Biblical versus Systematic Theology? - Reformation21
A reconsideration of the mutual relationship between biblical theology and Systematic. Theology is therefore in order. II. The New Outlook in Biblical Theology. Biblical theology and systematic theology are two different manners of arranging the teaching of the scriptures. Biblical theology seeks to understand the. Answer: Biblical theology is the study of the doctrines of the Bible, arranged according to their chronology and historical background. In contrast to systematic .
The opposite of 'systematic', after all, is not 'biblical' but 'un-systematic' or chaotic! The truth is both that Biblical Theology is systematic and that Systematic Theology is biblical. As Carson points out, 'the proper data base for systematic theologians is the Bible' 'Unity and Diversity' p. Eichrodt's Theology of the Old Testament, though written from a very different perspective, proceeds in exactly the same way, lingering over such topics as 'The Name of the Covenant God', 'The Nature of the Covenant God' and 'Cosmology and Creation'.
Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology
Both works are in the highest degree systematic as well as biblical. Indeed, the distinction between Biblical and Systematic is itself a form of systematisation; and not one laid down in the Bible, but one adopted as a matter of academic convenience.
It reflects no more than two different ways of looking at the same biblical material. The Differences What, then, are the differences? The most obvious is that while Biblical Theology adopts a chronological approach, tracing the history of revelation, Systematic Theology approaches the Bible as a finished product in which God has spoken his last word for the present.
This is also why within the Old we have separate treatments of the Patriarchal, Mosaic and Prophetic revelations, and why even within the New we can trace the progress of revelation from the synoptic gospels to the early preaching in Acts through to the theology of the Pauline epistles and finally the writings of the Apostle John.
It is implicit in this that none of the earlier eras is final. This is why Calvin can write, in his Commentary on Hebrews 8: The preference for Biblical Theology reflects what moderns like to think of as the 19th century emergence of 'historical consciousness', requiring us to see everything in context. This consciousness has sometimes produced an unwelcome relativism, but in the case of Scripture, it is fully justified. Divine revelation is not only given in history, but has a history: It was precisely because God acted 'at sundry times and in divers manners' that he also spoke 'at sundry times and in divers manners' Heb.
But he also spoke progressively, revealing himself gradually and cumulatively. The history of this revelation is not, however, the story of the ever-greater achievements of human theological enquiry, or the gradual 'evolution' of the religion of Israel, or the developing 'insights' of the early church. It is the story of God's progressive unveiling of himself, accommodating himself to what Calvin called 'the rudeness of his ancient people'  and leading us ever further into God's 'secret' until, in the Last Days, the revelation culminates in the wonder of the incarnation.
Biblical Theology recognises this time-line and systematises its material on a chronological principle, tracing the story of revelation from the Patriarchs to the Last Days. Yet we must never forget that what to us is the last word is, in reality, only the provisionally last: Even with the complete written revelation in our hands we see only through a glass, darkly 1 Cor. God still has much more to say and much more to show, but that must wait till we see him face to face.
Then revelation will proceed on a new time-line, world without end. This fact of the historical nature of revelation presents its own challenge to the preacher, particularly when preaching from the Old Testament. Whatever text we are expounding, we must always ask, Where does this man stand in the history of revelation?
How much did he know, and how much did he not know? We must even ask, in the light of 1 Peter 1: We cannot assume, for example, that when Job declared, 'I know that my redeemer lives' Job This is not to suggest that legitimate influence runs only one way, from exegesis to biblical theology to systematic theology. For instance, insofar as systematic theology accurately summarizes some important things that the Bible as a whole actually does say, it may serve as a helpful grid that disciplines the task of the interpretation of, say, narrative.
Narrative stripped from its context and thrown open to an active imagination is patient of far more uncontrolled interpretations than narrative safely embedded in its literary, historical, and canonical context. The insistence of many postmodern interpreters that individual narratives e.
Competent systematic theology usefully curbs such excesses. Unity The definition of biblical theology is profoundly tied to the way in which its unity is perceived. The recent studies of D. Philip Davies may be taken as a rigorous example of those who think that biblical theology in any sense is impossible for those who are not confessionally committed.
He argues that there are two quite different strategies for reading biblical texts, the confessional method and the non-confessional method. The task of the interpreter who adopts the former is to affirm the values and claims made by the text; the task of the interpreter who adopts the latter is to accept or reject claims made by the text at his or her own discretion.
