Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology

Recently I’ve had a couple of conversations in which the relationship between biblical and systematic theology came up. One of the criticisms that is often levelled against those who emphasize biblical theology is that it is done to the neglect of systematic theology. While this may be fair in some cases, I do not think it is an accurate assessment of most who do biblical theology.

So how then would you explain the relationship between biblical and systematic theology? How do they contribute to one another? What contributions does biblical theology make that systematic theology does not, and vice versa? And is it possible to do both well at the same time or must they remain distinct at all times?

I have my own thoughts, but I want to hear from you.

13 thoughts on “Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology”

  1. Re my comment on Aquinas, the tripartite view of the OC Law is a classic example of a plausible yet mistaken attempt to systematize the Torah, and thus misunderstand it’s historical, covenantal,temporary, heuristic and christo-typological nature. No Jew agrees with Aquinas on the tripartite, no Messianic Jew agrees with Aquinas (both sets regard the 613 as indivisible and all as moral as each other) and the Church Fathers (according to R.Baukham in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day ed. D.A. Carson 1982) seem to take a Biblical theological view (like Paul in Gal 3)also.
    How has this Roman Catholic scholastic managed to dominate Western understanding of Torah for so long?! Why does understanding Biblical Theology as a recognised discipline only seem to start in the C20th – and that with Liberals?!?

  2. One professor at Wheaton (I forget his name), in a PhD seminar on Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology raised the question of whether or not biblical theologians would come up with the idea of the Holy Trinity or not. Perhaps the same could be said of Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s nature. As one schooled in Biblical Theology, I sometimes wonder the same thing. I think, however, that careful theologians simply make sure to take the time to show how biblical theological themes and truths undergird doctrine. I think there are some places where Biblical Theology should be limited or fenced -in by doctrine and vice versa. I would argue that some biblical theologians may interpret texts of the OT and NT in some ways that take away our texts that have traditionally been read in Christ-centered ways or that inform our understanding of the Trinity or the nature of Jesus Christ.

  3. Good comments Scott (sorry abe cohen, I got lost in what you said).

    I’m going to begin an MA in Historical and Systematic Theology at Wheaton this Fall, and I’m going into it with this mindset: I won’t be able to do systematic theology (ST) without biblical theologians. I don’t say this to make it sound as though BT is a step lower or a lesser discipline, but I believe biblical theology sets up systematic theology. True, I would hope that systematic theologians would do good exegesis and not just leave it up to biblical theologians, but the work BT’s do seems very foundational for ST.

    Furthermore, as Scott mentioned, I think ST helps keep BT in check to some degree. I think that’s a fine line to follow, but a necessary one.

    Lastly, both need each other and thus can’t deny one another. ST may think it has the upper hand with it’s doctrines and systems, but it is underscored if it is based on bad BT or bad exegesis. And, as said earlier above (and by Scott), BT can be hurt if it’s implications for doctrines of the church are heretical or “unbiblical”. Too often I hear BT’s say that the Bible is not a ST textbook and that only their work and efforts aren’t futile. A little arrogant and misleading of what ST is about if you ask me.

  4. Acknowledging the necessary caveats that we do not come to the text as blank slate but with presuppositions (including those informed by systematics), I tend to think that biblical theology (BT) should precede systematic theology (ST) insofar as it attempts to let each book, author, etc. speak on its own terms. One of the great dangers of ST is the possibility of flattening out distinctive contributions for the sake of a clean way of organizing the “data,” not to mention the danger of ignoring the narrative shape of God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. This is not to say that God does not reveal himself in “propositional” truth, but rather to acknowledge that he reveals himself in other ways as well in Scripture.

    On the other hand, one of the dangers of BT is the tendency of some to so emphasize the distinctive contributions of each part of the canon that they fail to pursue its larger coherence. Also, there are some theological conclusions that BT probably cannot achieve without ST, such as the Trinity.

    Those are some initial thoughts, but I’m still working through these things in my own mind.

  5. Don Carson makes the following statement in his essay about the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (IVP).

    “Both systematic theology and biblical theology are provisional and in principle correctible, as virtually all products of finite human enterprise must be. Although in terms of authority status there needs to be an outward-tracing line from Scripture through exegesis towards biblical theology to systematic theology (with historical theology providing some guidance along the way), in reality various ‘back loops’ are generated, each discipline influencing the others, and few disciplines influencing the others more than does systematic theology, precisely because it is so worldview forming.”

  6. This is an important question to be thought through.

    Carl Trueman wrote an article discussing the issues of Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology. He charged that there is a danger of the recent evangelical trend to emphasis BT (coming mostly out of the UK and Sydney). He made some good points. And he did assert a similar charge as Scott’s prof. – he asserted that if BT ruled the day, “trinitarianism would become modalism”.

    Yet, I think Graeme Goldsworthy properly debunked the thrust of Trueman’s argument. You can read the debate here:

    20th century USA theologians and preachers have most definitely been molded by the old Princeton theologians. My personal opinion is that we still need a good dose of BT to correct an over-emphasis on ST. Even “expository” preachers tend to preach doctrinally rather than textually.

    In one of his preaching workshops, I heard Dick Lucas give a great example of the problem with allowing doctrinal systems to control the text rather than vice-versa. He used the book of Jude as his example.

    The bookends of Jude (vv. 1 and 24-25) say that God will keep us in Him. Yet, the middle verses talk about the need to keep ourselves in Christ. If we allow the Calvinistic doctrine of the perseverence of the saints to control our preaching then the middle part of Jude won’t be allowed to speak for itself as we will focus on the bookends (By the way, I am a Calvinist so I am not arguing against the doctrine).

    If we allow the text to speak for itself then we will allow the fullness of God’s Word to come through in that it is true that God will keep us but it is also true that we must keep ourselves in him (vs. 21)

  7. Thanks Marty

    I totally agree with what you’ve pointed out. The term I was taught and that I use in Bible teaching workshops is: ‘the dreaded sack of knowledge’. You’re busy teaching, verse by verse, through a passage and you come across the word ‘Grace’. At that point you stick your hand into your sack of knowledge and pull out everyting the Bible says about Grace and dump it on the passage. I really think this needs to be avoided and I’ve found the guys in the UK and Sydney very helpful with this.

    I’m not dismissing the sack of knowledge because I do believe there has to be constant interplay between the sack and the text – besides, everytime you teach a text in context and come to grips with its central thrust you’re going to be adding your findings to your sack of knowledge anyway – its unavoidable.

    One more thing: I do think some of the UK and Sydney guys have come under unfair criticism (like in Trueman’s article – which is simply not an accurate reflection of what goes on in western congregations around the world today) for having thrown out systematics. Its simply not true, many of these Bible teaches are deeply committed to doctrine – they simply see (as in the Carson quote) a line of progression traced from the text through BT to ST (with a dash of back and forth interplay as a control).

  8. spooh

    Yes, you are right. If you read some of the Aussies and the Brits they display their systematics quick nicely.

    A good example of this is Peter Jensen’s book The Revelation of God. He writes on a systematic topic but does so using BT. It is a masterful blend.

  9. Jensens book is very helpful on this. I spent the summer of 2002 reading it to great gain, just before we got beginningwithmoses off the ground.

    Gotta have both, but surely the story (BT) has to govern the systems we derive.

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