The Bible and Theology

By Sean M. McDonough, Ph.D.

A few years ago, I had to file a special tax form for self-employed workers. When it came time to list my occupation, I searched in vain for "New Testament Professor" or "Biblical Studies Professor." The only one that was remotely close was "Theologian," so I dutifully put it down. But the IRS may be the only ones who consider a New Testament scholar a theologian. In the world of theological education, there is often a yawning divide between biblical studies and theology. Tertullian framed the tension between philosophy and religion by asking, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" We might ask ourselves, "What has the Bible to do with theology?"

There are certainly reasons to distinguish the two. Biblical studies typically addresses historical or grammatical issues and is governed by the verb “was.” What was Paul thinking when he wrote of baptism for the dead? What was James referring to when he talked about the “law of liberty?” Why was John on the island of Patmos?

Theology, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with the question of what is the case about X, and thus typically operates with the verb “is.” What is sin? What is righteousness? What is the proper use, if any, of genetic engineering? Even the most ardent post-modernist can’t escape this fundamental task of theology—note the operative verb in the sentence “There is no metanarrative.”

To put it another way: While it is not a particularly good idea to generalize, we might say that biblical studies focuses on particulars, and theology on generalities.

There are stylistic differences between the two as well. The field of biblical studies tends to be more prosaic; theology more poetic. The data-crunching propensities of biblical commentary put a bit of a damper on artistic expression; the exegete (someone who studies the biblical text at the technical level) can wax only so lyrical. Theologians have the luxury of polishing lovely little gems of insight. Let us say, for example, that an exegete and a theologian are discussing the healings of Jesus. Whereas the exegete must dutifully slog his way through healings in the Old Testament, and sort through the various quacks and butchers littering the Greco-Roman medical world, a theologian like Jürgen Moltmann can cut to the heart of the matter: “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly ‘natural’ thing in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.”

This is not to unduly exalt theological discourse. Bad prose is bad, but bad poetry is awful… and the same holds true for Bible and theology. Unless an exegete is a complete hack, she is at least going to grind out some useful bits of information which others can use to their advantage. But poor theologians impoverish everyone they touch. They are chatterers, obfuscators, stealing sense with the sleight of hand of half-understood jargon and monstrously contorted sentences. We may borrow an analogy from music: a good theologian is Izhtak Perlman playing Beethoven; a bad one is a six-year-old scratching and squeaking his way through “Three Blind Mice.”

But this is at best half the story. Moltmann was only able to find the perfect words to capture Jesus’ healing ministry because he is a patient reader of Scripture himself. The 20th century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, began his career as a New Testament scholar. (We leave aside whether the previous sentence might read, “Despite having started as a New Testament scholar, Barth was the 20th century’s greatest theologian;” or the undoubtedly more accurate, “Because he started as a New Testament scholar, Barth was the 20th century’s greatest theologian”). And an exegete with no theological sense at all will at best be a kind of fleshy database with no real insight to share. (One thinks of Dylan Thomas remembering his childhood Christmas presents, which included “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”)

How, then, do the two relate? One familiar model puts them in a strict sequential order. First, biblical studies folks carefully unpack the relevant data of a given text, which data are then handed over to the theologians for analysis. This relationship can be parsed to favor one side or the other. One might view the biblical scholars as farmers who cultivate what is essential to life—meat, grains, fruits, vegetables—while the theologians are chefs who make it taste a bit better or prettify it on the plate. By contrast, one could envision exegetical miners laboring blindly underground, hauling up raw materials which only become useful after theological processing and manufacturing. The dull, lumpy iron of exegesis is refined into the sleek steel of theology.

But such a sequential model simply won’t do. Theological insight is needed long before the biblical scholar even approaches a text. What sort of approach is she to take? What does she think about the authority of the text? Why is she even interested in a document thousands of years old? The answers to these questions do not emerge ex nihilo (out of nothing). They are the product of personal and communal theological reflection. (Or at least they ought to be: often enough exegetes do blunder into texts all unawares, and unthinkingly read their own opinions onto the Scriptures.)

Theology is equally in play while reading the text. Consider John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It is, of course, crucial to note, in good exegetical fashion, that John depends on Genesis 1 here, and equally crucial to note that the word logos shows up precisely 40 times in John’s gospel as a whole (lest we imagine that we need to wander the ancient philosophical terrain in search of the meaning of logos, rather than looking in the rest of the gospel itself). But if that is all we can talk about, can we really claim to have heard John 1:1? If we can give no account of how it is that the Word can be with God, and at the same time be God, are we offering anything of real value? In this case, at least, a theologically informed reading of the text is the only reading that can do it anything like justice.

Theology, then, is essential both before reading a biblical text, and while reading a biblical text. Its value in actually doing something in response to the text is even more evident. Most contemporary evangelical women don’t wear head coverings, even though Paul told the women in Corinth to do so. What is the rationale for taking “Do not murder” literally, and Paul’s exhortations about head coverings in some other way? The text itself does not give us an answer to this question, nor can it ever do so. Theological work is necessary if we are to bridge the gap from then to now.

If exegetes need theology, however, it is equally true that theologians need exegesis. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), and this is as true for theologians as it is of anyone else. God spoke in the beginning, and his speech remains prior to ours in every respect. While the primal hearing of God’s message is different from the detailed textual analysis that characterizes biblical studies, theologians must always be willing to submit their theories to the scrutinizing light of Scripture.

We may use an analogy from the workplace. Theologians—and I am thinking broadly here of dogmaticians, homiliticians and practical theologians of all stripes—manufacture all sorts of useful “thought gadgets” to assist people in reasoning out their Christian faith. But these gadgets all need product testing, which is (one place) where biblical studies comes in. It must be difficult for automobile designers to watch their prototypes bounced and scratched and smashed to test their roadworthiness; but it has to be done. In the same way, even the most treasured theological formulations must be thoroughly poked and prodded by Scripture to ensure they meet God’s exacting standards.

Of course, if we want an image for a relationship that is as intimate, interdependent, and, indeed, symbiotic as that of Bible and theology, we can do no better than that of marriage. Our common goal as exegetes and theologians is to hear and obey God’s Word. God has uniquely gifted each discipline to contribute to this common goal. It is something like the commission given to Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Not, of course, that we subdue the Word itself. We are meant rather to be subdued by the Word. But it takes tremendous work to manage our understanding of the Word, and the two disciplines must work hand in hand to that end.

Now, the course of true love never did run smooth, and we ought not to imagine that the marriage of Bible and theology will be an endless dewy-eyed love affair: “I fixed that exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 you’d been worried about, dear!” “Thanks so much! I just baked up a fresh batch of that realized eschatology you love so much!” Would that things worked that way! In reality, the relationship will undoubtedly encounter the same clashing of ideas, “spirited discussions” and occasional mutual incomprehension that characterize even the best marriages. But with patient endurance, we will find it to be a fruitful union, one that enables God’s people to hear his voice more clearly.

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