From the Bible to the Bible, via theology


March 3, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

I was raised in a fundamentalist, biblicist, dispensationalist church–Calvary Chapel. From the time I was three years old, when my mother got saved (I refuse to mock her experience by putting the uncool conversion language in quotation marks), I attended Sunday school and youth group. We sang songs about Jesus and we always read the Bible–verse by verse, chapter by chapter. I later came to a deep personal faith in this same church context. I was 17 years old. I spent the next four years at Calvary Chapels. Eventually, I was driven out of this denomination by two factors: my own upward social mobility (attaining a bachelor’s degree makes one much less likely, statistically speaking, to remain in Calvary Chapel), as well as the utter dysfunction of the churches of which I had been a part. 

During my early- to mid-twenties pursued a Bible degree at Biola University and then an M.A. at Talbot School of Theology (Biola’s seminary). During this time I was exposed to a broader evangelical tradition; let some balk at the juxtaposition of “broad” and “Biola”. Most of my education was in New Testament studies, and a lot of it was an undergraduate-level exposure to an evangelical historical-grammatical exegesis. It was during this time that I got exposed to something “more”–systematic theology. Sure, I had classes by the name, but they weren’t “real theology”–they were just proof-texting and Bible doctrine. No, I got to experience “real theology” when I started reading contemporary theology: Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Robert Jenson, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Webster, and many others. This theology deserved the title “real” I thought because it didn’t consist of simply biblical commentary or proof-texting. It was philosophically-informed, complex, and so on and so forth. I scoffed at the exegetes and their naivete. 

I do not want to retract entirely my discovery of “real theology”. I have since gone on to read more of these theologians, as well as make an acquaintance with St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. As I have become more immersed in all the aforementioned theologians, one thing has slowly happened to me–I feel desperately starved for biblical exegesis. I want to read the Bible again. It’s not that I haven’t read the Bible since my undergraduate days, but it’s as if I had come to think that biblical reflection and commentary was somehow a necessary step to get to real articulations of the truth. I can see now that my preference for “real theology” over the world of biblical exegesis was a profound misunderstanding and an immature overreaction.

So now I sit here doing a PhD on Karl Barth, slogging through page after page of the Church Dogmatics. It’s brilliant, it really is, and there is a lot of Bible in there. I also wade through article after article on my topic, and this too can be really fun. But I have a profound sadness growing within me that I just don’t have enough time to do biblical exegesis. Not even expert technical exegesis, but simple biblical commentary. 

Did I go horribly astray, or was this circular journey somehow helpful? Perhaps I needed this detour in order to move from a dysfunctional and naive biblicism to a more profound understanding of the role of scripture in the Church and the Christian life.


One thought on “From the Bible to the Bible, via theology

  1. carl sweatman says:

    Thank you for this. It’s good to hear that others are wrestling with such things; for a while I thought I was pretty much alone. My struggle was in the opposite direction as yours: I became so immersed in the exegesis that I began to lose contact with the wider (and sometimes, let’s face it, more interesting) theological discussions and insights. Toward the end of my program, I realized that it happened and tried unbury myself, but I’m not out of it just yet. Trying, though.

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