Clearly the former assumes or finds some sort of internal coherence; the latter does not. Davies insists that the two methods are mutually incompatible. They should never be intermingled. They generate opposed polarities: Scripture versus biblical literature; Bible study versus biblical studies; and theology versus non-theology.
As stimulating as is his work, the fundamental bifurcation is not convincing. Every human being engaged in study of any sort operates with some sort of framework, a confessional stance. A second group, often highly influenced by postmodern epistemology, finds the unity of biblical theology in the discipline itself, not in the texts, in the results, or in communitarian interests.
The discipline is further enhanced by engagement, dialogue, and debate with co-readers of the texts from different backgrounds: Christian, Jewish, secular, ancient, modern, etc. Thus the unity of biblical theology becomes the unity of the methods of the discipline, so much so that he can, rather amazingly, put Childs and Brueggemann in the same camp.
Canonical unity has been understood in four distinguishable ways. First, whatever the legitimacy or otherwise of the canonical boundaries, some scholars develop their biblical theologies by observing those boundaries for no other reason than that they are traditional.
This much could be said for the majority of OT and NT theologies produced in the past century. For many, even their NT theologies for instance focus attention on what they perceive to be irreconcilable differences among the NT corpora, or even within each corpus.
Thus for these scholars the unity of the enterprise of biblical theology is formal. It is bound up with the canon as the collection of documents on which they are focusing attention. Whether or not their theological analyses only rarely is there much synthesis conform to the shape of historic orthodoxy, or any other unity, is thus independent of their views on the canon. Sanders and his disciples.
Sanders is not content to restrict himself to the final form of the biblical texts. It is precisely their growth and development, and the changing communitarian experiences and interests that such changes reflect, that interest him, and shape his approach to biblical interpretation. All sides recognize, of course, that such study is intrinsically less secure and more speculative than that which focuses on the final documents.
Continuing the study of such change beyond the canonical documents holds similar interest, but historical limitations on the canon provides some sort of a boundary, at least for the individual scholar. For after all, there are other scholarly communities that adopt a slightly different canon Roman Catholic and Protestant disparities on this point are merely the most obvious.
While Childs adopts more-or-less standard critical positions with respect to the biblical documents, they influence relatively little of his biblical theology because he allows only the final form to shape his theological synthesis. The Christian church has recognized a restricted canon whose borders are a little blurredand if we are Christians that must be the framework in which we do our theological reflection.
Unlike Sanders, Childs is not much interested in trying to delineate the communitarian interests that produced the documents, and not at all interested in ostensible extra-canonical influences.
Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology | Biblical Theology
To some extent he deals with how the documents relate to each other i. Much of his work is stimulating and refreshing. In any case, as useful and stimulating as many parts of his work are, many suspect it is not epistemologically consistent or secure see especially P. Noble, The Canonical Approach.
Childs emerges with a unity of result, but it is less than clear how he gets there as long as the unity of the foundation documents is affirmed by little more than the results, and is more or less adopted by assuming ecclesiatical tradition regarding the boundaries of the canon.
Fourthly, those with a high view of Scripture insist that what gives the canonical documents their unity is that, for all their enormous diversity, one Mind, one Actor, stands behind them; they constitute a truly revelatory base. Inevitably there are differences of opinion about how this revelation interacts with other material e. Whatever the outcome of such debates, however, the unity here envisaged is a unity of substance in the source documents themselves.
A rather different kind of unity is a kind of ad hoc subscription to certain post-biblical confessional bases, which are then found to have adequate support in Scripture, such that this support then functions as the appropriate unity of Scripture and thus of biblical theology.
This stance may overlap with two or three of the options already listed. Many biblical theologians operate with this view, but only rarely with the self-critical awareness of Robert Morgan. To justify this stance is to write a NT theology. On this view, however, one cannot escape the conclusion that the adopted theological synthesis is finally warranted by the accidental historical adoption of certain themes in the Bible, while others may be safely discarded.
The view provides comfort to those who want to be broadly orthodox without providing greater justification for their orthodoxy than the commitments of other Christians at another time. Under this perspective it is difficult to imagine how biblical theology has any authority to reform certain views. This vision of unity will inevitably prove unstable. One may in fact analyse the importance of canon for biblical theology along a slightly different set of axes.
