Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Biblical vs. Systematic Theology

One aspect of this controversy is a strong dislike of systematic theology. Insted they desire a Biblical theology. It has caused me to wonder about the legitimacy of of Biblical Theology.

Systematic theology approaches subjects. If one wanted to understand sin, then the entire bible would be examined for uses and treatment of sin. All the data would be compiled and then the doctrine of sin would be discovered. This, in a nut shell, is systematic theology.

Bibilical theology approaches books of the bible in segments. It says if you want to understand sin, then you begin at the beginning of the Bible, make a meaning and then when you get to a new book, start all over again. Sometimes this is done by authors of the Bible, such as Paul or Moses, but one should not examine both, just one or the other. It

Systematic Theology was around first, by my understanding, but the Dutch helped popularize Biblical theology. The two groups wared for a while, but soon they made peace. Today seminaries teach both side by side.

So I have the following questions about Biblical theology, and I hope to get everyone's thoughts.

1. Does Biblical theology violate the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture? Since in discovering Pauline theology one is not allowed to look in John or the gospels, it is in violation.

2. Does Biblical theology have an inerrant tendency to create unorthodox readings?

3. Is there a real need for Biblical theology?

I hope we can get some good discussion on this.


Andrew McIntyre said...

Rev. Johnson,

Good questions. I, for one, would say the suppositions of biblical theology are fundamentally irrational and unbiblical. They are irrational because they discount the merit of the systemization of the data of Scripture based upon the exercise of reason. Systematicians believe that God is a rational Being and therefore, we can take what He has said and expect that it will be consistent and coherent. They are unbiblical because they stress the human authorship of Scripture over the divine. If there is, ultimately and most importantly, one primary Author of Holy Writ, then we should, again, expect that the entire revelation will be consistent and coherent. Furthermore, they deny the manner in which God has chosen to conduct revelation and the Christocentric nature thereof. Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. To read the works of the Old Covenant without presupposing Christ is to veil the light of perfect illumination. To me, it is quite simple. Either the Bible makes sense so that we can rationally categorize its data as rational beings made in the image of God, or it does not. If it does not then it is nonsense and not the revelation of a perfectly Rational Being, which, of course, is not true. It is systematic theology that has produced the profound statements of the ancient creeds. It is systematic theology that changed the world and removed the dark superstitions and heresies of the middle ages during the great Reformation. It is systematic theology that makes confessional protestantism possible and so wonderfully potent. In short, radical Biblical theology is a decent into irrationality and doctrinal uncertainty. Whew. Now I feel better. Well, you did ask.

Peace to you,

Andy McIntyre

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that BT is not so well defined, which alone makes it vulnerable to being used as a vehicle for the usual suspects who aren't Bible believing Christians but pose as such and really are interested in either defiling sound doctrine or creating new, unsound doctrine. With that said, Geerhardus Vos is a pretty good model of a Bible believing, orthodox Christian theologian who engaged in Biblical Theology. With his work as a standard there is some solid ground to stand on. (It should be stated that Calvin's Institutes have been called a 'proto Biblical theology', and, of course, John Owen wrote a Biblical Theology that was just recently translated into English for the first time.)

"1. Does Biblical theology violate the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture? Since in discovering Pauline theology one is not allowed to look in John or the gospels, it is in violation."

I think BT is concerned with seeing Revelation (God's Word) in its historical unfolding and thereby doesn't really mean you don't see the parts in relation to the whole but you see the parts 'as they are historically in the canon' in relation to the whole. (This concern with 'context' I think is what creates a 'buzz' of "hmmm" in believers because we run into this in academic type postmodern nonsense everywhere.)

"2. Does Biblical theology have an inerrant tendency to create unorthodox readings?"

I think BT can be used as a vehicle for this kind of nonsense, but, again, G. Vos is a good example of how BT can be used within an orthodox boundary and used to get real insight.

"3. Is there a real need for Biblical theology?"

Theologians would say that BT has been around from the beginning and that BT is always the foundation itself of systematic theology (and this is the main aspect of it all that makes some of the more modern proponent's definitions of BT sound suspect, because BT HAS been around from the beginning and there really is nothing new under the sun regarding theology). Yet one can't deny that the works of Vos have shed light (and the liberals can't deny that Vos was a Reformed, orthodox, Bible believing Christian which is the biggest reason to explain why his work sheds light). /c

Anonymous said...

