Scripture is not disinterested in its readers because God is not disinterested in his people. God binds His people to Himself by binding them to His Word–a gift that creates covenant fellowship between them. God’s Word carries the promise of a further gift: holiness. His people will be holy as He is holy as they are sanctified through God’s Word by His Spirit (Lev 19:2; Jn 17:17). Most importantly, being made pure, they shall one day behold His glory face to face (Matt 5:8; Jn 17:24). This is the desire of Moses and of so many of the psalms: to see the LORD’s glory, to see His face (Exod. 33:18; Ps. 11:7; 17:15). This end, and the purification necessary for it, requires an all-encompassing orientation for one’s life, with duties enjoined upon God’s covenant partners. That is to say, the covenant’s fellowship is irreducibly religious–shaped by love and therefore justice and obligation. Those who read Scripture do so in this covenantal context, which is to say they do so under certain obligations and with certain promises, in pursuit of certain ends. God initiates the covenant and centers its fellowship on Himself because at its heart is God’s gift of Himself. Therefore, Scripture does not entertain disinterested readers because Scripture, like the covenant of which it is a part, is all about God.
So what difference does that make for what Scripture is, who its readers are, why they read it, and how?
Answering these questions is the work of “biblical reasoning,” a shorthand concept coined by the late John Webster for the complex interaction of systematic theology and biblical exegesis. According to Webster, biblical reasoning is “the redeemed intellect’s reflective apprehension of God’s gospel address through the embassy of Scripture, enabled and corrected by God’s presence, and having fellowship with him as its end.” This definition joins two things which are often separated in practice if not in theory: doctrine and exegesis. However, it does so by emphasizing the primary actor in the covenant: God, the Alpha and Omega of all things, including Scripture and its reading. What this suggests is that Scripture should be read with a view to knowing, loving, and beholding God above all things. Only with such a fixation on God do other important concerns come into view with the proper focus. The gospel is very important, so too is eschatology, or practical Christian living. But their importance is relative, not absolute. The consuming fire at the center of these mysteries is the Holy Trinity, their author. Fixated thus on the Lord in whom all things hold together, we discover what Scripture is, who its readers are, how they read it, and to what end.
Consider the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35), and how it sheds light on these matters. The details are well known. On the third day after Jesus was crucified, Jesus joins two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus and asks what they’re talking about. The disciples don’t recognize Him, so they recount His passion, apparent failure to redeem Israel, and the odd reports about His possible resurrection. At this, Jesus rebukes them: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk. 24:25). Their foolishness suggests they lack wisdom (Deut. 32:31 lxx; Prov. 15:21). So He proceeds to instruct them about the necessity of His suffering and subsequent glory: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Lk. 24:27). Later, at dinner, Jesus breaks bread with the disciples and in that moment “their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him” (Luke 24:31). Did not their hearts “burn” while Jesus opened the Scriptures to them? Quickly, they rejoin the other disciples in Jerusalem to confirm what they’ve been taught, only to find themselves once again standing before “Jesus Himself” (Lk. 24:36)!
At its most general, this episode shows us that reading Scripture rightly requires an encounter with the risen Lord, who is present and actively teaching us so that we might behold him with open eyes. Two qualities of this encounter deserve particular attention.
First, this encounter is pedagogical, a schooling in which we are trained and formed. As we watch Christ school his two disciples, he also schools us. Part of this is not surprising: Jesus belongs to first century Jewish scribal culture, so, as a Rabbi, He has a school with students whose curriculum is Holy Scripture. Yet the curriculum aims beyond itself. Unlike other teachers, Christ’s pedagogical aim is knowledge of Himself. Jesus causes His disciples’ hearts to burn and their minds to open as He directs their attention to Scripture and therein to Himself (Lk. 24:32, 45). He opens their eyes to matters of “first importance,” namely, His resurrection that happened “in accordance with” the Old Testament (1 Cor. 15:3-5). The resurrection not only manifests His Lordship but also the redemption of His people. And what is the aim of this redemption? “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus desires for His disciples that they behold the eternal glory that is His with the Father (John 17:24).
Jesus’ instruction is thus life-giving because it is directed to the unfathomable depths of His divine glory. And such life-giving instruction treads a path through Scripture that shapes His students. Jesus leads the disciples from sadness to joy (Lk. 24:17, 41), from being sojourners to guests at his table (24:30), from fleeing Jerusalem to rejoining the other disciples (24:33). The setting for reading Scripture is the school of the risen Christ, in the assembly of His body, where Jesus transforms disciples through teaching (“doctrine”). Calvin comments: “let us remember that it is the proper fruit of heavenly doctrine… to kindle the fire of the Spirit in the hearts of men, to purify and cleanse the affections of the flesh, or rather to burn them up, and to kindle a truly fervent love of God; and by its flame, as it were, to carry away men entirely to heaven.” Jesus sanctifies us by teaching us with Holy Scripture. This process is one of conversion and healing, suggesting that disciples receive a moral as much as intellectual education, above all aimed at giving them joy in knowing the one who is Life and Light in Himself.
