Vanhoozer & Carson: Is Biblical Theology Really Closer to the Text Than Systematic Theology?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece on Henri Blocher’s take on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology, which I found quite helpful (his take, not my piece, that is). I’d like to return to the subject, though, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in a class on Prolegomena, and I’m in the process of trying to get straight what it is I’m doing when I say I’m studying systematic theology–so this is sort on my mind. Second, that means I’ve run across a couple of interesting, recent articles on the subject worth comparing. As it happens, they both are by Trinity professors.

Carson on Biblical and Systematic

carsonFirst, there is what I found to be a characteristically helpful piece over at The Gospel Coalition by D.A. Carson on the way the various sub-disciplines of theology (biblical, systematic, historical, pastoral) affect how we read the Bible, as well as their relationship to each other. In it, Carson defines the various disciplines, gives their particular marks, notes their relationship to the text, necessity, as well the various feedback loops between them. I’ll focus on his take on biblical and systematic theology for now.

According to Carson, Biblical theology (BT) answers the question of how God has revealed himself organically and historically. For that reason, it reads the Bible progressively, assumes the unity of the canon, works inductively from the text, and “makes connections the Bible itself authorizes.” It does this by focusing on the works of individual books or writers and traces interlocking, interweaving themes between them. For that reason, we might say it’s a story-focused theology.

On the other hand, Carson says systematic theology (ST) is a bit different. Assuming the unity of the text as BT does, systematics focuses on what the Bible says about certain subjects like God and the world. It’s organization, then, is systematic and logical and oriented toward specific subjects. What’s more, it’s ordered towards communicating these truths to the culture and other philosophical worldviews.

Comparatively, Carson says, “BT is historical and organic; ST is relatively ahistorical and universal.” The former is necessary for understanding the storyline, the latter for gaining depth and clarity of subject. Of necessity, then, systematics can “legitimately” work at 2 or 3 levels removed from the text. Though, for that reason, while systematicians may cherish narrative, ST will be, of necessity, a bit more distant from the concerns of the text than BT.

Exegesis and BT have an advantage over ST because the Bible aligns more immediately with their agendas. ST has an advantage over exegesis and BT because it drives hard toward holistic integration.

ST tends to be a little further removed from the biblical text than does BT, but ST is a little closer to cultural engagement. In some ways, BT is a kind of bridge discipline between exegesis and ST because it overlaps with them, enabling them to hear each other a little better. In some ways, ST is a culminating discipline because it attempts to form and transform one’s worldview. BT is important today because the gospel is virtually incoherent unless people understand the Bible’s storyline. ST is important today because, rightly undertaken, it brings clarity and depth to our understanding of what the Bible is about.

Again, I found much of Dr. Carson’s analysis about the relationship between BT and ST quite helpful. That said, my own advisor, Dr. Vanhoozer, thinks of the relationship a bit differently, especially on the question of whether systematics works at more of a remove from the text than biblical theology.

I’ll devote a bit more space to his article because, well, I think systematics is constantly fighting an uphill battle here and it needs some unpacking.

Closer to the Biblical Text?

Vanhoozer tackles the subject in an article in the recent volume Reconsidering the Relationship Between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament dedicated to Robert Gundry  (“Is the Theology of the New Testament One or Many? Between (the Rock of) Systematic Theology and (the Hard Place of) Historical Occasionalism”, pp 17-38). Most of the the article is beyond me to summarize at this point, but at least part of what he’s up to is challenging the notion that systematics is at something of a disadvantage compared to biblical studies when it comes to being attuned to the concerns of the text.

I don't know what he's thinking right here, but it could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis.

Another way of putting Carson’s concerns, as well as those of other biblical theologians such as James Hamilton, is that biblical theology explicitly seems to think and make its main connections within the confines of the Bible’s own thought-world, sticking to such symbolic and typological markers like Temple, Land, and so forth (24-25). The danger of systematics is that it threatens to distort that thought-world by squishing the text into unfitting conceptual molds drawn from without the text, in order to engage concerns not immediate to it. States Vanhoozer:

As we have seen, some (they’re usually exegetes or biblical theologians) claim that systematic theology changes the rich wine of redemptive-history and typology in to the water of timeless truths and philosophical concepts (26).

