Friday, January 18, 2008

Biblical Theology - An Endangered Species in Need to Defence

I confess that I am deeply concerned about a developing trend in Reformed circles that denigrates historical study of the Bible and demands that Biblical Theology conform to the systematic formulations of Reformed Theologians. Let me begin by saying that I am strongly in favour of Systematic Theology. You cannot have a coherent Christian worldview without it, you cannot answer the big questions of life if you are not equipped with a good Systematic Theology. I've written on the subject of prolegomena in Systematic Theology and the place of the gospel in Systematic Theology, so I'm NOT trying to play off Biblical Theology against Systematic Theology (on this point see Richard Gaffin's article "Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards"). Second, the issue is how do you get to Systematics. What I learned from reading Millard Erickson's textbook Christian Theology, was that you do theology in three stages:

1. Exegesis: analysis of the biblical texts in their historical and literary contexts.
2. Biblical Theology: situating exegesis in wider context of each body of literature (e.g. theology of the Pentateuch or Pauline Corpus and then OT or NT Theologies respectively). Importantly, Biblical Theology looks at the issues that the biblical authors raise in their own language and on their own terms without importing foreign ideas or issues.
3. Systematic Theology: the act of synthesizing key motifs and ideas as they relate to the mosaic of Christian belief done in dialogue with Philosophy, Scripture, and Tradition.

Importantly, Systematic Theology is the end process of exegesis and Biblical Theology. In short, exegesis and Biblical Theology determines Systematic Theology rather than the other way around. That means that there is a genuine risk that Systematic Theology will have to modify its findings based on the results of good exegesis and a sound Biblical Theology. But there are a cohort of Reformed Theologians who are calling into question the validity or results of Biblical Theology precisely because (I suspect) that it is deterimental to their Systematic Theology. Let me give three examples:

1. Robert Reymond. Reymond's Reformed volume A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (1997) is a text book used in my own institution. Overall it is a fine book written from a Reformed Evangelical perspective. Reymond is certainly not against Biblical Theology per se as her interacts with and leans on Gerhardus Vos repeatedly. Nonetheless, there is one point that caught my attention. In his discussion on the covenant of grace, Reymond argues that OT saints had faith in a dying and rising Messiah. He then takes Vos to task over his denial of this oint. Reymond writes: "On the other hand, it is possible to address the issue of the Old Testament saints' understanding of redemption so one-sidedly from the 'biblical-theological' perspective that one permits the hermeneutic of that discipline to overpower the 'analogy of faith' principle in systematic theology, and as a result neither the teaching of the Old Testament itself nor what the New Testament writers expressly report or imply that the Old Testament meant and that the Old Testament saints knew about the suffering Messiah and his resurrection from the dead is given its due" (p. 535). I for one do not think that a suffering/rising Messiah was at the heart of the faith of Israel and the New Testament does not assume that it was so. This reading of the Old Testament is only possible once the disciples have been given an Easter hermeneutic by the risen Jesus (see Luke 24.26-27, 45-46). Yet, Reymond is prepared to argue so based on the "analogy of faith" over and against the results of Biblical Theology. I appreciate what he's trying to achieve, but I have doubts whether this is the right way to achieve this.

