A Penetrating Analogy

Theology is like an electric drill. The motor that runs theology is the Bible, the principium (the first principle). It underlies all the theological disciplines, just as the motor runs the drill. In considering a drill, nothing at all will work without the motor. In theology, we explore the meaning of Scriptures in exegesis. We explore what the church has said about the meaning of Scripture in church history (i.e., looking at God’s gifts of the Holy Spirit’s understanding and instruction given to teachers and preachers throughout the church’s history). We look at what the Scriptures say as a whole in systematic theology. We look at how the Scriptures apply to us in practical theology. We examine how we can remove obstacles (by God’s help) to an unbeliever’s coming to faith in God through the Bible in apologetics. What unites all the theological disciplines is the Bible. It is the motor of the drill.

To get the full use out of a drill, it is necessary to know how the parts work, and what all the switches and gears do. Knowing this about a drill is analogous to the exegetical enterprise. Or, to switch metaphors for a moment, exegesis looks at the individual trees in the forest.

Knowing something about the drill’s history can help us appreciate all that a modern drill can do. Hand drills, for instance, while having a charm of their own, and having the advantage of less noise, are also quite a bit (if you’ll pardon the pun) less efficient. This is similar to the function of church history. Studying church history helps us understand how and why we got where we are today. It helps us avoid the mistakes of the past, while also learning from the past so that the past can correct us where we are wrong (we need to make sure we avoid chronological snobbery here).

It is, of course, necessary to understand what a drill does as a whole if we are going to make any use of it. A drill makes holes in wood or some other substance. If we don’t understand its purpose, we might as well forget about using it as a tool, or we might be tempted to use it as a hammer. Understanding what a drill does in its entirety is similar to the project of systematic theology, which always has an eye on the other disciplines, learning from them, and informing them (not to mention guarding the other disciplines from error!).

This last named function of systematic theology needs defense, since most exegetes these days don’t particular like the idea of systematic theology having any role to play in exegesis (and some of them actively despise systematic theology). Systematic theology is a fence that guards our exegesis from error. If our systematic theology actually comes from the organic unfolding progressive nature of Scripture, then it will not be a straight-jacket, but rather the fence that keeps the children from going out into the dangerous road. Operating without a systematic theology is actually impossible, since the human mind cannot avoid synthesizing what it knows into a coherent whole. People who deny that they have a systematic theology actually very much have a systematic theology. It’s usually a very bad systematic theology, since the proponent of it tries to deny that it is even there.

Apologetics doesn’t fit the analogy of a drill quite as well as the other disciplines (and every analogy has its limitations), but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. If someone comes along and doesn’t believe that drill does what a drill actually does, then apologetics is the task of pointing out the various features of a drill that point (again, pardon the pun) towards its actual function.

Lastly, practical theology is like the drill bit. Practical theology is where we answer the question, “so what?” The drill bit is where the drill actually makes a penetrating difference to a piece of wood. If there is no drill bit (or screwdriver bit), then the drill won’t actually accomplish anything. The whole point of these other disciplines is to make up a drill that will work well at accomplishing its task.

Equally important, however, is the recognition that a drill bit by itself is not much good. Could someone conceivably drill a hole in a piece of wood using a drill bit and his own bare hands without the drill? Sure, but it make take several days, weeks, or months, depending on how thick the wood is. The better the drill, the heavier the drill, the more efficient will be its penetration of the wood. Practical theology divorced from the other disciplines is a drill bit that has no bite. This is one reason, incidentally, that I quickly tire of practical theology books that do not do any theology. In my mind, such books are really no better than books of advice. It won’t grab me at all unless the practical theologian proves that his application and practice are, in fact, biblical.

All of the disciplines are equally important, and (even more importantly) mutually dependent. Let no exegete turn up his nose at the fence. Instead, let him know that outside the fence is danger, not freedom. Let the systematician not turn up his nose at exegesis, knowing that it is the lifeblood of his own discipline. Let him not impose non-biblical categories on the text of Scripture. Let neither the exegete nor the systematician forget how the church has wrestled with the text in its history, lest they fall into grievous error that has already been laid to rest. Let none of these forget that all of Scripture is useful to make the man of God complete.

