Is there a wedge being driven between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology?

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I have recently been undertaking some research in the relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology. In the light of this I was intrigued by the following remarks which I came upon in a Christian magazine published in the UK:

 

The wedge that has been consciously driven between systematic theology and biblical theology over recent decades in influential circles is starting to bear very bad fruit. Exclusive emphasis on the Bible as storytelling has combined with a trendy cultural impatience both with the past and with the very idea of systematic theology, and this has provided fertile soil for the reception of the kind of ideas promoted by the scripture revisionists.

 

Unfortunately, the author, a well-known scholar, does not detail his reasons for arriving at this conclusion. Personally speaking, I would be inclined to view this as a somewhat jaundiced view of recent developments, but I say this on the basis of living in the UK and the author of this comment may be drawing upon developments in North America. I would, therefore, be interested to get the reaction of others to this comment. Does this chime with your own experience in recent years? Is this an accurate assessment? Or, is there some element of truth in this that needs to be taken very seriously? Your observations would be most welcome.

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24 Responses to “Is there a wedge being driven between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology?”

  1. Dwight Says:

    The very idea that you can drive a wedge between Biblical and Systematic theology doesn’t make sense to me. Does it make sense to you?

    If I had to guess at what this scholar is trying to say, and this is a guess, is that Systematic Theology of basic Protestant tradition is being ignored or revised due to some popular but skewed applications of Biblical Theology.

    People who reject the authority of the past, don’t accept modern categories of thought do so because they do not see it as being helpful to them, or accurate to their worldview.

    The quality of any Biblical Theology is judged by how well it shapes an accurate metanarrative. Good Biblical Theology will lead people to appreciate and accept accurate and helpful categories of orthodox Systematic Theology. Bad Biblical Theology will lead to a worldview that doesn’t see current Systematic Theology as accurate or helpful, and thus will attempt revise it.

    Im curious as to what this scholar’s real problem is. If people now a days don’t trust modernistic interpretation of history, and reject traditional orthodox categories of thought that finds Systematic Theology useful, then what other solution is there than shaping people using Biblical Theology?

  2. Mike Bird Says:

    Des,

    I’d agree that a wedge is appearing but that is because (a) biblical scholars want to follow the story of the text and the are beginning to refuse to merely proof text a theological system, and (b) I think that alot of Systematic Theologians are threatened by Bib. Theol. because it represents a challenge to some of their conclusions and a threat to the hegemony of their system in certain ecclesial contexts. I would read between the lines in that quote and say that a “scriptural revisionist” is someone who arrives at a biblical conclusion not in accordance with the system of this theologian!

  3. Justin Says:

    In the U.S. there are tons of articles, essays, chapters, and now books being written about the “relationship” between Biblical and Systematic Theology. Those who are evangelical in any sense of the the word see a real and important relationship. D.A. Carson has an article on this. Osborne deals with this topic in his Hermeneutical Spiral. There are articles in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology dealing with this relationship. Goldsworthy and others also have articles. It seems that many are seeing a spectrum (best displayed by Osborne in my opinion) of study. Our understanding of God naturally arises from His Word, and so there is a natural progression from Exegesis to Biblical Theology to Systematics to Spiritual Theology. The spectrum differs a bit depending on who is speaking, but the sum of the relationship is that good Biblical Theology rests on good Exegesis, and good Systematics depends upon good Biblical Theology. Obviously good application of scripture in the life of the believer also depends upon good Systematics. You might could even look at the relationships b/w each of these areas as a pyramid building on each other. The foundation is Exegesis with the pinnacle being right living! This seems to be what is being said by those evangelicals that I have been reading.

    • steve Says:

      Justin said, “…good Biblical Theology rests on good Exegesis, and good Systematics depends upon good Biblical Theology.” This is what I do not think is stressed enough. By neglecting the Bible Storyline, proof texting abounds (and bores us to death). We don’t get to pick. By neglecting the details of compiled historical theological subject matter, it is just a story. If a student goes to Bible College or Preacher School and first learns systematic theology (and only learns systematic theology) his preaching will be fragmentary and incoherent. Biblical Theology first.

      This is what Clowney taught. And this is what I believe Carson, Goldsworthy, Greidanus, Dempster and many more are stressing. Not a neglect of the doctines, but the doctrines grounded in the historical/salvational story. Those who neglect the doctrine for story, do not understand the story line. And vice versa.

