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.

Comments

Would someone explain to me just what's so ghastly about systematic theology?

We can learn about the LORD not solely through His Word but also through His creation, and His creation is basically an interlocking series of systems.

The LORD is all *about* systems, for crying out loud. He is a God of order and not disorder, according to Scripture. Unless He is disordered in Himself then surely a study of Him will reveal an orderly consistency, i.e., a system.

"Biblical theology, I’m increasingly convinced, is simply systematic theology with blinkers on. It’s theology without the analogy of faith."

Amen.

At least some systematicians make claims about how systematics is superior because it puts Scripture in the "proper order"

Frame:

"Theology, therefore," Hodge said, "is the exhibition of the facts of scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole." ...

I am... disturbed by Hodge's statement that theology exhibits the facts of Scripture "in their proper order and relation". Again, Hodge neglects that fact that Scripture is language as well as fact and that therefore Scripture has already exhibited, described, and explained the facts in an orderly way (cf. Luke 1:3). Why, then, do we need another order? And more seriously, why should the order of theology (as opposed, presumably, to the order of Scripture) be described as the "proper" order? Is there something "improper" about the order of Scripture itself?"

>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.

Odd thing is most FV writers, at least the couple of them I've read, would entirely agree with that statement.

PDuggie, different orders have different purposes. The gospels don't even place events in the same exact order, so it's obviously not a matter that only one order is "correct." Rather, a given order serves a particular purpose.

It's one thing to recognize the specific occasion for which Paul purposed a letter to the Galatians, for instance. Surely we don't apply the letter only to the topic of whether Gentiles should be circumcised, though; Paul covers so much ground in discussing that topic that it's downright wasteful to deny the vast modern implications of what Paul says to the Galatians. That's what systematics do. Are you saying that's wrong?

"Biblical theology, I’m increasingly convinced, is simply systematic theology with blinkers on. It’s theology without the analogy of faith."

There's good and bad biblical theology, and good and bad systematics. The best biblical theology looks not only at what is unique to each period of revelation and to each author (a very helpful thing, IMHO), but also at the progressive unfolding of God's revelation. It doesn't have to be a blinkered method. (Consider Vos, Murray, Stonehouse, Kline, and Gaffin, for starters). My concern is that "biblical theology" doesn't become a rejected idea.

"Paul covers so much ground in discussing that topic that it's downright wasteful to deny the vast modern implications of what Paul says to the Galatians. That's what systematics do. Are you saying that's wrong?"

Not at all. But then we have to realize we're *applying* Paul to a new situation, and sometimes we can distort what he intended by our application. We're more prone to do that when we think our application is the "proper" ordering of Paul's thought, and that we've got at the "timeless" truths behind it.

I'm not convinced yet, but some of the way reformed theology has dealt with inferring a natural moral law, in a covenant form, is of this nature

Dear David,

I think we all agree that biblical theology is the grounds for systematic theology. A systematic theology is only as strong the biblical theology it is based on and a biblical theology is only as strong as its correspondence to the clear teachings of the Bible. Calvin could only recommend his Institutes as a guide for understanding the Bible (in other words, recommend his Institutes as a system) because he had already worked out a through biblical theology of God, man, and the church. Even so, as his knowledge of the scriptures grew in these areas, so did his Institutes.

It’s one thing to point out that a through biblical theology has already been established for things like soteriology (the major issue of Calvin’s day), and therefore we ought not modify our systems, but it’s another thing to say we don’t need biblical theology anymore. We still need to do the hard work establishing biblical theologies for the issues of our day (e.g. gender roles), issues which were not generally being fought over during the English Reformation. While John Knox was thinking some of these issues through in his day, no through biblical theology has ever been established on gender roles, and therefore we have no uniform system developed in the PCA.

Instead of questioning the importance of the tool, just because some are using it wrong, let’s show folks how to use it rightly for the life and health of the church. It’s my hope that pastors like you will begin to develop a through, even insurmountable, biblical theology of man and woman in Christ and organizations like CBMW will help facilitate the conversation, so that future generations (my generation?) can add a few solid chapters to our systematic theologies on family relations.

One last thought, I’m convinced that an egalitarian can develop a through systematic theology of effeminate men and masculine women. They can even load it full of proof texts. However, as soon as they are forced to go back and show the biblical theology underlying their system, it will be clear to all that there is no true correspondence to Scripture, and this young controversy will be close to being wrapped up.

Warmly,

Chris

...thorough...thorough...thorough.

Guess I wasn't so thorough!

Add new comment