The place of theology in exegesis: reflections inspired by Kevin DeYoung

I have seen several references – all positive – on FB & Twitter to a recent blog post by Kevin DeYoung, in which he asserts that, for evangelicals, systematic theology is the result of exegesis, and then argues that theology should in turn shape exegesis. His point is a fairly standard one: all reading is shaped by our preconceptions, so allowing our theology to be involved is a good idea.

As I say, people I respect have praised the post; I find DeYoung’s account of the relation of Scripture to theology inadequate, however.

DeYoung begins:

Systematic theology looks at the whole Bible and tries to understand all that God says on a given subject (e.g., sin, heaven, angels, justification).

Exegesis is what you do when you look at a single text of Scripture and try to understand what the author–speaking in a specific culture, addressing to a specific audience, writing for a specific purpose–intended to communicate.

Good systematic theology will be anchored in good exegesis. The sum of the whole is only as true as the individual parts. No Christian should be interested in constructing a big theological system that grows out of a shallow and misinformed understanding of the smaller individual passages. I don’t know of any evangelical pastor or scholar who disagrees with these sentiments.

OK, I am an evangelical scholar, and I disagree with at least one thing DeYoung says – his opening sentence. Or rather, I don’t disagree with what it says, but it does not say so much that it is dangerously misleading.

Theology is not primarily an exercise in collating Scriptures, although good theology is certainly attentive to that. In a sense, real theology is what you do after the Scriptures have been collated. On all interesting matters, the witness of the Bible is complex – on many it can appear contradictory. God is sovereign, but human beings are free to chose as they will; Jesus is one with the Father, but says ‘the Father is greater than I’; God created all things good, but the world is broken by the power of evil; a final judgement and separation will come, but God will be all-in-all, and every knee will bow; the list could go on and on…

Theology is the task of coping with such complexity, and with the apparent contradictions. It is about the construction of conceptual schemes which enable all, not just some, of the texts to be taken seriously. The Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early centuries are deeply exegetical, in the sense that they turn on differing attempts to make sense of a (fairly quickly defined) set of apparently-contradictory texts. All the significant contributions to the arguments are essentially lists of proposed exegeses of texts, indeed. In each case, however, there is also the development of a conceptuality which will shape the exegesis, and offer exegetical possibilities that were not available before.

A couple of examples: first, Hilary of Poitiers is completely concerned with exegetical arguments in his reflections of the Trinitarian debates collected in De Trinitate; however, as he becomes more familiar with the Greek debates, he realises that certain arguments are not helpful (dropping the old Latin ‘X from X’ arguments, for instance). In Book VII, he suddenly stops, and offers careful reflection on how God is named, and what ‘birth’ means when applied to the divine. This gives him a set of concepts which allow for more adequate exegesis of texts he has already considered, which he then turns to offer.

Similarly, if we look at the Cappadocian theology that led to the Constantinopolitan settlement, it is about the development of concepts which will allow texts to be read better. This is true whether one agrees with Zizioulas that their core achievement was the development of a relational ontology, or whether one follows more recent historians of doctrine in finding accounts of how language applied to the divine to be central.

At the same time, adopted concepts limit possible exegesis. This is true of those judged by the tradition to be in error – Eunomius has a neoplatonic account of language which makes him unable to accept anything like Nicene doctrine – and by those judged to be impeccably orthodox: Athanasius and Basil both work with a two-state ontology (the only possible ways of existence are eternal, necessary, divine being, and time-bound, contingent, created being; there are no middle ranks) which rules out a whole series of possible accounts of the Father-Son relation which were being explored by their contemporaries. Because of this, theology has to be attentive, and in a sense responsible, to those conceptual possibilities that are live in a particular culture at a particular time.

So, theology is more than collating the Biblical passages; it is, in the classical tradition, mostly the task of trying to imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true. It is a creative task, requiring great efforts of imagination, as well as careful exegesis and precise logic.

(I don’t know how much of this DeYoung would disagree with – but I hear the claim that the task of theology is merely the collation of Scripture rather too often these days; if it is not one he would make, I have unfairly made him the occasion for this post, and I apologise.)


  1. Terry
    Mar 6, 2012

    DeYoung writes: Systematic theology looks at the whole Bible and tries to understand all that God says on a given subject (e.g., sin, heaven, angels, justification).

    I think you’re right to pick on the ambiguity of this statement, Steve. This looks more like totalising theology rather than systematic theology, which I regard simply as a term employed to show the relationships between different doctrines.

  2. Jason Sexton
    Mar 6, 2012

    Excellent post, Steve. On your statement that “adopted concepts limit possible exegesis,” it seems that this is precisely what is said in 1 Pet 2.1 and James 1.21 when readers are exhorted to “receive” and “long for” the word, but with a precondition that they are laying aside (ἀποθέμενοι) certain things in this pursuit. Of course, those things believers are told to cast aside are sinful attitudes and actions, but it seems like the application can be made to other things that would either totalize or hinder any honest, plain, or ordinary approach to the biblical text.

  3. Matt C.
    Mar 6, 2012

    This is great stuff Steve. Two thoughts: first, you note at the end that you’re not sure how much of this DeYoung would disagree with. From my limited knowledge/experience, I’d guess very little, partly because (in the way I see American evangelical theology) he and other solid pastors and scholars here are actually doing what you commend (“trying to imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true”). It is just not an explicit part of anyone’s definition of systematic theology.

    Which leads to my second thought: this is not part of the definition partly because for he last 20–30 years the main ST texts in US evangelical seminaries has been either Grudem or Erickson. Both texts use something close to DeYoung’s definition and their method proceeds along those lines. I’ve been mightily helped by all three of these brothers, but still agree with your general critique.