I think it should be stated that New Perspective on Paul nonsense is being associated with Biblical Theology in a way, but those people (N. T. Write, etc.) actually bring in extra-Biblical material into their readings. It is not my understanding that BT is about this based on definitions I read from a Vos, or from, for instance, the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. But I don't put anything past the usual suspects to say one thing and practice another. Discernment is called for, but generally I think you'll find that BT has been around a long time and has contributed greatly to systematic theology. Two different disciplines, yet not really opposing each other as being at different points in the overall process: BT being more foundational, ST being the final product. /c

Anonymous said...

Go here:


and read the three concise definitions of Biblical Theology in the three boxes. One aspect of BT is it sees Christ in all the Bible (all 66 books). That was a point that was disputed in the original post I believe. Here also is a good statement from here:


"Biblical Theology approaches the Bible as an organic drama of God's unfolding revelation through history. In distinction from doctrinal or systematic theology, biblical theology follows the progressively unfolding revelation of God's words and deeds through history. This linear aspect of revelation unites each revelatory event and proclamation both retrospectively and prospectively. Geerhardus Vos described the organic continuation of revelation in history as a flower expanding from bud to blossom. The blossom is retrospectively united to the bud; the bud is prospectively united to the blossom. One of the tasks/privileges of the interpreter of Scripture is to draw out these organic prospective and retrospective relationships. At the center of this organic unity is the person and work of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Even as our Risen Lord related all of Scripture retrospectively and prospectively to himself (Luke 24:27), so Reformed biblical theology is preeminently Christocentric.

God spoke into history; God acted in history; God was incarnated in history. Vos described this vertical interface with history as the eschatological penetration of the history of redemption. In fact, Vos approached Scripture from the standpoint of the priority of the eschatological. Overarching the entire history of redemption was the eschatological arena. Every revelation of God in history was an invitation for the creature to possess the arena of the Eschatological/heavenly. This would only be accomplished through the saving work of the Son, Jesus Christ. Hence, Christ was eschatologically revealed throughout the history of redemption as the promised seed of the woman, seed of Abraham, seed of Jesse, etc. Even as God and man met in Jesus Christ, so the eschatological and the linear met at every point of God's special revelation. (From Kerux)" /c

Andrew McIntyre said...

I realize that many biblical theologians, especially Vos and his kind, are very good Christian scholars. This kind of orthodox Reformed "biblical theology" is not really the target of my ranting. Most of the works produced by the biblical theologians are either so much like systematic theology that they are basically indistinquishable therefrom, or they fail to present anything of any major substance. I find many works of biblical theology to be incredibly boring and uninformative. Some, of course, are heretical, which goes back to the point about the loose definition and use of the discipline. In fact, it is so loosely defined that it really fails to be a proper academic discipline or science. It is more of a perspective on interpretation with very flowery but indescriptive language. After all, what does it mean exactly "to draw out the organic prospective and retrospective relationships?" What rational product results? Have not we always done this as a matter of attitude or approach? If biblical theology were just a means of gathering scriptural data while taking into account the historical nature of the redemptive events, then I do not think there would be any disussion. Unfortunately, it is not used in this manner merely. It is used to oppose systematic theology and rational formulation of doctrine.

Also, I think the fact that Calvin's Systematic Theology is claimed by the biblical theologians underscores the fact that good biblical theology is indistinguishable from systematic theology as a separate discipline. It is rather like divorcing the scientific method from the conclusion.

Anyway, this is good discussion. I am sorry if I sounded too rabid in my previous post.

Andy McIntyre

Anonymous said...

Have you read Vos's inaugaral address at Princeton? I think it probably answers your questions and concerns pretty well.

Anonymous said...

Three points:

(1) I think one can have legitimate concerns with a 'new' movement touting Biblical Theology as something that is new on the scene (or something like that) because one could be suspicious that the motivation is to merely use BT to push doctrine that is more to your liking (liberal theologians, academic post-modernist theologians, etc., etc.). And one would think that even if BT is at the foundation of Systematic Theology that all that BT could bring to the enterprise has already been brought (unless we think we don't have the teaching of the Bible). So if you consider apostolic Biblical doctrine to be already known and existing in any good Systematic Theology then you might tend to see new enthusiasm for BT to be uneeded or of suspicious motives.

