhill on the podcast related to biblical hermeneutics (that is, Bible interpretation). He said that he taught his students not to read information back into Scripture, seeking to prove a particular point. Rather, the student should interpret the Bible according to the information given by the author to his intended audience.[1] This technique is much more difficult as it must involve in-depth research by the Bible student. But the difficulty is worth the time invested as it presents a far more accurate interpretation.

Truthfully, adherents of all theological interpretations have been guilty of reading into a passage what the person wants to read. This is true for both Calvinists and Arminians, for Molinists and Thomists alike. In the end, biblical theology must shape a person’s systematic theology. What is meant by “biblical theology” and “systematic theology”?

Biblical theology is understood as the “study of the Bible that seeks to discover what the biblical writers, under divine guidance, believed, described, and taught in the context of their own times.”[2] In other words, biblical theology is the understanding of the biblical writer’s theology. What did he believe? What was he intending to communicate? What did he desire for his readers to know? What were the circumstances surrounding his message? To answer these questions, one must use exposition to find the answers; that is, to remain true to the writer’s intention. Using this method, a person will eventually see the big picture of the Bible, which leads to a true systematic theology. Now, what is “systematic theology”?

Systematic theology is understood as an articulation of “the biblical outlook in a current doctrinal or philosophical system.”[3] Systematic theology looks at the overall picture as it pertains to particular doctrines. Whereas biblical theology will seek to examine, for example, what John believed about Jesus in his Gospel and letters; systematic theology will show what the Bible teaches about the identity of Jesus. It is imperative that one possesses a strong biblical theology before one can hope to hold a strong systematic theology.

Often and unfortunate as it may be, biblical expositors will often elevate the systematic theology of John Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, Arminius, Wesley, and Molina over that of the biblical text. When this is done, the expositor will jump through hoops in order to twist the Scripture into his/her theological system. Expositors force passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and Romans 9 into their paradigm, while often being untrue to the nature of the text. If such a passage does not fit into one’s systematic theology, then that particular aspect of one’s systematic theology needs to be examined against the biblical text and against the overall message of the Bible itself. The great theologians such as those mentioned earlier need to be studied fervently. If perchance a person holds to a doctrine that has been rejected by the vast number of theologians throughout history, then one had better possess strong and valid reasons for accepting such a claim. Yet while Calvin, Aquinas, Wesley, Molina, and Arminius are important and extremely knowledgeable, one should take note that they are not infallible. The Scriptures are infallible. The theologians were mere mortal men trying to understand the truths of Scripture. So, we should study them with the understanding that if their teachings contradict the Scriptures, then the Scriptures should be accepted and the particular theologian’s viewpoints rejected.

Systematic theology is extremely important! My major in graduate school was in theology, particularly systematic theology, so I hold a great deal of interest in the matter. Do not misread the message of this post. I believe that systematic theology is of utmost importance. However, I do think the challenge offered by Dr. Chad Thornhill should be adhered by all students of the Bible. The Bible should shape our systematic theology, not the other way around. Such is true also for a person’s political and social beliefs. If the Bible is God’s Word (which I believe it is), then it is the final authority of truth.

© August 16, 2016. Brian Chilton. 

Sources Cited

[1]  Chad Thornhill, interviewed by Brian Chilton, Bellator Christi Podcast (August 15, 2016), podcast, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/pastorbrianchilton/2016/08/15/election-from-the-perspective-of-second-temple-judaism-w-dr-chad-thornhill.

[2] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), Logos Bible Software..

[3] Ibid.

 

The Dangerous Idea of Protestant Christianity: Temptations That Lead One to Misinterpret Scripture

Recently, I read a book by Alister McGrath titled Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. McGrath’s thesis was that Protestantism is based upon “The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves” (McGrath 2007, 2). Referring to this “dangerous idea,” McGrath writes,

“But how was the Bible to be interpreted—for example, on the contentious issue of homosexuality, a major cause of friction within Anglicanism at the moment? Despite the best efforts of the Conference, reflecting multiple tensions between religious liberals and conservatives, modern and post-modern worldviews, and the very different cultural context of the West and emerging world” (McGrath 2007, 1).

It appears that McGrath is spot-on with his assessment. In 2011, the Presbyterian USA approved a controversial change in their Book of Order. Their website states,

“A majority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 173 presbyteries have ratified an amendment to the church’s constitution that removes a provision flatly prohibiting the ordination of sexually active unmarried Presbyterians as church officers.

The 87th vote in favor of the measure ― dubbed Amendment 10-A after it was approved by the PC(USA)’s 219thGeneral Assembly last summer ― was cast today (May 10) by the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area.

