Theology or Scripture: Why Must We Choose?
“All I need is the Bible. Theology hinders interpretation.” This is unfortunately the mindset of many who approach the interpretation of Scripture. In modern scholarship, entirely too much focus has been given to a historical-critical reading of Scripture in the academy , effectively divorcing theology from Scripture. Of a similar mindset, pastors and laymen have taken a somewhat different approach. They have prevented the Church tradition from providing a theological framework for interpreting Scripture. Consequently, this has resulted in the misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture in many congregations. In effect, both sides have prevented theology from playing a role in interpreting Scripture, as if we must choose between the two.
But is this what the Protestant reformers had in mind when they cried sola scriptura, meaning “by Scripture alone”? Were they challenging us to choose between theology and Scripture? Sure, sola scriptura affirms the Bible as the Church’s sole authority of its doctrine, faith, and practice. But was it meant to eradicate any theological presuppositions we might have concerning the text?
If this is the case, then how do we interpret Scripture? Must we choose between theology and Scripture? Or are both not necessary for articulating and clarifying the Gospel’s essence? In order to answer these questions, both the natures of theology and exegesis need to be defined. This will help us understand the complementary roles of both disciplines and the necessity of both in order for the Church to serve her confessional purpose.
What Is Theology?
So what is theology? Theology is dialogical, meaning that theology is both objective and personal in nature. At its core, theology is God’s discourse concerning Himself. It finds neither its alpha, nor its omega, within the context of the human mind. Rather, theology is solely an act of grace brought to us by the Incarnate Word and becomes efficacious once the Holy Spirit applies it (Jn. 15:26). Our talk of God then is only defined by God’s talk of Himself. This makes sense since God is faith’s sole and intended Author. Theology therefore orients, defines, and even articulates the parameters of our theological talk. Peter Anders concurs:
In grace, God accommodates his Theology to our capacity to receive it. Thus, our theology is not founded on our freedom and capacity to know God, but on God’s freedom and capacity to make himself known to us. God’s Theology always precedes our theology (emphasis his) .
Still, theology’s objective orientation does not disregard its personal dynamic either. Whereas God’s Word comes to us through the cross of Christ as revealed in Scripture, our word to God is to appropriate it, both in thought and deed. “For this reason,” says Anders, “our theology should always be understood as response” that is, the response of faith seeking understanding . Faith seeking understanding does not merely refer to the cognitive, but also to the participatory. Kevin Vanhoozer describes theology’s dialogical nature as theatrical or dramatic.
Though we are recipients of instruction from God the Director (revelation via Scripture), we are also actors who perform the Holy Script. “When we speak of God on the basis of Scripture, we are not merely processing information about God; we are engaging God himself in communicative action,” states Vanhoozer. He continues, “Scripture summons the church to be God’s covenant partner; Scripture communicates a share in the triune life” . Therefore, theology is not only “speech about God,” it is also “action before God” .
As participants, we are quickly conformed, shaped, and transformed by the objective, yet personal, nature of God’s discourse. Though theology is a theology about God, it is nevertheless a theology for us. Thus the Spirit administers the cross’s effects to our lives. He restores God’s image in humanity as He creates a relationship with His covenant people by becoming the “Holy One in [our] midst” (Hos. 11:9). By this we come to know the full extent of our depravity and God’s gracious acts of redemption as revealed in Christ for us. Only within this framework is theology proper revealed, discussed, and even understood. For it is within the relationship that God Himself has established and defined that this dialogue exists. Theology is therefore holy communion with the Living God.
What Is Exegesis?
God not only appropriates theology’s nature, He appropriates its means too. “Christians must neither think God apart from Scripture nor Scripture apart from God,” writes Vanhoozer . Sola Scriptura is the means by which God’s self-revealing truth is proclaimed, namely, the Gospel of Christ. It enables our dialogue with God.
This makes the exegetical task of critical importance. What is exegesis? “Exegesis is the attempt to hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” states John Webster, “without it, theology cannot even begin to discharge its office” . Thus, careful exegesis is required because it rightfully attests God’s speech and acts to us, and is the means through which He reveals Himself to and for man. Through Holy Scripture, God establishes His authority and as such, exegesis humbly recognizes and submits to its authority.
