The Use of Scripture in Theology

In The Nick of TimeAll good theology is based upon exegesis. It grows out of the careful handling of Scripture. Doctrinal propositions are merely human opinions until they are grounded firmly in the text of the Bible.

Most Christian theologians recognize the importance of Scripture for theology, and most aim to be biblical. Yet they disagree with each other frequently, sometimes about important questions. If all agree that good theology grows from the Scriptures, then how can they disagree so conspicuously?

One explanation is human finiteness. Each theologian approaches the text of Scripture with certain prejudices already in place. Given the smallness of human understanding (not to mention the influence of human depravity), each has a tendency to read the Scriptures so as to justify these preconceptions.

Some (Roman Catholics, for example) have suggested that the only way to avoid this problem is to have some official, divinely sanctioned interpretation of the Scriptures. Even if such an interpretation were available, however, it would not remove the problem. The interpretation itself would have to be interpreted by the theologian, who would have to perform that task with all of the deficiencies that already affect the interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, each interpretation would require its own divinely sanctioned interpretation, ad infinitum. At the end of the day, Scripture and the whole history of interpretation would have to be taken to mean whatever the last official interpretation says it means—until the next official interpretation comes along.

The only way to guard against the influence of pre-understanding and prejudice is through the right use of method. As theologians have become more aware of the influence of prejudice, they have also begun to emphasize the importance of sound theological method. Discussions of theological method must cover several topics, but one of the most important is the correct use of Scripture. Poor uses of Scripture lead to a deficient theological method, which in turn results in bad theology.

One bad use of Scripture is to overweight it with other sources. Whether they admit it or not, all theologians draw upon sources other than Scripture. They have to because theology is always more than the bare repetition of the text. Tradition, reason, and experience are among the most common sources that theologians use. These sources, however, function differently in a sound theology than Scripture does. If they are set alongside the Bible as parallel authorities, they often de facto overwhelm the authority of the text and lead to flawed conclusions. Good theologians must become aware of the extra-biblical sources upon which they are drawing, and they must chasten those sources and keep them in their proper place.

A second faulty use of Scripture is to insert theological ideas into the silences of the text. Simply because a statement is not contradicted by Scripture does not mean that it is true. Even if it is true, that does not mean that it should be taught as doctrine. For instance, the assertion, “Some dogs have fleas,” is true, but no theologian has the right to teach this fact as a Christian doctrine. Sound theology must grow from the declarations and implications of the text. Christians only have the right to teach doctrines that are taught by the Bible itself. At best, assertions that cannot be supported by the positive statements of Scripture are doctrinally trivial.

A third defective use of Scripture is to argue from possibility rather than probability. This mistake is rather common among beginning students of theology. Asked to support a theological assertion, they reply that such-and-such a text could be taken to support it. A theology based upon mere possibilities, however, will almost never lead to correct doctrine. By stringing together possible interpretations of Scripture, one could arrive at almost any conclusion. In fact, some seminary students make a game of doing exactly that. The only correct way to support a theological assertion is with a probable interpretation of Scripture—the more probable, the better.

A fourth deficient use of Scripture is called proof-texting. Proof-texting occurs when someone assumes that the mere listing of verses or even references is sufficient to establish the truth of a theological proposal. Some people even assume that the longer the list, the more certain the doctrine must be. Listing Bible verses has little to do with the truth of the doctrines that they are supposed to support, however. The business of theology is not merely to cite passages from Scripture, but also to demonstrate how they are relevant. Certain questions must be answered before the citations can be taken as genuine evidence. Do the verses really address the question that the theologian is trying to answer? If so, do they say what the theologian claims? Do they actually support the proposal, do they undermine it, or do they leave it untouched? Theologians who are not willing to answer such questions have no right to claim a hearing for their ideas.

A fifth harmful use of Scripture could be called highjacking the text. Theologians highjack the text when they make a biblical passage answer a question that it does not intend to address. The result of highjacking is that the text is forced to travel places that its author (and Author) never meant it to. Sometimes the text may be highjacked naïvely, for example, when a theologian is misled by superficial verbal or conceptual similarities. Other times it is done mendaciously: the theologian simply does not care whether the text is being abused. In any case, forcing Scripture to answer the wrong questions is a certain way to get the wrong answers.

Of course, the above catalog of methodological errors is far from complete. A longer discussion would list more errors, and it would illustrate each error with an example or two from some recent theological pronouncement. Such illustrations are unfortunately easy to find. For the moment, however, the purpose of this essay is to raise a word of caution: not every theologian who uses the Bible is using it well.

So far, this discussion has been about how not to use the Bible in theology. Now the conversation needs to address the problem of how the Bible should be brought to bear upon theological propositions. How does the theologian turn biblical data into theological conclusions? The next essay will address that question.

The Passion and Exaltation of Christ

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

Thus saith the Ruler of the Skies,
Awake my dreadful Sword;
Awake my Wrath, and smite the Man
My fellow
, saith the Lord.

Vengeance receiv’d the dread command,
And armed down she flies,
Jesus submits to his Father’s hand,
And bows his head and dies.

But oh! the Wisdom and the Grace
That join with Vengeance now!
He dies to save our Guilty Race,
And yet he rises too.

A Person so divine was he
Who yielded to be slain,
That he could give his Soul away,
And take his Life again.

Live, glorious Lord, and reign on high,
Let every Nation sing,
And Angels sound with endless joy
The Saviour and the King.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
797 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.