Exegesis & Theology - How to avoid a Chicken / Egg problem

A question for the theologians, or students of the bible.

One of the difficulties I’ve had in reconciling my acceptance of the science of evolution, while treating the Bible as inspired and accurate, was that prior to finding Peaceful Science, most other discussion I found seemed to be willing to force interpretations of the Bible that would agree with the science, rather than seeking to truly understand the Biblical meaning, even when that continued to seemingly conflict with the science.

Thank’s to another discussion here, I came across an article from Dr. WL Craig, that sums up how I think we should be moving forward.

The “historical Adam”
"Investigating that question involves two independent tasks which are, unfortunately, too often conflated: first, determining what the Bible teaches about this subject and, second, formulating an empirically adequate doctrine of man. The first task belongs to biblical theology, the second to systematic theology. …
It is crucial that each of these two tasks be pursued in pristine isolation from the other. There is an almost irresistible tendency to allow science to guide our biblical interpretation. This sort of interpretive approach to Scripture is often called “concordism.”

But how do you, in a practical way (especially as a layperson), separate your existing Systematic Theology from what Dr. Craig refers to as Biblical Theology (I would call it exegesis). Or in other words, given that it’s generally possible to find a exegesis from someone that aligns with what we “would like” the Bible to say, either to match with science or our existing theology, how do you settle on the correct interpretation / exegesis?

I don’t want to discount the role of the Holy Spirit in this, but beyond his role, what are the “best practices” for us.

Isn’t that exactly what you do when you force the bible into compatibility with a round earth that goes around the sun, rather than a flat one with the sun embedded in the firmament that makes a roof over it?


Growing up, as a young Christian, I took the Bible to be inspired. I did not take it to be accurate, because it obviously wasn’t.

I did not attempt to “force” interpretations on the Bible. I took it as what it said, warts and all.

At that time (around the age of 12 or 13), it was clear that Genesis 1 had the science wrong. I did not attempt to force an interpretation. I accepted that Genesis 1 was never intended to be a science textbook. I accepted the obvious, that it was written by humans and that it reflected the cultural assumptions of people at that time.

The idea that the Bible is accurate in all things – that’s the mistake that leads to people trying to force interpretations on the text. Once you understand that the Bible was written for people with particular cultural traditions, then you can begin to make better sense of it.


@deuteroKJ and @Philosurfer what are your thoughts on this? @Mlkluther and @JustAnotherLutheran?

Well, that is indeed the question.

This is the area of Hermeneutics. It’s complicated :slight_smile:

So, let’s not get into Text Criticism and establishing the text, and the translation process, etc., etc. Let’s skip a number of very important steps and arrive at an agreed upon text and a translation that is trustworthy. Then, how you approach the Scriptures will greatly impact what you get out of them. If you think they are a bunch of man made stories - then you will get something different out of them than if you approach them with a different set of presuppositions. If you approach them as the Word of God given to men - then you will get something else out of them. How do you know which set of presuppositions are the right ones with which to approach Scripture? It comes down to what you say about Jesus. The One resurrected from the dead points to the Scriptures as trustworthy. I take His Word for it because I am convinced by the evidence of the Gospels and the claims in 1 Cor. 15 that He did rise from the dead. So, I approach the Scriptures as the Word of God. That influences what I get out of them.

What do the words mean? How do you determine the meaning of the words? This is where the difficulty of dealing with ancient texts come in. To understand what is being said one has to know culture and context of the original writers and hearers. In the context of the issue of science and the bible I think John Walton and Denis Lamoureux do a good job of explaining this and showing this. If you read into the text your own culture’s presuppositions and worldview you will get an inaccurate reading.

So, you keep your knowledge of ANE culture and context in mind as you read the text and arrive at some understanding of what you think the text means. How do you know you’re right? It seems there needs to be an appeal to an outside authority…

So, either you make yourself the authority and say - this is what it means because this is what I think it means… or…you appeal to another authority (i.e. teaching magisterium in the Roman Catholic Church, etc). This is the problem the Church of Rome brought up to the Lutherans (I’m one) during the time of the Reformation. It’s a valid concern. Rome points to a Teaching Magistrerium that they believe is directed by God - so any biblical interpretation must fall within the acceptable parameters as set by the teaching magisterium. Lutherans and the protestants objected to that and pointed to Scripture alone as the source of authority - not Popes and Councils, etc. However, that still leaves the question of authority unaddressed (a troubling issue for us Lutherans and should be for all protestants).

However, it seems to me that modern day Protestantism (of which I do not count Lutherans a part) has made the individual the source of authority. Me and my bible and my interpretation is as valid as any other. Radical individualism, somewhat aided and abetted by radical post-modernism, has led to a continual fracturing of the Church…everything is subjective and truth cannot be known - so I make myself the sole authority.

As a Lutheran I attempt to have my cake and eat it to. I do not believe that there is a divinely inspired Teaching Magisterium that serves as the source of authority in biblical interpretation. However, if my interpretation is something that has never been taught in the 2000 year history of the Church - then either I am a genius or a heretic. Odds are the latter. So, I am very uncomfortable with innovations in the Church and generally seek to find myself in the line of the 2000 years of the Church. In fact, that was the argument of the 16th Century Reformation Lutherans - we’re not saying anything new here - it is the Roman Catholic church that has introduced teaching out of line with the historic Christian Faith.

