Systematic vs. Biblical Theology

Systematic vs. Biblical Theology November 14, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 2.27.45 PMSystematic has classically (and now inevitably) organized the systematic theology of the Christian faith into these topics: (Scripture and only then) God, humans (or man), Christ, sin, salvation, the church/ecclesiology and eschatology. For some this is what Christians believe, and some don’t even recognize this choice and ordering of topics to be a reconstructive endeavor. It is the tradition. It is not the Bible. This is not how our God chose to reveal his message to us.

The gravity of this topics approach to Christian theology can be found more or less in the fifth item, salvation, since God is shaped toward redemption and humans are shaped toward fallenness and the highlight of “Christ” is his saving work. Hence the need for redemption shapes God, humans, Christ and sin. I say more or less because different theologians reshape and deemphasize and then bring into higher emphasis a variety of topics. But these are the topics for many. They are also sacrosanct for many.

Then along comes someone like a narrative theologian, someone like NT Wright or Craig Bartholomew or John Goldingay, and the topics themselves get completely reordered if not at times almost deleted. Other topics rise to the surface, and in fact the traditional topics seem to disappear into other categories — like Messiah or kingdom. Those who center kingdom into their theology rarely use these topics as traditionally shaped. I could go on but won’t.

Why is there a need for more biblical theology today? What shifts do you sense when you read biblical theologians like Goldingay vs. systematic/dogmatic theologians like Barth or Hodge or Grudem? 

Instead, I want to introduce this blog to the new book, yet another big book by John Goldingay, Biblical Theology. Here are his “topics”: God’s person, God’s insight, God’s creation, God’s reign, God’s anointed, God’s children, God’s expectations, and God’s triumph. At the level of topics, I find this a massive improvement. The difference comes from his doing “biblical” theology instead of systematic theology.

What is biblical theology?

First, a bit of a hobby theme for Goldingay: we don’t need the the NT to read the OT. Well, well, yes, of course, except I contend one cannot read the OT in a Christian way without knowing the resolution in the NT. One of his great one was that the NT is nothing but footnotes on the OT, or he asked if we even need the NT. Here is one of his wonderful statements:

The Old Testament Scriptures do not presuppose the New, and they are not incomprehensible without the New, and the idea of someone in the year 10 BC asking about the theological contents of the Old Testament as a whole is not an incoherent one (if I may sidestep questions about when the precise list of its books became settled) (9). [I say back, Jesus was not in 10BC and neither was the apostle Paul and we are not. 40AD or 40BCE is another matter.]

But there are all these books, all these authors, all these time periods, and all these contexts. What does it mean then to do biblical theology?

“Biblical theology” means different things to different people, and I am not concerned to argue that the expression should be used only in the sense that I attach to it; I will just make clear what I mean by the phrase. There is a collection of works that comprise the Scriptures for the Jewish community, which calls them the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings; it is the collection that Christians call the Old Testament, which I will henceforth usually refer to as the First Testament. There is a further collection that the church came to define, which Christians call the New Testament. The church regards these two collections as belonging together, and they are commonly printed as one volume. In this book, I am asking, “What understanding of God and the world and life emerges from these two Testaments?” It doesn’t seem an outrageous question, even if seeking to answer it might be “an act of naive hubris.” Even if it does seem outrageous, I’ve been asking it, and this book gives you my answer (13, my emphasis).

Which is not to deny the books aren’t a collection for they are. Here are his images for the Bible as brought into one by this method:

They resemble a family photograph album or commonplace book or scrapbook or collection of memorabilia, an anthology that tells a family history and gives us a picture of the family in different periods (13-14).

This insight bedevils too much of systematic theology. Not all of it, but too much.

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