Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Theological Exegesis

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
August 2010

Since the late 19th century, the historical-critical method has held sway in biblical scholarship. Students entering university track careers or the pastorate have been taught – if not how to do, at least what they are – form criticism, text criticism, redaction criticism, source criticism, and all the rest of the “critical methodologies.” These tools, we are told, are useful for addressing the “who, what, and when” of the Bible and thus deepening our comprehension.

But have the various methodological tools really assisted scholars in untangling the textual web or have they left their practitioners with more questions than answers? And if they simply provoke more questions, then what is their ultimate purpose or “end game”?

In my opinion, these are important questions which more and more scholars are asking.1 Where have textual criticism and redaction criticism alone gotten us, for instance? Are we any more certain of the text of Matthew, say, than we were 200 years ago? Are we any more convinced that the Synoptic Problem has finally been solved or that there is even a probable solution or consensus concerning a solution? Is biblical scholarship inching forward incrementally or is historical criticism simply running in circles with solutions to problems offered and debated and re-offered and re-debated in an endless and eternal cycle? We are all doubtlessly aware that theories concerning, for example, the Synoptic problem, have appeared, been embraced, fallen out of favor, and then been “rediscovered’” and revamped by a later generation2. Too, the same questions about the historicity of the Patriarchs and the conquest and other Old Testament events have made the rounds for ages. Either solutions aren’t possible or if possible, they remain unconvincing to many.

It seems to me, at any rate, that biblical studies cannot move forward any further along the historical-critical path alone. Furthermore, it seems to me that the only useful approach to biblical studies which can move us forward is theological exegesis. And, to be honest, returning to our roots in theological exegesis as practiced most efficiently in the Reformation writings of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin.

Since I doubt that my simply stating that fact will persuade anyone, I’ll, in what follows, choose a passage, show how the Reformers “theologically exegeted” it, and then offer an example from a modern commentary and you, the reader, will be free to decide which methodology actually “gets at” the meaning of the text and which lies flat.

I’ve chosen to approach the subject of exegesis in this way because it is my view that the purpose of all exegesis is understanding. Understanding “who, what, and when” (the historical critical questions) is essential but without answering the ‘why and how’ (the theological questions), exegesis remains unfinished and the text therefore unexplained (which may be precisely why so much historical-critical work has been weighed in the balances and found wanting).

To say it a bit differently, historical-critical tools are useful but in and of themselves inadequate. Theological exegesis is the missing link in most modern biblical scholarship. The “cold dry facts” which historical criticism provides us are just that: cold, dry, and lifeless. Something more is needed or the Bible simply becomes a relic of the past: a collection of “memories” without meaning.

In his exposition of Romans 1:28, Huldrych Zwingli writes:

For if they will not retain God in their knowledge, or nourish their hungry soul with a sweet hope in God, God the righteous Judge will undoubtedly fill their hearts with the foreboding, fear and anguish of eternal torment, so that not having the desire to enter now upon eternal life in quiet expectation, they begin to experience already that eternal perdition which in the world to come they will fulfill eternally. So then, though they have no concern for eternal blessedness, they have a concern about eternal loss. And for our present purpose it is enough that they do experience within themselves some concern for eternity, whether it be eternal torment or eternal felicity.3

Zwingli here presents not simply the “who, what, and when” of the verse, but the “why and how.” He penetrates the mere letter of the text to the heart of the text, which is precisely what theological exegesis is capable of doing and which is precisely what historical-criticism is incapable of doing.

John Calvin writes of Romans 1:28:

There is an evident comparison to be observed in these words, by which is strikingly set forth the just relation between sin and punishment. As they chose not to continue in the knowledge of God, which alone guides our minds to true wisdom, the Lord gave them a perverted mind, which can choose nothing that is right. And by saying, that they chose not, (non probasse - approved not,) it is the same as though he had said, that they pursued not after the knowledge of God with the attention they ought to have done, but, on the contrary, turned away their thoughts resignedly from God. He then intimates, that they, making a depraved choice, preferred their own vanities to the true God; and thus the error, by which they were deceived, was voluntary. To do those things which were not meet As he had hitherto referred only to one instance of abomination, which prevailed indeed among many, but was not common to all, he begins here to enumerate vices from which none could be found free: for though every vice, as it has been said, did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that every one might separately be accused of manifest depravity. As he calls them in the first instance not meet, understand him as saying, that they were inconsistent with every decision of reason, and alien to the duties of men: for he mentions it as an evidence of a perverted mind, that men addicted themselves, without any reflection, to those vices, which common sense ought to have led them to renounce. But it is labor in vain so to connect these vices, as to make them dependent one on another, since this was not Paul’s design; but he set them down as they occurred to his mind. What each of them signifies, we shall very briefly explain.4

Calvin too probes beneath the surface of the text to the meaning. And he does so in a thoroughly engaging way. It is not the mere relation of facts which Calvin is concerned with but with true explanation, true exegesis. Calvin’s explanation shows us in a remarkably clear way how far short simple historical-critical exegesis falls by comparison.

