colorful toothed wheels

Order of Operations in Exegesis and Theology

This post is my upgrade/response to a diagram I saw presented online. There is a Baptist biblical studies scholar online that has great content if you are starting out in Biblical languages, etc.. . I really appreciate his videos and would not hesitate to recommend him. I was watching a video today and he presented this turquoise pyramid (Figure 1 below) as a representation for the relationship between various stages in “theologies.” The idea is that we move from bottom to top. Everything starts with exegesis of individual pericopes or what have you. We build a Biblical theology, and so on. The lower practices ground, drive, and feed into the higher ones.

I’ve created an alternative diagram (Fig 2 below) that I think better reflects what goes on even when we try to avoid it. I won’t say that we can’t break out of this pattern. I think people do. However I believe the image below is the more natural process. While the above scholar presents everything as beginning with exegesis and grounded in it, I suspect none of us actually approaches things like that. There is much more affecting our work at every layer. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to truth about these matters; I think we can. (I suspect the creator of the diagram on the left would respond that he was creating a chart of the ideal order of things; something prescriptive, whereas my diagram is descriptive. Fair enough). Note: I haven’t included the work of God’s spirit on our lives in this process.

  1. We still move from bottom to top. Think in terms of foreground and background.
  2. We begin our theological journeys with discipleship, cultural upbringing, etc. These can stay with us much longer than we realize.
  3. We DO try to move in the order (bottom to top) through the bold colored boxes (exegesis –> biblical theology –> Systematic Theology –> Practical theology). However, no one doing this level of work comes to this process clean and clear. I believe the scholar who created the above diagram would probably agree. We already have all sorts (years worth ) of commitments that are theological, historic, systematic and so on.
  4. We are (with deft rapidity) processing a bevy of these ideas in the backs of our mind while we try to do theology or whatever level we are on. When we think about what something means exegetically, we have to think about this in relation to a host of other questions (some of them historic – eg. the ancient near eastern view of heavens and earth can easily affect what we think a passage “means.” If we are trinitarians, it is unlikely we will read a passage on Jesus baptism and conclude that the Father, Son, and Spirit are separate beings because they are portrayed as such in this passage. Our minds are already trying to accommodate the passage to our theology. This is what healthy minds do. They attempt to make order and find coherence.
  5. A long the way all of the four major processes (and the background commitments that affect them) are themselves affected by a set of deeper currents. We are drawn by our desires and loves; drawn to certain ways of viewing the world. This is why Proverbs warns us to guard our heart. We have philosophical assumptions affecting everything we do. We are influenced by our relationships with colleagues, friends, spouses, parents and so on. Change these wider background factors and there is a good chance you can affect some of the foreground activities.

I do not think we are locked into this pattern. The purpose of this pattern above is not to suggest that we can’t do a purer exegesis which then builds into a purer Biblical theology and so on upward. Its just suggesting that it is hard. The works that guide us exegetically can be seen bending exegesis by weighing certain considerations; considerations likely affected by theological commitments, philosophical assumptions, historical beliefs and so on.

It is possible that the original turquoise triangle represents a sort of part-whole ontological relationship where Biblical theology is made up of passages that need exegeting. Systematic theology is made up of Biblical theology (and other factors). There is a sort of organic relationship here. However ,in terms of practice I think the lower blue diagram is more consistent with what we do.

The fact that we recognize this to be the case, is an important step we can take in working with this more complex process in our pursuit of truth. After all, if we can’t know truth, we can’t know anything like the above is true.

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