Book Review: Biblical Reasoning, by R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman
R. B. Jamieson and Tyler R. Wittman, Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis. Baker Academic, 2022. 320 pages.
Biblical scholars will no doubt cheer the notion of biblical reasoning, the title of a timely and important book by R. B. Jamieson and Tyler Wittman. Yet those same scholars may also boo the subtitle—“Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis”—or at least sigh: “There they (theologians) go again, foisting foreign dogmatic categories onto the text.”
The standard evangelical picture gives pride of place to exegesis, then biblical theology and, in last place, systematic theology. Theologians are often cast as tourists or visitors—or worse, interlopers and invaders—in the field of biblical studies. It’s worth remembering, however, that Geerhardus Vos, himself a biblical theologian, acknowledged that dogmatic theology, when “rightly cultivated,” is as truly biblical as biblical theology, just in a different manner.
Biblical Reasoning is an ambitious attempt at “right cultivating,” and readers are the richer for the theological harvest that Jamieson and Wittman here reap. With “toolkit” in hand, they repair the damage to the broken relationship of exegesis and theology, one rule for right Bible reading at a time.
WHAT IS BIBLICAL REASONING?
The authors take their title from a seminal essay by John Webster (many of whose essays could similarly be unpacked into book-length treatments) of the same name. “Biblical reasoning” involves both exegetical reasoning (following the way the text’s words go) and dogmatic reasoning (bearing witness to the text’s subject matter, though in a more contemporary idiom). Theology is neither a move away from Scripture nor an imposition onto Scripture, they argue; rather, it is a way of thinking with Scripture about Scripture.
Jamieson and Wittman challenge the default assumption of much Evangelical biblical interpretation, according to which the biblical text is the raw material and doctrine the refined product, though often contaminated with foreign (i.e., philosophical) matter. They propose a different picture. Doctrine is not a conceptual structure superimposed onto Scripture but a clarifying of the conceptual substructure that lies just beneath the text’s surface. Theology makes implicit why the biblical words run as they do by formulating the grammatical rules of biblical discourse.
In brief: theology is the grammar of biblical discourse (xx).
Doctrines do not add to or improve the biblical text, much less distort it; instead, they make explicit the logic of God-talk that was previously only implicit.
Part One contains three chapters that set forth the end, pedagogical context, and theological vision for reading the Bible with a theological grammar. The key insight is that Scripture is the “domain of the Word,” namely, a divinely ordained means of directing the reader’s attention not simply to features of the biblical text, but ultimately to the glory of the living Christ about whom the prophets and apostles speak. To reason biblically is to acknowledge that Scripture is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to a vision of God.
CHRISTOLOGICAL AND TRINITARIAN RULES
The seven chapters of Part Two make good on the authors’ claim that Trinitarian and Christological dogmas are neither arbitrary nor foreign impositions onto Scripture but rather necessary and intrinsic principles that enable and facilitate right reading.
For example, because God is the creator of all things ex nihilo, we must read the Bible in ways that are worthy of God. The first rule of the grammar of God—never confuse the Creator with anything creaturely—is also a rule for reading. The “God-fittingness” rule mandates reading Scripture in ways appropriate to its holy object: “With this rule, the doctrine of God itself becomes an exegetical tool” (64). The authors employ this rule to deal with a case study, namely, texts that seem to indicate that God sometimes regrets what he has done (84-90).
Chapters five, six, and nine set forth rules concerning the Trinity’s unity, inseparable operations, and triune missions/processions respectively. These Trinitarian doctrines provide the grammatical rules for reading Scripture’s testimony to the persons, works, and relationships of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Clarity as to the nature of these divine protagonists and their interrelationships is necessary in order to read the Bible correctly and coherently. For example, the rule of inseparable operations exhorts us to understand that all three persons undertake the same action (e.g., creation) in appropriate ways.
Chapters seven and eight identify important Christological rules for rightly identifying the eternal Son who is the subject of everything Jesus does and suffers. The doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum (communication of properties) is a rule for predicating whatever belongs to either Jesus’ human or divine nature to the divine person of the only-begotten Son, the single acting subject of the life of Jesus Christ: “The unity of Christ is a hermeneutical rule because it is an ontological reality” (141).
What makes discerning the deep grammar of biblical discourse a worthwhile effort? Just this: without such biblical reasoning, we will probably not be able to answer correctly Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
It is by no means self-evident how a Jewish monotheist could confess the oneness of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. However, if the Jews of Jesus’ day had read the authors’ rule nine, they might have understood how to do so: “Scripture speaks of Christ in a twofold manner: some things are said of him as divine, and other things are said of him as human” (153). This is Jamieson’s and Wittman’s “partitive” exegesis rule, which pertains to reading the biblical narrative knowing that Jesus Christ is a single person with two natures.
The image of theology as grammar goes a long way towards explaining how systematic theology can develop the Bible’s teaching biblically, unpacking and making explicit what would otherwise remain unthought. Dogmatics uncovers the ontology that grounds the grammar.
My only quibble concerns their distinction between principles and rules. A more precise, compact, and elegant distinction might be between “grammatical rules identified” (ontology) and “grammatical rules applied” (exegesis). This does not detract from the substance of what they have done, however, which is to dismantle the dividing wall of, if not hostility, then indifference and incomprehension, that often separates biblical studies and theology—a wall that serves neither the Scriptures nor the church.
I, therefore, hope Biblical Reasoning will be read, pondered, and discussed by exegetes and theologians alike. Come, let us reason biblically together!