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What Is The Proper Relationship Between Historical Context and Theology in Exegesis?

Categories Theology

"There is a revolution going on in evangelical biblical studies," writes Lynn H. Cohick in her new commentary on Philippians (The Story of God Bible Commentary series). "The issues revolve around the place of doctrine vis-á-vis historical context and which approach should have pride of place."

A story to illustrate: In 2010 I attended arguably one of the most memorable Evangelical Theological Society meetings, the meeting on New Perspective on Paul featuring NT Wright, Thomas Schreiner, and Frank Thielman as plenary speakers. If you were there, you know how riveting it was to watch these three discuss this imporant issue. As a Th.M. student of historical theology at the time, I was particularly interested in a session on the early church and NPP.

This particular session was a facinating discussion on how the early Church Fathers understood many of the now contested NPP phrases—e.g. "works of the law," "righteousness of/from God," "faith/fulness of/in Christ." And according to this presentation, there isn't evidence that the earliest of Fathers—Ignatius of Antioch or Clement of Rome—or other later patristics interpreted these phrases as NPPers now interpret them. The presenter (his name escapes me) concluded that if these earliest interpreters of Paul didn't interpret these phrases as NPP does now, perhaps they are misguided in their conclusions. As you can imagine, these conclusions created a ruckus among NPP proponents, many claiming he was reading pre-determined theology back into the text.

Cohick recounts a similar story in her discussion on Philippians 2:6-11, where a presenter at SBL used a discussion among the patristics about the Trinity and person of Christ to interpret the term "glory" in Phil. 2:11 regarding the relationship of the Son to the Father. As Cohick recounts, "[a questioner] responded passionately that the speaker missed the social world of Paul, specifically Paul's direct engagement with the imperial cult. The meaning in the original context was buried under later theology."

These two stories beg the question, "What is the proper dance of historical context and theological development in biblical exegesis?"

Thankfully, there have been recent efforts to bring biblical scholars and systematic theologians together to hammer out this thorny relationship. In her discussion of Philippians 2:6-11, Cohick says that while the two "have been set at odds with each other in critical scholarship," they are not mutually exclusive. (125)

Cohick's own convictions regarding this dance of history and theology in reading the Christ Hymn, for instance, "lean[s] toward understanding theology as a useful conversation partner, not an uninvited gatecrasher." (125) We see this conviction deftly born out at every turn in her new contribution to Pauline scholarship, particularly in Phil. 2:6-11 with regards to Christ's preexistence.

For instance, the standard-bearers of NPP, Dunn and Wright, interpret this passage's emphasis in a way that parts with tradition.

"Dunn argues the hymn is not about preexistence," Cohick says, "but about the human Jesus, who restores humanity as the second Adam and who takes up the glory that the first Adam lost." (110) He challenges the argument that morphe ("Who, being in very nature God") in 2:6 refers to preexistence, insisting instead that Paul has in mind the phrase "image of God" from Genesis 1:27 and eikon. Dunn concludes that Paul is proclaiming Jesus as the new Adam, rather than as the preexistent Son of God (though it should be noted he doesn't deny his preexistence). So morphe should be viewed as a synonym to eikon in the LXX phrase "image of God," pointing back into Israel's Scriptures for context to Paul's understanding of Christ as last Adam.

While Wright parts company with Dunn's conviction that preexistence is not the issue, "For Wright, the Adam-Christology is tied to Israel-Christology, which points to Christ's incarnation and subsequent work of redemption." (110) So while he doesn't discount that the passage advocates Christ's pre-existence, he suggests it's much more about Jesus as last Adam taking on the role marked out for Israel (see The Climax of the Covenant, 59-62). So Israel's story sits behind Paul's argument, rather than theology per se.

Perhaps Wright is correct, but as Cohick makes plain, "[a] quick survey of interpretations for the hymn's underlying story has demonstrated the predominant view throughout the ages has been that the hymn highlights the incarnation of the preexistent Son of God, who in the later creed was explained in explicit trinitarian language." (112) Athanasius rightly used this passage to skewer Arius' followers for denying there was a time when the Son was not, because it teaches Christ's preexistence as God.

Returning back to Dunn's interpretation of morphe, Cohick insists "a better way forward in looking at these two clauses, 'in the very nature God' and 'equality with God,' is to see a claim about Christ's person as a member of the Trinity." (114) Rather than seeing "a deliberate allusion to and contrast with Adam in Philippians 2.6-11" as Dunn does (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 286) she stands with the historic tradition in understanding Paul's intent to communicate Christ's preexistence, the same portrait painted in The Nicene Creed.

Cohick concludes, "readers can be confident and comfortable including theological reflections in their exegesis." (126) I agree. Yes, we need historians to help correct misunderstandings regarding imporant socio-religious context surounding the Text—thank you E.P. Sanders. But we also need theologians—Irenaeus to Athenasius, Augustine to Aquinas, Calvin to Barth, and beyond—to help us understand how the Church has come to understand important texts that form the central narrative and nexus of our belief claims.

Read more of Cohick's commentary on PhilppiansGet the free eBook, Eager Expectations.


Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at

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