Pericopal Theology Distinguished

November 9th, 2012| Topic: aBeLOG, Pericopal Theology | 2

Pericopal Theology Distinguished

I have, in previous posts, discussed the entity I label “pericopal theology,” the theology specific to a particular pericope, representing a segment of the plenary world in front of the canonical text that portrays God and his relationship to his people. Pericopal theology is, in my conception, the crucial intermediary in the sermonic move from text to application.

Pericopal theology differs from systematic or biblical theology (at least as they are commonly defined). Systematic theology, attending to the entailments of what is written, draws conclusions deductively from one text and integrates those with deductions from other texts (for instance, the ascertainment of the divinity of the Persons of the Trinity from a number of discrete biblical passages). By virtue of its systematizing and correlating activity, it operates at a level that is more general than does pericopal theology. The latter, on the other hand, is more inductively derived, and is constrained by the trajectory of a specific pericope. It deals with matters pertaining to the relationship of God to his creation as proposed in that pericope, addressing the divine demand in that text, that the people of God must abide by, if they are to inhabit God’s canonical world.

For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside.
Psalm 84:10

The operation of biblical theology, too, tends to be more general than that of pericopal theology, identifying, as it does, the development of broader biblical themes across the canon, with a strong emphasis on temporality and timelines. However, seeing a text in the wider historical context of the canon, for which biblical theology is certainly helpful, is not the same as seeing how a particular pericope makes a specific transhistorical demand of its reader. Big canonical pictures tend to miss the small pericopal miniatures. And it is these miniatures (i.e., the theology of the individual pericopes) that are essential for the week by week life-changing transactions of homiletics.

For the preacher, there is a singular advantage in the employment of pericopal theology in the homiletical undertaking: by way of its greater degree of specificity for the chosen text, it makes possible the weekly movement from pericope to pericope, for those who seek to preach in that fashion. On the one hand, with systematic and biblical theology as the basis of individual sermons, distinctions between the theological thrusts of successive pericopes are harder to maintain. Operating as these species of theology do, at a level of generality somewhat removed from the immediacy of the text and its details, sermons on contiguous pericopes will often tend to have similar thrusts and applications, making lectio continua difficult to sustain. On the other hand, given the degree of specificity prescribed by pericopal theology, the sequential preaching of pericopes would not be impeded by this handicap; the specific theological thrust of each pericope would be heard clearly.

Pericopal theology is, therefore, neither the imposition of a systematic or confessional grid on the raw material of the text, nor the result of an exclusively historical, sociological, or anthropological focus on the subject matter. Rather, the textually mediated theological truth of the pericope is elucidated by privileging the particular text, and attending to God’s gracious demand in that text—how humanity may be rightly related to him.





  1. Eric Price November 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Great advice. I have often found myself overwhelmed in trying to preach certain passages because I have felt the need to preface it with a systematic theology lecture in order to place it within its theological context rather than simply following the thought of the passage and allowing it to speak for itself. However, there are times when our understanding of a particular passage needs to be informed by other passages because Scripture is its own self-interpreter. What do you feel the balance is between bringing in other texts and simply sticking to the message of the pericope at hand?

    • Abe Kuruvilla November 21, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Great question, Eric. Thanks.

      I have come to the conclusion that there is plenty in each pericope that I need to learn from and change my life in accordance with. And I see the role of systematic theology as the guardian: it delimits how far I can go with my “local” interpretation of a pericope. For instance, seeing the “angel of God” in Gen 22 that functions like and speaks like God may provoke me to assign this personage to the Godhead (a fourth person, if you will). But my theological scaffolding of systematics prevents me from making that heretical assertion.

      In other words, systematic theology (and biblical theology as commonly defined) are chaperones for pericopal theology. And I prefer to preach the baby, rather than the midwives!

      That, of course, is not to say that the Bible can only be read for pericopal theology. Systematic theology has a valid role in the faith and praxis of the church. My concern is only with this category overriding and overwhelming the theology of a given pericope, something that I find is rarely preached these days.

      More on this in Privilege the Text: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching , due to come out in May 2013 (Moody Press).


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