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Phenomenal Biblical Theology

???????????????????????????????When I talk about Biblical Theology I usually intend an approach to Scripture that envelopes many things. Like ordering a car and understanding that it will come with a lot of parts already put together… hopefully. Some of my friends prefer kits. Biblical Theology’s  subject is specific. It’s attitude singular. It’s principles basic. It’s methodology seemingly intuitive.

  1. The subject of biblical theology is the text of Scripture as we have received it from the ancients. This does not exclude text criticism (comparing contradictory manuscripts in order to ascertain the correct reading) but it does exclude using reconstructions of supposed sources as the seat of meaning. It also excludes mental reconstructions of “the event” as opposed to an observation of the text as an inspired interpretation of that event. The text is the subject… the text is not merely a window through which one sees or attempts to reach the subject.
  2. The attitude is PHENOMENOLOGICAL.[1]  Sorry for that word, but that’s what it’s called. I will, as an outsider to the religious experiences and convictions of the biblical authors, seek to understand their religious experiences and convictions from their perspective before, though not necessarily to the exclusion of, playing the part of theologian or judge.  In short, I will, for the sake of understanding, suspend disbelief  and listen to each text as if wholly convinced by the presuppositions, world view, cultural values and opinions of the author once I have discovered them… as opposed to imagining what they must be, given that they are ancient, stupid, and misogynistic.
  3. The principles are found within Historical Grammatical Literary Hermeneutics.  Long Live HAGALAH!!! Basically, this means that I set my self to discover the author’s intended meaning as expressed within his or her own historical context, language context, document context and genre context, i.e. the rules for each type of literature at the time of the author. Many struggle with figuring out if meaning is determined by the author, the text, or the reader. The answer is author. Without a communicator texts are just ambiguous signs whose meaning changes and diversifies depending to which system, time and place I attach it. Without attachment symbols have no meaning at all. As a reader, it is not for me to say what symbols mean; my job is to discover what they mean. Anything less is not communication.
  4. The methodology, i.e. the actual processes used to discover an author’s meaning in a text is INDUCTIVE. One comes to the text stripping away as many preconceived ideas as possible, dedicating his or her energies to a keen observation of terms, grammar, literary relationships, and emotional energy. He or she interrogates the text with a careful scheme of questions designed to force it to give up its secrets under a thorough investigation of the answers to those questions. The investigation of answers focuses on proper sources like the larger context of the document itself, Bible Dictionaries, word study tools, commentaries, and books & articles by people who generally know what they are talking about.

So when I attempt to discern the biblical theology of a unit of Scripture, I approach the present form of the text with an open heart ready to listen without judgment, giving the author the benefit of the doubt. I look carefully at the words and grammar and literary relationships and consider their meaning within the author’s historical, linguistic, and genre context as expressed within the document as a whole. I want to know what the author of each text was attempting to communicate in each text as he wrote to those he envisioned as his audience. We all have questions about the world. Christians often seek answers to those questions from Scripture. Before we attempt to get those answers from a text of Scripture, we must understand what the text was intended to say; if the passage has relevance to our questions in one way or another, good. If not; we shouldn’t force it.



[1] For a discussion on the present state of the practice of the phenomenology of religion, see Arvind Sharma, To the Things Themselves: Essays on the Discourse and Practice on the Phenomenology of Religion (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2001).

7 thoughts on “Phenomenal Biblical Theology

  1. Evelyn says:

    So glad that is how you uncover what the author was saying when he or she wrote the scriptures, I am sure there are many mistakes in our present bibles.

    1. You mean, many mistakes in the way we tend to read our Bibles… true. We must take care when reaching across the ages to read such ancient stories and poems. Thanks for your faithful reading and comments. God Bless

  2. Nathan says:

    It seems like the application of this version of biblical theology contradicts its own statement that it allows one to come to the text “with an open heart ready to listen without judgment”.
    From the modern phenomenological “attitude” to the principle that meaning is determined by the author, these assume a number of controversial presuppositions and judgments that not only influence one’s reading of the text but even predetermine exegetical possibilities in some cases.
    The phenomenological “attitude” provides a good example. The phenomenological method is a recent development in modern philosophy and the philosophy of religion. It is not an uncontroversial approach to the text and, while it has its proponents, the choice of this approach is decidedly a choice against other approaches. To choose the phenomenological method is to make a judgment between methods that not only colors one’s reading of the text but also precludes certain conclusions regarding what the text can and can’t say before we even hear what the text says.

    How do you reconcile these principles with the “open heart ready to listen without judgment” value statement that this version of biblical theology claims?

    1. A listener seeks always to discover the meaning of an author and nothing else… anything else is not listening but telling.

      Phenomenological is not new, even if the label is… it is the art of listening while seeking to understand. the text is a communication event by an author whom I seek to understand before sitting in judgment on the content… before being offended by the ideas… understanding before judgment, though many decisions need to be made in order to arrive at understanding… hence why I placed it in the category of attitude.

      For instance, I have my feelings about slavery… but can I read Aristotle’s defense of slavery with understanding if I allow my feelings about it to pick a fight at the very idea the one would defend it… if I import into the listening moment a myriad of issues that arose in American Slavery as distinct from the practice throughout the ages… if I allow the screaming voices inside my own head to drown out the voice of the author?

      No, I cannot.

      1. Nathan says:

        The phenomenological method is not phenomenological because it is or claims to be “the art of listening while seeking to understand.” Many approaches and methodologies claim the same thing. It is phenomenological because it is an entire system of thought based on a specific view of reality. It is rooted in the philosophical works of the modern founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl.

        The title of the book you recommend, “To the Things Themselves: Essays on the Discourse and Practice on the Phenomenology of Religion,” is an indicator of the modern origin of this approach. “To the things themselves” is the very motto of Husserl himself. In the history of ideas, the phenomenological approach is a modern innovation.

        Now, the fact that it is modern is not an indication of whether it is true or not. The phenomenological view of reality may or may not be correct. My point is that in selecting this or any approach, one is making a judgment about the text and its content before coming to the text. This judgment will inevitably influence and affect one’s interpretation of the text.

  3. unpack your question a bit more. What do you intend by “From the modern phenomenological “attitude” to the principle that meaning is determined by the author, these assume a number of controversial presuppositions and judgments that not only influence one’s reading of the text but even predetermine exegetical possibilities in some cases.”

    what controversial presuppositions do you mean?

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