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

4 thoughts on “Vanhoozer & Carson: Is Biblical Theology Really Closer to the Text Than Systematic Theology?

  1. My theological training taught me the view supported by Carson (but via Warfield, Vos, and Murray) but I’ve come around to thinking that the view Vanhoozer argues for or something very like it is the correct one.

    The question I have for Carson’s view is this: is it really so obvious that the historical and progressive way of organizing theology is more biblical than the way that is systematic and logical and oriented toward specific subjects? Certainly the Bible has a storyline but when you read the Pauline epistles or the book of Proverbs are they really primarily historical and progressive or are they really more systematic and oriented to specific subjects? What about the Psalms? Or the Prophets? My point is that I think it is far from obvious that an historical and progressive organization of theology is more clearly biblical than a topical one.

    So yeah, I think Vanhoozer is right on this one.

  2. Pingback: Jesus and the Coherence of Scripture | Reformedish
  3. Pingback: Mere Fidelity: What is the Relationship Between Biblical Exegesis and Systematics? | Reformedish

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