A theological system ought to be the product of exegetical study of Scripture, not a preface to exegetical work. Hermeneutical principles are first observed in the Scriptures themselves, even in a cursory and casual reading. Those principles are then applied in actual study of the text in the exegetical process.
This important order of principles and process is one reason that it is a bit of a misnomer to refer to a “dispensational hermeneutic.” Dispensational thinkers claim that they (are at least attempting to) consistently apply a literal grammatical historical hermeneutic to the biblical text. In that hermeneutic approach, dispensational conclusions are just that—conclusions. If we claim to hold to a dispensational hermeneutic, then on the one hand we are asserting our lack of bias in consistently applying an objective hermeneutic, while on the other we are showing our bias by claiming a dispensational presupposition. One can’t have it both ways. Dispensationalists have struggled with this to some degree. Reformed theologians, on the other hand, have virtually dismissed this issue altogether, readily admitting that theology drives their hermeneutic.
For example, Kevin DeYoung suggests that our theological system should not only inform our exegesis, but that our theological system should tell us how to exegete. DeYoung’s definition of exegesis is a good one that both Reformed and Dispensational interlocutors would accept:
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.
But how would one’s systematic theology effect one’s exegesis?
Part of the problem is in affirming a historical distinction between biblical scholarship and theology. I reject the independence of those two disciplines and affirm the dependence of one on the other. If one is not strong in the Scriptures, that one is not well equipped for making theological claims. Theological aptitude does not make for better exegesis, but it does make for better applications (which should follow strong exegesis).
I would go so far as to assert that not only should exegesis inform systematic theology, it should be the absolute governing principle in deriving systematic theology. L.S. Chafer once defined systematic theology as “the collecting, systematically arranging, comparing, exhibiting, and defending all facts concerning god and his works from any and every source.” That definition is in my humble estimation, far too broad. In Chafer’s (otherwise solid) approach, systematic theology is being derived from extra-biblical sources as well as biblical, and thus one cannot ultimately be certain that they have understood the data correctly—or even identified the data properly. If systematic theology is derived exclusively from Scripture, on the other hand, then the level of certainty regarding conclusions increases dramatically.
DeYoung suggests that “systematic theology looks at the whole Bible and tries to understand all that God says on a given subject …” While DeYoung’s definition here is stronger than Chafer’s (as DeYoung’s implies the Bible is the sole source of data), DeYoung’s application seems to contradict the initial definition, when he says that,
As a Christian I hope that my theology is open to correction, but as a minister I have to start somewhere. We all do. For me that means starting with Reformed theology and my confessional tradition and sticking with that unless I have really good reason not to.
DeYoung begins with Reformed Theology and the confessional tradition, and reads the Bible through that lens. That is, in effect, reading extra-biblical systematized theology into the text. The danger is twofold:
- If the systematic theology is not exclusively and comprehensively biblical (even the most conservative Reformed theologians would admit that there is some reading between the lines in Reformed doctrines and confessions), then extra-biblical data is read into the Bible;
- Reading broad contexts into more narrow ones can inhibit understanding of authorial intent. Certainly, we need to consider theological context in understanding a passage, but that theological context is drawn from the text itself, and in consideration of near biblical context first.
Allowing a theological system to help determine exegesis is not exegesis at all—it is eisegesis (at least insofar as the theology impacts the reading). By definition, exegesis is drawing out the meaning of the text, while eisegesis reads meaning into the text.
DeYoung asserts that we must have a systematic theology in order to understand specific contexts, suggesting that we cannot properly exegete the text without a pre-formed theological system. He asks rhetorically,
Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel or the sacramental language in John 6 or the psalmist’s insistence that he is righteous and blameless?
This is eisegesis. To read a theology or a tradition into a passage is not an appropriate way to understand authorial intent in the narrow context. The broader context (of a book, for example) is made up of smaller units of context (pericopes, etc.). One must understand what the smaller units are saying in order to correctly assess the broader units. Once the smaller units have been assessed, we can make assessments of the broader. This reflects the interplay of narrow and broad textual contexts – but that is very different from reading a theological system (which in DeYoung’s case is Reformed and confessional) into the text.
Rather than begin with any tradition or theology, why not simply read the passages, assess them in light of normal hermeneutic principles (literal grammatical historical), and allow the passages to speak for themselves? Why not then simply apply the narrow context to the broader context?
Reformed theology cannot do this in some cases, because the theological results would contradict the system. This is illustrated vividly in DeYoung’s handling of the 144,000 in Revelation 7. DeYoung asserts that these are stylized and allegorical references that cannot logically refer to an actual number of ethnically Jewish people. If these references were to be understood literally, then there would have to be an admission of a future physical and spiritual restoration of ethnic Israel – an insurmountable obstacle in Covenant/Reformed eschatology. Likewise, if the eschatology of Ezekiel is taken at face value and interpreted in a straightforward manner, then the interpreter is faced with the same conundrum: there is a future in God’s covenant plan for ethnic Israel in the land which He promised to the nation. These cases illustrate how imperative it is for Covenant/Reformed theology to read its system into the text, for without doing so, the system is rendered incoherent by the exegetical data.
The bottom line is a simple one: we either submit to authorial intent regardless of the theological outcomes (recognizing that theology is an outcome, not a starting place), or we pursue an affirmation of a predetermined theological system with which we can be content. One is submissive to the Writer, the other is not. At times, both Reformed and Dispensational thinkers have found themselves in various places between these two points. The challenge for both groups is to be consistent in their pursuit of submission to the divine Author.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.