And Systematic: The Relation between Biblical and Systematic Theology, Part 1

Since Matt and Luke were gracious enough to let me join their online musings here, we have added an important modification to the subtitle of the blog. The aim here is to offer reflections on “biblical and systematic theology according to the scriptures.” To be sure, the other contributors were already doing systematic theology before I arrived—indeed, some pretty sophisticated systematic theology—in the sense that they were applying Scripture to Christian belief and practice. So hopefully the addition of a systematician to the blog will only continue the much-needed task of understanding Scripture on its own terms and then developing faithful ways of speaking and acting in light of this biblical framework. My first couple of posts here will explore the relationship between these two theological disciplines: biblical theology (BT), on the one hand, which attends to the storyline of Scripture in all of its unity and diversity, and systematic theology (ST), on the other, which seeks to articulate Christian doctrine on the basis of this biblical narrative in changing cultural contexts. In this first post, I explore the ways in which our ST influences our BT. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking here. My dependence upon the excellent work of others on this issue will be plain. These posts are simply an attempt to summarize some the most salient points, as I see them, about the bi-directional traffic between these two theological sub-disciplines.

The relation between BT and ST is a two-way street. Our ST informs and shapes our BT, and our BT in turn corrects and reshapes our ST. The relationship between BT and ST can be conceived of in terms of what hermeneutical philosophers call the “hermeneutic circle.” When we read any text, we bring certain assumptions about the text to the task of interpretation. As we read the parts of the text, we find our assumptions of the whole being reshaped—indeed, if we are reading rightly, we will find ourselves being reshaped by our interaction with the text. So there is a dialectical relationship between the parts and the whole and between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader. This is not to say that readers change the meaning of the text; the text’s authorially intended meaning remains the stable variable in the hermeneutical equation. But we have no access to the author’s intention apart from our own personal and communal interaction with the text that the author has given us.

BT and ST relate in a similar fashion. Every interpreter of Scripture comes to the task of interpretation with a ST already in place. It may not be fully developed. It may not be consciously held or acknowledged. But no one comes to the text as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Instead, we come to the text with an already-formed understanding of God, humanity, sin, salvation, and so forth. Carl Henry once quipped that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. If this is the case, then the best course of action is to be honest about our presuppositions—to lay our theological cards on the table, so to speak—rather than accepting the modernist illusion that we can simply do exegesis in any kind of objective or neutral fashion.

This understanding of the intimate relation between BT and ST reveals the weaknesses of one common way of conceiving the two disciplines. Gerhardus Vos is well-known for his distinction between BT and ST:

There is no difference in that one [of the two disciplines] would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this that the one transforms the biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principle by which the transformation is effected differs in each case. In biblical theology this principle is one of historical, in systematic theology it is one of logical construction. Biblical theology draws a line of development. Systematic theology draws a circle (Vos, Biblical Theology, 24-25).

In one sense, this way of distinguishing BT and ST is true enough. BT is more concerned with the plotline of Scripture and ST does ask more synthetic, topical questions. But in another sense, Vos’s taxonomy is lacking for two reasons. First, the distinction turns out to be a bit too neat. There is a sense in which BT can be topical. For example, we can consider the topic of the temple/presence of God across the storyline of Scripture. Furthermore, there is sense in which ST follows closely the storyline of Scripture. The traditional ordering of the loci of ST reveals this narrative character. We begin where Genesis does: with God. We then move to creation, humanity, the fall and its effects, the redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit, the formative role of the church, and we end where Revelation does: the consummation of all things at the end of the age. So it turns out biblical theologians can be quite adept at drawing circles and systematic theologians at drawing lines.

Second, Vos’s way of distinguishing the two disciplines fails to account for the ways in which the two relate to one another. Taken alone (in practice Vos was much better), Vos’s distinctions make it seem as if BT and ST are simply two parallel and legitimate ways of carving up the biblical text. These distinctions fail to account for how the two disciplines can talk to one another, as it were. When systematicians appeal to the Bible, they should be doing so in ways that respect the textual, redemptive-historical, and canonical contexts of the biblical texts. In other words, they should be doing biblical theology. Similarly, when biblical theologians draw theological conclusions from the text (and they should be doing so; the modern division of labor in the theological disciplines has made us too wary to cross disciplinary lines and has resulted in the atomization and fragmentation of what should be an integrated whole), they should do so respecting the complex set of historical, philosophical, cultural, and doctrinal issues that attends such a move. In other words, they should be doing systematic theology. So the two disciplines are not merely discrete ways of slicing the biblical pie. Instead, they should be seen as interdependent steps in the integrated task of doing theology as the people of God. We read Scripture according to its own redemptive-historical categories and then we apply this theological framework in the development of a theological vision of Christian faith and practice (for more in this vein, see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology).

To return to the original point, ST influences BT in that it shapes the hermeneutical, exegetical, and theological assumptions we bring to the biblical text. This is not merely a hazard of the interpretive task, something to be acknowledged and then overcome in attempt to arrive at some kind of pristine objectivity. Theological presuppositions are not only unavoidable; they are indispensable. When they are being properly reformed according to Scripture (more on this in the next post), our theological presuppositions help guide and govern our readings of the biblical text. This truth was acknowledged early on in church history, as Christians recognized the need to read Scripture according to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. Heretics were quoting Scripture too. So there was (and is) a need to adjudicate which readings of Scripture were permissible and which were not. The rule of faith was simply a summary of the basic truths of the gospel (which were eventually summarized in the ecumenical creeds) in an attempt to regulate readings of the biblical revelation.

There is biblical precedent for such a regulated understanding of biblical interpretation. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” There is a hermeneutical and theological priority placed upon the good news of Christ’s saving death, burial and resurrection. Paul writes about many important things, but there is one thing that is of preeminent importance, and if we misunderstand this one thing, then we are in danger of abandoning the faith altogether (Gal. 1:6-9).

So the basic truths of the gospel shape, inform and regulate our readings of the biblical narrative. In other words, our ST rightly influences our BT. There are perhaps many other ways that we can describe the influence of ST on BT, but this evangelical (gospel-oriented) influence is preeminent.

In my next post, I will examine how we make the necessary but precarious move from BT to ST and how BT ought to shape the theological models of ST.

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