By John Frye
Scot McKnight introduced us recently to a new work by John Goldingay in a post titled “Systematic vs. Biblical Theology.” As I read the post and the comments that followed, I remembered a story that Eugene H. Peterson wrote to “Gunnar,” a composite person in The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends. The context of the “letter” to Gunnar was the arrival of Herman, an assigned seminary intern, into Gunnar’s home Bible study group. Eugene described Gunnar’s home Bible study group “one of the wonders of the world.” Young expert Herman sought to enlighten the motley group how to “correctly” study the Bible. Eugene’s story comes out of his and Gunnar’s high school years.
Remember Oscar Odegaard, Bucky Jones, and that crowd? And the year they formed a gun club and began meeting every week, fondling their guns, enjoying target practice, and entering marksmanship competitions? And how you and I were puzzled over the whole business?
Virtually every adolescent young man in that culture, of course, had a gun. It was a “gun culture—our emerging “wild west” identity wasn’t complete without a gun. But for you and me and most of our friends the gun was part of something larger—hunting and hiking, mountains and streams, pheasants and ducks, deer and antelope. The gun was our ticket to that intricate and unpredictable world of weather and wildness and youthful camaraderie. It hardly mattered that we shot anything—and more often than not we didn’t. The gun symbolized and made possible our participation in a certain kind of life.
The gun club struck us as so reductionist. That seasonally comprehensive, sensually rich, unpredictable life of woods and rivers was eliminated in the interests of accuracy and control. Actually, they were probably better shots than we were, at least if there was no sleet stinging their eyes. But it struck us as mighty boring. And then the airs of superiority that they assumed—buying special jackets, making sure their trophies were well displayed, and just the least bit condescending to the rest of us.
Does it strike you that that may be what Herman is doing with the Bible? Removing it from the complex context of saints and sinners, of doubt and faith, of suffering and bewilderment so that he can render it more accurately? But the Bible came into existence in the rough and tumble of sin and salvation among ordinary people. It has never seemed to me especially honoring to it to insist on interpreting it in sanitary laboratory conditions. All the learning that Herman brings to the Bible is useful, but if he doesn’t enter the “conditions” as he reads and teaches it, he’ll never get it right. Just don’t let him turn your wonderful Bible study into a “gun club” (101-102).
Perhaps systematic theology gun clubs have their place. Yet, when systematics at worst kill the Story or at best make it unrecognizable when broken into pieces (like a human body anatomy textbook), the Bible is dishonored. Semper Reformanda.