The primary focus of our theological training

I am a firm believer in solid biblical and systematic theology. I think both are helpful to us when it comes to understanding the Bible. But I am concerned that we sometimes allow the tail to wag the dog when it comes to our interpretation.

If we have a strong system, it can be very tempting to superimpose our theological framework onto the scripture and then try to drive every text through that lens. The system can’t be wrong, we assume. Our interpretation of the system can’t be wrong either. So every text must be made to fit the framework. It is this thinking that drives us to effectively see biblical and systematic theology as the master of the text. We view the frame as the key that unlocks the text.

But we need to start with the more basic question of what the text says before we can assume our framework. If our framework is correct, it is correct because it best accounts for the data. Our framework is supposed to be a broad-brush view, our system is supposed to systematise, what the text actually says. If we are continually reaching for our framework and system before we ask what the text says, we are putting the cart before the theological horse. As others have put it, we are making our framework a procrustean bed that allows us to expand or lop off the text according to the framework rather than making sure our framework accounts for the text.

Now, some might argue that a strong framework – if, indeed, we have clearly worked it from the text rather than just assumed it for some other reason – might well give us some guidelines that limit what any given text could possibly mean, helping us with our interpretation. Whilst that is true, done rightly, that is just another way of saying we allow scripture to interpret scripture. If our framework is correct – that is, it is drawn from scripture and clearly accounts for what is in the text as a whole – the lines it draws will be those that scripture clearly draws itself and we are simply using what is clear to interpret what is less clear.

This point seems so basic that it almost seems pointless saying it. But I raise it because of the recent suggestions I made regarding theological education. In that article, I went strongly down a line of focusing on tools not knowledge.

It is my view that theological education should principally be teaching how to understand scripture rather than what to think about it. For this reason, as I have elsewhere argued, we should principally focus our training on hermeneutics. As I previously said:

I think our training ought to centre on our hermeneutics. This is the primary tool by which we come to understand what the scriptures are saying and how we assess what a passage means. From our hermeneutics will flow our biblical theology on which our systematic theology builds. We teach and apply the scriptures according to the hermeneutic principles we employ. If we teach hermeneutics rightly, it doesn’t matter if somebody hasn’t yet come to a conclusion on supra- or infra- lapsarianism yet or quite what view of the millennium they take because we will be giving people the skills to work those things out when their seminary days are long behind them and they are encountering questions in the church they simply hadn’t thought to consider before.

Our principal tool in Biblical interpretation is neither our biblical nor systematic theology (helpful as those things are). Our principal tools are our exegesis and hermeneutics. From these textual tools flow our biblical and systematic theology. Our theological framework should be an extension of our understanding of the text rather than the means by which we determine exactly what the text says.

It is my strong belief that our theological education should focus on tools. Specifically the tools that we couldn’t easily learn on our own. Knowledge derived from reading widely can be grasped as long as we are able to read. But there are tools that are less likely to be learnt without help. What are the key tools we will use to understand the Bible and that will aid our teaching of it to others? Exegesis and hermeneutics. From these – from our heads buried in the text – flow our theological framework, our doctrine and their real world implications.

My two penn’orth, for what it is worth, is that this is where our training focus should principally lie.