(2) I think the reason Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion are called a 'proto' Biblical Theology by some is because of the comparison with the scholastics (Aquinas mainly) where systematizing can be seen as having gone to an extreme of abstraction, and Calvin based his work solely on the analogy of Scripture and the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, which is what BT is all about ideally.

(3) This may get to the confusion over the difference between BT and ST, i.e. the fact that the great Reformers like Calvin ALREADY resurrected the discipline of Biblical Theology and we today take it for granted that principles of Biblical Theology are at the very foundation of Systematic Theology. It's just that today this is so obvious that we've forgotten what BT is to begin with. But we've had it and been doing it nevertheless. /c

Lee said...

This is a good discussion. I appreciated the links to the Biblical Theology sites. Yet, those definitions still have me worried. It states that Biblical Theology looks for the main point of the Bible, one that it claims is often over looked. Is this a beneficial practice.

It seems to me, even in the orthodox Reformed Bibilical Theology men, looking for a center or a main point is inherently biased. Here are some reasons:

1. No one ever agrees on what the main point is. O. Palmer Robertson reads the OT and sees Christ as the main point, and thus reads Christ in every book. Walter Kaiser reads the OT and sees the promises of God as the main point, and thus reads the promises into every book. Others may make it the law, and so on and so forth.

2. Some will attempt to go outside of the Bible to help identify a main point. N.T. Wright uses Second Temple Literature to help him read Paul. It does seem the scholarly thing to do to try and make your main point have more support than the next guys main point.

3. If it is the foundation of Systematic Theology, then why is it considered a separate discipline? Why not just incorporate it into Systematics?

4. It seems to me as if it may be unwise to ignore the whole counsel of God and concentrate on Paul, for example. Take the current controversy with Paul and the NPP. The major thesis of Dunn, Sanders, and Wright is that Judaism is a religion of grace, and thus Paul's attacks on works should be understood in a covenant of grace framework of Second Temple Judaism. These men all interact with the Dead Sea Scrolls and other such documents to prove their point. Yet, they will not interact with the Gospels, which show no idea of grace in the Pharisees or Saducees. No where can one find Christ treating the Pharisees if they believed in anything but works. Why is this evidence ignored? And if we use the gospels to help inform our primary point in Paul, are we still doing Biblical Theology or are we now doing Systematics?

Matt Powell said...

Lee and Andy,
While I agree with your criticisms and concerns, it seems to me that the Biblical theological approach, when properly balanced by systematic theology, provides many useful insights.

I think that if I read the book of Luke, for example, it is useful for me to ask the question, "What was Luke saying?" before asking the question, "How does Luke's presentation of the Messiah compare to Matthew's or John's or Paul's?" Each of the books of the Bible was written by a particular human author to a particular human audience with a particular purpose. And if I read Galatians or Job or Amos only with the intent of bolstering my understanding of particular categories of theology, I think I will miss much of the richness of the meaning.

Therefore, I think we need both approaches, and they need to balance each other. Nothing is taken away from inerrancy or the divine authorship of all of Scripture if I start by asking the question, "what did this particular author think he was saying to his audience?" If I pursue Biblical theology with no systematics, then I will fail to be conscious of the grid that I am imposing on the material of Scripture, and either contradict myself constantly or unconsciously interpret material through my unacknowledged grid. But if I pursue systematics without Biblical theology, then the grid will become everything, and I will fail to correct it from the teaching of Scripture, and the process of forcing the Bible to fit my system will become a conscious one.

Lee said...


I suppose I see your point. And I agree that it is useful to find out what Luke was saying to his audience, as long as one does not go outside of the Bible to discover that point. Which leads me to the next question. How is what Matt described, ie. reading Luke with the intent of what was Luke saying, differ from Hermenutics, the study of Scripture? Searching Luke to find clues of Luke's audience and his main points I can see as beneficial, but to go to other sources then I start to have problems. The first I see as Hermeutics, the second is not.

