On Reading Without Theology

My friend Sam Bostock asked some
questions about a quote I posted from Carl Trueman’s book John Owen:
Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man
here
which I took to be a warning of the dangers of Biblicism, the belief that the
Bible is given most authority when it’s read with little or no reference to
either systematic theology or church history. I thought this was a good
opportunity to explore some issues I’ve been pondering for a while on the
question of theological method. Does saying that we need systematic
theology or church history to understand the Bible mean that we effectively
deny Sola Scriptura and thus remove Scripture from its place of supreme
authority? Are we saying that the Bible is neither sufficient nor clear? 

I wonder, though, if
this doesn’t misstate the relationship between systematic theology and the
Scriptures, as if systematic theology is something we do in addition to reading
the text, imposing something foreign to the text that is not inherent in it.
Instead, I would argue that systematic theology, that is understanding the
whole Bible’s teaching on a particular topic, is embedded in the very process
of reading itself. Take the most basic term of Christian theology, ‘God’. When
Genesis begins with ‘In the beginning God created…’ I must have some working
definition of God in order to correctly understand what the text is saying. But
the word God is a contested term, there are numerous definitions of that word,
which one is the Biblical authors? Or how do I understand what the writer of 1
Samuel 15 means when he says is unable to regret things and then a few verses
later states that he regrets making Saul king? While I may suspend judgement
for a while, eventually, when I come to teach the meaning of the verse I will
have, implicit or explicit, a definition of God in my mind. My point is this:
systematic considerations are unavoidable even at the level of lexical
definition and basic comprehension. Cornelius Van Til put it like this, ‘The
meaning of words derives from the total system of which they form a part.’

Therefore, the
question with systematics is not whether but which? Since we cannot stop having
a theological system, diminishing its importance only serves to make our system
harder to correct. Will our theological system be under the authority of
Scripture or escape its corrective power because we never articulate it to
ourselves, let alone others?  To put it another way, for Scripture to be
fully authoritative, prior to our reading of one individual text we must have
an understanding of the whole of Scripture; in particular, how Scripture
teaches us how to read itself. The alternative to this is to have my reading
informed by some other authority removing Scripture’s authority over my
interpretative process. This is why Christians throughout history have read
Scripture according to the ‘rule of faith’ to prevent them, as the Thirty-Nine
Articles say, ‘so expound(ing) one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to
another.’

This brings us to
church history. Why involve church history in our reading of Scripture? The
basic reason is that Christians down the ages have tried to best reflect how
the Bible shapes their reading of Scripture. We do well, then, to listen and
pay attention to how they have done so. Does this diminish the clarity and
sufficiency of Scripture? No, it affirms it because it proceeds from the
conviction that not only is Scripture clear and sufficient to me in my study
today, but that it was also clear and sufficient to them then. Of
course, their conclusions may be mistaken, just as mine may be, but to pay heed
to them to the voices of the past is to walk in obedience to the Scriptures
that teach that I am part of a historic, unified, body in Christ to whom the
Spirit has been speaking across the centuries. Church history, then, is not a
check on Scripture’s authority, but a check on my authority. It is a
check on my authority to imagine that my reading of a passage is the only
possible one and my authority to impose on the text the preconceptions and
categories of my own culture which are self-evident to me. As C.S. Lewis put
it, ‘Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain
truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need
the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And
that means the old books.’ This, as
Matthew Barrett explains,
was precisely the approach of the magisterial
reformers. 

Neither systematics
nor church history represents a threat to the authority, clarity or sufficiency
of Scripture. We systematise because we believe the Bible to have one, unified,
clear, authoritative message as God’s Word. We pay attention to church history
because we believe Christ has always been faithful to his promises to speak to
and shepherd his people. Of course, the Spirit in his sovereignty can overcome
our ignorance or ineptitude in both and still speak to us through his word.
Reading, and especially teaching, Scripture, however, without either, a kind of
nuda Scriptura, should not be the norm, still less the ideal.  

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