Asking how theologians and biblical scholars relate has become like asking what Athens has to do with Jerusalem. A Nehemiah-like wall has been constructed between the disciplines of theology and exegesis, to which come R.B. Jamieson and Tyler Wittman, declaring in Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis, “tear down this wall!”
While distinctions are crucial for the Christian life, and we rightly distinguish body and soul, justification and sanctification, and so forth, Jamieson and Wittman believe that exegesis and theology must be married. A match made in heaven, as exegesis and theology wed, two become one, resulting in a new family name: “biblical reasoning” (xxv). These authors go so far as to say, “theology is exegesis, and exegesis is inescapably theological” (233). They explain,
Exegesis is not merely the analysis of historical background and cultural encyclopedia, the situations of the writers and recipients, word meanings, grammar, flow of thought, intracanonical connections, and the unfolding of redemptive history. Exegesis is also, inescapably, reasoning about the subject matter of the text: God and all things in relation to God. While we can distinguish exegetical from dogmatic reasoning, we must not exclude the latter from the former. Exegetical reasoning accounts for an individual passage; dogmatic reasoning accounts for what a passage teaches us about its ultimate subject matter… (233)
Like other proponents of Theological Interpretation of Scripture (a moniker they seem to claim only with lukewarm enthusiasm, xxiv), they believe, with Ursinus, in the dance between exegesis and theology—our exegesis leads us to theological propositions, which in turn help us understand less clear Scripture texts. Biblical Reasoning, in fact, focuses on the theological propositions about the Trinity and Christ that help exegesis most. Doubtless many exegetes struggle particularly with those difficult passages that have to do with the persons of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, which makes Biblical Reasoning a helpful book. Biblical Reasoning gives numerous Christological and Trinitarian axioms that will enable exegetes to sort through such passages with confidence.
Jamieson serves as a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Wittman teaches at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Appreciators of John Webster like myself will note that Wittman assisted Webster in the production of his wonderful volumes, God Without Measure (I & II). Webster’s influence on Biblical Reasoning is apparent, as the authors explain they appropriated the term “biblical reasoning” from him (xvii). Summarizing Webster on the exegetical dance of biblical reasoning, Jamieson and Wittman write that “Neither is complete without the other; both move from and toward one another in a continual, mutually informative exchange…theology thinks from Scripture, with Scripture, and to Scripture. Scripture is thus systematic theology’s origin and goal” (xviii). Scripture’s words exert “pressure” on us as readers to explain in our own words what the Bible is saying—this is theology (xix, xxiii, 54-56). In other words, Jamieson and Wittman, like Scott Swain in The Trinity and the Bible, caution against the idea that theological formulations take the “raw data” of biblical statements and synthesize them into clean and concise dogmatic statements (xix). While there is “more than an element of truth in this model,” they write, “it implies that systematic theology in some sense improves upon the undeveloped deliverances of Scripture” (xix). Instead, these authors see theology as “the grammar of Scripture” (xx). For example, “While not identical in every respect, there is a crucial sense in which Nicaea’s homoousios and Paul’s ‘form of God’ (Phil. 2:6) say the same thing about Jesus” (xxiii). Likewise, in the words of C. Kavin Rowe, “to read the Bible in light of later trinitarian dogma is to read the Bible in light of the reality of God himself as he has pressured us through his Word, that is, his speaking, to speak about him” (57).
Part One of the book serves as prolegomena, describing biblical reasoning in three chapters, the first of which alone is worth the price of the book. While the authors acknowledge that this book is for scholars, it is not only written clearly and accessibly, but devotionally and doxologically. Wittman, the primary author of these chapters, writes, “exegesis should be a form of worship that conforms us to its Object” (79, see 3-22). Perhaps unintentionally, he answers various questions that have perplexed some protestants, like how faith “works through love” (Gal. 5:6): “knowledge…begets desire. The more we see Christ’s beauty, the more beautiful we will find him, and we become like what we love and worship…love propels us toward an even greater intimacy” (15). If our biblical reasoning does not lead to doxology and love, we have taken a wrong turn.