This is exactly the charge Yale theologian David Kelsey makes in Proving Doctrine. To answer Kelsey’s fear, Vanhoozer draws on the distinction forwarded by Lutheran theologian David Yeago between that of “concept” and a “judgment.” Yeago argues that the very same “judgments” of Scripture can be rendered in different conceptual thought forms. So, the idea is that different terms can adequately and similarly refer to and describe the same underlying reality. For this reason, Vanhoozer says of systematics:

…at its best, it preserves the same “thought world” of the biblical authors, and understands their symbolic universe, in new interpretive categories and with different conceptual terms. (27)

In a certain way this is nothing new. It’s a variation on what Athanasius said in De Decretis. The philosophic term homoousius used at Nicaea is just a “non-identically equivalent” conceptual rendering of Paul’s judgments about the nature of the Son written in specific times and particular churches like the Philippian (2:6) and the Colossians (2:9), (27).

If Nicaea says the same thing – if, like the apostle Paul, it judges Jesus Christ to be the unique Son of God – in different terms, then we may say that its dogmatic judgment is every bit as biblical as the attempt to set forth Paul’s theology in its own terms. Indeed, this is precisely what makes systematic theology biblical: that it renders the same underlying apostolic judgments in different conceptual terms. (28)

From History to System

At this point, I can easily imagine someone saying, “Yes, well, that may be. But how exactly, then, does Vanhoozer conceive of the relation between the two disciplines? Or, rather, how do we construe systematic theology in a way that keeps its ‘conceptual’ renderings faithful to the redemptive-historical, contextual judgments that God has given us in Scripture?”

Vanhoozer attempts to briefly forward a form of theology as wisdom that is:

…both context-sensitive – alert to particular occasions, past and present – and ontologically-attuned to the reality that is in Christ, a reality that ought to be expressed, in some conceptuality, by everyone, everywhere, and at all times. (34)

He has three theses as to how the conversation should move forward (as it turns out, I’ve learned he really likes theological theses) in the reunion of biblical and systematic theology:

  1. “Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (i.e., their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action.” (35) In other words, yes, we must focus the action, the drama of the unfolding of redemptive history. But in order to properly understand the movements, we need to be prepared to unfold some of the necessary ontological or metaphysical realities that make it possible. So, what kind of a being, what kind of natures, must Jesus the Christ have in order to do and be the culmination of the historically-unfolding reality the Bible presents us with? What kind of God must the Holy One of Israel be (Triune) if he is the faithful covenant Lord who comes to save us himself through his two hands (Son and Spirit)? You can’t properly understand the story without these ontological and systematic judgments spelled out. Actually, Wesley Hill has recently argued in his work Paul and the Trinity that key, historically-situated New Testament texts in Christology are actually best read using the categories of systematic theology.
  2. “The “line” of redemptive-historical development that biblical theology traces is actually the “plot-line” of a unified drama of redemption; systematic theology ministers understanding by saying what the whole drama means and by setting forth, and exploring, its ontological presuppositions.” (35-36) Second, biblical theology rightly pays attention to the unity-in-diversity of the different acts, witnesses, and authors in their unique voices and canonical places. Systematics is about viewing those same realities in light of the one, broad, over-arching drama that has the Triune God as its author and lead protagonist, and fleshing out what the means for disciples drawn into that continuing drama today.
  3. “Biblical theology describes what the biblical authors are saying/ doing in their particular contextual scenes, to their particular audiences, in their own particular terms and concepts; systematic theology searches out the underlying patterns of biblical-canonical judgments, and suggests ways of embodying these same theodramatic judgments for our own particular cultural contexts, in our own particular terms and concepts.” (37) God didn’t write a systematic theology text, dropped from the sky in supra-historical form. The diverse texts come to us in all their glorious, historical particularities and differing emphasis (James contra antinomianism, Paul against–well, whatever the latest consensus is). All the same, this diversity serves to manifest the mind of Christ which applies to all times and all places. Understanding the particular apostolic judgments that embody the universal mind of Christ, at times, requires expressing the same judgments of Scriptures in differing conceptual forms according to our diverse contexts–be it a 4th century church council or a 21st century seminary.

To sum up, systematics isn’t that thing that happens after biblical theology does its thing.

Systematic theology is not simply a second step that follows biblical theology; rather, it is a partner in the exegetical process itself, explicating the text’s meaning by penetrating to the level of judgments: moral, ontological, and theodramatic. By studying the various ways in which Jesus’ disciples embodied the mind of Christ in their own contexts (i.e., the diverse historical occasions that prompted the apostles to write), disciples today come to learn how they can express the same theodramatic judgments– the same judgments about what is fit for followers of Jesus to say and do – via different language and concepts, in situations far removed from the original context. (38)

At the close of this, I think it’s clear that from their different perspectives and disciplines, Carson and Vanhoozer aren’t actually that far off from each other in their evaluations of the differing roles of BT and ST. I think Vanhoozer would simply hasten to add that they’re both about the same distance from the text as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Out with Philosophy! Just Preach the Gospel!” Or Something Like That


Looks like he’s philosophizing. STOP THAT!

