Sunday, 20 January 2008

Biblical theology and systematic theology

In a very interesting post, my Aussie pal Mike Bird protests against the tendency among systematic theologians to denigrate historical study of the Bible. Mike remarks that “systematic theology is the end process of exegesis and biblical theology”; and he cites Millard Erickson’s model of systematic theology, according to which theology takes place in three main stages:

1. Exegesis: analysis of the biblical texts in their historical and literary contexts.
2. Biblical Theology: situating exegesis in the wider context of each body of literature (e.g. theology of the Pentateuch or Pauline corpus, and then OT or NT theologies respectively).
3. Systematic Theology: the act of synthesising key motifs and ideas as they relate to the mosaic of Christian belief.

Mike’s main point is correct: systematic theologians have no business trying to hijack the findings of exegesis or biblical theology. But Erickson’s three-stage model (in all fairness, this sounds more like Grudem than Erickson, except that Grudem has never heard of “historical and literary contexts”) is absolutely false, and it displays a disastrous misunderstanding of the relation between theology and scripture. It has never been the case that dogmatics is merely “the end process of exegesis and biblical theology” – nothing could be further from the truth! A better model would be that of a continuing spiral in which dogmatics influences exegesis, and then exegesis exerts a critical influence on dogmatics, and so on.

You can see this clearly in the history of biblical theology. Biblical theology is always already shaped by dogmatics, and then it subsequently exerts a critical influence on the next generation of dogmatics. A good example here is the work of the great OT theologian, Gerhard von Rad. Von Rad’s biblical theology was profoundly shaped by Barthian dogmatics; and yet younger German dogmaticians like Pannenberg and Rendtorff were profoundly influenced by von Rad’s biblical theology, and they deployed this biblical theology as the basis of a radical critique of Barthian dogmatics. And so the spiral continues, with subsequent biblical theologies also being influenced by the new form of dogmatics.

In other words, there’s no one-way street from exegesis to dogmatics – the traffic always moves in both directions. And as Bultmann rightly insisted, there can never be a “presuppositionless exegesis,” in which the exegete confronts the text of scripture with a theological blank slate. Theology is always there already – indeed, it’s already inscribed in the texts themselves, and in the whole array of lexical, text-critical and historical tools which are used to translate and interpret these texts. It’s theology all the way down!

There’s no reason to lament this situation or to try to avoid it. The best we can hope for is that theologians will remain open to critical correction in light of new exegetical discoveries, and that exegetes will read just enough theology to dispel the illusion that their exegetical work is free of theological presuppositions.

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