What is the end of Hermeutics and the beginning of Biblical Theology?

Anonymous said...

Good discussion so far. I think someone already pointed out how Christ went through the Scriptures and showed that it spoke of Himself. I have to say that I've noticed that Systematic Theology falls short in it's methodology. By pulling the texts together and looking at the evidence a major tenant that's being ignored is that the evidence wasn't being presented in that way. We start looking at the facts and ignore Christ who's standing there and saying "If you have seen me, you've seen the Father" and applying that direction of thought to everything else. Someone already said that BT is foundational to ST and I think that's right--otherwise any of us can get a doctrine of worshipping on Mountains instead of in valleys reall easy like. (don't hit me if that's a bad example, I'm just giving my 2 cents of wariness towards ST)


Anonymous said...

One reason Biblical Theology has been making noise in the last 100 years (starting with the work of Vos, mainly) is because he applied it to the subject of eschatology, which is the one subject in Systematic Theology that is the most fluid and not clear (or at least with no universal consensus even among the most Bible believing orthodox).

If a theologian decides to apply (or reapply) the discipline of Biblical Theology to, say, Soteriology he's likely looking to defile sound doctrine or to push his own 'new' doctrine. Because soteriology has been found in its true light in Scripture through the discipline of BT by theologians such as Athanasius and Augustine and Luther and Calvin and has hence been systematiced (one can say the apostolic Biblical doctrine was recovered in the case of Luther and Calvin).

The Shepherds and Wrights of the world are not Biblical Theologians. They are wolves in sheep's clothing Romanists, pure and simple, and they attack pure (Reformed) theology at subtle points usually at the head waters (such as the inter-Trinitarian relationship of the Godhead vis-a-vis the Covenant of Redemption) so that they can redirect the stream so that it is far off course from what orthodox theology knows it to be. And when they use secular history to get their unorthodox readings they are NOT engaging in BT by definition. BT is the analogy of Scripture (which, again, is why Calvin's work was called a Biblical theology compared with the human philosophy and abstractions of the scholastics (and other traditions of man) that the Reformers were recoovering apostolic Biblical doctrine back from. /c

Andrew McIntyre said...

It seems to me we cannot even decide on a real definition of Biblical Theology. It is not the same as Heremeneutics. It is not really even the same as Biblical scholarship as expressed in commentaries and works on individual books. In fact, what Biblical Theology produces is not books on Luke or Romans but books on such things as "Johannine Theology" and "Pauline Theology," which, of course, we know to be one and the same. I guess we could call, for instance, O. Palmer Robertson's "Christ of the Covenants" a Biblical Theology work, but how is it any different than a systematic work on the doctrine of the covenants?

The Reformers saw systematics as biblical. In other words, doing theology is an exercise in biblical scholarship. To separate the two is to cause problems. I have heard systematics called "speculative" by biblical theologians, which is never what it was meant to be in Protestant circles. I think we have done nothing more than drive a wedge between the Bible and rational presentation of doctrine categorically, which is unfortunate.

Yes, I have read Vos, but it has been a while. I think his works and many others like his are good but I am not really sure how he establishes a separate academic discipline.

Andy McIntyre

Anonymous said...

Vos made a splash with some new work in Biblical Theology because he was working with eschatology, an area of systematic theology that is not as settled as, say, soteriology; so using the discipline of BT is legitimate (as in, 'still needed') in that area. So, for instance, if you read Robert L. Reymond's New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith you'll see that he uses Biblical Theology, and Vos' work (and others) to flesh out the eschatology in his ST. In this context you can see that is it very much an advantageous thing to see 'Paul's eschatology' and 'John's eschatology' and 'Peter's eschatology' and the eschatology presented in the Gospels, etc. It doesn't mean that you are looking at 'different eschatologies'. You are comparing Scripture with Scripture and seeing the parts in the relation to the whole.

Practically this will enable a person to 'see' from Scripture that, say, Preterism is a false reading of Scripture, where if you only used the discpline of Systematic Theology you could possibly 'find' Preterism in the Scripture with enough prooftexts and exegesis, etc...

Andrew McIntyre said...