The unofficial tally now stands at 87-62, with 24 presbyteries still to vote. The change takes effect July 10 ― one year from the adjournment of the 219th Assembly.

The action replaces the current G-6.0106b in The Book of Order with new language. That provision, which was placed in the constitution following the 1996 Assembly, requires of church officers “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

As a result of the vote, ordaining bodies ― local church sessions for elders and deacons and presbyteries for ministers ― will have more flexibility in determining individual candidates’ fitness for ordained office in the denomination” (Marter 2011, www.pcusa.org).

Even more recently the Presbyterian USA (PCUSA), the largest Presbyterian denominations in America took the issue a step farther. David Roach of Baptist Press reports,

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became one of the largest Christian denominations in America to endorse gay marriage when its General Assembly voted in Detroit yesterday (June 19) to allow pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.”
The authorization for pastors to perform gay weddings takes effect immediately and applies only to ministers in the 19 states where the practice is legal. The measure passed by a vote of 317 (61 percent) to 238 (39 percent) and was classified as an “Authoritative Interpretation” of the PCUSA constitution.
A commissioner at a meeting of the General Assembly’s Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee raised a point of order regarding the Authoritative Interpretation, noting that it appeared to contradict the constitution it purported to interpret, the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) reported on its website. Currently the PCUSA constitution states, “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” as well as a “covenant” between “a man and a women” for Christians. The point of order, in parliamentary rules, was “not well taken.”
Also in the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee meeting, a motion to read Scripture for 20 minutes before starting discussion of same-sex marriage was defeated 39-22, the PLC reported”
(Roach 2014, http://www.bpnews.net).

Protestantism is a wonderful, glorious gift. The gift is that all individuals have the opportunity to read and interpret the Word of God. The Word of God is meant to be read by all and translated so that all can understand its meaning. However, there are also dangers to biblical interpretation when it is abused. As mentioned in the article Biblical Exegesis vs. Eisegesis: Practicing Good Hermeneutics here on pastorbrianchilton.wordpress.com, exegesis is the practice of allowing the Bible to speak for itself. Eisegesis is the practice of making the Bible state what one desires it to say. Is it not ironic that the Bible was not allowed to be read before a vote was taken in this year’s PCUSA assembly? The following are some of the common temptations that seek to thwart one into the dangerous practice of biblical eisegesis:

bible_interpretation

Societal Temptation

When society dictates something that is contrary to the Bible’s teachings, it is tempting for one to give in to the pressure. Such was the case with the Roman persecution of Christians. It would have been easy for a Christian to accept emperor worship and avoid the wrath of the Empire. Crucifixions, hangings, beheadings, and being food for wild animals have never been appealing to anyone of right mind. However, Christians stood firm. For instance, take Stephen in the book of Acts: he could have given in to the pressure placed upon him by his persecutors. Instead, Stephen said,

 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet that your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51-53, NIV).

The Christian must ask oneself, “Who am I trying to please by my interpretation of Scripture…people or God?”

 biblical-interpretation-cloud

Sinful Temptation

If one is engaged in a particular sin, it is easy to justify it by using eisegetical practices instead of exegetical practices. Consider the slave-owners of American colonial times. McGrath states that the slave-owners use of the Bible to promote slavery “represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions on the text” (McGrath 2007, 324). In other words, the ends justify the means. The interpreters were going to force the Bible to say what they wanted it to say. Is this a healthy way of biblical interpretation?

Amaziah was at least honest in the fact that he did not want to hear a word of warning from the actual prophet Amos. In fact, he told Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of his kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13, NIV). Amos’ response will be given later. But suffice it to say, it is important that one is willing to actually hear the voice of God instead of hearing what one desires to hear.

 

Familial Temptation

If one has a family member that is engaging in a sinful practice, one may be tempted to justify that member’s actions. In the book of Acts, there is a story about two dishonest individuals named Ananias and Sapphira. They lied to God and to the congregation about the money they gave. Ananias, the husband died, for his lie. The wife, Sapphira, went along with her husband’s lie and suffered the same fate (see Acts 5). In other words, let the truth be the truth. For this is part of what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine” (Matthew 10:37, NLT). Whose love do you cherish the most? If we are honest, God is the one who is responsible for our existence…and our eternity.

 

Ecclesiastical Temptation

Often, one will use the Scripture to justify one’s church’s or denomination’s position on a certain issue. It is often humorous to read and/or hear of the theological gymnastics that hyper-Calvinists use when reading John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 and that hyper-Arminians use when reading Romans 9 and Jeremiah 1. While one should support one’s church and denomination, it may be that one finds him/herself standing in opposition to the decisions of one’s denomination. For instance, I am a Southern Baptist. However, this writer would disagree with some decisions made during the SBC conferences. Nonetheless, having a disagreement is one thing. But when one’s denomination practices or endorses practices that do not coincide with the clear teachings of Scripture, then more serious matters are at hand. One then must ask whether it is worth staying with such a group. The question must be asked: who does one serve…God or one’s church and/or denomination?

