What Is Biblical Theology?–Part Three

In Part Two, I partially defined biblical theology by what it is not—it is not systematic theology.  Yet, it is related to systematic theology.  The precise nature of that relationship is hard to delineate.

One model attempts to portray things in a linear fashion.  The biblical theologian does the exegetical work on the biblical text, and then takes the results of that exegesis and constructs a biblical theology, arranged most likely in chronological, historical categories (covenants, historical eras, etc.).  Then, the biblical theologian hands the results over to the systematic theologian, who, in turn, takes the data and constructs a systematic, topically-organized theology, which also engages a host of other disciplines such as history, philosophy, ethics, science, etc.

A second model looks much like the first one, but it also specifies that biblical theology is a purely descriptive discipline, while systematic theology is both descriptive and prescriptive.  That is, biblical theology’s only concern is to describe the theological content of the Scriptures, without also going so far as to declare that the results of their investigation is prescriptive.  Or, to put that another way, the biblical theologian does not arrive at the place where they can say, “this is what you ought to believe,” or, “this is how you ought to live.”  Systematic theology, on the other hand, does both.  It describes the theological content of the Scriptures in topical categories, engages the other disciplines mentioned above, and then prescribes what one ought to believe and how one ought to live.  So, on this model, biblical theology is description, but systematic theology is prescription, i.e., application.

I reject both of these models, for a number of reasons.  The first model is to be rejected because things just don’t go in a straight line.  Rather, a better model is that of a circle, or, even better, a spiral.  The biblical theologian does the exegetical work and takes the results and constructs a biblical theology.  The systematic theologian takes the biblical-theological results and attempts to construct a logical, topically-organized theology.  But in the process of doing so, the systematic theologian may question the results of the exegetical and biblical-theological work, and go back to the biblical theologian and ask for a re-examination.  The biblical-theologian, in turn, after their re-examination, may come to see things differently and arrive at different or more nuanced results.  They may, however, come back and say that the systematic theologian has not understood the data correctly, or is attempting to make the text answer questions that the text was never attempting to answer.  The systematic theologian, then, may come back to the biblical theologian . . . and so on, and so on—a spiraling process that may go on indefinitely (almost two millennia already!).

The second model is to be rejected, first of all, for the same reason the first model is to be rejected.  But there are additional reasons.

Second, it is highly arbitrary to suggest that a logical, topically-arranged theology is in a better position to be prescriptive than an historical, chronologically-arranged theology.  As far as the biblical data is concerned, at least in theory, there should be no difference in the content of the two arrangements.  They are both systematic.  They are both logical.  They are both biblical.  The difference is simply that the ordering principle of the system, or the logic, is temporal in the case of biblical theology, but topical in the case of systematic theology.  Or, more precisely, the arrangement is diachronic in the case of biblical theology, and synchronic in the case of systematic theology.  Again, remember that, in Part Two, I said that systematic theology was like a photo album, a collection of snapshots, and that biblical theology was like a movie.  The photo album is not necessarily better than the movie, and the movie is not necessarily better than the photo album.  The point I make here is that there is no reason why synchronic systematic theology is in any better position to be prescriptive than diachronic biblical theology.  They both have their purposes, and they both have equal right to say “this is what you ought to believe, and this is how you ought to live.”  Both the biblical theologian and the systematic theologian address issues of “faith and practice.”

Third, it was not till the late eighteenth century that there was any substantial dichotomy proposed that would separate biblical theology from systematic theology.  The reader will remember, from the “Introductory Article,” that I said that the second-century bishop Irenaeus could rightly be called the father of biblical theology.  However, he is more commonly referred to as the father of “Christian theology.”  He was a biblical theologian, and he was a systematic theologian.  He did both.  And many of the church fathers, medieval theologians, and Reformation theologians were engaged in both.  The same figures in church history wrote commentaries on the biblical texts, and they also wrote more topically-oriented theological treatises.  John Calvin is well known for his topically-oriented Institutes of the Christian Religion.  But among biblical scholars, he is equally well known for his commentaries, which, though dated with regard to historical and philological information, are still regarded as models of how to write a commentary.  Jonathan Edwards, famous for his more topically-oriented pieces of theology and his metaphysical writings, also authored a more biblical-theological work entitled, A History of Redemption.  Historically, then, for the Christian church, biblical theology and systematic theology have run in parallel, and were both often practiced by the same figures.  And there was never any suggestion that one was more normative than the other.

