Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology Considered Again

We will take as our starting point the following well-known quotation from Vos’s Biblical Theology:

The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much 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 Theology 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. (Biblical Theology, p. 14).

What can plausibly be laid against this claim by Vos is that the Bible is more inherently historical than logical, and that therefore BT is a “better fit” than ST. Even if didactic portions of Scripture are acknowledged to be less historically organized than other portions (Proverbs comes to mind), the historical framework of the Bible still remains in place. What I wish to do is to answer this plausible objection.

Firstly, it is clear that certain portions of Scripture are less historically organized than others. Proverbs, for instance, is better organized topically than historically. It has been shown in some recent scholarship that Proverbs presupposes the historical covenants. Fair enough. I agree that Proverbs is not “secular” wisdom, but holy wisdom, however much certain parts of it might resemble Amenemope. However, the organization of the text itself is still better done topically. This means that making Proverbs undergo an historical transformation in order to fit BT categories would require a greater transformation than an ST treatment would.

What this means for the broader question is just this: BT might be a smaller transformation of historically organized texts than an ST treatment would represent. However, an ST treatment of other texts, like Proverbs, would represent a smaller transformation than BT would. In other words, genre differences are a factor in how much transformation a given text would undergo in BT or ST guise.

Secondly, ST is not somehow incapable of assimilating historical change into a logical locus. Surely, ST treats the locus of covenant theology with reference to the historical progression of the various iterations of the covenants! As Dr. Richard Gaffin once said, ST is like a plot analysis of a novel, and BT is like a plot summary. BT cannot ignore the logical relations entirely. Nor can ST ignore the historical progression of revelation. Each has to take the other into account. As a result, BT and ST must be completely interdependent, even while they can be distinguished.

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6 Comments

  1. rfwhite said,

    January 7, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    greenbaggins: Appreciate your thoughts above. Here are a couple of others, similar to your own.

    Both BT and ST are grounded in the affirmations 1) that God’s revelatory purpose in history is unified and 2) that God’s governance of history is consistent.

    BT organizes and expounds the teachings of the Bible with special attention to the continuities and discontinuities of the historical progress of revelation and redemption. It focuses on the organic, yet periodized history of special revelation and redemption.

    ST organizes and expounds the teachings of the Bible as a coherent and unified product of a completed history of revelation and redemption. Whereas BT focuses specifically on progress and periodization in history, ST focuses especially on the culmination and final product of history.

  2. rfwhie said,

    January 14, 2019 at 8:40 pm

    greenbaggins: Mulling your observations about Proverbs and wondering the extent to which these observations might apply to the Psalms or perhaps to certain of them, while being reminded of Luther’s musing that a whole theology of the Bible resides in them.

  3. rfwhite said,

    January 14, 2019 at 8:45 pm

    greenbaggins: Mulling your observations about Proverbs and wondering the extent to which these observations might apply to the Psalms or perhaps to certain of them, while being reminded of Luther’s musing that a whole theology of the Bible resides in them.

  4. Chris Taylor said,

    January 25, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    These disciplines should not be set over and against each other. ST is simply a summary of one’s BT. Think of it this way, a student completes a math problem accurately, but the teacher still says, “Show your work.”

    There is a reason almost every core topic in Berkhof’s ST is presented in 10 pages or so (see Perseverance of the Saint, only 5 pages!). On the other, when you Google, “A Biblical Theology of Perseverance”, the first book that appears is Dr. Schreiner’s 344 page book on the subject.

    https://www.amazon.com/Race-Set-Before-Perseverance-Assurance/dp/0830815554

    In other words, BT is essentially an attempt to convince others that your ST is acceptable by openly interpreting, relating, and harmonizing all the prooftexts in your ST.

  5. Benji Swinburnson said,

    January 30, 2019 at 10:45 pm

    I think Vos addresses the train of thought you are dealing with here. I think he would say that we have a movement from a more historically organized presentation to a more analytic-systematic organization in redemptive history. Specifically, the Apostolic revelation gives a more systematic-analytical interpretation of the preceding revelation.

    At the same time, he points out that there are other points along the line of historical development where revelation looks back and gives a systematic-analytical overview of what has happened.

    So the Bible is inherently historical, but there is a “logical” interconnectedness around a central theme that is not fully reveled until the end. As that end approaches, the full interrelationship becomes more apparent. It is at that time that the full “plot analysis” can be done.

    So good biblical theology leads into systematic theology, and good systematic theology builds upon biblical theology. The general trajectory of God’s own revelation is in this direction, which is perhaps the best basis for the necessity of systematic theology.


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