I grew up hearing many sermons urging Christians to “speak where the Bible speaks.” And I have embraced that heritage. I’m a “Bible guy.” Almost all of the classes I teach are textual studies, and most of my sermons are expository messages, moving verse by verse through a passage of Scripture.
But I also went to a seminary to receive a graduate degree in theology. And for some people from the same background as me, theology is almost a dirty word. And seminaries? Why, they ought to be called cemeteries, because they bury the word of God!!!! More than once I have discussed my grad school experience with friends who have also had some seminary training, only to hear them say something like, “Well, I took as many textual courses as I could, but I stayed away from any of those theology courses” (italics cannot adequately capture the disdain in their voices!).
Why do so many people have this allergic response to theology? Undoubtedly a great deal of this skepticism is well-deserved. Theology is often speculative, eager to supply sheer imagination where Scripture is silent. And theologians often misuse the Bible, forcing it through theological grids that do an injustice to the meaning of Scripture in its proper context. But isn’t the same true with some forms of biblicism? Isn’t it also the case that in many instances, “speaking where the Bible speaks” is really a matter of cherry-picking passages to use as proof-texts without any regard for context? Theology in and of itself is not cause for criticism, then. Bad theology is, just like bad exegesis is.
So then, what is the place of good theology? Not long ago I was preaching where a good friend is the regular minister, and we were discussing our common experience at the same seminary. Once again I got the ole “I stayed away from theology” treatment. A short time later, he asked for my thoughts on reconciling the meaning of a couple of different passages. I had to chuckle and say to him, “You talked a big game about staying away from theology, but now that’s exactly what you are engaging in!”
Theology is the project of weaving the various threads of Scripture into a single tapestry. As soon as you ask yourself, “I wonder how this text fits together with that text,” you are a theologian, whether you like the term or not! Does this task require the humble recognition of the bounds of human reason? Of course. Is it possible we will never put all the pieces together correctly? Undoubtedly. But if you believe that Scripture is true, and that truth is consistent with itself, then the task of theology is unavoidable.
This is what Jesus did when he explained why the promise of Psalm 91 did not justify putting God to the test (Matthew 4:5-7). Or when he demonstrated to the Emmaus road disciples that the Messiah had to suffer first and then enter into glory (Luke 24: 26-27). Or what Paul did when he showed how the promises of Deuteronomy 30 and Joel 2 are fulfilled in Christ (Romans 10:5-13). And many, many more examples.
We should not see theology and exegesis as mutually exclusive. Careful handling of the Bible is the prerequisite of theology. And good theology is the fruit of the responsible handling of Scripture. The greatest theologians in history, such as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, were also biblical exegetes of the highest caliber, producing many more commentaries than theologies. They made mistakes, for sure. But in striving to synthesize the truths of Scripture while giving careful attention to the text, Aquinas and Calvin provide great models of the goal of all students of Scripture – to work hard to handle the word of God correctly (2 Timothy 2:15).