2. Guy Waters. Waters' book Justification and the New Perspective (2004) presents a good and accessible survey of the debate about Paul and justification, he scores a few good points on Wright, Dunn, and Sanders at certain places, but overall the book is written with an uncharitable rhetoric that is unfortunate (e.g. he calls Wright a "trojan horse to the church"). What I found somewhat disconcerting about the book is when Waters says this about J.P. Gabler: "Warfield, Vos, and John Murray were agreed that the former [Biblical Theology] was properly the handmaiden to the latter [Systematic Theology]. These three men were good students of the historical-critical thought and had remembered how biblical theology in the tradition of J.P. Gabler had decimated systematic theology, both as an ordering principle of biblical data and as a force within the church" (p. 202). The problem here is what Waters attributes to Gabler is patently false. Gabler's concern was to stop Dogmatic Theology imposing itself upon the biblical texts and distorting the texts, espeically when the results of Theology kept changing. He called for the development of a separate discipline of Biblical Theology that would allow the biblical texts to speak on their own terms on their own issues and without preempting results. What is important to remember is that Gabler wanted the results to feed into Systematic Theology and into the life of the Church. Gabler writes: "Thus, as soon as all these things have been properly observed and carefully arranged, at last a clear sacred Scripture will be selected with scarcely any doubtful readings, made up of passages which are appropriate to the Christian religion of all times. The passages will show with unambiguous words the form of faith that is truly divine; the dicta classica [standard collection of proof texts] properly so called, which can then be laid out as the fundamental basis for a more subtle dogmatic scrutiny. For only from these methods can those certain and undoubted universal ideas be singled out, those ideas which alone are useful in dogmatic theology . . . And finally, unless we want to follow uncertain arguments, we must so build only upon these firmly established foundations of biblical theology, a dogmatic theology adapted to our own times" (English trans. in SJT 33.2 [1980], pp. 143-44). Does this sound like a guy who is trying to prevent theology from being a force in the church? And if you don't believe my reading of Gabler, here is D.A. Carson's description: "Gabler charged that dogmatic theology is too far removed from Scripture, constantly changing and perpetually disputed. Biblical theology, by which Gabler seems to mean a largely inductive study of the biblical text, has much more likely hood of gaining widespread agreement among learned, godly and cautious theologians. The fruit of such study may then serve as the basis on which dogmatic theology may be constructed" (D.A. Carson, "New Testament Theology," DLNTD, p. 796). Carson goes on to note that many followed the first part of Gabler's proposal (inductive study free from doctrinal consideration) but they did not follow him in the second part of feeding the results into the service of dogmatic theology. But Gabler was not against Systematic Theology itself and Gabler was I think correct in his vision of seeing Biblical Theology determining the contours of doctrinal formulations - a point which some Systematicians take exception too!

3. Tom Ascol. In an article in the Founders Journal on "Systematic Theology and Preaching" (1991), Pastor Tom Ascol urges that Systematic Theology has an important place in the pastoral office and in the vocation of preaching (amen!); however, he makes some disparaging remarks against Biblical Theology along the way. He laments the apparent demise of Systematic Theology by those who do not trust Scripture to represent a coherent and inerrant compendium of divinely revealed truth. He writes: "At the same time that systematic theology was falling into disfavor the study of Pauline, Petrine, Johannine, etc. theologies was growing in popularity. Thus this kind of 'biblical' theology has been heralded as the proper domain of the legitimate theologian and the study of systematics has been relegated to the realm of philosophy (where "systems" are acceptable) . . . It is specious to argue that 'biblical' theology is by definition more concerned with the Bible than is 'systematic' theology. Both are concerned with the text of Scripture. It is the comprehensive, coherent teaching of that text which concerns the latter. Careful exegesis is no more valued by one than the other and neither can be slighted in any thorough study of God's Word." He continues: "Systematic theology is a necessary discipline in the pursuit of both knowing and proclaiming the whole counsel of God. It will curb careless exegesis which results in fanciful, contradictory expositions of various texts. Where it is depreciated doctrinal instability prevails, and God's people are robbed of Christian vitality." I can agree with alot of what he says except that (1) biblical theology should be conducted without recourse to having to conform to Systematic Theology, and (2) Biblical Theology should inform and determine Systematic Theology. A Christian Biblical-Theologian will conduct his enquiry in the context of the "Rule of Faith" but he should not be expected to carry out his study in order to confirm the results of Systematic Theology. Apart from putting the cart before the horse (i.e. Scripture over System) it begs the question, whose Systematic Theology? Calvin, Beza, Arminius, Rowan Williams, Paul Tillich etc. In a footnote Ascol states: "This is not to disparage or undervalue biblical theology in general or such courses in particular. Both biblical and systematic studies are needed in any comprehensive theological curriculum. However, as Ramm contends, it should be recognized that the study of various biblical theologies (i.e., of Paul, John, Peter, etc.) emerged under the belief propagated by liberalism and neo-orthodoxy 'that the Bible contains a medley of contradictory theologies' (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 174)." Ascol appears to admit the legitimacy of biblical theology as a concession to exegetes but then devalues it by repeating the genetic fallacy of Bernard Ramm that confuses the veracity of a methodology with its origin. Liberals may have invented and developed Biblical Theology but that does nothing to prove that it is illegitimate or unbiblical of itself.

