Competing Methodologies

Carl Trueman’s piece on the Pete Enns controversy, in my mind, has at least one thing pegged (this is distinct from what Darryl Hart has challenged). The fragmentation of knowledge is a key factor in the Pete Enns controversy.

It is well known in theology these days that biblical studies departments are often suspicious of the systematic departments (indeed, of all the other departments). The dangers of proof-texting, as in taking Scripture out of context, are real dangers (this is distinct from the kind of proof-texting that the Westminster Assembly used, for instance), and these mistakes have occurred not only in systematic theology, but also in other fields. This can make biblical studies departments so suspicious of the other departments that they won’t allow other departments in the door. The abuse of exegesis in the support of non-exegetical concerns is then interpreted to be the normal use of exegesis to build other non-exegetical concerns. When abuse is confused for use, then we have serious trouble. Upon what can systematic theology build but exegesis? Where else can it find its lifeblood?

What is really happening, I think, is that exegetes are starting to deny the validity of systematic theology entirely. They would rather see biblical theology take the place of systematic theology, because it is supposedly closer to exegesis, and more controllable. This is, of course, one entire step removed from the theological encyclopedias of the 19th century. By the way, theological encyclopedia is not what we normally think of as encyclopedia today. Rather it is a description of the theological enterprise, focussing on the interdependence and interconnectedness of the various branches of theology.

Edward Farley, who wrote a book entitled Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theology, opined that the 4 branch system (exegesis, systematics, church history, and practical) is itself the result of the Enlightenment fragmentation of knowledge, and should therefore be abandoned. I’m not sure that this is a practical solution to the problem. There does need to be some specialization, since there does not seem to be any other way for people to keep up in their own field. What does need to happen is quite a bit more summary of developments in the fields so that the non-specialists can also keep up, even if only second hand. And the attempt to be a master of more than one field is also important. Theology is different than other branches of knowledge in that the original data does not change or expand. The Bible is a finished canon. Therein lies the only hope we have for the return of the generalist theologian (one who is a master in more than one field, indeed, all the fields). Yes, church history has an unmasterable mass of data. But I do not believe that exegesis or systematics, or apologetics or practical theology is unmasterable. They are all based directly on the Bible. Church history is based on Scripture as well. However, the primary sources for church history include more than the Bible. That is what makes church history, in my opinion, by far and away the most difficult of the fields to master, since there is an enormously greater amount of material.

Dr. Vern Poythress wrote an article on biblical theologies in the Spring 2008 volume of the WTJ. I heartily recommend this article to anyone interested in this debate. Also necessary is Richard Muller’s book The Study of Theology. Further research into this almost abandoned field is necessary. Gerhard Ebeling addressed the matter, as did Wolfhart Pannenberg. Beyond this, however, one must go to the 19th century encyclopedias to garner any information about the field of theological encyclopedia. Westminster Theological Seminary did not teach encyclopedia when I was there. As far as I know, they still do not. Muller’s book needs to be required reading at the beginning and at the end of the curriculum. What is happening right now is that students are graduating with an “I favor Enns, I favor Gaffin, I favor Oliphint, I favor Tipton, I favor Trueman, I favor Jue” mentality. Not so pleasant and just a tad unbiblical. Westminster needs to return to a study of the theological encyclopedia and find a way to address the unity of theological discourse. The study of Scripture  in Prolegomena does not accomplish this, since every discipline claims Scripture.

The problem here is competing methodologies. At this point in time, I see exegetical methodology as the problem, since most modern exegetes will not allow systematic theology to bound their exegesis. To them that seems like forcing exegesis onto a Procrustean bed. But right here is the nub of the issue. Is there such a thing as the analogy of faith? If Scripture can interpret other Scripture, then why can’t Scripture as a whole interpret individual Scripture? If this question be granted, then there is no reason to exclude systematic theology from exegesis. They mutually inform each other. If this is a true two-way street, then exegesis will not force systematic theology out of the Bible, and systematic theology will not misinterpret Scripture for its own ends. This is devoutly to be desired.