Some biblical theologians tend to adopt what might be called a linear hermeneutic, a developmental hermeneutic. Other biblical theologians adopt the canon as a starting point, and the divisions of the canon become the controlling hermeneutic: Once again, this group of scholars disagree as to whether the results tend toward unity or disunity.
Among those who acknowledge the revelatory nature of the scriptural documents, however, these two axes run parallel to each other and are mutually supportive.
Use of the OT in the New The questions surrounding the unity of the canon can be explored a little further by examining one subset of this topic, viz. During the last four decades, a vast quantity of work has been done in this area. Here we may merely identify three aspects of this work that have a bearing on biblical theology, without probing any of them very deeply. One of the most intriguing aspects of this subject is the warrant provided, if any, by the NT writers, when they draw theological conclusions from the OT.
Moo have advanced the debate by distinguishing between appropriation techniques and hermeneutical axioms; the former may be shared by Christians who wrote the NT and by Jews, but disjunctions surface when the latter are studied closely.
For instance, many conservative Jews saw in the law given at Sinai not only a body of instruction but a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture.
More challenging, certainly more technical, are the countless quotations from, allusions to, and echoes of the OT found in the NT. Many, of course, are straightforward. But many raise fundamental questions. At the surface level, Psalm 2: Indeed, the disparity prompts many scholars to conclude that the NT writers frequently use the OT in an irresponsible proof-texting way that badly rips texts out of their contexts e.
Others reverently appeal to the revelatory stance of the NT authors, who thus found more in the OT text than was actually there on the surface. The NT writers thus deployed an approach to textual citation that cannot be duplicated today by readers of the OT e. Still others hold that close scrutiny of these challenging passages discloses some profound assumptions, themselves grounded elsewhere in exegesis, regarding interlocking typologies having to do with David, the temple, the priesthood, and other subjects.
If these latter approaches are valid, they have an enormous bearing on how one should properly read the Bible. In some usages, the two expressions are roughly synonymous. More commonly, however, intertextuality refers to a broader phenomenon, not only because it includes in its purview the use of earlier texts by later texts within each Testament, but also because it explores how the later texts, duly absorbed by the contemporary interpreter, cast a shadow back on the meaning the interpreter finds in the earlier text.
Among some exponents of intertextuality, this generates blatant anachronisms. Such anachronisms are inoffensive, however, to those with the strong postmodern conviction that meaning rests primarily with the interpreter and not with either the author or the text.
Among more cautious exponents of intertextuality, anachronism is carefully avoided, while the interpreter seeks to identify textually based markers that attest an earlier passage as truly an adumbration of something that will develop only later, an anticipation of something still obscure, the beginnings of a typology that develops across the sweep of redemptive history. Carefully exploited, intertextuality proves to be one of the lashings that hold biblical theology together.
Postmodernism Notoriously difficult to define, postmodernism has many faces and many degrees. For our purposes, its focus is primarily the domain of epistemology, and it offers itself in part as a rejection of the epistemology of the Enlightenment, a rejection of approaches that are positivist, rationalistic, exclusive, certain. Yet postmodernism has many degrees.
In the first half of the last century, avant-garde thinkers argued, with great persuasiveness, that for finite human beings there can be no uninterpreted facts. In the second half of the 20th century, many extrapolated this argument to conclude that there are no facts, only interpretations. The former reminds us of our finitude and contingency, even our fallenness, and checks our hubris; the latter insists we are confined to a quagmire of relativity, and exults in the disappearance of any possibility of objective truth.
Perhaps the most articulate of those who define postmodern biblical theology is Werner Jeanrond. His multi-faceted definition is too complex to be probed very deeply here. By definition, although it begins its work by interpreting the documents of the biblical canon, it is not limited to those texts. The only thing that Jeanrond will apparently not permit biblical theology to critique is his own far-reaching postmodern epistemology.
Similarly, it has been argued e. Thompson that the true God if there is one must remain unknown; gods are created by our interpretations. The historicism which was tied to the biblical theology movement in the mid 20th century was more modern than biblical; the reality is that all we have are texts which we interpret in many different ways.
