Fifteen Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection

(As Selected by Paul Smith)

(Updated 4/2/2012)

1.  The number one requirement for reading and interpreting the Bible is humility.

1.a  The primary expression of this humility in theological reflection is a submission to the Scriptures as they stand written. We do not, as interpreters and theologians, stand over the text, we stand under the text.

2.  The books of the Bible, even the most difficult sections, were written for the purpose of being understood.

3.  The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.

4.  The Bible is a record of the relationship God formed with man, his creation. It is also a record of man’s failure to live within this relationship.

5.  Theology is man’s attempt to understand this relationship between God and man. The beginning of theological reflection is the careful study of the Bible.

6.  However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.

7.  While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.

8.  If you have to rely on just one single verse of Scripture, or some obscure variant reading of the original text, or an obscure definition of grammar or of a word or phrase in the original language, then  your conclusion regarding that passage of Scripture is in serious trouble.

9.  In regard to the point above, it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many  translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.

10.  Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

11.  The choice of imagery used in Scripture has as much value as the message communicated by those images. Example: the many metaphors used to describe the “people of God.” (Which is in itself a metaphor).

12.  Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.

13.  The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy!

15.  The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.

15a.  However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.

  1. You make some very good and interesting points here. Thank you for posting!

  2. Some good exegetical foundations here. I wouldn’t call them “Undeniable,” as our current method of exegesis is generally foreign in the overall history of the Church (for example, the longstanding tradition of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture). Personally, I am constantly torn between following these good principles on the one hand and on the other interpreting Scripture as modeled by the Bible itself, such as Jesus and Paul and the author of Hebrews does.

    • Hello, and thanks for the comments! As for the “Undeniable,” that was my oblique reference to Rush Limbaugh and his however many undeniable truths of life. It was just a playful (although only somewhat) tongue-in-cheek way to get people to read and consider my thoughts.

      How would you describe Jesus’ and the others’ rule of exegesis/hermeneutics? Paul clearly uses allegory in the book of Galatians, but in the long history of interpretation, allegory is perhaps the root of most of the bizarre and untenable methods of exegesis. Jesus both quoted and alluded to many passages of Scripture, but never went into an exegetical methods class – so we really cannot say with any firm degree of certainty what his exegetical principals were.

      Bottom line is *every* exegetical/hermeneutical principle is human made, and therefore human limited. I think we need to limit our self-biases as much as possible in any format that we use, so that the eternal truth of the Word will come through.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

      Paul

      • Ahhh, thanks for the clarification on the “Undeniable” bit, I guess I was just too far removed from Mr. Limbaugh to catch the reference.

        Perhaps the best example of Jesus’ exegesis is when he was talking to the Sadduccees about the resurrection (Luke 20, Mark 12), and he quotes Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” If we were to use our modern exegetical limits on Exodus 3, we would never come to the conclusion that the author’s original intent was to teach an intermediate state of existence between death and the bodily resurrection.

        I agree that allegorical interpretation has led to much bad interpretations, and that is exactly what troubles me. On the one hand, reason and experience says that we shouldn’t read allegorically, but on the other hand, Scripture and church history support allegory. I like what you say:

        Bottom line is *every* exegetical/hermeneutical principle is human made, and therefore human limited. I think we need to limit our self-biases as much as possible in any format that we use, so that the eternal truth of the Word will come through.

      • Hey, thanks for following up. I like your illustration using Jesus’ words to the Sadducees. I agree that we can see the *results* of Jesus’ exegesis, but I just wish he had said, “okay, today I am going to teach you how to interpret Scripture.”

        Regarding allegory – the passage that raises my eyebrows is the argument that Paul makes when he refers to “seed” being singular and not plural – when in English it can be either (we can speak of tomato seeds, or a bag of cotton seed). Paul really uses the allegorical form as a tour de force (ref. Hagar and Sarah!). My response to that is that Paul was guided by the Holy Spirit, and I am not – therefore, if I want to use a passage of Scripture as an allegory I must preface my conclusions very clearly, and not pass it off as some ironclad, foolproof interpretation of the passage.

        BTW, I read your last article in your series on genocide – nice thoughts. I teach in a university setting and the conquest of Canaan is a huge stumbling block to agnostics, and to not a few who identify as Christians. Have you read Paul Copan’s book “Is God A Moral Monster?” I would appreciate your take if you have done so.

        Keep up the good work!

        Paul

      • Thanks for the encouragement, Paul. I too wish the Bible had nice little headings “How to interpret Scripture”, “The Trinity explained”, “How to discern God’s will in any matter” etc. But it seems like having all the answers spelled out for us is not God’s top priority.

        I haven’t read Copan’s work yet, although I have heard of it. Quite frankly, although I do not disagree with the work of apologetics, and authors like Dawkins deserve a response from the Christian community, I generally have not been all-that impressed with apologetics in terms of doing ministry. I don’t think any argument whatsoever would ever change Dawkins’ mind. With him, as with most people, his damaged theology stems from a damaged spirit, and so it is imperative to attend to that first. After that’s taken care of, the work of apologetics is much easier.

        As far as Copan’s book in particular, after reading a quick review on Amazon (top notch research here!), it seems he blends a few of the methods I laid out in my Canaanite Genocide series, mostly a justification method and denying it actually happened. In my opinion, if it didn’t happen, then there’s no need for justification. If it did happen, then the problem is not that Israel committed genocide, but that God commanded it, hence the actual outcome (complete annihilation vs partial destruction) is irrelevant. As it is, I am afraid that Copan’s defense of God in the OT likely fails to do exactly that which is desperately needed: provide a faithful response to the New Atheists that makes intellectual and moral sense.

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