Saturday, September 08, 2007

Systematic Theology vs. Biblical Theology

I remember reading Mark Seifrid's 1992 monograph Justified by Faith where Seifrid commented that alot of the debate about the New Perspective on Paul comes down to a difference between those who want to read their Bible's historically and those who want to read the Bible theologically. This is particularly true in the Reformed world and is confirmed to me by two things:
(1) I read one book about the NPP which attacked the 18th century German scholar J.P. Gabler for allegedly trying to prevent systematic theology from being a tool for the church. That is just patternly false (if you don't believe me go read D.A. Carson's article on NT Theology in DLNTD or better yet go read Gabler yourself!) as Gabler wanted a biblical theology that would engage with what the biblical writers were actually saying on their terms and in their language and without having to conform to the categories, language, or findings of systematic theology. Importantly, Gabler also believed that good biblical theology should feed into systematic theology; he was not against systematic theology, on the contrary, he wanted to see it refined and become more biblically informed!
(2) Those who engage daily in the practice of biblical studies and having to actually study the Greek text of the NT in its historical context have a tendency to be more sympathetic to what the NPP is saying even if they do not fully agree with their findings. In contrast, those whose loyalty is primarily towards a theological system rather than to Scripture, have been particularly aggressive and scathing in their criticism (one or two particular books come to mind).
The difference is between those who say (1) "my authority is Scripture and I am willing to affirm a Confession in so far as it coheres and comports with Scripture"; and (2) those who say "my authority is Scripture as understood by the Confession". These are not the same thing. The second position is not "truly reformed" and it treats the Confession rather like the Mishnah of the Rabbis or the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Note: for more on the positive role and limitations of Reformed Confessions see Andrew McGowan's forthcoming book, The Divine Spiration of Scripture and his book Always Reforming.

I believe Stanley Hauerwas once said that "New Testament scholars ought to be lined up and run off of a cliff!" I would retort by saying that sometimes I think that all Systematic Theologians should be beaten to death with a soggy fish! Let me say that Systematics is a good thing, we need Systematics to have a comprehensive world view, to bring Scritpure together, and to answer questions not raised in Scripture. BUT, Systematics cannot demand that exegesis and historical study conform to its system. Theology may be the "Queen of the Sciences" but she is a puppet Queen sustained by the strings of exegesis and by the hands of biblical scholars.

As such I was pleased to read Reggie Kidd's recent contribution to the debate. This quote shows that while some theologians want to cleanse their denomination of certain types, even naming evangelicals as the bad guys, there are those of us who remain committed to the Bible, the evangelical tradition, and historic Orthodoxy. Reggie said this:

Battle as relentlessly and courageously as the Church of England’s N.T. Wright does to champion the view that Paul’s theology is animated by a comprehensive and integrated story of promise and fulfillment — scoring points against both the postmodern deconstruction of the biblical meta-narrative and the dispensational fracturing of the singular story of “the Israel of God” into dichotomous stories of “Israel” versus the “church” — and what do you get from your potential allies in the conservative reformed world? How about getting dismissed as importing an alien biblical theology into the established categories of systematic theology, as being vague about the atonement, and as compromising biblical authority? While we build careers at our potential friends’ expense, the hostile armies and navies amass. Nice work.

Read the comments section with some big names weighing into the debate: Doug Green, Steve Taylor, John Armstrong, John Frame, Scot McKnight etc. Do read the whole post! And for the otherside of the argument read the response by R. Scott Clark.


Peter Gurry said...

I love your raw honesty: "I think that all Systematic Theologians should be beaten to death with a soggy fish!" Sometimes I wish scholarly tomes would include random bits of honesty like that.

WTM said...

“Systematics cannot demand that exegesis and historical study conform to its system. Theology may be the "Queen of the Sciences" but she is a puppet Queen sustained by the strings of exegesis and by the hands of biblical scholars.”

You say that systematics cannot require exegesis and historical study to conform to itself, and yet you seem to want systematics to conform to exegesis and historical study. This is not the same thing as asking systematics to conform to Scripture, for exegesis and historical study are secondary to that great norm of theology. We need systematics to penetrate and explicate the inner logic of the Gospel, Jesus Christ, to which Scripture is the authoritative witness. This is to carry on the work of Scripture, albeit in a form secondary and subservient to Scripture.

Phil Sumpter said...

My problem with Gabler is that he thought the realms of Biblical and Dogmatic theology could be held apart in practice, whereby biblical studies would provide a secure substructure upon which to build a now objectively verifiable dogmatic superstructure. In reality the two relate to each other dialectically in ways not necessarily controllable by reference to external norms. In this sense, Word and Tradition can never be separated. If theology is “faith seeking understanding” then Theology can never be relegated to the status of pure puppet, waiting for the pronouncements of historical, and therefore presumably more objective, exegetes. From this epistemological perspective, the two choices you express (numbered (1) and (2) in your text) could be otherwise formulated. I'm still trying to figure out how, but I think B.S. Childs' approach of a “struggle within boundaries” is a healthy corrective to the over-historicising of N. T. Wright.