So, what should the pastor do in response to this? Should he become an expert in every one of the disciplines? Yes and no. Seminary training is supposed to be a solid introduction to all the disciplines (and should be done in a very unified way). Pastors do not need to have a Ph.D. to exercise a unified theological encyclopedia in their ministries. What they do need, however, is balance. Most pastors like certain kinds of books in one of the theological fields better than books in the other fields. Or they might like two or three of the fields, but not all of them. Pastors should make a serious effort to direct their reading in a balanced way, especially favoring what I call “summary books.” Any book that helps summarize the state of a particular theological discipline is an extremely helpful book to read. Pastors should read books in all the five major fields of theological studies: exegesis, church history, systematic theology, practical theology, and apologetics. Maybe a rotation is a good idea in this regard.

For people in the pew, take a look to see if your pastor is not very balanced in this regard. Do his sermons seem to have no bite to them, because you can’t see where they arose from the text? Or, are the sermons mere lectures, not having application at all? Or does he try to cram all of Reformed systematic theology into every single sermon? Or, do the sermons stick closely to the text, but never observe wider implications for understanding the Bible as a whole? You can encourage your pastor to broaden his reading, and the sermons will certainly benefit from it.

Similarly, the person in the pew can start reading this way as well. A good introductory book in each discipline is extremely helpful. In this regard, it is also helpful to note that the Puritans and the Reformers did not engage in these disciplines in an atomistic way. They did all of them together whenever they did theology. They practiced a unified encyclopedia quite unconsciously, since the division into separate disciplines only came with the Enlightenment (or, as I prefer, the Endarkenment). So, it is helpful to read pre-modern works as well, since they do not have the error of atomism. If we are not aware of this problem, and take steps to correct it, our churches will suffer greatly because of it. If, however, we look straight at the problem, and take conscious steps to become generalist theologians, the Word will penetrate our hearts more completely and effectively, I believe, and we will know God better. Drill away!


  1. roberty bob said,

    November 12, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    You recommend that we balance our reading across all of the fields.

    One of my mentors emphasized the need for a well-furnished mind.

  2. ackbeet said,

    November 13, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Wow! Nice bit (pun very much intended) of mileage you got out of that analogy! Very colorful. My only comment is that you really should intend the puns. You’re definitely old enough to trot out “bad father puns”.

  3. November 18, 2014 at 12:03 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  4. November 18, 2014 at 6:14 am

    […] A Penetrating Analogy – “We look at what the Scriptures say as a whole in systematic theology. We look at how the Scriptures apply to us in practical theology. We examine how we can remove obstacles (by God’s help) to an unbeliever’s coming to faith in God through the Bible in apologetics. What unites all the theological disciplines is the Bible. It is the motor of the drill.” […]

  5. December 15, 2014 at 6:00 am

    […] Continue Reading […]

  6. De Maria said,

    December 16, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    Why, do you think, are there so many meanings of Scripture, in theology?

  7. roberty bob said,

    December 16, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    to #6 . . .

    I’m guessing, based on the above article, that when the drill is left unattended, any old fool who comes along can pick it up and . . . .

    There are those who study / do theology in order to find out “what the Bible means to me” rather than listen to the church [the pillar and foundation of the truth] teach with one voice the true Faith revealed through Christ our Lord.

  8. December 16, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    Roberty bob We alwayschear by Roman logic that sola scripturist have no unity and this proves we should rely on the church( meaning the Roman church) the pilar and foundation of the church. But using that logic the church should be unified. Buf Its not. Is their one voice in Rome. I think not. I heard Roman historian on ewtn critising the New Pope for saying trinity hating religions are golden. If you are honest their ard more sects in Romanism than Protestantism. We will stick to the Word.

  9. Jason Loh said,

    December 17, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Roberty Rob,

    Why listen to the voice of demons? Don’t you know that scripture condemns Romanism as doctrines of demons?

    This shows you’re ignorant of the word.

    Justification by faith and love – demonic

    Papacy and papal infallibility – demonic

    The idea that only the Roman Church is the pillar and ground of truth – demonic

    Enforced clerical celibacy – demonic

  10. greenbaggins said,

    December 17, 2014 at 8:50 am

    De Maria, the answer to your question is rather simple: the reason there are so many different interpretations of Scripture out there is sin.

