Beyond the Lighted Stage: Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part Three

In Part Two of this four part series, I offered some thoughts on the nature of doctrinal development.  Now I want to turn to the discipline of Biblical Theology. 


Biblical Theology as a discipline emerges formally with the work of Johann Philipp Gabler in the late eighteenth century.  In his justly famous 1787 inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, he distinguished between the disciplines of Dogmatic Theology (what we today typically call Systematic Theology) and Biblical Theology.   Gabler saw the former as marked by a systematizing and philosophical bent and deeply shaped by the intellectual context of the individual theologian; the latter sought to set forth the ideas and beliefs of the biblical writers themselves, being always sensitive to the particular historical context of specific books of the Bible.  And Biblical Theology lacked the overriding desire to find the kind of greater doctrinal syntheses which distinguished its dogmatic counterpart. 


Gabler himself made it clear that he was no great fan of orthodox systematics, and his method proved popular and influential with others in the field of Biblical Studies who were uncomfortable with what they regarded as a Procustean bed of dogma.  In short, his approach essentially untethered analysis of the content of scripture from what he and his followers suspected were alien dogmatic structures that surreptitiously distorted how the Bible was read. 


Orthodox theologians had, of course, been aware of the historical dynamic of the biblical story before – the work of a covenant theologian such as Johannes Cocceius provides an obvious example – but the level of historical sensitivity that emerged in the late eighteenth century created an intellectual culture much more attuned to the development of historical consciousness.    


This is where Geehardus Vos, one of the fathers of modern conservative Biblical Theology, is significant.  His contribution was to baptize the Biblical Theology paradigm into an orthodox context, such that it became useful to conservative Christians. The post-Vos modern redemptive-historical method of interpretation is continuous with Gabler in taking the historical nature of scripture seriously, but orthodox in seeing the whole Bible as containing one, consistent story which has a unity.  This is because it is inspired by one divine author, God, and points towards and then culminates in the work of Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh. 


In reflecting on orthodox Biblical theology, it is therefore important to acknowledge with gratitude its obvious strengths.  The Bible does contain a dramatic story and there is such a thing as a progressive revelation of God and his purposes in the text.  Readers need to be aware of this and pay heed to it because that story is the narrative of how God has acted in history.  


Redemptive-historical preaching based upon such Biblical Theology is also an important tool: my own great love in the pulpit is preaching Old Testament narrative; and a redemptive-historical approach, if properly applied, helps to make sure that Old Testament sermons never lose sight of the overall Bible story, culminate in Christ, and avoid practical applications which are divorced from the gospel and therefore merely legalisms. 


I might add a further personal note -- my own reading and understanding of the Bible is deeply indebted to the work of Biblical Theologians, most notably my former colleague and friend, Greg Beale, but also the distinguished Southern Baptist scholar, Tom Schreiner.  In helping me to understand the way in which the Bible’s storyline develops, these men have been exceptionally useful to me. 


But, even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.  


Further, there is a second danger: Biblical Theology, with its focus on the drama of the developing biblical storyline, is naturally tilted towards catching a very significant thread of biblical teaching (narrative action) and away from other important aspects of the Bible, such as the metaphysical realities to which scripture also points.  These might be explicit metaphysical statements as in Jn. 1:1, or the implicit but necessary ontological assumptions that lie behind the historical action in verses such as Gen. 1:1.  As New Testament scholar, C. Kavin Rowe, puts it: 


The New Testament and the early Church made claims about the human person Jesus of Nazareth and about the Spirit... that required specification in terms of ontology. 


Put simply: fidelity to the Bible’s teaching about Jesus and the Spirit – the scriptural narrative –demands that we press through the events and actions ascribed to them to discern who they actually are in terms of their very being.  In short, the Bible does not reduce God’s identity to his actions.  He is not cabined within the historical process.  It also points to a God who has a reality prior to, independent of, and thus foundational for, those same actions.  No account of the Bible’s teaching which omits those strands of biblical teaching can be described as complete. 


Kevin Vanhoozer expresses this point as follows: 


Descriptions of redemptive-history, while necessary, are theologically incomplete until one spells out their ontological implications (ie. their presuppositions about what is real), not least because history itself is a staging area for divine speech and action. 


In short, the ‘big story’ may be the whole story, but it is not the whole message.  God acts in a certain way in history because he is a certain kind of God in himself in eternity.  Any theological account of redemptive history which terminates simply on questions of economic action rather than divine being is therefore not false so much as it is inadequate.  This basic point lies at the heart, for example, of Matthew Levering’s respectful and appreciative but nonetheless penetrating critique of the New Testament scholars N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham in his book, Scripture and Metaphysics.   


And this brings me to the key issue now being faced in confessional circles.  As I argued in Part Two, the creeds and confessions to which we subscribe contain theological truth claims which were not originally based on narrowly redemptive-historical approaches to scripture. Indeed, they were formulated long before such approaches emerged in their modern form.  Nor were they constructed by those who pursued biblical exegesis and consequent doctrinal synthesis in isolation from ontological questions or from that history of controversy that drove the development of doctrinal formulation.   So here is the question: Can such doctrines as, for example, simplicity, impassibility, and the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity – in other words, the orthodox doctrine of God as confessed by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and confessional Protestant churches -- be maintained on the basis of a Biblical Theology to which Systematic Theology is rendered nothing more than a poor relation or where Historical Theology plays little or no role?    


To put the matter in a more pointed ecclesiastical fashion: Can the classic confessions of Reformation Protestantism be faithfully upheld by those who have detached their own approach to scriptural exegesis and doctrinal synthesis from the theological, exegetical, and polemical concerns which led to such confessional formulations in the first place?   


That is a matter of great and urgent significance for churches, for ministers, and for the institutions who train them. And it is to this concern that I will turn in my fourth and final post.

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, PA, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.