  4. Perhaps way forward here is to acknowledge that theology is interpretation just as exegesis is–both are creative processes formed and shaped by their respective traditions and which likewise form and shape one another when in dialogue. Theology is not necessarily all-encompassing and exegesis is not always selective and miniscule. Theology can be done on a narrow topic and thus on a narrow set of Scriptures while conversely exegesis can be broad, tying together a Scripture which recurs throughout the OT and NT. The dichotomy between theology and exegesis is a false one in my opinion. The entire hermeneutical task is both theological and exegetical. Whether a theologian or biblical scholar is doing this hermeneutical task well or not is another matter.

  5. Mike Higton
    Mar 6, 2012

    On a generous interpretation, might the phrase ‘tries to understand’ in that opening sentence point in exactly the direction you want?

    • Steve H
      Mar 6, 2012

      Nice picture, Mike 🙂
      It might – as I say, my concern is as much with what KDY has been taken to mean as what he might have meant…

  6. Jordan Barrett
    Mar 6, 2012

    Steve, this is very helpful and I appreciate what you say here. I’m curious, however, how you would deal with the charge: “are these imaginative concepts that bring difficult texts together actually faithful to Scripture?” In other words, how do you avoid the charge that these concepts may not be arising *from* the text but are being laid over it from the outside? I personally don’t think that’s a fair assessment of what you’re saying but I’ve often heard this question/response in both academic and ecclesial circles.

    • Steve H
      Mar 6, 2012

      Hi Jordan, thanks for coming by.
      I think we simply have to take the charge on the chin. Can I find the conceptuality that underlies Cappadocian Trinitarianism, or Chalcedonian Christology, explicitly taught in Scripture? No. Scripture does not know a careful distinction between ousia and hypostasis, or between hypostasis and phusis. Equally, can I find Jonathan Edwards’s compatibilist account of human freedom in Scripture? No. The Bible nowhere distinguishes between ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ inability, as far as I can see.
      But all these distinctions help me to think in ways which (I believe) are faithful to the whole of the Biblical revelation, and so are not to be lightly dismissed. As Evangelicals, we do not take the teachings of the church councils as supremely authoritative – if you or I could find another way of speaking of the Father-Son relation that was as, or more, adequate, we would be able to substitute it for the teaching of Nicaea and Constantinople – but we do treat them with very great respect, acknowledging that these conceptions work as a way of reading Scripture, and we need to think extremely long and hard before rejecting them as unhelpful.

  7. Marius David
    Mar 9, 2012

    Reblogged this on La patratosu and commented:
    Excelentă poziţionare în privinţa relaţiei dintre teologia biblică şi teologia dogmatică. Mulţumesc, Natan Mladin, pentru sesizare!

  8. James Alexander
    Mar 20, 2012

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Holmes.
    “Theology is more than collating the Biblical passages; it is, in the classical tradition, mostly the task of trying to imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true…the construction of conceptual schemes which enable all, not just some, of the texts to be taken seriously…the development of concepts which will allow texts to be read better…All [theological] distinctions help me to think in ways which (I believe) are faithful to the whole of the Biblical revelation…”
    I believe these comments are rather apt. In a certain way it reminds me of Webster’s definition of Dogmatic Theology as “the delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.”–particularly when he says “ordering [our] thinking.” In conversations I have had, it seems that there is a persistent uneasiness about thinking in semantic categories that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, on the basis that such an approach would be too ‘philosophical,’ (which is often construed as ‘anti-scriptural’). It is as though simply speaking in biblical terms with the occasional use of Reformed nomenclature ensures (at least) theoretical comprehension of Scripture’s message. This approach seems (to me) to put the entire discussion into the wrong light by obscuring the nature of communication, meaning, and inquiry. At times I feel as though I am told to think about Scripture without thinking about life (which is the very environment in which I come to conceive of anything!). Or I hear that we ought to form “biblical presuppositions,” and yet the process for forming those presuppositions is not clearly explained and maintains an air of almost pseudo-mysticism. I agree that systematics should be shaped by God’s communicative act of revelation, and in this way it should serve as the context for the sanctification of our reasoning. But this would mean that Christian thinking should not be less than philosophy (i.e., it should neither disregard nor condemn man’s rational faculty), rather it should be more than philosophy–or maybe it would be better to say, Christianity should form “wiser lovers of wisdom” by incorporating an understanding of the condition and potential of human reason described in Scripture.

    If I happen to betray any misunderstanding of your post, please correct me.

    I also had a question about the comment, “In a sense, real theology is what you do after the Scriptures have been collated.” In what sense would you say it happens after? Could it also be said that “real exegesis is what you do after systematics,” since systematics is the discipline that makes us more perceptive/accurate/attentive hearers of God’s Word?

    Thank you for your time brother.

    -James Garcia

    • Steve H
      Mar 20, 2012

      Hi James, thanks for stopping by.
      Yes – DeYoung’s point was that exegesis depends in part on good theology, and it is one I agree with. We read better with well-developed conceptualities that are faithful to the text. As always in these discussions, we end up with a hermeneutical spiral…

  9. Sean McGever
    Mar 20, 2012

    I thought I’d add to Matt C.’s comments above. I was a student of Grudem at Phoenix Seminary. He is a wonderful man with a true heart for Christ and His kingdom. I also think he is incredibly helpful in many areas of his writing.

    I also feel that through his ST I was exposed to a lot of what KDY says in his opening line. In fact it almost sounds like Grudem’s opening line from ST or my first ST theology class with Grudem. At times the process was almost entirely focused on simply the organization of scripture texts under various topics. In my subsequent training I have found much more in the history of ideas as an important discipline of ST, as well as much more that I am learning.

    At its worst ST can become a “proof text” debacle devoid of nearly any of the benefits of careful, or even simple, exegesis, and completely lacking a philosophy of hermeneutics.


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