Systematic Theology is a good thing and we desperately need good theologians to formulate a coherent Christian belief mosaic and to find ways of retelling the Christian story in a comprehensive, compelling, and coherent way. But Biblical Theology must be subservient to the text of Scripture and not to any theological system. Many of the debates in the Reformed Churches and in several Reformed Seminaries about the New Perspective on Paul and views of Scripture are between those who owe their allegiance to Scripture and those who owe their allegiance to a System of doctrine. Now I am not implying the priority of Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology, to the contrary, I am insisting on it! A Systematic Theology based on good Biblical Theology will be far more valuable to the Church than a Systematic Theology that asserts the infalliblity of its system and the immutablity of its findings over and against the claims of Biblical Theology. I've learnt from my colleague, Prof. Andrew McGowan, that Semper Reformanda does not mean finding new ways and contemporary opportunities to defend the assured findings of a theological system, it means making sure that our theology lives, and breathes, and oozes the truth of Scripture.


Ed said...

My own (very hasty) reaction to your 3 point method for theology is that it leaves out something central, i.e., the creeds. I find evangelicalism rather narrow in its neglect of the early credal formulations (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian, etc.), which all of orthodox Christianity has subscribed to, and which many consider as that which defines Christianity. I think the proper order is Bible > Creeds > Systematic Theology, which is disciplined reflection, not on the bible, but on the credal "depositum fidei."

As I say, just a quick reaction.

Marty said...

As a teacher of systematic theology, all I can to Michael is AMEN!

The problem with so much modern theology is that it ignores the fact that exegesis and biblical theology are the raw data which systematics uses. Hence, much modern theology is simply philosophy.

It's but one result of the fragmentation of the disciplines.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Mike. I agree with your point here that systematic theologians have no right to hijack exegesis or biblical theology.

But I should point out that Millard Erickson is completely wrong about this three-stage model, where systematic theology becomes "the end process of exegesis and biblical theology." Nothing could be further from the truth: it's more like a continuing spiral in which dogmatics influences exegesis, and then exegesis has a critical influence on dogmatics, etc.

You can see this very clearly in the history of biblical theology — biblical theology is always already shaped by dogmatics, and then this biblical theology exerts its own critical influence on dogmatics. A good example is Gerhard von Rad: his whole approach to biblical theology is profoundly shaped by Barthian theology; and yet the next generation of German dogmaticians (Pannenberg, Rendtorff) were profoundly shaped by von Rad's biblical theology, and this biblical theology became the basis of their radical critique of Barthian dogmatics. And then, subsequently, you can also see biblical theologies which are beginning to be influenced by this revised dogmatics, so that the spiral continues.

So there's definitely no one-way street from exegesis to dogmatics — the traffic always moves in both directions. And as Bultmann rightly saw, there is never a "presuppositionless exegesis". Theology is always there already — indeed, it's already inscribed in the texts themselves, and in the lexical tools which are used to translate the texts, etc, etc. It's theology all the way down! There's no way to avoid this, but theology needs to remain open to constant critical correction and revision in light of ongoing exegetical discoveries.

John Lyons said...

I find it amazing, Mike, that you can simply accept Erickson's 1 and equate exegesis with historical criticism.

"But Biblical Theology must be subservient to the text of Scripture and not to any theological system."

The real questions are what is the text of scripture and which reading methods are appropriate to it? Since the historical critical method as you describe and practice it (anti-canonical, isn't it, Mike?) wasn't even available to Calvin, how can it be determinative for reformed theology?

Michael F. Bird said...


Ed: Notice that I did refer to the "Rule of Faith" as the sphere of biblical theology. I would include the creeds within the ST area.

Marty: I'd expect nothing less from a Moore man on BT.

Ben: I concur. My post was more about protecting the integrity of BT than with developing a rigorous theological methodology. But you are right about the hermeneutical spiral between exegesis and theology. I am definitely not saying that ST cannot influence or infuse BT. I'm more concerned with those who deny the value of BT because it might falsify their ST and making sure that STs engages BT.

John: Is the historical-critical method anti-canonical? I doubt it (but whose canon are you talking about any way?). True, it wasn't available to Calvin, but: (1) Calvin was a humanist scholar before he was a theologian and an expert on Seneca and he knew about reading ancient literature and he also knew the Church Fathers; and (2) Chaps like Theodore Beza also knew a bit about textual criticism and from memory I think he even printed an edition of the Gk NT. So historical-criticism is really an implication of ad fontes. I would point out that Paul Barnett and Robert Stein both use the term "historical-criticism" to describe their own biblical study endeavours.

DjR said...

Much to appreciate in this post!

I'd like to piggy-back on point #2 for a moment, grateful that you are pointing back to Gabler’s own words. There is easy access to Gabler's seminal lecture, and some good analysis of it, too. So much so that I find the level of misunderstanding of his position, and constant the misappopriation of his name, quite astounding.