Conclusion

The main point is that Protestantism brings with it an intense responsibility. Peter Parker was told in the Spiderman comics that “With great power, comes great responsibility.” This is true of biblical interpretation. There is a great responsibility that every interpreter holds. There will always be points of difference within one’s interpretation, but one needs to ensure themselves that they allow the Holy Spirit to speak to them through the Scriptures instead of forcing one’s views onto the pages of Scripture. Amos’ conflict with Amaziah was mentioned earlier. After Amaziah asked Amos replied, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15, NIV). Will we read and hear the Word of the Lord or will we fall into the temptation of forcing our views onto the pages of Scripture? Will we be found to be more like Amos or Amaziah in our biblical interpretations?

 

Bibliography

Roach, David. “PCUSA endorses gay marriage.” Baptist Press. (June 20, 2014). http://www.bpnews.net/42832/pcusa-endorses-gay-marriage. (accessed June 23, 2014).

Marter, Jerry van. “PC(USA) relaxes constitutional prohibition of gay and lesbian ordination: change reaffirms historical practice of ordaining bodies determining fitness for office.” PCUSA.org. (May 11, 2011). http://www.pcusa.org/news/2011/5/11/pcusa-relaxes-constitutional-prohibition-gay-and-l/ (accessed June 23, 2014).

McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Scripture noted as NIV comes from the New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Scripture noted as NLT comes from the New Living Translation. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2007.

 

© Pastor Brian Chilton. 2014.

Biblical Exegesis vs. Eisegesis: Practicing Good Hermeneutics

The Bible can be made to say what the interpreter desires for it to say. For instance, a person could rightly state that the Bible says that there is no God. For instance, Psalm 14:1 states quite explicitly “there is no God.” However, when placed in its proper context, one will find that David writes, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). It is disturbing how the Bible has been used to justify one’s preconceived opinions. At times, the Bible has been used to justify cultural ideologies. For instance, southern American plantation owners during the pre-Civil War days used the Bible to justify slavery. Civil rights leaders of the 1960s used the same Bible to condemn slavery and promote equality. Who was right? More importantly, is there a way that one can know what the Bible actually says instead of what one desires for it to say? The atheist misuses Scripture as well as the ultra-fundamentalist. Again, is there a way to know what the Bible actually says?

 The good news is that one CAN accurately interpret the Word of God. This enters the realm of what is called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is defined as

“the science of the methods of *exegesis (q.v.). Whereas exegesis is usually the act of explaining a text, often in the case of sacred literature according to formally prescribed rules, hermeneutics is the science (or art) by which exegetical procedures are devised. In theology, hermeneutical theory arises out of awareness of the ambiguity of a sacred text and the consequent analysis of the act of understanding” (Cross and Livingstone 2005, 765).

A difference exists between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis means that one allows the text to speak for itself whereas eisegesis indicates that one makes the text say what they want it to say. Individuals who desire to know the actual truth of the Scripture will practice exegetical practices. In this article, seven exegetical practices will be given that this writer has learned over the course of 13+ years of ministry.

Bible in the sky
Copyright. 2014. Pastor Brian Chilton

 

1. Read the Bible in chunks instead of bits.

Greg Koukl has said on his radio show “Stand to Reason” that one should never read a Bible verse. One should always read Bible passages. This is a great piece of advice. In fact, many misapplications of Scripture have taken place when one uses only one verse of Scripture. If a Bible verse does not make sense to the reader, the reader should read the paragraph. If the paragraph does not make sense to the readers, read the paragraphs before and after the verse in question. If the text still does not make sense to the reader, then read the chapter. If it still doesn’t make sense, read the surrounding chapters. If the text still doesn’t make sense, read the book. In other words, the reader will want to scan outwards. Consider the graphic below. Start with the verse and work your way outward.

 Copyright, Pastor Brian Chilton, 2014

Pastor Brian Chilton, 2014

 

2. Seek the writer’s meaning.

Another important exegetical tactic is for the reader to seek the writer’s meaning. Before one extracts application from a text, one needs to first examine what the writer was trying to say to his intended audience. For instance: if one is examining Paul’s statement to the Corinthians where he writes that “women are to keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34), ask yourself what may have prompted such a statement from the writer. Was this universal in scope or was this directed towards a particular group of individuals? If applicable, seek out what the writer may have said in other such instances. For instance (concerning the controversial text above); note that Paul also in the same book recognizes women who pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5). When one is investigating any such passage of controversy, one needs to keep in mind who it is that wrote the passage and to whom it was that would be originally reading the text.