  11. December 17, 2014 at 9:49 am

    greenbagggins of course in Rome man’s not so bad and God’s not so mad.

  12. December 17, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Jason, great defender of the faith. Your reward is great.

  13. December 17, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Luther said, Rome robs from faith and gives to love what God solely intended for faith. For it is faith that receives our justification and brings Him to the heart. Love is always 2nd in natural order. It stretches out to neighbor, only faith can receive the gift. 1 John: 5:4 ” For whatever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Without it is impossible to please Him. We have look no further than the height of the sacrifice of the Mass to see utter unbelief.

  14. December 17, 2014 at 10:08 am

    ” Who is the one who has overcome the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the sone of God.” We who have believed in the Word have already overcome the world. But putting your faith in a church whose savior is not yet risen can’t save you. God bless.

  15. roberty bob said,

    December 17, 2014 at 11:33 am

    to #10 . . . of course sin is the rather simple answer to the question of why so many meanings

    The elders in Reformed churches supervise the doctrine of their pastors [Ministers of the Word] by judging whether their teaching — preached and in print — is in compliance with the Forms of Unity [Canons of Dort, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism]. Presbyterian churches who hold their teaching elders to the standard of the Westminster Confession aim at that same goal. Even church denominations that claim to be non-confessional usually pen a statement of faith which outlines the doctrinal positions which they have pledged themselves to hold. Every organized church that I know of strives to understand what it believes is the true meaning of the sacred text, and to teach the doctrine which conforms to that meaning. Non-compliance is judged to be a deviation from the truth, which is sin. Those in the church who deviate in their preaching and teaching are judged to be sinners, and will be sanctioned as such.

  16. December 17, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    roberty bob, one big difference. The WCF says reformed and always being reformed, not always reforming, always being reformed. To stave off the grand errors of Rome.

  17. roberty bob said,

    December 17, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    I hear the gospel that God so loved the world that he gave His son
    I am moved by the Spirit to believe in Jesus and to love Jesus
    My faith in Jesus goes hand-in-hand with my love for Jesus

    but I am hearing you guys tell me

    I am damned because faith that attached to love is demonic
    I am saved only when I come to Jesus by faith alone
    Therefore I must find a faith that is not expressed through love

    even though the Apostle Paul says
    The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love

  18. Jason Loh said,

    December 18, 2014 at 3:37 am

    Re Luther, Amen Brother Kevin Failoni … Amen!

    Our Saviour Jesus Christ Who died for your sins bless and keep both now and always.


  19. December 18, 2014 at 10:32 am

    roberty bob We said nothing of the sort. You aren’t healthy because you use your arms. You use your arms because your healthy. ” Your faith has made you well” Jesus said. You Catholics don’t get it, we don’t separate Faith from love, we distinguish them. Faith is not love. The bible never says we are justified by love. In fact the scripture says we are only to look to Christ’s righteousness by faith, and not our own works or love.. Abraham was righteous because God declared him so when he believed. He received the promises when he believed. Yes we will be rewarded for our works, but not in the sense of our justification before God. Christ became sin, I became righteous. Imputation

  20. roberty bob said,

    December 18, 2014 at 11:26 am

    “You aren’t healthy because you use your arms. You use your arms because you are healthy.” — Kevin

    This is your way of saying that . . .

    You aren’t justified / righteous / saved by faith because you love the Lord your God and your neighbor. You love the Lord your God and your neighbor because you are justified / righteous / saved by faith.

    It is not possible, then, to love God and neighbor unless one is already justified by faith. Wherever you find saving faith, you find love for God and neighbor. Wherever you find love for God and neighbor, you find saving faith.

    The faith that saves is never alone; it is always accompanied by love for God and neighbor. The greatest commandment — to love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself — is obeyed by those who have saving faith.

    Those who do not love God and neighbor do not know the Lord, and they do not have saving faith.

    Yes, it is by faith that one is justified.

    Faith alone? There is no such thing, as the Epistle of James points out.

    So . . . tell me how justification by faith expressed through love is demonic. How would you have faith express itself so that you can recognize it as true faith? Is there some other way? What does faith alone — without love, without any obedient action attached — look like?