In addition to the bit you quoted, it ought to be noticed too that Gabler’s concern was not with history for its own sake, so that a historically-attentive reading is the one to be prized. Rather, one reads with attention to history so that these time-bound elements could be dispensed with, and time-less truths preserved, precisely for the purpose you describe. He is not the patron saint of historical-critical BT as so many seem to think!

What concerns me in the relationship between systematic and biblical theology is how little genuine engagement there is between them. Ben Myers’ formulation (above) gets a hearty “Amen!” from me, too.

David Reimer

michael jensen said...

I can see what you are saying, Myers, though Mike and Millard are offering a pedagogical description of how the process ideally travels, aren't they? Everyone knows that there is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis, but that doesn't mean we don't, by repeated attempts and by long hard listening, try to do it. We aren't such banal postmoderns that we think our exegesis is comprised entirely of our presuppositions.
John Webster calls theology 'exegetical reasoning': I think this shows what I mean quite well.

Doug Chaplin said...

I've chimed in with another angle, which I feel both Ben and you are (at least in these posts) overlooking.

Evan C. Hock said...

Andrew McGowen has it right on the meaning and application of Semper Reformanda in the task of doing theology. If a responsible Biblical Theology does not undergird the discipline and scope of Systematics, then Semper Reformanda will cease to exist for the church, and we are left with arguing over whose system is more consistent in its logic, as if consistency is the final attribute and deciding point for legitimacy. That is why much grief and time has been spent in "system" arguments between Dispensationalism and Reformed creedal Theology. The assumption seemed to be on both sides that no longer was more light available from the Text. Rather it is left to how you arrange the theological furniture. But Biblical Theology's emphasis on textual study was critical to breaking that deadlock to create needed modification and dialogue. Biblical Theology, as an exegetical and truth-seeking enterprize, must be integral to the groundwork and grist of hermeneutical spiral that moves theology upward and forward with vitality as well as orthodoxy. Biblical Theology has given us many riches that we ignore at our peril, not least of which is a deeper and corrected understanding of the eschatological dimension to the kingdom of God in Jesus' ministry. The 'now-and-not yet' tension of its present reality is vital in avoiding an over-realized systematic. Vos, and those that followed and built upon him, have helped us to see the fruits of Biblical Theology and the clear place of Christ in salvation history. Both covenantal coherence and proclamation result from this. Biblical Theology has brought us to appreciate critical hermeneutical dynamics in our thinking, like the key place of passages like Luke 24:27,44 in grasping the priority of the NT in hermeneutics and the contours of the gospel and Christ throughout the OT, while still avoiding allegorical pitfalls. To what extent these developments advance the principle of Semper Reformanda, and revise systematic construction, is the next step to be taken. But the point is that Biblical Theology, protected and restrained within the borders of systematics, yet testing them also, is vital for keeping our theology not only God-centered, but Christ-magnifying within the Evangelical/Reformed community of faith.

Ian said...

Dr. Bird, thank you for this post. I wondered what your thoughts were on Moises Silva's view of allowing one's systematic theology guide their exegesis of a text? This has appeared in a number of his writings, in particular this article in the Trinity Journal (1994):

Phil Sumpter said...

I've commented on this in relation to the Emmaus Road incident here, inspired by an article by Moberly.

Phil Sumpter said...

From what I can see, the problem with Reymond's claim that the OT prophets literally believed in a dying and rising Messiah is less a matter of privileging systematic theology over biblical theology as an overall commitment to a propositionalist understanding of truth. For Reymond, "meaning" is univocal, and "truth" is whatever each particular proposition "literally" means, when analysed grammatically and historically and divested of any metaphorical "wrapping". This approach to both meaning and truth excludes the possibility of figurative meaning and truth, which leads him to require that the OT be a transparency of the Westminster confession of faith (I'm not exagerating!). He even argues that each proposition found in the Bible grants you direct access to a portion of the mind of God. It's hardly surprising, then, that he believes that the OT must literally say only what the NT says. An additional problem, growing out of this assumption, is his "supersessionist hermeneutic", in which the New's interpretation of the Old becomes the criteria for the meaning of the Old. The Old thus loses its distinctive voice and is forced into a systematic scheme based on the rigid principles of logic.

In sum, I would have thought Reymond's problem is not a privilegeing of Systematic over biblical theology per se, but a prior commitment to a rationalist conception of truth.