Biblical and Systematic Theology: Friends
Christianity has always been a doctrinal religion. Theology – that which is taught about God, man, and salvation – has always been central to the Christian church. This is not to discount the place of experience. Certainly the Holy Spirit works in bringing men and women to new life and causing them to grow in their faith. But nonetheless, what we believe matters. Theology matters. And how we do theology matters as well.
There are a number of central theological questions to which Christians have always sought to give clear answers: Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What does it mean to be human? How can man be made right with God? What are the effects of the Fall on humankind? What is the church? What is baptism? Normally, our doctrinal statements will answer these questions by appealing to many passages of scripture. There will be texts from the Old Testament and the New strung together. Sometimes, more detailed systematic theologies will also use God’s self-revelation in nature as a source, though the Bible itself should always be the interpretive lens through which these extra-biblical data are analyzed.
Taken as a whole, all of this provides a system of doctrine. Because God is orderly and trustworthy, his entire self-revelation in the Bible gives us a system of doctrine. This is why it is not only necessary but also entirely appropriate for us to learn and teach systematic theology. In fact, learning and teaching systematic theology is explicitly anticipated in the scriptures. Many passages show this, but one will suffice. In giving his instructions to his pastor and friend, Timothy, Paul writes, “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” There is a pattern of teaching which Timothy needed to follow, a systematic theology he was to maintain and to teach.
But there is another type of theology called biblical theology. Biblical theology, like systematic theology, uses the Bible as its sourcebook, but it does so in a slightly different way. Rather than beginning with a question or a topic, biblical theology seeks to let the Bible raise the questions and emphases. In other words, biblical theology pays special attention to the way in which the progressive revelation of the Bible introduces certain themes. Since the Bible is a progressive revelation (not every question is answered in Genesis and we must read scripture as a whole), we can present our theological categories and conclusions in the manner in which they are presented – progressively, as the text unfolds. This, in essence, is the project of biblical theology.
Sometimes biblical theology is limited to a certain section of the Bible – leading perhaps to an Old Testament Theology, a New Testament Theology, or a Pauline Theology. But whether the source material is limited or not, biblical theology will always be seeking to look for the questions and answers as they emerge organically from the text of scripture and to present them in that organic fashion.
So which is the better method? Is biblical theology superior to systematics or is it the other way around? In truth, both are helpful. I think it is fair to say that systematic expressions of the truth are the ultimate goal. After all, the human mind demands this kind of formulation. More importantly, God requires that we maintain a consistent pattern of truth. This systematic expression of the truth is also very useful for our witness as Christians, since it honestly conveys to the world and to other Christians what we believe. The full and careful (systematic) expression of truth about God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, sin, salvation, the church, and the future is absolutely vital in every area of our lives and for every facet of our work.
But there are errors to which we are liable in the formulation of systems – errors for which biblical theology offers a corrective. Since biblical theology is attuned to the unfolding progressive revelation in the Bible, it is often more sensitive to the specific nuances of each biblical text. One of the sad hallmarks of bad systematic theology is a proof-texting approach, where the actual context of the verse in question is overlooked or ignored. Biblical theology can be a helpful corrective to this.
In addition, systematic theology can often get the proportions wrong. Take, for instance, the doctrine of angels – a staple of any systematic theology textbook. In some cases, angelology might receive the same level of treatment as the doctrine of humanity, in order to make the system appear elegant and balanced. After all, each chapter needs to be about the same length, right? But is this really reflective of the biblical balance? Does the Bible teach as much about angels as about man or sin or salvation? Biblical theology can provide a correction in proportion, so that the elegance of the system does not take precedence over the actual teachings of the Bible.
Further, biblical theology can remind us of the big themes of the Bible. While Christians are commanded to maintain a sound system of doctrine, we are also undeniably commanded to become lifelong students of the Bible itself. This is our sourcebook; this is God’s revelation to us. Biblical theology, in turning our attention back to the contours of progressive revelation, can help us understand the Bible better. It is another way of looking at the big picture, of showing how God has unfolded for us his work of salvation and his consummation of all things.
To be a Christian is to believe certain truths – truths about God, about sin, about Christ, about salvation. Growth in the faith requires growth in knowledge. God has given us a coherent and trustworthy revelation of himself in the Bible. Our privilege and duty is to give ourselves to its study, and to the continual expression of the truths about God it contains. “One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”