Tuesday, February 08, 2005

More Biblical vs. Systematic Theology

I have done as many of you have suggested and examined Vos concerning the Kingdom of God. Then I read similar sections in various Systematics. I read Turretin (where it is under the Kingdom of Christ), Hodge and Berkhof. One can easily see the influence of Vos on Berkhof, but the other two are pre-Vos, and thus have a different discussion of the Kingdom of God (or Christ). This may get me in trouble, but I prefer Turretin and Hodge.

Vos emphasizes the eschatological aspect of the kingdom of God. He teaches an "already and not yet" emphasis on the word, but gives the primary spot to the eschatological aspect. Berkhof following Vos gives an even larger role to the eschatological or the "not yet". Hodge and Turretin emphasize the spiritual aspect of the Kingdom, along with the role of Christ. Turretin even calls it the kingdom of Christ. They view the kingdom as ‘progressive’ rather than ‘already and not yet’. This reading to me seems to fit many passages better, including the parables, and avoids the idea of mistaking the culmination of the kingdom as a commencement of the kingdom.

It should be noted as well that Vos goes outside of the Bible to aid his reasoning of the phrase. At the bottom of page 1 he states, "In the Jewish literature which lies between the Old and New Testament we also find the Kingdom of God spoken of." So, my worries that Biblical Theology require one to go outside of the Bible have not found much solace with Vos.

So some questions remain:
1. Does Biblical theology require one to go outside of the Bible to aid understanding of the Bible? If it does not, how then does it differ from Hermeneutics, which Systematics has always used?
2. How has Vos’s focus on the eschatological kingdom of God aided the older Systematic view of a progressive spiritual kingdom?
3. Does the search for one main thrust or point, which seems to define Biblical Theology, end up coloring the reading?


Anonymous said...

This book is being published Feb. 11, '05:

Geerhardus Vos Anthology: Biblical And Theological Insights Alphabetically Arranged

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: P & R Publishing
ISBN: 0875526187

If you've ever read Vos you'll appreciate the appearance of this anthology. You tend to have to slog through alot of writing that is more concerned with scholarly and academic matters than what a general reader is looking for when you read him. His Biblical Theology is notorious for being a difficult to get through book (yet the unique subject matter draws you on, so it becomes an endurance test).

"1. Does Biblical theology require one to go outside of the Bible to aid understanding of the Bible? If it does not, how then does it differ from Hermeneutics, which Systematics has always used?"

Biblical Theology is concerned with the history of Revelation itself. The unfolding of it. When one questions the very legitimacy of BT in this way one is basically questioning all very orthodox theologians who have engaged in BT such as John Calvin, John Owen, various covenant theologians, and Vos himself.

"2. How has Vos’s focus on the eschatological kingdom of God aided the older Systematic view of a progressive spiritual kingdom?"

Unfortunately Vos main work on this subject - Pauline Eschatology - has not been in print for awhile. I only know of it by hearsay. But I think generally you'll find that what Vos brought to the table has been fairly thoroughly adopted by the most hardcore, Reformed theologians (you mentioned Berkhof, for instance) already, so it's actually kind of hard to say what he brought without repeating what most people understand today who are generally Refomred, amillenial, etc., etc. I suggest you also look into Robert L. Reymond's New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith to see how Vos' and other later BT has been incorporated into general understanding today.

By the way, your question requires a treatise. It's very general. And it's on the verge of deserving a reply such as: 'Well, you DO have to do some studying of this on your own you know!' I say that with good humor, but your continued stance of 'suspicion' towards BT and Vos is based on the fact that you don't yet know the field and it's just difficult to continually respond in any kind of useful or practical way before one has to say, study on!

"3. Does the search for one main thrust or point, which seems to define Biblical Theology, end up coloring the reading?"

I not aware of any search for one theme as being foundational to BT, though the Kingdom of God is an obvious unifying theme of the Bible. Yet Reformed Systematic Theology certainly sees the Covenant of Redemption as the unifying theme of the Bible. BT would edge towards the Kingdom of God, arguing that the Covenant as ST theologians work it out is not fully in the Word of God. (This is all being put in extremely simple terms.) Actually, BT tends to see Jesus Christ in ALL the Bible. Radically, really.

You may find what you're looking for in studying the differences between Herman Witsius' work and Cocceius' work in the 1600s regarding Covenant Theology. It was a battle, as J. I. Packer puts it, between BT and ST, and in the perspective of time, as Packer also says, it can be seen that both were necessary to get the complete picture. Read this paragraph from Packer's excellent essay on Covenant Theology:

"Historically, covenant theology is a Reformed development: Huldreich Zwingli, Henry Bullinger, John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, Robert Rollock, John Preston, and John Ball, were among the contributors to its growth, and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms gave it confessional status. Johann Koch (Cocceius) was a Dutch stormy petrel who in a Latin work, The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento dei, 1648) not only worked out in detail what we would call a biblical-theological, redemptive-historical perspective for presenting covenant theology (three periods -- the covenant of works, made with Adam; the covenant of grace, made with and through Moses; the new covenant, made through Christ), but muddied his exegesis by allegorical fancies and marginalized himself by needless attacks on the analytical doctrine-by-doctrine approach to theological exposition that was practised by his leading contemporaries in Holland, Maccovius, Maresius, and Voetius. It seems clear with hindsight that his method and theirs were complementary to each other, and that both were necessary then, as they are now. (Today we name the Cocceian procedure "biblical theology" and that which he opposed "systematic theology," and in well-ordered teaching institutions students are required to study both.) But for more than half a century following the appearance of Cocceius' book clouds of controversy hung over Holland as Cocceians and Voetians grappled with each other, each side trying to prove the illegitimacy and wrong-headedness of what the other was attempting."