  4. greenbaggins Says:

    This is my area of research for my Ph.D. The Enlightenment is responsible, I believe, for the fragmentation of theology into the various disciplines that now view each other with suspicion. I have NEVER seen a good systematics prof feel threatened by exegesis or biblical theology. On the other hand, I wish I had a dollar for every single time I’ve seen in a commentary, “That’s a systematic category, and we can’t talk about that.” If you believed most exegetes today, systematic theology has no place at all in the theological curriculum. Gaffin, however, said it best: “biblical theology follows the plot line of the Bible, whereas systematic theology is a plot analysis.” But this wedge (of which exegetes seem to me to be utterly unaware: witness the blatant open theism of John Goldingay in his OT theology and in his commentaries, about which no one seems to be commenting) is part of a far larger fragmentation of theology that started with Schleiermacher’s Enlightenment-influenced Kurze Darstellung, wherein he parceled out theology into various disciplines. What is vitally important for theologians today to recover is the generalist theologian.

  5. Jim Hamilton Says:

    Desi,

    Thanks for this post! I think that a valid critique of one who talks about the “story” of Scripture but fails to reckon with that story can be seen in Schreiner’s review of Scot McKnight’s book, which is being posted in daily installments at http://www.cbmw.org/Blog. So the relevant critique isn’t up yet. So far Schreiner is only summarizing McKnight’s position. But when he turns to analyze McKnight’s position, he gives a valid critique–that is sensitive to redemptive history–of the way that McKnight uses “story” to overturn more traditional theology and insert his own.

    For what it’s worth,

    Jim

  6. John C. Poirier Says:

    I, for one, enthusiastically agree with every word you quote from the “Christian magazine”. (Could you please tell us what the magazine is, and who wrote these words?) Narrative theology is a very serious threat to biblical theology, in my opinion, not least for the fact that many people think that it *is* a form of biblical theology! Narrative theology is ultimately a form of docetism–in fact, it is the worst form of it–because it seeks to place the authority of Scripture in its semantic aspect rather than in its truth aspect.

    Narrative theologians will typically object to my “narrowed” use of “truth”, but that begs the very question that I’m posing. In narrative theology, it is not the spacetime actuality of the Christ event that matters, but rather the storytime actuality of the Christ event. That, folks, is pure docetism.

  7. Jim Hamilton Says:

    The third part of Schreiner’s review of McKnight begins to address some of these issues: http://www.cbmw.org/Blog/Posts/A-Review-of-Scot-McKnight-s-The-Blue-Parakeet-Part-III.

    Parts 1 and 2 have been posted, and the next two parts are coming the next two days.

    Jim

  8. Joe Says:

    Thanks for this conversation, i have found it very edifying.

    could you guys further elucidate what exactly narrative theology is?

  9. J. B. Hood Says:

    Just to clarify, the original post and citation said nothing about “narrative theology”. While Biblical theology does require attention to narrative aspects of a piece of literature (both within books, and the larger sweep of the whole Bible), such literary and/or narrative criticism is not the same as “narrative theology”; the two shouldn’t be confused.

  10. The Enlightenment and the Fragmentation of Theology « Green Baggins Says:

    [...] My post here is an expansion of a comment I made over on Biblical Theology. [...]

  11. Vlad Says:

    Though I understand the evangelical concern over this “wedge,” I’m quite happy with it. I think it is the role of the biblical theologian to do his work as independently as possible. Ultimately it provides a check on dogmatism and tradition. If, in fact, biblical scholarship destroys the foundations of Christianity, then with Clement I say let it be destroyed. But I think both the Bible and classical theology will survive just fine.

  12. John C. Poirier Says:

    J. B. Hood is correct that the original post “said nothing about ‘narrative theology’”, but there are some indications that “storytelling” refers to narrative theology *per se* (that is, to a narrativizing of truth itself), and not just to narrative criticism (that is, to a simple recognition of the use of narrative in communicating the truth). I just don’t see how the latter could possibly lead to a “wedge” being driven between systematic theology and biblical theology, and the use of the word “exclusive” also suggests that we are dealing with narrative theology, for narrative critics hardly ever think of their method as an exclusive key. (For narrative theologians, on the other hand, keying on narrative is more than just a method–it is truth itself.) The reference to this new fad resonating with “a trendy cultural impatience . . . with the past” also fits with narrative theology’s dismissal of intentionalist hermeneutics, but it hardly fits with narrative criticism.

    As for what “narrative theology” is–a question asked by Joe–the answer is that it is a type of theology that understands truth itself to be a construct created by our individual life narratives, and that proper Christian praxis is a matter of plugging our personal life narratives into the biblical narrative. The problems with this approach are numerous. Suffice it to say that it’s both bad theology and bad philosophy.

  13. Nick Carter Says:

    I think it’s very true that there is a wedge, but I’m not sure it’s as gross as the author describes it… in fact, I’m not sure I’d call it a “wedge” as even that term implies a certain negativity. There certainly is a difference, however. I think that systematics is a product of westernized compartmentalized thought and scholarly approach. Two facts are true: (1) Biblical authors did not write with the intent for their works to be studied in the way systematics do, and (2) whenever we approach Scripture trying to find support for a theory, we’ll find it… but it may not be truth.