Our third exemplar of theological exegesis is Martin Luther, who observes concerning our verse:

And since they did not see fit, tried or tested it negligently, to acknowledge God, so that their heart would not become blind through the loss of the knowledge of God; to this, I say, they did not pay much attention. Therefore: God gave them up, by a fitting punishment and through just condemnation, to a base mind, a perverse mind, to have a taste for and be influenced in the direction of things perverse, to do those things which are not proper, which are unworthy of human beings. 5

Luther is not as detailed as Calvin but his meaning is nonetheless clear and his exegesis not only historically accurate (in terms of what the historical critics might tell us) but theologically insightful.

Fortunately the fine science of theological exegesis didn’t end with the Reformation. In more recent years, Adolf Schlatter has written some extraordinarily important theological commentaries on the entire New Testament6. And, as mentioned above, Baker has begun publishing the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Even more recently Eisenbrauns has instituted the Journal of Theological Interpretation. Hence, what I am suggesting is not new. But theological exegesis still has not, in my estimation, been granted its rightful place in the universe of biblical studies, and in fact, it is looked down on in some quarters. If this were not so, special commentaries and journals devoted to it wouldn’t be necessary and its practice would be standard.

Is theological exegesis, though, nothing more than eisegesis? Most certainly not. Theological exegesis is dependent upon a text correctly established, words correctly defined, and Sitz im Leben as clearly delimited as possible. Theological exegesis is simply the opposite side of the coin of hermeneutics. Historical criticism resides on the obverse side of the coin, and theological exegesis on the reverse. And just as a coin is no coin apart from possessing two sides, exegesis is no exegesis apart from possessing the two sides of historical criticism and theological interpretation. These methods are not mutually exclusive but mutually interdependent.

Nevertheless, is a purely historical-critical approach all that bad? After all, it seems to have served the needs of many academics well enough for a very long time now. Pulling a commentary from your shelf will generally offer plenty of evidence of that fact. Entire series have been based upon a purely historical approach. For instance, the International Critical Commentary, the Anchor Bible Commentary, the Old Testament Library (the volumes by American contributors especially- the older German contributions actually offering a good bit of theological reflection) and of course Hermeneia all focus almost exclusively on historical issues with nary a glance towards the theological significance of the text.

Returning to our test text, Romans 1:28, a leading commentator (James Dunn)7 exegetes the verse phrase by phrase and describes all manner of contemporary evidence concerning words and their meanings. When he does turn to an explanation (in a completely separate section of the commentary), he does a fine job of it theologically. But herein lies the problem of modern exegesis: the commentary is organized in such a way that historical-critical issues are separated from theological observations as though the one were distinct from the other. Why? The Interpreter’s Bible followed the same procedure as those familiar with it will remember. At the top of the page historical-critical issues were discussed and at the bottom theological exegesis was offered. The New Interpreter’s Bible follows the same procedure with the theological exegesis moved to the end of each textual unit. The Word Biblical Commentary too adopts this methodology. The problem, however, is that by dividing historical criticism from theological exegesis an unnecessary bifurcation is introduced.

It is for this reason that the approaches of Schlatter and Calvin and other theologically adept and exegetically competent scholars are to be preferred, since those scholars combine linguistic (historical) analysis with theological interpretation. And they do so because they have recognized that one must be set beside the other and not separated out and segregated from each other. Or, to borrow a fine phrase from another, theological interpretation is:

… a recovery of ways of reading the Bible that, while not dismissing historical and literary concerns, go on to engage the word of God and thus to tear down the iron curtain that has for too long separated biblical studies and systematic theology.8

Commentators should be urged to follow the methodology of combining historical analysis with theological interpretation so that readers of their volumes learn that exegesis is both historical and theological in nature. Historical exegesis alone is insufficient because it lacks explanatory power, and theological exegesis alone is without proper foundation in an accurate understanding of scripture.9 This, of course, means that theologians have to become exegetes and exegetes have to become theologians. But that discussion is for another time.


1 Think, for example, of the recently inaugurated Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.

2 Mark Goodacre’s work is a case in point.

3 Huldrych Zwingli, On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, in Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. G. Bromiley. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953, p. 60.

4 John Calvin’s Commentary on Romans, accessed online at on 26 July, 2010.

5 Martin Luther, (1999, c1972). Vol. 25: Luther's works, vol. 25 : Lectures on Romans (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (25:13). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

6 Adolf Schlatter, Erläuterungen zum Neuen Testament (10 volumes): Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1961.

7 James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38a: Romans 1-8. Dallas: Word Books, 1988.

8 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, on a ‘blurb’ for the Journal of Theological Interpretation website,, accessed 27 July 2010.

9 Anyone who reads Karl Barth’s famous ‘Romans’ knows full well what happens when theology is cut loose from scripture’s historical moorings: one learns a lot about the theology of the author and nothing about the theology of the Scriptures.