Tenets, Creeds, and Hermeneutics: How Systematic Theology helps us read Scripture faithfully

I was away at an ordination at the weekend, so over dinner the night before I was chatting to the apostle who had come to preach at the ordination (and who happened to be a former National Leader of the Apostolic Church). One of the topics that my interlocutor brought up was the need to read Scripture as a confessional theologian, and thus the importance of the role of systematic theology in our hermeneutics.

This evening I’ve been reading The Holy Trinity Revisited, a collection of essays in response to Stephen R. Holmes book The Holy Trinity. This got me thinking again about the conversation at the weekend, for in Kevin Giles’ contribution to the volume, he points out three principles from Athanasius for reading Scripture theologically, from which ‘we contemporary evangelicals have much to learn’ (p.46). 

Firstly, Athanasius teaches that we must read Scripture in harmony with the body of teaching which has been handed down to us (essentially the Creed). This isn’t an appeal to a tradition independent of the Bible, but rather it means reading the Bible, not idiosyncratically and individualistically, but together with the great teachers Christ has placed in the Church before us. The Creed, after all, is simply the summary of what the Bible teaches.

Secondly, Athanasius teaches us that we can’t set an isolated text over against what the whole of the rest of the Scriptures teach. If something’s plain in all of Scripture, then it can’t be contradicted by one or two verses. If we read that verse or two that way, then we’re misunderstanding them. Instead, those verses are only rightly understood in harmony with the rest of Scripture.

Thirdly, Athanasius says that sometimes we need a doctrinal rule that comes from Scripture as our hermeneutic to understand something properly. So, for example, texts about Jesus, Athanasius points out, should be read remembering that there is ‘a double account of the Saviour; that he was ever God and is the Son, being the Father’s Logos and Radiance and Wisdom; and that afterwards for us he took the flesh of a virgin’ (Contra Arianos, 3.26.26-9). When texts about Jesus are read with this ‘double account’ in mind, then we can see the consistency between those texts which speak of Him in His majesty, and those which speak of Him as being hungry or tired. (For a discussion of Augustine doing the same thing, have a look at pp.805-806 of this article by Keith Johnson in JETS.)

Athanasius’ three principles for reading, then, show us that we need to read any passage of Scripture in the context of the whole of the Bible’s teaching, or, in other words, in the context of the whole of Christian doctrine. Whether it’s the Creed (principle 1), the whole teaching of Scripture (principle 2), or a doctrinal rule (principle 3), Athanasius points us to the importance of a decent working-knowledge of Christian theology for rightly understanding the Bible.

Which brings me back to my chat over dinner on Saturday night. You see, systematic theology is still as important and useful in rightly understanding the Scriptures today as it was back in the days of Athanasius. (And any cry of Sola Scriptura which would seek to eliminate this hermeneutical role of Christian doctrine is a false cry, alien to what the Reformers meant by Sola Scriptura!) In Athanasius’ day, the heretics – the Arians – claimed to be building their teaching only on Scripture. The heretics could produce their proof-texts without any problem. But the orthodox teachers (like Athanasius) saw the necessity of theology. And so the orthodox read Scripture theologically, to guard against verses torn out of their whole-Bible context or the misinterpretation of individual passages.

And we need to do the same today. So, when an influential Pentecostal leader says something like ‘knowing the ways of God and walking in them brings us closer to knowing Jesus’ or ‘God’s favour and blessing are on the other side of our obedience’ and justifies it with a proof-text, we can reply that, despite his proof-text, he’s not being biblical at all. Rather than engaging in a competition to see who can pile up the most proof-texts torn out of context, a theological hermeneutic allows us to assess the claim by looking to the whole of what the Bible teaches.

The Creeds are carefully prepared statements of theology which the church accepts as true summaries of the Scriptures. Within various evangelical traditions, we also have our own confessional statements, which we accept within our own communions as summarising the teaching of Scripture. For those of us who are Apostolics, that means we recognise the Tenets of the Apostolic Church as ‘the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith’ which are summarised from ‘the Holy Scriptures.’ And so, the Creeds and the Tenets can help us as we read the Scriptures, for they are not independent authorities being imposed upon the Word of God, but rather faithful summaries of God’s Word which help ensure that we are reading the part in light of the whole. That’s what it means to read the Bible as a confessional Christian: we do not lay aside our confession of faith (i.e. the Tenets and the Creeds) when we open the Scriptures, but rather hold onto them as safety rails which guard us from dangerous, unbiblical interpretations.