Part Two provides Biblical Reasoning’s theological rules derived from Scripture to help readers interpret Scripture. Chapters 4-10 dispel any doubts that the authors are guilty of theological imperialism; they engage Scripture text after Scripture text to show how their rules are derived from the Word itself. One of the initial rules is the “God-Fittingness Rule,” a reminder that Scripture interprets Scripture, and Scripture makes clear that God is supreme, holy, and good (77-90). Any interpretation that casts that into doubt should be discounted. Jamieson and Wittman apply this to the question of God “repenting” or “regretting,” and they affirm immutability. Readers should note their caveat about the subjectivity of this rule: “the rule depends on one’s acquired understanding of God’s perfection. This understanding always remains incomplete this side of the resurrection, so we must continually refine it through contemplative exegesis” (84).
Biblical Reasoning would make a good addition to the required reading for a doctrine of God course in college or seminary. Given the mysteriousness and complexity of the Trinity as well as the time constraints on seminarians, the doctrine of God is often a weak point even of seminary graduates. As recent years have also shown with the “Eternal Subordination of the Son” movement, many pastors and even theologians have fallen into error about the doctrine of God (likewise, see the critiques of recent rejections or reinterpretations of simplicity in Dolezal’s All That Is in God). Biblical Reasoning cuts through the confusion clearly and winsomely without directly engaging with these contemporary errors.
The book’s authors articulate how Scripture affirms the oneness of God while also affirming personal plurality, through “a pattern of both identification and distinction. The Spirit is both the Lord and distinct from the Lord” (99). Scripture pressures us to recognize “redoublement”—that is, we must talk of the unity of God without collapsing the persons into each other. The Son is like the Father in having life in himself, but different in being begotten (223). Biblical Reasoning tackles difficult issues admirably, explaining even why it is fitting that the Holy Spirit is called the Holy Spirit, reflecting the relation of the persons of the Trinity (188-191). Furthermore, “the missions of the Son and the Spirit are seen to reveal their eternal processions” (200).
Likewise, Biblical Reasoning teaches “inseparable operations,” the idea that “whenever we perceive one person, the other two divine persons are implicitly present and active” (108, see 123-124 for an interesting example in Revelation). “Appropriation” similarly “describes a phenomenon of biblical discourse when something belonging to all three divine persons in common is attributed to only one of them, as if it belonged exclusively to that one” (117-118). In other words, when 1 Corinthians 1:24 says Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” it would be an exegetical error to think that Paul is claiming the Spirit and Father lack power and wisdom (119). Appropriation, therefore, does not contradict the idea that in the incarnation (for example) only the Son took on human flesh, but emphasizes that the incarnation also involved the Father’s sending and the Spirit’s overshadowing (122-3).
Chapter seven brings a shift from Trinitarian theology to Christological dogma, which digs deeper into what should be foundational: Christ is one person with two natures. Wittman and Jamieson confirm that yes, we can sing Wesley’s paradoxical line, “’Tis myst’ry all: th’ Immortal dies” (127). It seems to me that they also argue that the Reformed understanding of the communication of idioms is the catholic, conciliar position (145). Likewise, these authors make clear that they seek continuity with earlier orthodoxy, drawing their rules from theological forefathers like Augustine (154). Applying “partitive exegesis” that identifies which nature of Christ a passage speaks about (163), Jamieson’s words evoke worship: “When the Son assumed our human nature in the fullness of time, the one who is eternally homoousios with the Father and the Spirit became homoousios also with us” (161).
Biblical Reasoning displays a deep engagement with the Christian tradition from Augustine and Aquinas to later writers like Wilhelmus à Brakel and John Owen. Quality writing leads you deeper down the rabbit-hole, and this book’s footnotes are a feast of information, pointing interested readers to further resources. I heartily recommend this insightful and instructive new work.