With regard to the issue of science and the Scriptures - there has been no strong consensus in the history of the Church on how to understand Gen 1-3, for example. In fact, it could be argued that the more fundamentalist approach to Gen 1-3 is out of line with the majority of the 2000 years of the Church. So, using reason (fallen as it is) and the Church that has gone before me as a guide - I try to steer clear of heresy…and settle on the correct interpretation/exegesis.

So, as the professor who taught me hermeneutics at seminary was heard often saying to us: “What do we know for sure?” What is it that we can safely say, with almost universal agreement, is true from the Scriptures? Establish these things (I’d argue the historic Creeds of the Church do a pretty good job as a start, but there is a lot more). Then we need to do the difficult work of wrestling with the texts that seem difficult to understand or which have not had a consensus through the history of the Church - and come to conclusions based upon our best attempts at faithful exegesis in conversation with those who have gone before us as well as those who are with us now - though conclusions that are perhaps not as certainly held as the universally held beliefs of the Church for 2000 years. I’d suggest that the question of “Adam” may fall into that category.


Biblical theology is more than exegesis. Check out this explanation of Biblical Theology vs. Systematic Theology by Don Carson. While I understand Craig’s comment, I think he’s overstated it (especially for evangelicals). I look at BT and ST as “accountability partners” in the pursuit of truth from a Christian perspective. They are distinct disciplines, with distinct emphases and goals, but there’s also overlap.

Biblical theology (my own discipline) is more sensitive to (1) historical and literary contexts; (2) using vocabulary, concepts, and structures inherent to the text and its world; and (3) letting each biblical text/author have its/his say, thus being more comfortable with tensions, plural perspectives, and diachronic and canonical progression of thought. Systematic theology is more in tune with contemporary (modern) modes of thinking (e.g., philosophy) and interacting with contemporary issues (e.g., science). This is way overly simplistic, but it might get one started at thinking along different paths.


There had better be! :slight_smile:

Systematic Theology tries to give an overview summary of what the Bible teaches on various subjects. This can be helpful. However, it can cause the “flavour” and nuance of the individual texts to be lost…and can potentially lead to saying something the texts don’t actually say in resolving the tensions, etc.

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@deuteroKJ, very relevant to my final writing right now is this distinction between BT and ST. Is it correct that the BT crowd takes more of a vocation view of the Image of God, but the ST crowd has been more taking a structural view that links vocation with biological structure?

This quote is very insightful:

What is transparently clear about all such systematic theology, however, is that its organizing principles do not encourage the exploration of the Bible’s plot-line, except incidentally. The categories of systematic theology are logical and hierarchical, not temporal.

What do you think @jongarvey?

To someone (me) accustomed in my early Christian life to “the doctrines of Christianity” it came as something of a surprise to think of theology coming through narrative. But that’s the way the Bible is primarily written, and it’s not accidental: God meets us in the unfolding of history, and in our history.

That, however, is not to accept a false dichotomy between biblical and systematic theology, any more than one ought to deal with natural history without theories of life - or come to that, of human anatomy without the systematic teachings of physiology, biochemistry, etc. Each informs the other, IMHO.


Look at how much work you all have to do to understand a book God presumably intended for everyone. God - the worst communicator in history. Not what you’d expect of a God. Take from this what you will.

Is that an honest attempt to engage? If so perhaps we start another thread on it or pick it up here.

If you are just dropping a bomb to get a reaction, perhaps it’s off topic. There isnt much conversation right this moment, so I would be good not to interrupt it when it happens.


Nah not interested in arguing about it. Just pointing out how this all looks “from the outside”.

It’s fair about BT. The ST crowd tends to take an ontological view of image, in which a certain set of attributes relate to both God and humans (e.g., rationality, creativity, free will, communicability, etc.). But which attribute(s) is not agreed on.

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Thanks for the all the thoughts and comments, I’m still trying to process them all.

I come from a very fundamentalist background, that interpreted the Bible in a very literal way, not taking into account the culture of those the Bible was written to.

As I gradually move away from this (incorrect) method of interpretation, my challenge is figure out what parts of my (systematic?) theology should rightfully be kept and used to balance new interpretations (biblical theology) that are now “available” once I no longer employ a fundamentalist approach to Biblical interpretation. This is especially true, as as a layperson, I have to ultimately rely at some level on the expertise and wisdom of others, who often don’t agree.

I should note, that the core message of Bible is clear, and I’m confident in these areas.


This is just a silly thing to say.

Shakespeare takes work to understand. Chaucer takes work to understand. War and Peace takes work to understand. The Gulag Archipelego takes work to understand. Most works of literature, not to mention ancient documents, take work to understand.




Well, not completely. I presume they accept, contrary to the bible, that the world is round, that it goes around the sun rather than the other way around, and the the universe outside the earth is very, very large and not embedded in a solid firmament. Even fundamentalists have adapted their theology to science. They just stopped adapting some time in the 17th Century.


I think Craig gives the historical-critical method too much authority here. It’s absolutely vital, but first of all, getting back to what the original author thought is sometimes impossible, and second of all, this only takes account of the world “behind the text.” What about the world in front of the text? Craig would do well to read some Paul Ricoeur, Joseph Ratzinger and John Behr. And why does he associate the human authorial meaning with the Divine authorial meaning?


Well the thing is that these scientific findings are not taught by scripture but neither are they contrary to scripture. There is this thing called “accommodation.” It falls out naturally from the notion of God communicating to us in our language, rather than his. He speaks from our frame of reference so as to be understood, and it is difficult to see how it could be different.