Fourth, the dichotomy that was introduced between biblical theology and systematic theology in the late eighteenth century has had disastrous results.  I do not have time in this article to give the whole history; but, in a nutshell, the proposal was made that biblical theology should be practiced as a separate and distinct discipline from systematic theology.  Biblical theology was to be purely descriptive, and systematic theology was to be prescriptive.  Also, biblical theology was to be practiced totally free from any dogmatic constraints that might be imposed upon it from systematic theology, or creed, or statement of faith.  That is, biblical theology’s results must not be predetermined by systematic theology or creedal statements.  Biblical theologians should be free to come up with exegetical results different from what might be found in a statement of faith.  So biblical theology was “freed up” to arrive at results that were different from the statements of faith in the churches with which they were affiliated.  So what happened is that scholars started writing biblical theologies that were really just “histories of religion,” with no concern as to whether the religion they were describing was right or wrong.  But another disastrous result, which has not been as well recognized, is that systematic theology was now “freed up” from biblical theology.  If biblical theology is only descriptive, and not prescriptive, then the systematic theologian has no compulsion to either pay it any attention, or to hold  its results as being in any way authoritative.  In essence, the systematic theologian was free to say to the biblical theologian, “I think you have done a good job describing the theological positions of the biblical authors.  I believe that you have correctly described what the Bible teaches.  But I disagree with the biblical authors because their theological beliefs do not correspond to my philosophical presuppositions, my logic, my theological preferences.  I am unable to fit their beliefs into what I consider to be a coherent system.  So I am free to disregard your results.”

Fifth, I think it is important to note that good preachers who faithfully preach expository sermons from the biblical text, and are, by the nature of the sermon, committed to make applications for their hearers, do not go through this linear process in order to arrive at their applications.  In other words, in their study of the text from which they are going to preach, they do not study the passage in context, and then go through the process of handing the results over to a book of systematic theology in order to come up with an application.  They may, indeed, consult a systematic theology as they study for the sermon, but they do not do this in some kind of linear, formal process.  And they may not consult a systematic theology at all.  In other words, to put things in economic terms, the text has immediate “cash value.” The preacher, having explained a particular text in a passage, can go directly from text to application without stopping at systematic theology.

Sixth, what is true of preachers is true of the Bible itself.  Arguably, there is no book of systematic theology in the Bible.  There are certainly books that have lots of systematic reflection: Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, to name a few.   But there is no theoretical, systematically-ordered theology text in the Bible.  Yet, the Bible is chock full of statements that tell the reader what to believe and how to live.  The Bible is full of prescriptions.  The Bible is full of application.  The biblical authors considered their narratives, their books, their letters, their poems, their psalms, their sermons, their prophecies to be directly applicable to the lives of their readers.  Now, to be sure, any one passage of Scripture ought to be interpreted in an ever-expanding circle of contexts.  It should be interpreted in light of the verses immediately before and after the passage.  It should then be interpreted in light of the larger discourse, say, the chapter.  It should then be interpreted in light of the particular biblical book in which it occurs.  It should then be interpreted in light of the group of books to which the book belongs (gospels, Pauline letters, Johannine letters, prophetic books, poetic books, etc.).  It should then be interpreted in light of the testament in which it occurs.  Finally, it should be interpreted in light of the entire biblical canon.  But this is exactly what biblical theology does!

Seventh, and last, biblical theologians are already doing application.  Most evangelical practitioners of biblical theology today  believe that the discipline is one that is normative for Christian faith and practice.  Remember that, in Part Two, I mentioned the book by Klink and Lockett, where they lay out five different types of biblical theology and label them as BT1 through BT5.  Of the five types, only one of them, BT1, could be characterized as holding that biblical theology should be purely descriptive and not prescriptive.  And I think it is safe to say that there are very few, if any, evangelical biblical theologians in that particular category.  All the types and subtypes, except for BT1, would hold, at least to some degree, that biblical theology is normative for Christian faith and practice.  Furthermore, what systematic theologians are often regarded as being able to bring to the table, their engagement with history, science, philosophy, ethics, etc., is in fact already at the table through the work of biblical theologians.  Many, if not most, biblical theologians, are well-versed in these areas, and do not necessarily need to pass “go” (systematic theology), in order to collect their $200.  The discipline of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation has, over the last several decades, become increasingly interdisciplinary.  Biblical theologians have written significant volumes dealing with the interplay between exegesis, hermeneutics, and biblical theology, and the disciplines of history, dogmatics, ethics, apologetics, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, science, literary studies, etc.

