What Does Systematic Theology Add to Biblical Theology?

booksI’ve been on a bit of a Henri Blocher kick since his visit to Trinity this last week and I have to say it’s been paying off. For instance, I looked up an article of his, “The Justification of the Ungodly” in the second Paul volume, Justification and Variegated Nomism to thumb through this weekend. While most of it is caught up with the nature of justice and justification in relation to the New Perspective, Blocher opened up with some important insights on the nature of systematic theology as different from other disciplines.

Important, at least, to me. When people ask me what I’m studying and I say, “Systematic theology”, I can’t tell you how many times I get the question, “Okay, so what makes it ‘systematic’ theology?” Then when you try and explain that it’s systematic versus “biblical”–but not unbiblical!–you just get this funny stare until you sputter something about a logical ordering of topics and hope the subject changes. If you’ll pardon the comparison, I’m reminded of that famous line of Justice Potter Stewart on trying to define what counts as pornography:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it...”

(I leave it to others to decide whether there are any more comparisons between the two phenomena to be made.)

All the same, there have been a number of different approaches to distinguishing the two sub-disciplines of biblical and systematic theology–a couple of which I will probably return to in the future–but I think Blocher’s little section gets at some key insights worth laying out.

Blocher begins to get at the issue with this initial paragraph:

On the one hand, systematic theologians draw from Scripture the substance and light of their thinking. They are not seeking for another source or standard. In Berkouwer’s words: “Beyond the word of Scripture we dare not go, in speech or in theological reflection; for it is in this word that God’s love in Jesus Christ is revealed. There is nothing beyond that.” This dependence entails for them a major interest in the work of biblical scholars, through whom they receive knowledge of scriptural contents. On the other hand, they also make their own contribution to the joint enterprise of Bible study: as Heinrich Ott emphasized, Dogmatics should be included in the “hermeneutical circle.”

Protestant, Evangelical, and especially Reformed systematic theologians are–or ought to be–firmly committed to the normative status of the text of Scripture for doing theology. Sola Scriptura is not something we simply confess, but something we practice. Scripture alone is the final authority, and so faithful theologians will want to be attentive to what biblical studies has to say. We are concerned with and must draw the roots of our theologizing from solid exegesis.

But is theology anything more than exegesis? Blocher asks, “How distinctive is the contribution of systematic theology?” What do systematicians do beyond repeating the biblical scholars? Blocher’s brief answer begins, first, by dispelling the notion that or some sort of faith-interest or presupposition is what separates the two:

Theological interests motivate exegetes and historical critics as well; they cannot dispense with theological criteria to guide their search nor with a “fiduciary framework” (Polanyi’s phrase) to give meaning to their findings; they do think these findings “together.”

It’s not, then, that systematics’ only contribution is a theological bias–no matter what some biblical scholars might claim. No, what systematics does is deepen the reading.

Systematic (or dogmatic) theology only pushes a little further the effort at synthesis, representing the “whole” as opposed to the “parts” in the older construal of the hermeneutical circle; critical integration becomes its specific object; it establishes itself at a few more removes from textual ground level, in a more reflective mood. It does so in deliberate interaction with the history of Christian thought (and, in various degrees, with “human” thought, past and present). Systematic theology thus faces more openly or squarely the challenge of personal commitment: “What do you say. . . ?” (cf. Matt 16:15). It delineates and expounds for the use of the church the credendum: the focus is no longer on what Paul thought and believed – but nostra res agitur. The systematic concern for appropriation makes one vulnerable, exposing the person in the weakness of his or her faith. It corresponds to the other construal of the hermeneutical circle, the involvement of subject with object.

A few things are worth noting here.

First, Blocher is already assuming that biblical studies/theology is a “synthetic” task. Biblical scholars are trying to forward readings of biblical texts that bring together the various parts into a coherent, synthetic whole. Systematic theology shares that concern but pushes a bit further down the road. Or, to change the metaphor, a bit further back from the pages of Scripture, in order to take in the broader sweep.

Second, systematic theology typically does this in conversation with other historical-theological readings of Scripture. Biblical studies, as a discipline, is typically concerned with recent scholarship, Ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman backgrounds, and so forth, but not so much with Patristic, Medieval, or Reformation readings of those same texts. Though, that does seem to be changing in some circles. All the same, systematic theology typically takes the history of exegesis as a more obvious conversation partner, since systematics–or dogmatics, to introduce another term–is a churchly activity.

Which brings me to the third point Blocher makes–the subjectivity of systematics. Here, it seems that Blocher sees systematics more openly owning the subjective, confessional dimension to theology. As he says, it’s not so much a matter of only putting together “what Paul believed then”, as drawing conclusions about “what Paul believed then”, for “what we as the church believe now.” Theoretically, biblical studies can be done with some separation from personal confession. Obviously, it can’t be done entirely so. Believing Paul to be an inspired, authoritative writer does shape the way you come to the text. Believing in the possibility or reality of miracles will change how you construct the intention and theology of the Gospel writers. Still, it’s possible to have a brilliant Pauline scholar who can describe the apostle’s thought then, without actually subscribing to it. The systematic theologian cannot do that. The theologian puts forward claims as truths to be owned by the individual, the community they are a part of, and, ultimately, the world.

There is likely more to be said about the relationship and distinction between biblical and systematic theology, but this seems like an excellent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 thoughts on “What Does Systematic Theology Add to Biblical Theology?

  1. I believe Systematic theology has its place, and that place is in biblical theology. Not that the two disciplines have to become merged, but that one apart from the other will fall short. Like parts to an engine, if we are to remove the carburetor, and examine it in all its inner-workings and complexities. We only get an understanding of the carburetor, yes; we learn how it functions for the whole, but remove it and it fails to do its job. Theology can be the same way. If we remove theological constructs from the whole of redemptive history we end up examining parts of the engine, but not the whole engine. We can take this a bit further as well; there is a whole car to be missed if we only look at the engine, for in doing that, we can miss out on a rather nice ride. Systematic theology alone falls very short in this arena. While I find it necessary to understand each component and how they fit and work, it is most important to have a running engine. Another analogy would be notes that comprise scales and their relationship to music. Systematic theologies can be a lot like learning scales. You need them to be a competent musician, but you do not need them to listen to music and enjoy it. Also, just because you can play every scale known does not make you a good musician if you do not know how to make music with them. When I was a younger musician I sat in with some old cats to play guitar. I was well out of my league, as I heard one of them say, “he knows his ABC’s, but has not yet learned how to talk.” That was devastating to my ego, but probably the most helpful advice I ever heard. By all means practice your scales (learn systematic theology) but do so while learning to make beautiful music ( biblical theology).

  2. Pingback: Commonplace Holiness Blog
  3. Pingback: Vanhoozer & Carson: Is Biblical Theology Really Closer to the Text Than Systematic Theology? | Reformedish

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