Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis
R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman, Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. $29.99. Softcover, pp. xxvi + 294.
The disciplines of biblical studies and systematic theology, once considered the same discipline, exist in radical disunity today. This separation was largely due to Enlightenment’s employment of higher criticism upon the Bible, a move which challenged the inspiration and authority of Scripture due to what its proponents deemed as the discovery of errors in the text and the text’s perceived conflicts with science. Enlightenment scholars––using what they considered to be “neutral” rational thinking––argued that Scripture merely describes the diverse religious experiences of Israel rather than cataloguing the inspired writings of the apostles and prophets. Ultimately, it was concluded that Scripture could not be harmonized with God as its ultimate author. This reasoning steered biblical scholarship towards a distinction between exegesis, or explaining what the text means with limited or no perceived theological commitments, and theology, the collection of beliefs of the faithful who use these beliefs to shape their reading of the text. This distinction is doctrine in most of academia today, and even scholars of a conservative bend have become suspicious of theology’s potential to impose meaning upon the biblical text.
Mending this radical separation of exegesis and theology is the objective of R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman in their latest work Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis. Jamieson (PhD, University of Cambridge), associate pastor of Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and Wittman (PhD, University of St. Andrews), assistant professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, argue that, in order to understand the Bible correctly, “we must reason both exegetically and dogmatically” (p. 235), and thus exegesis and systematic theology cannot be separated (p. xviii). Taking their cue from the work of John Webster, the authors present a program called “biblical reasoning,” one which aims to accurately explain the biblical text with its ultimate goal in view, which is to cultivate a theological vision of the glory of God and its implications for God’s people (p. xvii; cf. pp. 41–42). This is accomplished through a symbiotic relationship between exegetical reasoning (i.e., exegesis) and dogmatic reasoning (i.e., systematic theology). While exegetical reasoning is logically primary (p. xviii), dogmatic reasoning serves as the “grammar of Scripture” (p. xx; cf. p. 56) to “enable us to understand why [the text] is ordered and formed as it is” (p. xx). In this way, “exegetical and dogmatic reasoning harmonize, compliment, and inform each other” (p. xix), as “Exegesis funds doctrinal understanding, which returns to Scripture with a greater subjective apprehension of its scope, unity, thematic coherence, and interrelations” (p. 57). From this relational order, the authors establish “a set of theological principles and their corresponding exegetical rules” (p. xx) to showcase how their method helps guide the reader in interpreting difficult texts that address the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, two doctrines which are essential towards understanding the form and development of all Scripture (pp. xxi, 57). Biblical scholars and theologians serve as the target audience, as the authors note, “We aim to convince biblical scholars that exegesis requires more theology than they commonly admit, and we aim to convince theologians that theology requires more exegesis than they typically do” (p. xxv).
Jamieson and Wittman work out their program in two parts. In Part 1, the authors establish the foundation of biblical reasoning, namely that Scripture was authored by God with the purpose of discipling his people through the revealing of himself and his will. This pedagogical objective underscores the intent of Scripture, which guides exegetical reasoning, and the unity of Scripture, which makes dogmatic reasoning possible. In Part 2, Jamieson and Wittman put their program into action by interacting 7 principles and 10 rules with biblical texts informative of the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. Generally, each chapter begins with a statement of the principles and rules, then processed with a discission of texts that establish the principles and rules, then follows with an explanation of the rule/principles in light of these texts, and concludes with application of the rules/principles to a particular theological problem. In chapter 10, the authors conclude their work with a case study on an application of their principles and rules to John 5:17–30.
Biblical Reasoning does well to address a variety of principles and rules pertaining to Christology and Trinitarian doctrine, and students of theology will benefit from the in-depth discussions in each chapter. Some of the rules and their applications will sound familiar, for example, Rule 3: The God Fittingness Rule, and its application to passages that uses anthropomorphic language (pp. 80–84) or that God changes his mind (pp. 84–90). However, other rules may not, for example, Rules 5 and 6 which address the Trinity’s Inseparable Operations and Appropriations, respectively, and their use to resolve issues such as how the incarnation suggest division among the activities of the Trinity (pp. 122–123). Regardless, Jamieson and Wittman establish each principle and rule with solid proof-texts and use just enough academic resources and theological retrieval to support their conclusions without overwhelming the reader.