    Our Lord Jesus commended those with faith, as you have said. But he also took notice of a particular woman who lavished her love upon Jesus because she had been forgiven of much sin. So, Jesus links love and forgiveness as well as faith and forgiveness. Love and faith are both appropriate and necessary responses to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  21. December 18, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Robert bob, “if some one says they have faith.” James is talking about a Bogus faith.

  22. December 18, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Ephesians 2:8. Saved by grace thru faith ” not that of yourselves, ” not of works” You can’t have anything to do with it, get it.

  23. roberty bob said,

    December 18, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    to #21 . . .

    the bogus faith of which James speaks is the faith devoid of deeds

    If someone says that he has faith
    he will show that it is genuine by what he does
    because faith without works is dead

    the true faith of which James speaks is the faith shown by one’s deeds

    I am justified today by faith in Jesus
    I am judged by Jesus at the last day according to my deeds

    you see that a man is justified by what he does and not by faith alone

  24. Jason Loh said,

    December 19, 2014 at 5:42 am

    Amen, Kevin, Amen!

  25. Jason Loh said,

    December 19, 2014 at 5:44 am

    Roberty Bob,

    Who is demanding proof of faith? God or the human? Who’s saying, “Show me” here …?

    Is it vertical or horizontal relationship?

  26. roberty bob said,

    December 19, 2014 at 11:30 am

    to #25 . . .

    It’s the Word of the Lord.
    The Apostle James was inspired of God to ask the question.
    You may take that standing up or lying down.

    Why does it matter if God says it or if a human says it? Either way, a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. James holds to this view, and so does Paul. Jesus, too.

    Furthermore, to accept this truth does not mean that a person is trusting in his own good works to justify or save himself. To accept this truth means that the way that faith cannot be recognized as such until it is manifested or expressed by what one does. Someone may claim to have faith, says James, but unless that professed faith is displayed through that person’s deeds, there is no evidence to back the claim. Faith without deeds is dead; therefore, faith alone is dead.

    I have been justified by faith, not by faith alone but by faith that expresses itself through love / deeds / good works. Do I trust in my works? No. I trust Jesus. I believe Jesus. I rest in the promises of God.

  27. December 19, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Robert bob, if you arent trusting in your works to be justified, what are you doing in the Roman Synagog. Get to a Reformed churc, because in Rome grace is just a tool to merit salvation. K

  28. roberty bob said,

    December 19, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    to #27 Kevin . . .

    I do not hold membership in the Roman Catholic Church, nor do I attend the services. The only thing I have done is to express my agreement with the biblical doctrine that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. Holding to this doctrine is not a denial of justification by faith, as has been demonstrated.

  29. December 20, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Roberty bob, can you explain Romans 9:32-10:4 for me as you see it. What does Paul mean when he said that the Jews pursued it by as if it were by works and didnt arrive at it, because they didnt come by faith? And one other question, what does Paul mean in Galatians 3 ” law isnt faith” ? Thx

  30. Reed Here said,

    December 20, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Meanwhile gentlemen, ask yourself, are you intentionally discussing this with the goal of making some substantive point relevant to the main post? Or are you yet again, talking about important things to be sure, but doing so uninvitedly?

  31. roberty bob said,

    December 20, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    For my part, I have made several comments that are relevant to the main post [#1, #7, #15]. # 1 was brief and appropriate. After posting #7, which was in line with the main theme, I was attacked out of the blue for listening to the voice of demons. #15 expanded on the greenbaggins #10 posting. Then, it was off the races again.

    I find some of the topics at this blog interesting, and some provocative for the sake of a spirited discussion, which is why I contribute. I should probably take some time out and let things around here settle down.

    See you — maybe — in the future.

    A Blessed Christmas to everyone!

  32. Reed Here said,

    December 21, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Recognized and understood RB.

  33. October 26, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    […] A Penetrating Analogy – “We look at what the Scriptures say as a whole in systematic theology. We look at how the Scriptures apply to us in practical theology. We examine how we can remove obstacles (by God’s help) to an unbeliever’s coming to faith in God through the Bible in apologetics. What unites all the theological disciplines is the Bible. It is the motor of the drill.” […]

  34. October 26, 2019 at 2:26 pm

    […] Continue Reading […]

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