But since when is systematics a matter of prooftexting? It seems in our effort to justify separate disciplines we remove rational systemization from biblical theology and biblical hermeneutics from systematic theology. In reality doing theology is doing theology. I guess there is no harm in insisting on separate seminary departments with distinct experts as long as systemization is not disparaged. You see, it is not doing biblical theology as such that sticks in my craw, it is the very idea that we cannot really systematize scriptural data. So, perhaps I am attacking the abuse of biblical theology rather than the discipline itself. Either way, I do not think the distinction is healthy or valuable.

Andy McIntyre

Anonymous said...

There's always going to be a sense and a reality that BT has been done already (it's done its job) and is now the foundation of what we know as apostolic Biblical doctrine recovered by the reformers and set forth in the classic Systematic Theologies.

Even when Vos applied BT to eschatology he didn't come to see anything that the Reformers didn't generally hold to be in the Bible regarding end times. Though Vos did arguably broaden Biblical understanding of eschatology. Perhaps call it the last job BT had to do.

Though perhaps there could be work in BT done in another area respectable, honest Bible believing Christians disagree on: say...issues of ecclesiology or church polity...

Lee said...

I did read that Vos, Ridderbos, and other Biblical Theologians always regarded Biblical Theology as handmadiens to Systematics. That is no longer the case. There seems to be a great deal of hatred for Systematics. It neglects the "story" they say. That is the argument for Biblical Theology after all.

I am still holding out as against the very idea of Biblical Theology. I don't think it is possible to merge it into Systematics or suppliment it. Can anyone name a person who wrote a Biblical Theology and then wrote a Systematic Theology? Did Vos, did Ridderbos, Kaiser, or Wright? That seems to indicate that no one ever practiced them both or thought they both deserved equal treatment.

Again, I see asking questions of a book about what Luke is trying to say to his audience, to me, is Hermenuetics. If one takes what Luke says about Christ and then adds that knowledge to what Mark and John say about Christ, then one is doing Systematics. If one contrasts Luke's idea about Jesus and John's idea about Jesus, one may be doing Biblical theology, but they are attacking Scripture not studying it. It also seems that if one looks for a main point, such as Vos and Ridderbos's Eschatological Aeons or Wright's Jew-Gentile relations, they run the danger of ignoring smaller points, coloring texts through a lens, and perhaps over emphasizing something that needs to be counter balanced. All in all, I am still at a loss over Biblical Theology.

Anonymous said...

If you insist on defining something by those who would misuse it I suppose you are going to have to throw away many great works of theology.

Here's an example of how BT can give a deeper understanding of the Bible than reading of the same topic in a ST: read this by Vos on the Kingdom of God:


Then read of the Kingdom of God in a standard ST. (Or maybe reverse the order of reading.) /c

Eduardo said...

Lee, yours is a great blog. Matt Powell of Wheat and Chaff pointed me to this discussion.

I think that both Biblical and Systematic Theology are necessary. Systematic Theology is the scientific study of God and His works; and Biblical Theology is the study of theological principles inducted from the study of Holy Scripture, which is one of the sources of revelation.

That is, Biblical Theology has a necessary, but ancillary, role; the role of a midwife helping in the greater theological enterprise with an useful mediation between Scriptural truth and the coherent, scientific building of Dogmatics.



Lee said...

I have continued this discussion in a new post. I hope to get more feedback.


N.E. Barry Hofstetter said...

These definitions are simply wrong.

It is the task of
exegetical theology to highlight the unique emphasis that each author has in the
individual passages of the Scriptures; the task of biblical theology
(Heilsgeschichtliche, redemptive-historical, or canonical theology) to focus on
how individual themes/doctrines are developed throughout the Scriptures, and the
task of systematic theology to demonstrate the fundamental unity of the
Scriptures as we draw conclusions based on the various expressions of truth that
the authors of Scripture use, emphasizing not only the consistency of the
Scriptures on any one doctrinal teaching, but also the relationship of the
various doctrines one to another.

N.E. Barry Hofstetter
Adjunct Faculty, The Center for Urban Theological Studies
Philadelphia, PA
Visiting Faculty, Reformed Theological Seminary
Washington, D.C.

And me:

Lee said...

I can agree with those definitions.