Throughout my years as a believer, I have been told and taught that when one reads or studies the Bible that one should not come with any preconceived theology in mind but allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to work as one reads and studies the text. This is, of course, a theological statement that contradicts itself. It assumes several things: 1. That humans are not theologically oriented creatures. 2. That we can somehow wipe our minds clean of theological notions. 3. That the Bible is something that has theology in it, but we should not think of that theology when we come to it. There are more I’m sure, but you likely understand what I am getting at. I understand the impulse that drives someone to want to say this; it is a desire to not read something into the text which is not there (sometimes called eisegesis). This is a worthwhile effort, and indeed, reading something into the text that is not there is a danger, but when we approach the Bible as a book that is written by men, but at the same time divinely inspired, we must treat it as such in order to read and study it properly.
I think what people mean most of the time when attempting to avoid eisegesis is to avoid theological systems (such as covenant or dispensational theology), but even here we are stuck with realities which cannot be avoided because we have been conditioned to read and study the Bible in certain ways. These systems certainly are the result of theological formulation, but how has this formulation come about? It is by believing certain things about the Bible as being true, not the least of which comes from the Bible itself. When we as Evangelicals (much more when we hold to a Reformed tradition) read and study the Bible we do so as those who hold that the Bible is the Word of God, because that is what the Bible claims concerning itself (e.g. 2 Tim. 3:16). As we gather this information from the Bible and the way in which we then express this in words ends up becoming a theological formulation. This happens when we not only study the Scripture in chapter and verse, but also book by book, and ultimately looking at the larger picture and seeing how the Divine Author has revealed Himself to us. Even what I just wrote is a theological inference we make from reading and studying the Scriptures. We believe certain things to be true and therefore we read and study the Bible in a certain way, which is unavoidable. If you believe that the Scripture is inspired and inerrant you are coming to the Bible each time you do with a theology. One, might say, “Yes, but I believe that because that is what the Bible says concerning itself,” to which I would reply, “Yes, but you do not only read that in one verse but many and you also believe it, because you are able to discern what is spiritually appraised because God has graciously given you that ability (1 Cor. 2:14-16).” Of course, all of what has just been stated is chock-full of theological formulation.
Is this reasoning (even if it is Spiritually engaged reasoning) circular? Yes, and unavoidably so. What I am arguing is that it is okay, because we are starting with a source authority just like everyone else (even if they deny it), and therefore we cannot avoid a theological reading of Scripture because the Scripture is theological. The result of this kind of reading is certainly further theological formulation, which in due time leads to systems of theology, which of course others in church history have already formulated. I believe this possibly points to a way in which we can think about theological formulation in “layers” if you will, but the point of this post is that theological formulation is unavoidable and therefore we should actually be seeking to engage theologically with the text rather than seeking to avoid it. I would argue it is, in fact, better to do so, as it will likely help us not repeat errors of the past. This kind of reading assumes that we eventually delve into the aforementioned “layers,” which are found in the categories such as Biblical, Systematic, and Historical theology.