Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.

3 thoughts on “Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

  1. I’ve just finished reading John Webster’s Holy Scripture (CUP, 2003), a reading embarked on just before his untimely death. I think the discussion in his fourth chapter contributes to the line of thinking in this post. Here’s one example:

    In critical theology — the term is, of course, too undifferentiated, but it will serve as a marker — the pedagogical or catechetical vocation is relegated to mere domestic status, for the task of critical theology is not instruction in the given truth of the church’s confession of the gospel, but inquiry into the conditions of possibility of Scripture, church and gospel. … It also means that what Ursinus saw as the chief theological task — the production of ‘explications … agreeable to the speeches of the Prophets and Apostles’ — no longer occupies centre stage. Descriptive exegesis can no longer support claims to truth, but must be grounded by critical theological inquiry. (p. 118)

    Since academic “constructive” theology and “critical” biblical study stand over their objects of study as arbiter of truth and veracity, they use the tools of that task, and these tools (and objects and goals) differ for theologues and exegetes. Why should they, then, have anything to say to each other? (Webster exposes and elaborates this bifurcation on pp. 121-2.)

    My own anecdote: I recall one conference setting here in the UK which drew together a broad spectrum of Christian scholars working in the fields traditionally associated with the study of “Divinity”. After a distinguished theologian’s paper on a theme which drew on observations from Scripture, a biblical scholar well known for championing “biblical theology” and, one would have thought, in sympathy with the presenter, made some comments which sparked a tetchy and almost heated exchange about what “exegesis” was. Quite a cautionary tale.

    Webster’s own proposal (“utopian”, he calls it at one point) is that “the office of theology is to assist in the edification of the church by guiding the church’s reading of Holy Scripture” (p. 128). “There is simply the task of reading Holy Scripture, learning and teaching Scripture in such a way that godliness is promoted and the church more truthfully established as the kingdom of Jesus” (p. 115). And these things, systematic theology and biblical studies as conceived of and practiced in institutions of higher learning (whether “confessional” or secular) are ill-equipped or, better, unprepared to do.

  2. Pingback: Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory — Biblical Reasoning | Talmidimblogging

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