Biblical vs. systematic theology: the place of questions...
It’s stock-in-trade for persecuted theological minorities to claim they’re doing Biblical theology while their foes are engaged only in systematic theology. It’s also stock-in-trade for persecuted minorities to claim, “I’m only asking questions here. Can’t we ask questions?”
Well, of course, questions are permissible. But sometimes questions become statements, and that’s when the issue of Biblical versus systematic theology comes into play.
Biblical theology, I’m increasingly convinced, is simply systematic theology with blinkers on. It’s theology without the analogy of faith. It’s a man in a rut liking his rut, finding reward in his rut and telling the world they should live in his rut if they really want to see the truth.
(The analogy of faith is the Reformation principle taught by Luther, Calvin, et al, that the Bible is: 1. interpreted in light of itself, passages from Paul, for instance giving light to Psalms by David, and; 2. comprehended only through faith.)
No one denies that the Bible contains parts requiring faith to comprehend. But we don’t permit a modalist to deny the Trinity by saying, as he interprets a passage about the deity of Christ in favor of modalism, “I’m only doing Biblical theology here. I’m trying to be honest to the text. Your theory of the Trinity is the result of your Hellenistic systematics. Can’t I even ask a question?
Recent theological controversies within my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, have made me think further about this issue. Is it wrong for men to think outside the Westminster Standards in areas like election, the nature of the visible Church, reprobation?
Of course not. Anyone who’s the least bit sentient does this at times. But there are reasons the majority come down in favor of traditional formulations. And those reasons are not based in a refusal to think Biblically rather than systematically. Those reasons are based on the way we have employed the analogy of faith to understand Scripture.
If someone wants to claim on the basis of James 3 and Matthew 25 a final judgment on the basis of works, I will listen carefully. But I’m also going to realize that other passages seem to indicate that the final judgment is based on the works of Christ and our faith in Him. This doesn’t deny the reality of James 3 or Matthew 25, but it does lead me to view the works of those chapters as markers of faith rather than the ground of our justification.
Is it possible I’m wrong? Yes, of course. But the problem is that if I’m wrong on this issue the domino that topples cascades all through the Bible—and all through my working analogy-of-faith understanding of Scripture.
I’ll readily acknowledge that Federal Vision proponents may have some things right that I get wrong. And I’m willing to listen to their questions and even their proposed corrections. Certainly the Westminster Standards can be wrong in areas. I’m convinced, for instance, that their reading of the Second Commandment is bad—and that the understanding of the Second Commandment of most Presbyterians of our day is even worse than that of the Standards.
But in the main I find the Standards as understood by most today to be a good fleshing out of Scripture--the best employment of the analogy of faith I'm aware of in most significant areas of theology, and so I subscribe and submit to them.
Are questions about how we’ve traditionally interpreted Scripture bad? Not always. Sometimes we need questions in areas where we’re blinkered. Questions can be good, even necessary. But those asking the questions need to recognize three things about those they interrogate.
First, the fact that we don’t agree doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not thinking Biblically. We simply find traditional explanations to correspond with the vast body of Scriptural teaching in most areas. Our analogy-of-faith understanding of Scripture corresponds, largely, with the received understanding of the Standards.
Second, if you want to adjust the tablecloth you’d better first convince us your adjustment isn’t going to end up pulling the whole dinner onto the floor.
Third, it’s pretty thin ice to call what you're doing simply "asking questions” if you’re going to throw a tantrum when others disagree with you. Sometimes when I ask Cheryl what she thought of my sermon on the way home from church she refuses to answer. Why? Because, as she’s occasionally told me, “You don’t really care what I think, you just want me to say nice things. If I tell you anything negative you just get mad…. ”
If we want people always to submit happily to our questions then we’re dealing with issues merely academically rather than theologically.