For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!

Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:

There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:

  1.  This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
  2. The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
  3. The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
  4. In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
  5. Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
  6. Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
  7. Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
  8. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

-D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15

Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

For the Love of God Read Your Bible This Year

The title of the blog’s a little cheeky.

On one level I’m quite serious–in order to love God better, it’s a good idea to read your Bible this new year. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading your Bible will silver-bullet style immediately kill sin and light up your heart for Jesus. I mean, the Holy Spirit could do that, but typically not so much. Instead, you might think of it more like a balanced diet or vitamins. Eating one good meal or taking 2 or 3 vitamins won’t help much if 99% of your diet sucks. Still, day after day, week after week, month after month, getting the right nutrients and supplements will improve your health.

bibleIn a somewhat similar fashion, daily engagement with the scriptures, starting with something like just 5-10 minutes a day will, over time, give you a greater appreciation for the story of Bible, knowledge of God, Jesus Christ, your sin, the power of the Spirit, the sweep of salvation, and the Gospel message that saves. And really, that’s what changes your heart, what fills it with love for God in light of who He is and what He has done–the Spirit applying the Gospel of Jesus to your heart as you engage with it. Diving deep into the Gospel, meeting Jesus, is what will save you from the million different ways you try to sinfully save yourself throughout the day (money, sex, power, busyness, etc.). Being daily reminded of his glory, of his patient dealings with Israel, the eternal scope of his love, the suffering and triumphant Savior, the falseness of idols in comparison with his matchless beauty–all of these things are what will, over time, overwhelm sin with love.

Now, many of us know this but we struggle knowing how to go about reading our Bible more each year. We start out thinking we’re going to read it through cover to cover, but right about the time the Israelites are wandering in the desert, dying of thirst, we give up, or wish we could join them. Leviticus seems like it was written as part of the judgment on that first sinful generation.

Part of the problem is that we don’t have a guide, or a good plan to lead us through the wilderness sections of scripture, or even to know what we should be enjoying in its oases. We want to, but we don’t know where to start, and when we start, we don’t know what we’re reading. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. O who will save me from this reading of death?!

Love of GodEnter D.A. Carson
This last year my wife and I went through the first volume of D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God daily devotional based on the Murray M’Cheyne reading program and it’s been great. Robert Murray M’Cheyne designed a daily reading program that, at about 4 chapters a day, gets you through the New Testament and Psalms twice and the Old Testament once in the course of a year. So, for instance, January 1 begins with Genesis 1, Matthew 1, Ezra 1, Acts 1. It goes on from there. Originally the first two columns were labeled “family” intended to be read with the whole family, and the second two columns were “private” for personal devotion. It’s not necessarily the lightest program, but the arrangement is much better than most of the chronological reading programs or even some of the mixed year-long Bible programs.

With Carson’s devotional, you get a about a page of highly-readable biblical, theological, and pastoral commentary on one of the chapters by a top-notch theologian and scholar. Really, I compare the notes you get in this little devotional to the top-level commentaries sometimes and it’s amazing how he is quickly and, in an understandable fashion, making available the best scholarship and then moving to apply it to your daily life. I can’t begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed and personally benefited from both the daily Bible reading and Carson’s commentary. The arrangement of the chapters is helpful because it keeps you going through whole books of the Bible as they were intended to be read, instead of the “open and point” method that lands you reading a random chapter in Zechariah, leading you to think the prophet was on acid. Also, usually at least 2 of the chapters are in non-boring books, so you never have to truck through Leviticus all by itself.

No Sweat
Many of you might be intimidated at the thought of 4 chapters a day. Realize that’s only about 20 minutes total which can be broken up throughout the day if you have to. Still, that’s about 2% of the time you probably spend on facebook in a given day, so you have more time than you think. Also, you may choose to simply go through one book of the daily readings and whatever chapter Carson happens to be commenting on that day. Know that you might might miss a day. Or a week. Or a month. That’s fine, but just get back to it when you remember. When I asked my wife if we wanted to do volume 2 this year she said yes, because even though she didn’t get to it every day, she still had read more of her Bible this year than in any year prior. Sounds good to me.

Finally, if you’re worrying about dropping that 10 bucks on something you haven’t cruised through, or period, then you should know that D.A. Carson’s blog over at the Gospel Coalition is actually just his daily devotion. This last year they’ve been posting through volume 2, so next year will be volume 1 again. So, you can go check it out, or just use the blog as your daily devotional. You can even do it on your computer at work (on your break or lunch, of course).

The point of all of this is, for the love of God, read your Bible this year. It’s worth it and it just became a whole lot easier.

Soli Deo Gloria