The Bible itself gives us no access to history, but only to a tradition. Here we find a strange mix of the more radical wing of historical criticism combined with a postmodern definition of history that makes the discipline of history incapable in principle of saying anything true about extra-textual referents. The degree to which these stances control the outcome varies considerably. After all, it is what God has accomplished on the cross that saves us, not the biblical ideas about what God has accomplished on the cross.
At one level, of course, what he says is obvious. But to speak of the Gospels as imaginative presentations of Jesus which, for all their literary quality, may exert a powerful truth claim on us because they are our story, the story of our community, our only access to Jesus, is sooner or later to duck the toughest question of all: If not, in what sense is the substance of our proclamation anything more than the proclamation itself?
This view really would be the most terrible bibliolatry. It would command adherence to the text, the story in the text, and not to the Jesus to whom the text bears witness. In a postmodern world, it is important to keep saying that we are not saved by ideas, not even biblical ideas, but by the Jesus whom God sent to the cross on our behalf.
The tension between the first two are nicely seen in his treatment of Exodus Part of the problem here is that most postmodern work either tacitly assumes or robustly defends the legitimacy of one particular antithesis, viz.: Carson, The Gagging of God. If we buy into the legitimacy of that antithesis, we are lost, for it can always be shown that human beings, finite knowers all, cannot ever know anything absolutely and exhaustively.Five Kinds of Theology
The only alternative, then, is some form or other of relativism. In fact, however, this antithesis must be rejected, for there are other options. Human beings may know some things truly, if nothing exhaustively. They may approach greater and more accurate knowledge, even though they can never gain absolute knowledge omniscience is not a communicable attribute of God!
It functions honourably when it reminds us that we operate in contexts linguistic, cultural, religious, racial, individualand that these inevitably shape us. But postmodernism succumbs to a new arrogance when, misled by the antithesis outlined in the previous paragraph, it tells us we are nothing more than our contexts, and proclaims the absoluteness of the relative.
Biblical theology apart from such alternatives is in our time likely to sink into creative but undisciplined flights of fancy loosely tied to the texts of Scripture, supporting them or opposing them, in line with personal preference and current cultural agendas.
Definition The foregoing discussion was designed in part to set out the wide spectrum of opinion regarding the history, definition and roles of biblical theology. The discussion repeatedly hinted at the lines that must now be drawn.
It may still be used to refer generically to OT theology and NT theology, inductive disciplines that seek to articulate the theologies of the diverse books and corpora within their domains. But ideally, biblical theology, as its name implies, even as it works inductively from the diverse texts of the Bible, seeks to uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves.
Such biblical theology is overtly theological, i. But it is not narrowly theological. Rather, precisely because so many of the theological claims of Scripture are claims about revelation in history, biblical theology is committed to using rigorous and responsible historical methods.
Equally, because the texts are literary pieces, diverse in genre and other features, biblical theology seeks to be sensitive to literary structures.
While acknowledging that it can never be autonomous, biblical theology focuses on the inductive study of the biblical texts in their final form, seeking progression towards greater and greater faithfulness. On the one hand, biblical theology will try to preserve the glorious diversity of the biblical documents; on the other, it will try to uncover all that holds them together, sacrificing neither historical particularity nor the unifying sweep of redemptive history.
It will marshall the resources of rigorous exegesis, and it will try above all to uncover and understand how words and themes in earlier canonical texts are used in later canonical texts.
- The Relationship Between Biblical Theology And Systematic Theology -- By: Gerhard F. Hasel
- Biblical versus Systematic Theology?
Recognizing their finiteness, biblical theologians will want to pursue their calling not only in interaction with the work of twenty centuries of Christian witness, but in community with the living church. Moreover, insofar as the biblical theologian holds that the boundary of the canon is valid because the canonical documents are, finally, God-given and God-authorized, so far also must biblical theology become not only a descriptive enterprise a description of the theology one finds in the Bible but also a normative enterprise, a confessional enterprise.
Such considerations ensure that there will never be unanimity about the discipline; there are too many disputed variables. But that is no reason to retreat into endless discussions of definition and method. Rather it is a call to work out, among those who share this approach or something akin to it, a faithful, penetrating, self-correcting biblical theology. Systematic Theology Many, but not all, of the subtopics explored in connection with biblical theology could be usefully canvassed again with respect to systematic theology, doubling the length of this essay.