Also noteworthy is the liturgical quality of this encounter. It belongs to the “reasonable service” that is the life of Christian worship (Rom. 12:1). The disciples did not recognize Christ when He interpreted Scripture for them, but rather when He “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (Lk. 24:30). Luke here recalls Jesus’ earlier feeding of the five thousand (9:10-17), as well as the Lord’s Supper (22:14-20). These verbal allusions link this meal to others in Jesus’ ministry, and thereby connect the disciples with Jesus’ way of life narrated in the Gospel. Discipleship involves more than knowledge; it’s not a philosophy of religion, but the true philosophy as religion. The disciples will need prayer and a life conformed to Jesus, symbolized in the breaking of bread that gathers them to others and meets their needs, a prominent theme in the Book of Acts (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 20:7-12; 27:33-38). With the Last Supper behind and Acts ahead, the breaking of bread at Emmaus symbolizes the church’s liturgy and life of worship. This way of life, discipleship, enables Christ’s disciples to hear and proclaim the good news of a risen Savior “who is living and at large, not dead and confined to the tomb, one who is present and able to act, who has indeed been enthroned as Lord and Christ.” Worship therefore both affects and reflects the disciples’s sight of the risen Lord who is really present with His church always (cf. Mt. 28:20; 1 Cor 11:26). The disciples truly recognize Jesus in Scripture when they are following Him, being transformed into His image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). The ascesis of self-denial and following Jesus is one of the chief ways His presence corrects our reading. And it is for this reason that it has fellowship with Him as its end.
“Biblical reasoning” articulates this intersection of discipleship and reading. The risen and present Christ aims to teach disciples through Scripture so that they might see His eternal glory, and so their exegetical acts should be means of seeking His face always (Ps 105:4). As a religious act of worship, exegesis aims at reverent knowledge of God through God’s appointed means: the magisterium of Christ, whose mysteries come through its prophetic and apostolic stewards (1 Cor. 4:1). Moreover, Christ’s economy of teaching sets us alongside fellow saints who attempt, fallibly, to pass on what they have heard and learned. Christ’s teaching generously provides Scripture and tradition-the latter is subordinate to Scripture, but nevertheless Christ’s gift (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Exegesis leads to doctrine, which leads back to exegesis. All of it belongs to the Christian’s pursuit of the beatific vision.
Wedded together under Christ’s pedagogy, theology and exegesis arise from an affection for the Word of God, implanted by the Word of God, and driven to feed on that Word by His Spirit. Christ Himself prays that this affection would be ordered to and fulfilled by the vision of His glory. And this glory includes the whole mystery of the Trinity, ignorance of which is ignorance of “the entire economy of salvation.” When Jesus prays that we see His glory, He is praying for our eternal life, our knowledge of the one true God of Israel in and through Israel’s true Messiah (John 17:3, 24). And what can this be, ultimately, but knowledge of the truths upon which the gospel depends: the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ? Thomas Aquinas summarizes the matter thus: “All the knowledge imparted by faith revolves around these two points, the divinity of the Trinity and the humanity of Christ.” The origin, context, and goal of Scripture and exegesis is irreducibly Christological and Trinitarian.
Biblical reasoning is a way of reading Scripture that is first and foremost a way of being taught by Jesus, about Jesus, for the sake of enjoying Jesus and belonging to Him. Jesus teaches us about His divinity and humanity alike, so that we may taste the depths of our salvation in the depths of our God. Doctrine, in this light, is not ramified curiosity. It is part of Christ’s grace that renews our minds and shapes us in wisdom. It is “teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). It comes to us through Scripture so that we might see the full “glory” of Christ, which embraces His relations to the Father and Spirit and His full humanity by which He saves us.
This is nothing novel. As Augustine practiced it, he discerned within Scripture itself certain guidelines for receiving Christ’s teaching. He called these “rules” or “canons.” And many of them are directly related to the church’s perception of its God in Christ, so that she might practice the “true” religion. In Biblical Reasoning: Trinitarian and Christological Rules for Exegesis, Bobby Jamieson and I appropriate Augustine’s wisdom in conversation with modern biblical scholarship. We first articulate at greater length the rudiments of “biblical reasoning” that I’ve presented here –readers and their end, their context, and curriculum. Then the bulk of our attention is given to how Scripture provides its own rules for receiving Christ’s teaching “concerning Himself” and His glory (cf. Lk. 24:27; Jn. 17:24). Doctrine is the “grammar” of Scripture itself, which is but the grammar of our Lord’s pedagogy. This grammar touches on central aspects of theology: the unity of God, the distinction of divine persons, their indivisible working, their missions and processions, the unity and two natures of Christ, and more. Exegesis is a matter of receiving teaching, or doctrine, so that we might know and enjoy the Lord. Learning this heavenly grammar therefore has as its goal our joining the heavenly liturgy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isa 6:3). When Isaiah saw this, he saw the glory of Jesus (Jn. 12:41). In our brief moment, we see only imperfectly in Scripture, which is “the face of God for now.” Biblical reasoning pursues the Lord’s eternal face in this temporary one, with the hope that one day “we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
Tyler R. Wittman (PhD, University of St Andrews) is Assistant Professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
His forthcoming book Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2022), co-authored with R.B. Jamieson, is available for pre-order here.
John Webster, “Biblical Reasoning,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012), 128. ↑
This scene does not suffer for lack of commentary. For early Christian approaches to the text and an extensive bibliography, see Bogdan Gabriel Bucur, Scripture Re-Envisioned: Christophanic Exegesis and the Making of a Christian Bible (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 6-41. Particularly instructive is the account in R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45-70. ↑
John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 365. ↑
If Luke wanted to stress the centrality of the Eucharist here, surely he would have used εὐχαριστέω, as he does in the Lord’s Supper discourse (cf. 22:19), instead of εὐλογέω (cf. 9:16; 24:30). ↑
Moberly, The Bible, 63-66. ↑
David S. Yeago, “The Bible: The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures: Biblical Inspiration and Interpretation Revisited,” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 49-93 . ↑
Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces III.1.17. ↑
Aquinas, Compendium of Theology 1.2. ↑
Augustine, Sermon 22.7 (The Works of Saint Augustine III/2, p. 46). ↑