Naughty Systematic Theologians, Just Be ‘Biblical’!

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency of some historical scholars to act as if, unlike naughty dogmatic theologians, their own confessional commitments aren’t driving any of their exegetical work. Being biblical scholars, their conclusions aren’t beholden to anything but the text, unlike those theologians coming to Scripture as they do, armed to the teeth with distorting theological preconceptions.

Apparently this isn’t a new thing.

In the first volume of his tremendous Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck comments on the similar myopia of some of the ‘biblical theologians’ of his own day:

However, this school suffers from grave one-sidedness as well. While it thinks that it is completely unbiased in relating to Scripture and that it reproduces its content accurately and objectively, it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions form his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their church have put on them. All dogmaticians, when they go to work, stand consciously or unconsciously in the tradition of the Christian faith in which they were born and nurtured and come to Scripture as Reformed, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic Christians. In this respect as well, we cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background. The result, therefore, is what one would expect; all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors. They cannot, therefore, claim to be more objective than those of explicitly ecclesiastical dogmaticians. The “pure” gospel that Ritschl finds back in Luther and Jesus corresponds perfectly to the conception he himself formed of it. All these so-called biblical schools, accordingly, are continually being judged by history; for a time they serve their purpose and recall a forgotten truth, but they do not change the course of ecclesiastical life and have no durability of their own.

Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prologomena, pg. 82

While Bavinck goes on to fill this out a bit, there are a number of comments to be made on this fascinating text. First of all, long before any postmodern theorists came along to tell us so, Bavinck knew about the historical-situatedness of all of our interpretive efforts. I point this out simply to say this isn’t a new thing, and apparently this recognition can apparently fit comfortably within the structure of a classic, Reformed understanding of Scripture, objective revelation, and so forth.

Second, and this is really the point I’m interested in, biblical theologians are just as theologically and socially-invested in seeing the texts go a certain way. This isn’t to say that we can’t have conversations across traditions about the texts, or a denial that we can correct our theological confession in light of the study of Scripture. Some of the most confessionally-conservative theologians I know of still make interpretive moves that are different than their theological forebears in the tradition, even when confessing essentially the same creed. What’s more, people do convert and shift from one confessional tradition to another. I know I have.

Still, whenever I see a biblical scholar chastising the theologians of, oh say, the Reformed tradition, for their reliance on a certain text to establish their doctrines, because an ‘objective’ reading simply doesn’t yield that doctrine, it is probably an instructive exercise to look up his/her own church affiliation.

Soli Deo Gloria

13 thoughts on “Naughty Systematic Theologians, Just Be ‘Biblical’!

  1. Reminds me of this nugget :

    ‘There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.’ (Barth)

  2. “We cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background.” Wow a Reformed systematic theologian said that?!!! 😉

  3. In many ways, this post is a breath of fresh air. Whenever I hear Reformed folk and non-Reformed folk discussing the faults and/or shortcomings of the other there’s a tendency to resort to straw man and ad hominem argumentation about the blinders each one wears. I wonder sometimes if we (the church ) deliberately forget to remember Jesus’s words about the speck and the plank.

  4. I think you could extrapolate this to a lot of other things as well, but I’m with you in that we all have biases or perspectives that shape the way we see things. Too often I see this as a reason for why we should never engage certain perspectives or camps. I think embracing this keeps us humble.

    • Hey, thanks for commenting. I don’t think this should cut off our engagement with other camps and so forth. I just think, as you said, it ought to cut off some of the easy judgments people across disciplines make about the alleged objectivity of their own particular approach.

  5. Reminds me of the Hermeneutical Circle: as my theological system tells me how to exegete, my exegesis may adjust my errant system. – K. Scott Oliphint in God With Us quoting Moises Silva

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  7. We definitely are all reading from within our own world, however, it is more the job of the Biblical Scholar, as opposed to the Historical Theologian, Systematic Theologian, etc., to simply take each text at face value. The job of the Theologian is to synthesize and “make it all fit.” No one does either perfectly, but we need both working at their craft to get to the truth. If all you have are Theologians, you’ll say “wow, look how easy this all fits together, our catechism is set!” as humanity makes discoveries (archeological, linguistically, historically, scientific, etc…) we need Biblical Scholars to say “hold on a minute…” Theologians see the forrest (and ignore some trees that don’t fit) and Biblical Scholars focus on the trees (but sometimes miss the big-picture). We need both. But the moment we declare our Theology hard-boiled we are certainly wrong, not because the Bible changes, but because we are learning about everything we don’t know every day.

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