    That said, I think systematics still has a place, particularly in the Westernized church. Yes, it may be a critique that it’s a western approach to a very Hebrew-style Bible, but when the body is Western-minded, you must find a way to make the truths of the Scriptures understandable and applicable to the body. So, with caution and respect for the texts, I see no problem with systematics. Without them, we’d all still be catholic… LOL :-)

  14. Chris Donato Says:

    Surely you meant Orthodox! ;-)

    “No Byzantine theologian ever attempted to write a Summa. This does not mean, however, that behind the issues debated by theologians there was not a basic unity of inspriation, and the sense of a single, consistent tradition of faith. Of course, the East was less prone than the West to coneptualize or to dogmatize this unity of tradition. It preferred to maintain its faithfulness to the ‘mind of Christ’ through the liturgy of the Church, through the tradition of holiness, through a living gnosis of the Truth. In any systematic presentation of Byzantine theology, there is, therefore, a danger of forcing it into the mold of rational categories foreign to its very nature” (Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, p. 128).

    Can you imagine the Princetonians, for example, calling the practice of their craft “dangerous” because it’s against its very nature? I think they’d argue it was a perfectly natural outflow of its nature! Those intent on driving a wedge between the two practices, especially those who bellyache about the “story” all the time, often use this same argument against systematicians — it’s dangerous to force biblical theology into “rational categories foreign to its very nature.”

    But no systematician worth their salt would disagree, as greenbaggins above notes.

  15. Max Says:

    “I have NEVER seen a good systematics prof feel threatened by exegesis or biblical theology.” (Greenbaggins)

    Me neither, but I’ve seen lots and lots of bad systematics profs who are. Not all systematicians are actually worth their salt when it comes down to it.

    (Please no charges of bias: I could say the same of many Biblical scholars too!)

  16. oj Says:

    I saw that you have a blog on theology. Looks great!

    We’re building the blogroll of our theology blog on UrbanMinistry.org. We’d like to add your blog to our blogroll list, and were wondering if you would do the same for us. You could just call the link theology at UrbanMinistry.org. The URL is http://www.urbanministry.org/theology

    It’s good to see others with a passion for theology and linking to each other seems like a great way to expand the community of people trying to bring social change on this issue.

    Let me know if you have any questions or if you have other ideas on how we might collaborate and connect our communities.

  17. Joseph Mahler Says:

    Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology are one in the same in that the Systematic Theology is derived from the Bible itself. There is no wedge between the two. But there is a wedge between Pseudotheology and the Bible, in fact there is a great abyss between the two in which no bridge can be built. This has been a major problem in Anglicanism since the 19th century. First with the Tractarians, then the Darwinist, Social Darwinism, Liberalism, etc. Unfortunate some mistrust theology because they think that it come from another source than God through the Bible. But the Systematics try to put the doctrines of the Bible together so that it is better understood, so that the clear may interpret the less clear and that not one part of Scripture is emphasized to the point that it is repugnant to another. The following two blog deal with these issues in the context of Anglican Heritage and the Prayer Book:
    http://heritageanglicannetwork.wordpress.com/
    http://prayerbook1662.wordpress.com/
    Both blogs are relatively new.

  18. Nicholas T. Batzig Says:

    Dr. Alexander,

    As Lane Keister pointed out above, I also am convinced that the wedge was created by Enlightenment principles. Lane is also correct that no good systematic prof. (i.e. Richard Gaffin) feels threatened by exegesis or BT. It seems that many use BT as a cloak for unrestrained, experimental theology. In short, most of the error in theology in the last 140 years has been as a result of an aberrant BT. Emphasizing the story to the exclusion of the propositions of the story is an easy way to slip your false propositions under the door. If I tell my son a story, it is comprised of characters with attributes and actions with referent points. Paul Helm has recently written some very helpful thoughts on the necessity of propositions.

  19. Narrative Theology vs. Systematic Theology « Missional Tribe Says:

    [...] identified this unhealthy trend in driving a wedge between biblical and systematic theology here: http://biblicaltheology.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/is-there-a-wedge-being-driven-between-biblical-theo… Posted 9 seconds ago [...]

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  21. v02468 Says:

    I am a grad student with limited experience and with a passion for biblical theology. From my own research, it has not been that biblical theologians are causing a division from systematic theologians – but that systematic theologians often consider biblical theology to be subpar to their own field. This was especially prevalent at Westminster Theologian Seminary – the most recent school I attended. Frequently in class biblical theology would be relegated to the status of “history and development of systematic theology”.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Vlad above that biblical theology should be driving our systematic arguments. I don’t think our systematic theologies are worthless, but there are is a lot of “the right doctrine from the wrong text” that is going around.

  22. AMB Says:

    Has this blog ceased to be? Please carry on, it is very beneficial.

  23. Jonathan Watson Says:

    Reblogged this on Toward the Son and commented:
    This seems relevant in light of some recent conversations centered around the 9Marks workshop I had the privilege of attending.

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