Now, after reading all the above, the reader might well ask the question: “If everything you said is true, what good is systematic theology?  If biblical theology can do all you say it can, is there any need for systematic theology?”

Well, I am delighted you asked that question!  Let me respond by quoting a paragraph from one of my professors who has had a profound effect on the shaping of my understanding of biblical theology.  Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., is the Emeritus Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Did you notice that title?—Biblical and Systematic Theology?  In 1976, Dr. Gaffin published an article entitled, “Systematic and Biblical Theology,” in which he examined the relationship between the two disciplines.  After a masterful survey of the history of the relationship, he comes to this conclusion:

All this prompts the not entirely modest proposal, in view of objections that can be raised against the term “systematic theology,” to discontinue its use and instead to use “biblical theology” to designate the comprehensive statement of what Scripture teaches (dogmatics), always insuring that its topical divisions remain sufficiently broad and flexible to accommodate the results of the redemptive-historically regulated exegesis on which it is based. This, it would seem to be, is the ultimate resolution of the relational question raised in this essay.

There’s a lot to “unpack” (one of Dr. Gaffin’s favorite activities; WTS alumni will know what I mean) in this paragraph.  And even though I am largely in agreement with his “not entirely modest proposal,” the resulting picture is, in fact, not completely clear.  Dr. Gaffin has subsequently modified his proposal somewhat, and we’ll look more closely at the original proposal, as well as its modification, in the next installment.

In Part Four (and the final part), we’ll take a closer look at Dr. Gaffin’s proposal, and try to more completely answer that question: If biblical theology does its work correctly, is systematic theology necessary?  Also, in these first three parts, the discussion has been more theoretical.  In Part Four, we’ll be looking at specific biblical examples, showing how biblical theology and systematic theology, as currently practiced, tend to approach those texts differently, and talk about the particular temptations the systematic theologian faces in dealing with the biblical data.  But, to give a quick but provisional answer to that question, “Is systematic theology necessary?” my answer would be, “Yes . . . and . . . no.”

Jerry Shepherd
September 16, 2013

5 thoughts on “What Is Biblical Theology?–Part Three

  1. Hi Jerry, I know it’s almost two months since you posted this, but still… Have you heard the “forest” analogy? It says that if the Bible is like a forest, then systematic theology aims to describe all the different kinds of trees in the forest, classifying them, analysing each kind in detail, comparing them, etc. Biblical theology gives you a map of the forest. (Just how accurate that is, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s cute…)

    • Thanks for this, Stephen. When I get finally get to that “Part Four” you’ll see some of the wrestling I’m going through here. But I actually envision biblical theology as performing that classifying and analytical function as well. The question then arises as to whether we really need systematic theology; and I’ll be addressing that question.

      • Look forward to it, Jerry. (Actually, I realised that I mis-remembered the analogy I heard anyway. It should have been that exegesis is the detailed study of a particular tree, systematic theology is a classification of all the different kinds of trees, and biblical theology is a map of the forest. But I’ll wait for your Part Four anyway!)

  2. Dr. Shepherd, I’ve been following and benefiting from your blog for some time now, and I really enjoyed these first 3 posts you did on biblical theology! I know I’m more than a bit late to this post, but I have a question. Why do you follow a temporal (historical) ordering principle as opposed to a textual one (Tanakh order) in your approach to the unfolding nature of biblical theology?

    I’m thinking of examples like John Sailhamer or Stephen Dempster. Obviously there is a lot of overlap in both approaches, but I wonder why, if the text of scripture is God’s revelation, the history behind the scripture should trump the layout of the divine text in our formulation of biblical theology? If I’ve phrased any of that wrong, I hope you understand what I’m getting at.

    P.S. I still hold out hope for Part four! Grace and peace.

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