Exegesis then is Scripture’s servant. Its God-ordained task is to explain Scripture’s revelation to the Church in its historical, cultural, and grammatical contexts. This is why every verb should be parsed and every word should be lexically studied. But it does not stop there: understanding the meaning “behind the text” is only one aspect of the exegetical process. Still, there is more.
Understanding the Bible in its canonical context is just as critical. Reading the Bible as a whole adds to and goes beyond the grammatical-historical method in an individual author’s writing. This requires us to understand Paul in light of James, to interpret the Gospels in light of Israel’s exiled state, or to read Psalms in light of New Testament christology. In other words, we must understand how the many voices of Scripture express themselves in the one voice of God. Exegesis therefore scrutinizes the Holy Text in order to validate those claims as a faithful witness to God’s revelation.
Why You Can’t Have One Without the Other
It now remains the Church’s responsibility to become subservient to the doctrines unearthed in the exegetical process and to make it her confession. However, the nature of such doctrine now has an objective reality found only in God that aids the reading of the text. Thus, Webster states that though dogmatics is “strictly subordinate to the exegetical task,” it has the “aim of informing, guiding and correcting the Church’s reading. Dogmatics attempts a ‘reading’ of the gospel which in its turn assists the Church’s reading” (emphasis mine) .
If this is true, then all of us, in some way, read the Bible theologically. No newly converted Christian reads the Bible without first having some presuppositions about God and Scripture. The priority of evangelism validates this. Without any presuppositions about God, reading Scripture is vanity, and possibly even dangerous . “Theology, then, is essential both before reading a biblical text, and while reading a biblical text,” states Sean McDonough . Without theology, exegesis is a barren wasteland; but without exegesis, theology roams free from its leash .
John’s Prologue: A Case Study
Perhaps John’s Gospel can illustrate the point. In his prologue, John gives Jesus the title of “the Logos,” meaning “the Word.” This term is crucial to John’s argument here. The Logos was both with God and was God in the beginning (1:1-2). In fact, creation was made through the Logos (1:3). Most profoundly, the Logos became flesh or human (1:14).
Allusions to creation are prominent as well. The evangelist’s play on words is clear: Whereas Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created,” John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word.” John further uses light and darkness imagery, which also alludes to the creation account. Couple this with the Word’s role in creation as stated in 1:3 and the canonical context is undeniable.
In this passage, John makes important theological statements about Jesus’ nature. But what do these statements mean? What does it mean for Jesus to be “in the beginning”? How can Jesus both be God and flesh? How can Jesus both be eternal and created? If Jesus is God (1:1), how do we understand His relationship to the Father? Exegesis, while providing insight, does not necessarily answer these questions. Rather, theology answers these questions upon an informed reading of the text. It provides a Trinitarian framework for interpreting John’s prologue. Thus, the objectivity of this dogma now serves to further the future reading of this passage.
So we come full circle to the question posed at the beginning of this discussion: Theology or Scripture? Why must we choose? Well, we shouldn’t. You cannot have one without the other. Neither theology, nor exegesis functions within a vacuum. Both are tools needed to interpret Scripture rightly. Our task is to understand the intrinsic relationship that both have to each other. For “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). But as Christians, we must remember that “the Word” is not understood apart from God’s “Holy Word.” And God’s “Holy Word” does not exist without “the Word” that was in the beginning.
 By historical-critical reading, I mean that scholars have been so concerned with the world of the Bible, that they have disregarded the concerns of the contemporary church when interpreting Scripture. By doing this, they have crippled the Bible’s ability to speak into the lives of Christians today thus making it useless.
 Peter Anders, “What is Theology?” Contact Magazine (Spring 2011): 9.
 Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 67.
 Ibid, 58-59
 Ibid, 63.
 John Webster, Holiness, 3.
 Webster, 3-4.
 This does not mean that our presuppositions are always a good thing. History has shown that presuppositions can cause damage to the exegetical process. However, we must recognize that having no presuppositions at all is not a good thing either. Besides, to eliminate all presuppositions would be impossible.
 Sean McDonough, “The Bible & Theology,” Contact Magazine (Spring 2011): 17.
 We must not assume that the relationship between theology and exegesis as a sequential one. Usually this type of sequence gives exegesis first priority over theology. But as can be clearly seen, this simply will not do. We must not think of sola scriptura as giving priority to exegesis over, or even against, theology. Rather, we must view both as giving due diligence to sola scriptura. In other words, both theology and exegesis receive their authority from Scripture.