James Frank SolĂ­s said...

Someone (I think it was Andy) pointed out that Biblical Theology seems to have begun with the work of more liberal theologians, people who are sceptical that there is a single unified message of Scripture, a message that can be systematized. Of course, then, it's no wonder that we don't get too many systematic theologies from liberals. As an alternative to systematic theology, Biblical Theology has many similarities to Systematic (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 23-25, pointed this out). It seeks to systematize Scripture under different subjects than Systematic. One of the advantages that Biblical is supposed to have over Systematic is that the required knowledge store is smaller than for Systematic. To do Systematic requires: (1) knowledge of all Scripture, including the biblical languages, cultural and historical backgrounds; (2) knowledge of Historical Theology; (3) with the knowledge explosion: (a) sociology; (b) psychology; (c) semiotics; and (d) philosophy, to name just a few. The focus of Biblical relieves the Biblical Theologian of having to acquire a knowledge store approaching that of the systematician; and the required knowledge store makes (most?) Bibilical Theologians sceptical of the possibility, in modern times, of a worthy system of theology such as men like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and others were able to build in their times.

Since Biblical Theology, like Systematic, constitutes an attempt to systematize the teachings of the Bible--but along different lines, and under different subjects--it's no wonder that there will be enough similarity between the two to raise the sort of questions that you ask. And, of course, given that both seek a systematization of sorts, Biblical Theology's use of Hermeneutics does not differ very much, if at all, from Systematic's use of it. Both disciplines seek a systematization of Scripture; they must therefore make use of similar, if not identical, tools.

The issue you raise in an earlier blog about the difference between Systematic's treatment of sin, and Biblical's treatment of it shows, I think, not a weakness of Biblical but precisely just how it serves as a foundation. Yes, Systematic gathers all of the biblical data on sin and renders a judgement on what the entire body of Scripture teaches on the subject. But the entire body is composed of individual books. Revelation was progressive. So the question, What does the Bible teach about sin? is, by extension, the questions: What does the Pentateuch teach about sin?; What do the Psalms teach about sin?; What do each of the Prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, etc) teach about sin? Answering these types of questions, while certainly helping the ends of Systematic, still remain the task of Biblical Theology as a foundation for Systematic.

But why, you have asked, should Biblical Theology exist as a separate discipline from Systematic? Why shouldn't it? Physiology serves as a foundation for medicine. So do anatomy, chemistry, biology and physics. Yet these remain separate disciplines. A foundation without a superstructure is nothing but a slab; a superstructure without a foundation is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The fact that the most obviously important work will be in the superstructure can hardly mean that there should not be those whose labors are confined to the foundation.

The question is why would, or should, Reformed theologians engage in Biblical Theology as a discipline distinct from Systematic? One short answer would be that, because of the work of liberals in the field, a great deal of bad Bibilical Theology exists and needs to be answered (i.e., by good Biblical Theology). One would like to think that the best answer to bad Biblical Theology is simply good Systematic; perhaps one would be correct. But perhaps the good answer needs to be written in the Biblical Theologian's language, and according to his categories of thought.

"2. How has Vos’s focus on the eschatological kingdom of God aided the older Systematic view of a progressive spiritual kingdom?"

Why don't you write a theological paper which attempts an answer to the question? I don't mean that by way of being sarcastic. I am in earnest. Why don't you? You have enough interest in the subject, and curiosity. You should try it. Besides, I'd like to read that paper, because, quite frankly, my short answer at this point is: I honestly don't know.

3. Does the search for one main thrust or point, which seems to define Biblical Theology, end up coloring the reading?

Does the search for that single system of theology, which does in fact define systematic theology (e.g., dispensationalism) end up coloring the reading? Many people assert that our (Calvinist/Reformed) systematic theology colors our reading of the text. The real question is whether the search for one main thrust or point truly belongs to Biblical Theology. I am hard-pressed, though I do not reject Biblical Theology, to see how this is a proper task for it. The task of finding the main point or thrust of Scripture seems to me to belong properly to that branch of Theology which has as its task organizing the teachings of Scripture under subjects: Systematic Theology. It seems ridiculous to ask what Scripture's main point is until after its teachings have been systematized. This may be why there are as many centers (or thrusts, or main points) as there are biblical theologians searching for it.

Very interesting topic, and, like anonymous has said, very treatise worthy! Anyway, the suspense is killing me. I hope it lasts.