Of course, it is likely that some conservative scholars will object to the program of Biblical Reasoning on the grounds that dogmatic reasoning is not a legitimate form of exegesis, as it––presumably––imposes theological positions upon the text. Jamieson and Wittman are aware of this criticism (p. xxi) and do well to explain how these concerns are unfounded and perhaps even dangerous. As the principles and rules of biblical reasoning are intrinsic, meaning that they derive from Scripture and conform to biblical truth (p. xxii), they are not foreign theological positions forced upon the text. Rather, they are the logical results of Scripture’s divine origin and goal, and thus become tools to handle difficult passages and reconcile seemingly contradictory texts. A great example is found in the application of Rule 9, which addresses Partitive Exegesis, or the reality that Scripture speaks of one Christ as both divine and human. For the authors, “partitive exegesis is a legitimate, warranted, exegetically necessary means of blocking faulty inferences from Christ’s humanity or divinity that would undermine the integrity of the other” (p. 163). After establishing the biblical justification for this rule (pp. 156–161), the authors use the rule to address three groups of passages in the New Testament that, on their surface, may suggest that the Son is somehow less than God, including statements concerning the Father as greater than the Son (e.g., John 14:28), the Son as subject to the Father (1 Cor 15:24–28), or the Son becoming Lord (e.g., Acts 2:32–36) (pp. 167–176). To apply these principles and rules is not to theologically impose upon the text, but rather to help believers avoid drawing unbiblical conclusions that could result in significant theological consequences. As the authors’ work through John 5:17–30 suggests, everyone does biblical reasoning––including Jesus’ opponents––and yet it can be done incorrectly (cf. pp. 215–218). Biblical Reasoning helps readers avoid this end.
With these positives of the text aside, there are two pressing questions generated from the program of biblical reasoning. These two questions do not take anything away from what was accomplished in Biblical Reasoning. Rather, they seek to push the conversation forward regarding the means and end of biblical reasoning as a discipline.
First, do Jamieson and Wittman hope to convince the academy at large to create a closer union between biblical studies and theology through their work, or is their target conservative scholars who are at risk of straying towards the academic Zeitgeist? The introduction of Biblical Reasoning suggests that the authors desire to interact across the ideological spectrum by aiming “to make exegetical arguments that professional biblical scholars will take seriously,” yet also note that they “frequently dissent from common presuppositions of, and conclusions widely held by, modern biblical scholars” (p. xxi). That the program of biblical reasoning dissents from modern scholarship is evident from the very beginning, as it assumes the pedagogical end of Scripture (p. 24). Jamieson and Wittman are obviously aware of this conflict, as they note, “every scriptural hermeneutic implies an anthropology and bibliology” (p. 49). Nevertheless, what does that say about the impact Biblical Reasoning might have on the guild? Jamieson and Wittman do not interact extensively with critical scholars, and so it may be difficult to imagine critical scholars engaging with the text in return. Without further reflection, Biblical Reasoning will likely have a greater influence upon conservative scholars struggling with the tension between biblical studies and systematic theology rather than those who have made up their mind on the issue.
Second, how might Jamieson and Wittman apply the program of biblical reasoning to other doctrines? While it might be true that the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology “is where the divorce between biblical studies and theology has been felt most painfully,” it is also true that “Creedal Christian teaching about the person of Christ and the Trinity enjoys broad ecumenical consensus” (p. xxi). Apart from their discussion of divine processions (pp. 179–212), one would be hard pressed to find major disagreement with Jamieson and Wittman among those of an orthodox persuasion, regardless of their location within Christendom. Nevertheless, could one apply such rules so ecumenically to doctrines such as Soteriology, Ecclesiology, or Eschatology? The matter is further complicated by the authors’ note that the glory of Christ and the Trinity “is the ultimate frame of reference … with regard to any subject” (p. 57, emphasis added). If true, then how would Christ and the Trinity overcome differences of opinion on these doctrines?
In the final analysis, Biblical Reasoning is a solid text that helpfully addresses major exegetical issues within Christology and Trinitarianism, and further research could prove quite fruitful if addressed intentionally. Biblical Reasoning would serve well in a university or seminary course on the doctrine of God or Christ. It could also be helpful for pastors looking to address problem passages with those under their care.
Daniel Wiley, PhD