 

3. For controversial problems, investigate both sides of the equation.

It is also important when investigating controversial passages to seek counsel from both sides of the theological aisle. For instance, a Calvinist should not limit herself to only the writings of John Calvin. She should also investigate what John Wesley had to say on this issue. Or, if a complementarian is investigating the role of women in the church, he should not only read the works of Wayne Grudem or John Piper. He should also read the works of Gordon Fee or Stanley Grenz. This will provide the exegete understanding about how those of differing views examine the text at hand. Note: this writer has been greatly challenged by Romans 9. I have found great value through the works of John Calvin and John Wesley. Most notably, I have actually gravitated towards a Congruist understanding of divine sovereignty and human freedom by the works of Millard J. Erickson, Norman Geisler, and Thomas Aquinas.

 

4. Go back to the original words.

Understand that there is no perfect translation. The New International Version, New American Standard Bible, New Living Translation, and the great King James Version are imperfect translations. No translation is perfect. All translations include some decision-making on the part of the translator. For this reason, the expositor should learn to do word studies. One does not need to be a master of Greek and Hebrew to do word studies. A simple package from Logos software will allow one to do a good deal of investigation into the original words of Scripture. If Logos is not an option, buy a good interlinear. An interlinear is a Greek New Testament with the English equivalent underneath. A Strong’s Concordance or Mounce’s Complete Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words will do the expositor a world of good.

 reading-bible_2316_1024x805

5. Do historical research.

Don’t be afraid to do some historical research. Face the facts: the Bible is 2,000 years removed from the expositor’s timeframe. Jesus did not live in modern America. He was not of pasty white complexion nor was He of an anemic build. Jesus worked with His hands and most likely had to do some mountain-climbing in order to get across some of the areas in which He traveled. Jesus participated in the culture of the day. This means that He drank wine (Matthew 11:19) and that He participated in Hanukkah (John 10:22). Does this indicate that the Christian should participate in either of these? Do your research to find out. Nonetheless, the expositor will need to investigate the historical context of the Scripture to understand its intended meaning.

 

6. Learn that the best commentary on the Bible is…the Bible.

The best commentary of the Bible is the Bible. This means that the Bible provides answers to controversial passages when one investigates the entire message of the Bible. For example: one must keep a balanced view when dealing with the nature of God. One cannot forget that God is love (1 John 4:8), but one cannot forget that God is holy, too (Revelation 4:8). Therefore, one must learn to cross-reference when studying Scripture. A topical Bible or Thompson’s Chain Reference Bible may prove to be invaluable resources for the expositor.

 

7. Read a variety of translations.

As noted earlier, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. Translation is an interpretive process. With that in mind, it should be noted that one should read a variety of translations. Some translations come with the approval of a particular denomination. The King James Version (or Authorized Version) is an Anglican translation while the Holman Christian Standard Bible is a Southern Baptist translation. Some translations hold a more liberal slant (some would argue that such is the case with the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible). While some translations hold a more conservative slant (e.g. English Standard Version). It is important to use a wide variety of translations when one studies the Word of God. If one examines the articles on this website, one will probably note that a variety of translations are used for different articles. The New American Standard Bible is used for this particular article.

 

8. Be willing to admit when the Bible leads away from your preconceived notions.

Finally, and this is most important, to be a good expositor of the Bible, one must note the biases that the reader may hold. In such a case, when one’s worldview is contrasted with the teachings of the Word of God, accept the Scripture’s teaching over your preconceived notions. Be willing to admit that you might be wrong in how you view certain things. Holding such humility will allow God to mold the expositor by the Word instead of molding the Word into one’s ideology. Remember that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Also remember the classic words from Isaiah 55:8 where God says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). If God’s ways differ from the expositor’s, God’s ways should be chosen to be followed.

 

Conclusion

Hermeneutics is not always an easy process. But as the old adage goes, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” This is especially true when it comes to biblical interpretation. For the pastor or Sunday school teacher, there is an even greater responsibility to get the truths of God right. For as Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48). This is a responsibility that this pastor takes very seriously. While none of us will agree on every minute detail, we can and should agree on the core essential truths found in God’s Word. For I had rather be despised by humanity and loved by God for proclaiming truth, than to be despised by God and loved by humanity for promoting lies.

 

Bibliography

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible. La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

 

© 2014. Pastor Brian Chilton