Here we can attempt only the briefest probing of some of the definitional issues. As its name suggests, systematic theology attempts to organize, to systematize, theological reflection.
When the primary authoritative source for that theological synthesis and reflection is the Bible, systematic theology attempts to organize what the Bible says according to some system. The traditional tenfold division of topics is certainly not the only possiblity. But even to choose topics, to hierarchialize them, is to impose a structure not transparently given in Scripture itself.
In any case, such theological reflection inevitably emerges out of one epistemology or another, out of a particular cultural consciousness, and such matters will become correspondingly more influential in the system to the degree that the theologian is unaware of them or holds, naively, that they have little or no influence. Such systematic theology will seek to be faithful to Scripture.
But because the ordering vision is not dictated by inductive study of the text within the categories of the text, corpus by corpus, the danger of simplistic proof texting becomes proportionately greater, and the difficulty of deciding which ordering principles will control the system correspondingly greater and more disputable.
Moreover, most systematic theology includes some sort of canvassing of earlier work by seminal theologians Irenaeus, Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and so forth. That means that many of the categories, not to mention the priorities for discussion and reflection on how various theological strands cohere, have been laid down by the ecclesiastical tradition, and it is very hard work to be informed by them without being controlled by them. Further, systematic theology worthy of the name, more so than biblical theology, seeks to articulate what the Bible says in a way that is culturally telling, culturally prophetic.
The alternative is to write a systematic theology that is of merely antiquarian interest, or that appeals to the most traditionalist voices in the culture. Such concerns for contemporaneity and relevance, entirely legitimate, may nevertheless cast more influence than is sometimes recognized on the shape of the systematic theology, such that the concern for relevance and prophetic voice may unwittingly distance it from a faithful portrayal of what the Bible says.
There are deeper issues. The Bible speaks in highly diverse literary genres that play upon our hearts and minds in a great variety of speech acts. To encapsulate this diversity and power within the form of a systematic theology is to demand too much of the discipline. But the systematic theologian can mitigate the most obvious dangers by wide reading in the literature of exegesis and by delving deeply into biblical theology as a mediating discipline.
The systematician must recognize, further, the inherent limitations of systematic theology. For all its strengths, there are many things it cannot do. It can analyse a lament within the biblical corpus, but it cannot evoke a heart-felt lament in the way a lament itself can. Still more importantly, systematic theology, precisely by its efforts at systemic wholeness and by its engagement with the culture, openly attempts worldview formation, worldview transformation.
Something of the same can be accomplished by steady, thoughtful, repeated Bible reading, but in that case there is obviously no attempt in the text to address this particular culture as opposed to some other.
Thus unlike biblical theology, systematic theology is not so much a mediating discipline as a culminating discipline. Nevertheless, once a particular systematic theology has been deeply absorbed, precisely because it is worldview forming it is likely to exercise significant influence on the disciplines that nurture it: The hermeneutical circle is joined, but not vicious.
This discussion of systematic theology has so far assumed that the systematician is at least attempting to systematize what is found in the Bible. Sometimes the Bible, ecclesiastical tradition, and an ostensibly autonomous reason have been understood to have equal authority in the discussion. Very commonly, the judgments of the more sceptical varieties of historical criticism have been adopted, not least the conviction that a systematic theology of the whole Bible is in principle impossible; there are too many intrinsic contradictions.
In that case, the systematic theologian may self-consciously attempt a synthesis based on those parts of the Bible he or she is able to accept as valid. Systematic theology may also begin to overlap with historical theology, as competing positions are evaluated.
Countless books that ostensibly belong to the domain of systematic theology are in fact an evaluation and critique of some theologian or of some theological position, based on criteria that are an interesting mix of tradition, Scripture, reason, philosophical structures and internal coherence. One thinks, for instance, not only of the work of a handful of scholars such as Colin Gunton, but also of the new Edinburgh series.
The categories of systematic theology are logical and hierarchical, not temporal. Relationships Between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology Most of the relationships between systematic theology and biblical theology have been teased out in the defining discussions of the previous pages. A summary will crystallize the conclusions. Ideally, however, the two expressions serve best when certain defining restrictions are adopted. Systematic theology and biblical theology enjoy a common base of authority, viz.