What Does it Mean to Read Scripture & the Pentateuch Theologically? [Part A]

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Image Credit: Liberty University

Pentateuchal Studies
March Achieved [Part A]: 86%

Lecturer Comment: “The student has shown a high level of comprehension and insightful ability to synthesis various sources of information into a congruent and systematic development of thinking and argument.”

View Part B: “Do Serpents Really Speak? Genesis as a Tale.”

What does it mean to read any biblical text theologically? There are two major ways that the scripture can be read theologically that seek to take this claim seriously.

A first way, perhaps described as the devotional way, is for the reader to place his or her primary focus ultimately on God. Professor Joel Green says that this is “our commitment to live faithfully (or not) before the God to whom the Scriptures witness. Therefore, such dispositions and practices as attention, acceptance, devotion, and trust characterize theological interpretation” (Green, 2004). To focus on God is to familiarize oneself with who he is, his nature, power, and promises as revealed in scripture. To read the Bible theologically is to glorify God, its primary author. It is to read the Bible in the ways of Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, some of the greatest theologians to have ever lived, who began with the premise that the Bible is Christian Scripture as well as divinely inspired. According to Professor Bruce Birch this means to take “seriously the claim of the text that it is speaking about encounter and relationship with God” (Birch et al. 2005: 1).

A second major way of reading scripture theologically is through a more academic approach that employs historical-grammatical among other methods of exegesis. The late biblical scholar John Sailhamer, a Professor of Old Testament Studies and a specialist in the Pentateuch, explained that to read the Pentateuch theologically is to examine the “major themes and purposes that lie behind its final composition” (Sailhamer, 1991: 241). Part and parcel of this process is to are the methods of biblical criticism which emphasizes the historical pursuit of analyzing the biblical texts as pieces of ancient literature. Significant questions germane to the process concern how the biblical texts were written, why they were written, by whom they were written, and for whom they were written (Rogerson & Lieu, 2006: xvii). Green, however, contends that this purely academic approach should not be the central way in which one reads the Bible theologically because a true theological interpretation “focuses elsewhere.” Though he says that we should view “historical questions” as important, a theological reading should prioritize, on a personal level, “a transformation of allegiances and commitments, which will manifest itself in Scripture-shaped practices.”

Nonetheless, it might be seen to perpetuate a false dichotomy if one divorces these two above mentioned ways of reading scripture theologically from each other, or if one compartmentalizes them into distinct categories. Rather, Birch seems to believe that these two ways of reading scripture go together. Scripture needs to be understood “critically” (Birch et al. 2005: 4), and its wisdom applied to the readers own life (Birch et al. 2005: 3). Birch is particularly thankful to generations of helpful and productive critical scholarship that assists in understanding the biblical texts.

Moreover, reading the Pentateuch theologically is realizing that its more than just a story about an ancient community and an ancient people (Birch et al. 2005: 2). It is to view it as part of the collected faith testimony of ancient Israel that chronicles their experiences with Yahweh, their god. It is to also observe that the Pentateuchal texts are rendered with authority by both Jews and Christians (Birch et al. 2005: 2). It is them that seek the wisdom to be found in its pages (Birch et al. 2005: 2-3), and who hope to apply that wisdom to the troubling challenges of their own time (Birch et al. 2005: 3). Here Birch believes that through a theological reading of scripture we can apply the myriad of voices from ancient Israel to our own challenges, contexts, and perspectives (Birch et al. 2005: 9). To engage this practice is to enter into a dialogue with these many voices (Birch et al. 2005: 9). To read scripture theologically is to see it, or rather the God who speaks through it, as possessing a transformative power that can transform both individual lives and communities (Birch et al. 2005: 3).


Birch, B., Brueggemann, W., Fretheim, T., & Petersen, D. 2005. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Green, J. 2004. The Bible, Theology, and Theological Interpretation. Available: https://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=308 [19 July 2017]

Sailhamer, J. 1991. “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch,” in Westminster Theological Journal, 53: 241-261.

Rogerson, W. & Lieu, J. 2006. The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford University Press.


One response to “What Does it Mean to Read Scripture & the Pentateuch Theologically? [Part A]

  1. Pingback: Do Serpents Really Speak? Genesis as a Tale [Part B]. | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

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