I want to persuade you that a growing, and detailed, knowledge of systematic theology is an indispensable part of any preacher’s preaching ministry. And I want to do it by focusing on the difficulties of exegeting one particular passage: Hebrews 10:1–14.
Before theological college, I was trained in a pattern of biblical interpretation that, in the name of sola scriptura, emphasised the need to pay close attention to the details of the passage in front of us, and that warned of the dangers of any theological system neutering the particularities and surprises of the passage. At one level, this was extremely healthy advice. I’m grateful for the insistence on close exegetical attention to what a passage is actually saying, not what I think it might say, or what I’d like it to say: this is vital. I’m also grateful for the emphasis on thinking deeply about how a passage of Scripture fits in its immediate context and the overall ‘melodic line’ of a particular book.
However, it was obvious that, for some of my teachers at least, systematics was something of a bogeyman: something rather separate from exegesis, and something likely to imperil good exegesis of Scripture and so the priority and sufficiency of Scripture.
This view is problematic for a number of reasons. It tends to atomise Scripture—Scripture alone is functionally replaced with the-exegesis-of-isolated-passages-alone. It tends to prioritise the intention of the human author over the intention of Scripture’s divine author (even as my teachers were wonderfully faithful in upholding the verbal inspiration of all the jots and tittles). It therefore risks reading Scripture as a contradictory, or at least tension-filled, collection of books, rather than as a coherent whole reflecting the coherent mind of its divine Author. We were even encouraged that if passage B contradicts passage A, we should simply embrace and preach the contradiction! It wrongly imagines that we come to Scripture, and to individual passages of Scripture, as blank slates, rather than as readers who are already shaped by prior (even if not clearly articulated) theological and philosophical commitments. It also misunderstands the nature of systematic theology, which done properly is not opposed to Scripture or in competition with exegesis, but is an indispensable aspect of the ministry of God’s Word.
However, my point in this short article is that, even leaving those other problems aside, ignorance of, or rejection of, biblical, faithful systematic theology—including the rich heritage of centuries of Christian reflection on the systematic meaning and implications of Scripture—makes intelligent and faithful exegesis of many individual passages of Scripture impossible.
This was brought home to me recently in reading Hebrews 10:1–14 in my own personal Bible reading. It may be worth pausing to read the passage.
In what follows, I’m not going to offer answers or tell you how to read the passage. I’m just going to ask some questions. These are doctrinal questions for which we need to have doctrinal answers if we’re to understand and be equipped to preach the passage adequately. They are questions that a careful reading of the passage raises. But they are not questions that can be answered from the passage, nor from the book of Hebrews in isolation, nor even from a biblical theology approach alone (valuable as all those things are). I’m not saying that our preaching of this passage would need to be loaded down with systematic categories and explanations. I am saying that we’d be unwise to attempt to teach this passage without an adequate doctrinal hinterland. At best, our preaching of it would be thin, and might risk distorting the meaning of the passage. At worst it might fall into heresy.
I’ll group the questions into doctrinal themes.
Christ’s sacrifice is described as the offering of ‘the body of Jesus Christ’ (v. 10). And we are told that he is the one who made the offering (v. 12).
- Did he only offer his body? Or also his soul? What is the nature of Christ’s humanity? How can we avoid an Apollinarian Christology here? Does it matter if we don’t? Why?
- Was it only his human nature that was offered?
- Did Christ also suffer in his divine nature?
- How can we avoid either separating or confusing his divine and human natures?
- Put bluntly: what is the nature of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and what is the identity of the Christ who offered it?
- Why is it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins?
- How is it possible for a man to deal with anyone’s sins but his own?
- Even if that is possible, how is it possible for one sacrifice of one man to make satisfaction for the sins of more than one man?
Application of Redemption
Christ, by his one offering has perfected those who are being sanctified (v. 14). Leaving aside the question of what exactly Hebrews means by perfection:
- When were we perfected? From the moment of Christ’s sacrifice? From the moment we believed? Are we really already perfected or does it await a future date?
- Does Scripture teach progressive sanctification or only positional sanctification?
- What is the relationship of justification and sanctification? How will you avoid denying justification by faith alone, while still insisting on the need for sanctification?
- Is sanctification necessary for salvation? If so, in what sense? What errors might you want to guard against in understanding and explaining this?
Hebrews 10:5–7 quotes the LXX of Psalm 40:6–8, and draws a major theological conclusion from the line ‘a body you have prepared for me’. But the Hebrew (MT) of that line, and consequently our English translations of Psalm 40, reads ‘but you have given me an open ear’ [lit. ‘ears you have dug for me’].
- What are we to make of the differences between MT and LXX here?
- What are we to make of the presence of two inspired versions of this verse of Psalm 40 in our Bibles? Are they both inspired? If not, how can the author to the Hebrews quote a non-inspired version as Scripture?
- And what are we to make of Hebrews using the LXX translation, which is very different from the Hebrew, to make a major doctrinal point?
- Does it fit? Or must we readjust these doctrines? Do the answers to these questions matter? How much and why?
The Divine Will
Given the focus on God’s will here (vv. 7, 9, 10):
- What is your understanding of the divine decree? How does the atonement relate to God’s will? (And to the wills of its human agents? And how do divine and human wills relate in the death of Christ?)
- How does the decree that Christ should become incarnate and offer himself for sin relate to other aspects of the divine decree (e.g., to create, to permit the fall, to choose some for salvation).
- Is there are hint here (or more than a hint) of the doctrine of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son? What do you make of this doctrine? Is it possible to hold it without falling into tritheism?
- When Christ says, ‘I have come to do your will’, does this imply that the Son has a different will to the Father? How does this square with the unity of the Triune God? Are there three wills in God? Or only one? If only one, can we say that the Son has a divine will? How can I avoid tritheism? And modalism?
- What could it mean to say that God does not desire the sacrifices that he commanded? How can doing away with the sacrifices God willed establish God’s will?
- Does God’s will change over time, rendering him mutable? How does this square with claims that he doesn’t change and his mind does not change?
Christ sat down at God’s right hand until his enemies should be made his footstool.
- When will Christ’s enemies be made his footstool? And how will this happen? Will it be in an instant, on his return? Or will it happen gradually, before his return? What would that look like? What shape (if any) should we expect history to have between Christ’s ascension and his return?
These are obviously not questions that can be answered in 8–12 hours of sermon preparation. Nor are they questions that can answered purely by exegesis of Hebrews (nor by biblical theology alone). But I would argue that most of them are questions we need to be able to answer if we are to exegete this passage adequately, and if we are to avoid some serious theological errors. They are also questions with which theologians have wrestled and that creeds and confessions have answered throughout the Church’s history in sophisticated and compelling ways.
I hope I’ve persuaded you that systematic theology is an indispensable servant of exegesis, and a vital aspect of faithfully ministering God’s Word. And that, given the stakes and the complexity, a balanced diet of systematic theological reading is an important part of any minister’s job.