Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology

I am re-reading Vos’s Biblical Theology right now. I came across this great quotation, which ought to give certain modern-day theologians great pause:

The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. The sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theoloy this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either (p. 14).

I was quite struck by the difference in attitude to ST shown by Vos as compared with many practitioners of BT today. I am quite certain that the change has to do with logic itself. That is, that logic is no longer seen as necessary for the proper understanding of theology. Contrary to the claims of some, the Enlightenment is not responsible for the logic of post-Reformation systematics. Rather, the Enlightenment is responsible for the repudiation of such systematic treatment. As soon as reason is ultimate, it quickly loses its ability to synthesize God’s truth, since it is not a sanctified reason. Therefore, Vos would be thrown out by the majority of BT practitioners today.


  1. Vern Crisler said,

    May 1, 2007 at 10:02 am


    I was wondering, could you go into greater detail about just how the Enlightment leads to today’s antipathy towards logic. Thanks! Vern

  2. greenbaggins said,

    May 1, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Vern, welcome to my blog. I haven’t fully developed this thought. However, I know that these premises are true: 1. The Bible is logical (not in the sense of being a logic textbook, but in the sense that everything hangs together and does not contradict); 2. The Enlightenment exalted man’s *unregenerated* reason above revelation (indeed, in most cases, eliminated revelation from consideration). 3. Reason, when divorced from Scripture, is dark and futile (Romans 1), and becomes unreason. 4. This divorce of reason and revelation happened in the Enlightenment. 5. Therefore, the Enlightenment was really an Endarkenment. 6. Therefore, the Enlightenment discouraged such thinking as happened in the scholastic Reformation tradition. 7. Therefore I conclude that, far from having the effect that it was usually thought to have, the Enlightenment spelled the end of the scholastic Reformation tradition. Indeed, it is only as certain scholars are swimming *against* the tide of the Enlightenment that these Reformed scholastics are being rediscovered.

  3. Tim Wilder said,

    May 1, 2007 at 10:56 am

    The Enlightenment, with its contempt for the Middle Ages and for scholasticism also had a contempt for Medieval Logic. So what we got instead is what one of my professors in graduate school called “bastardized Enlightenment logic”, i.e. the “traditional logic” of the textbooks.

  4. Vern Crisler said,

    May 1, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Him Lane & Tim,

    I just don’t think we should paint with a broad brush when it comes to the Enlightenment (like the Federal Visionists do). Much of the contempt of the Middle Ages and scholasticism can be found in Protestantism. One scholar of the Enlightenment even spoke of the “unoriginality” of the Englightenment. In any case, I’ve always thought that perspectivalism, historicism, post-modernism, etc. were a rejection of the best part of the Englightenment, i.e., the emphasis on rationality. (I of course do not regard the French as being the best part of the Enlightenment. I’m thinking more of Locke, et alios.)



  5. Xon said,

    May 1, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    “The Enlightenment” has become a sort of shorthand for the philosophical hubris and hyper-rationalism of modernity. The “science will cure all ills, human reason is a fit judge of revelation” sort of worldview. The view of the world that produces all these militant atheists who are writing books right now (Harris, Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens). Whether this is really right or fair or not is harder to discern. But to me it’s basically the same as people who today want to defend Pelagius on the grounds that he wasn’t really a “Pelagian.” Well, even if that’s true–it doesn’t much matter now. The point is that Pelagianism is bad, whether Pelagius himself ever really held to it or not.

    As for an “emphasis on rationality” as the best part of the Enlightenment, I’m intrigued to know more about what you mean by that, Vern. (If you have some time.)

  6. Xon said,

    May 1, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    Oh, and Locke??! Beh… :-)

  7. Vern Crisler said,

    May 2, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Hi Xon,

    Not much time, but basically I’m contrasting rationality with framework relativsm, strong perspectivalism, narrativism, historicism, etc. Much of post-modernism, including Reformed versions, are irrational at base.



  8. May 2, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    Vos’ writing on the relationship between BT and ST is always really great! His princeton inaugural address, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline” (found in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos [ed. Richard Gaffin, Published by P&R]) is also a great place to go for Vos’ understanding of the field.

    I also have found John Murray’s WTJ articles, now entitled “Systematic Theology” (found in the first chapter of vol. 4 of his collected writings) to be along the same vein as Vos. Whereas Vos seems to be defending the study of BT to an audience that wasn’t really questioning the legitimacy of ST, Murray was defending the study of ST and showing it’s relationship to BT.

    Here’s a great quote from pg. 14:
    “When biblical theology is conceived of as deling with ‘the process of the self-revelation of GOd deposited in the Bible’, it must be understood that this specialized study of the Bible, so far from being inimical to the interests of systematic theology, is indispensable to the systematic theology that is faithful to the Bible.”

    Lane, you are right on about the fact that ST and BT have been needlessly pitted against each other of late. The story of Vos and Warfield walking the campus of Princeton arm-in-arm is more than a nice story of friendship between colleagues, it is an outstanding illustration of how the study of the Bible ought to be done in an intellectually responsible and spiritually uplifting way!

  9. Ben Dahlvang said,

    May 8, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    Have you read this interaction between Carl Trueman and Graeme Goldsworthy? I think it first appeared in Themelios.

    Trueman’s piece is here:

    Goldsworthy’s is here:

    I think they both make great points. I’m as mystified as was Goldsworthy, however, when it came to Trueman’s comment on the “triumph” of BT.

  10. Ben Dahlvang said,

    May 8, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    I also started re-reading the same volume by Vos a few days ago. I was struck by what he had to say regarding inspiration (12-13). I know he doesn’t explicitly deal with the issue so much, but it really made me think of what’s going on at WTS with the can Dr. Enns opened.

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