Exegesis, Interpretation, and Using Systematic Theologies

This post is a plea for students of the word to use Systematic Theology books (Berkhof, Bavinck, Turretin, Hodge, etc.) when studying passages in Scripture. Here’s one example why it can be helpful.

In 1 Kings 21.27-29 the Bible says wicked King Ahab “humbled himself” (ESV; nikna in Heb). After studying that phrase, the context (rest of Ahab’s life), and other passages in Scripture, I was pretty convinced that Ahab did not repent in the Ps. 51 sense of the term.

So while I was wrapping up my studies on this text, I grabbed Turretin and looked in the index at the end of vol. III. Sure enough, I found that Turretin worked with 1 Ki 21 several times. He talks about it under his discussion of Holy Scripture, showing how genealogies in Scripture (specifically Matt. 1) have gaps in them, sometimes to “write out of existence” bad kings; helpful, but not specifically what I was looking for.

Turretin also talks about 1 Kings 21 in his refutation of the Socinians: God has foreordained an exact time/date in which a person (all persons) die. Jezebel and Ahab are used by Turretin as an example. Again, helpful, but not what I was looking for.

What I was looking for is found on page 684 of vol. I. Here Turretin says, “Since the humiliation of Ahab (1 K. 21:27, 28 ) was dissembled and hypocritical (from fear of punishment rather than from love of virtue), it could not per se be pleasing to God. Nor did God grant to him an absolute remission of the punishment before threatened, but only some delay; not in order to testify that the external humiliation of the wicked king was accepted by him, but to show to others what is to be expected by one seriously and heartily repenting.”

That’s what I was looking for. A “mini-commentary” on this text. Turretin in a few lines affirmed what took me quite a bit of textual work to conclude. Turretin wasn’t guessing or simply being rationalistic! He did the text work before me – on this and other similar passages in Scripture. As Muller reminds us in PRRD, many of these theologians had years and years of biblical training (languages, history, etc.) before they wrote their theologies. Their training back then can and does help us now.

Of course, I do not suggest we use ST books primarily, or first, in our studies. They should be used later (if you’re a preacher – on Friday!) as we study a text or passage in Scripture. Main point: use the Scripture index in the back of your favorite ST’s often! You might even want to copy/xerox them to save the time of flipping through so many books on your shelves.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 thoughts on “Exegesis, Interpretation, and Using Systematic Theologies”

  1. Thanks Shane! I have developed the habit (which some of my professors might think a bad one) over the past few years of doing exegetical work (either for papers or Sunday teaching) and then checking my major conclusions from the passage against Berkhof, Calvin’s Institutes, PRRD, and even Barth’s CD. It’s mainly to guard myself against innovation, as well as to see where certain conclusions from a passage might lead a person much smarter than myself. To get to this point took some leaps of faith against the conventional wisdom at my seminary that says systematicians either don’t know or don’t care about the text of Scripture. Nice post.

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  2. I learned to do this several years ago but when I would tell someone they would look at me like I was crazy! I long ago started checking certain other books as well, most notably Ridderbos’ The Coming of the Kingdom and Paul: An Outline of His Theology and I know others who do that also.

    Thanks for bringing this little gem of a technique to the masses.

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