Saturday 19 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.


Drew Tatusko said...

A phrase that I have been ruminating lately is Scripture is the arbiter of our theology. Its a relational and dialectical process of analysis and synthesis and back. And this not in the linear Hegelian sense but more cyclical as is the nature of critique.

Anonymous said...


thanks for this post. I have often been frustrated with people who think that they can honestly perform either discipline "in a vacuum," free from the contamination of the other.

i recently had a professor who claimed to avoid letting theology influence his interpretations of scripture (he is a NT scholar). While i understand the concern to a degree, to me it sounded like he thought allowing theology to influence his reading of scripture was inherently evil. I thought this was sad and naive.

Thanks again for the more honest an realistic approach here.

Marty said...

Dear Ben,

Yes, it is indeed true that there is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis (and biblical theology). Epistemically we need our basic commitments. However, that must not mask the fact that conceptually systematics builds upon the fruits of exegesis and biblical theology. There must be a truly inductive work in the production of doctrine at some point. The great peril of systematics is that it can move to the deductive too quickly.

God bless,


michael jensen said...

One of the troubles we have doing theology today is specialisation. Academic theology has developed a number of sub-guilds who consider the specialisation their preserve. This means that the recursive process is greatly inhibited. In particular, he Biblical Studies people never seem to be happy with the way in which theologians decide to use Scripture - unless they fill out the requisite forms and submit them to the SBL, perhaps. Because of this, I note that the Brazos press people have developed their series of theological commentaries and have deliberately not asked any (or many) biblical studies specialists.

Of Augustine, Origen, and even of Calvin and Luther it could be said that they were exegetes, biblical theologians AND systematic theologians all at once. (Origen was also a text critic!) I get the feeling that today Augustine would have been channelled into a specialisation so narrow that the City of God would have become impossible to write!

michael jensen said...

Also: I can see what you are saying, Myers, though Mike and Millard are offering a pedagogical description of how the process ideally travels, aren't they? Everyone knows that there is no such thing as presuppositionless exegesis, but that doesn't mean we don't, by repeated attempts and by long hard listening, try to do it. We aren't such banal postmoderns that we think our exegesis is comprised entirely of our presuppositions (though I am sure there are some of em out there!)
John Webster calls theology 'exegetical reasoning': I think this shows what I mean quite well.

michael jensen said...
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J. Matthew Barnes said...


While you are correct in pointing out that those engaged in exegesis and biblical theology have not been free from the influence of systematics, most of them would claim that they want to strive to be as objective as possible.

Thus, ideally the three tier model of Erickson is the way, perhaps, it should be...but not the way it is. "Should" maybe to strong.

Also, the rise of theological interpretation as a discipline undercuts Michael's point some what.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Michael: "Is Millard offering a pedagogical description of how the process ideally travels?"

Well, I myself don't think that there's anything "ideal" or desirable about this three-step model. And from a pedagogical standpoint, I reckon it would be disastrous to present students with such a model, or to give them the impression that theology should somehow be derived directly from exegesis.

Before there was ever a Christian canon, there was already theology; before the NT texts were written, the church already believed and prayed and confessed and broke bread. If we wanted students to grasp the fundamental "stuff" from which theology derives, I guess the pedagogy would have to look more like this: the class says the Creed together, then reads a psalm, then prays the Lord's Prayer, then shares bread and wine. This is where Christian doctrine comes from, and this is what it's for.

Michael F. Bird said...


1. Let me endorse your hermeneutical spiral between exegesis and theology. We all start with some theological presumption and this theology is then shaped, shaken, and informed by our exegesis and biblical study. When we return then to biblical study again we come with a renewed theology waiting to be challenged, affirmed, and sharped by further exegesis and biblical theology.

2. I would affirm that we had a theological creed before there was a scriptural canon; but, the earliest creeds (e.g. Rom. 1.3-4; 1 Cor. 15.3-4) have always included a reference to "according to the Scriptures" as the authorizing narrative for the emergence of a distinctive Christian theology!

Erin said...
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Erin said...

I had to laugh, Ben, because I think the 3 step model you present is what students presuppose here in the US. It takes great effort to disabuse them of such an understanding. (I think it's one reason Paul's own exegesis can be so deeply disturbing). I think what you lay out is the primary postmodern (hypermodern?) problem for students these days. Theology requires a level of taking personal responsibility for dogmatic choices that people are often more comfortable ignoring, self included!

W. Travis McMaken said...

Dan Treier's article in the most recent SJT, "Biblical theology and / or theological interpretation of Scripture?", tries to parse a lot of the questions and difficulties being raised here.

Doug said...

I've chimed in with another angle, which I feel both Michael and you are (at least in these posts) overlooking.

michael jensen said...


1) You are right: that's why we have chapel at theological colleges as a sine qua non of the pedagogical process.

2) you left out of your list of primal acts of the early churches the act of reading and discussing Scripture (ie, the OT Scripture). This is not insignificant, of course. The churches always refered themselves to texts. See also Dr Bird's comments.

3) I am not arguing for the three-step plan as Erickson does. I think the results of it are plain to see in his rather wooden systematic theology. However, what he is trying to schematise is that Christian theology is an activity that takes place in recognition of and response to apostolic authority (however that is conceived). Systematic theology needs to be deferential to its authoritative sources. There might be indeed a spiral, but it is not an evenly-shaped or undifferentiated spiral...

Joel said...

It's not a downward spiral, I hope! :)

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these very interesting comments. And be sure to head over and check out Doug's post, which offers an extremely important corrective to this whole conversation. Thanks, Doug!

Anonymous said...

If this trail hasn't gone cold, might I suggest an approach, the language for which I borrowed from Ricoeur's thoughts on narrative(Time and Narrativve vol.p.54)? If we are allowed to describe the New Testament Scripture as a theological configuration of a theological pre-figuration (Old Testament Scripture) for a theological re-figuration (the confession of the church in its particular space and time) then the hearing and reading of Scripture has always been both exegetical and systematically theological as the Gospel has shaped the life (in the broadest sense) of God's people.

Anonymous said...

Conscience compels me: "systematic theology" should not be defined as "the act of synthesizing key motifs and ideas as they relate to the mosaic of Christian belief." This definition's lone virtue, as far as I can see, is that it calls to mind the analytic-synthetic distinction...and that distinction's treatment in, say, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." Apart from that, it strikes me as (a) a largely inaccurate statement of what systematic theologians are up to, and (b) the sort of thing bible scholars all too frequently take systematic theology to be...just before they wonder whether "systematic theology" is a legitimate pursuit.

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Kevin, you're absolutely right. And the notion of "synthesising" gives the impression that theology can be done by anyone with a ready-made list of topics and a copy of Strong's Concordance.

Such a "method" is really the theological equivalent of the much-caricatured 19th-century entomologist with his taxonomy of insects. Except that here it's Bible verses, rather than butterflies, that get pinned up and classified.

Anonymous said...


I rarely comment here, but I do read, I couldn't agree more . . . there is a dialectic between "exegesis" and "dogmatics." Stephen Holmes, in his small book: Listening to the Past offers some excellent insights on the reality of tradition (relative to its inevitability in creation), and scripture. His point is the same as yours---"tradition" or dogmatics, if you will, are a good thing, and inevitable, and fit within the providence of God; and is distinct yet inseparable from "exegesis" (scripture). Anyway good points.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Bobby — nice to hear from you. I like that Steve Holmes book too: for me, the highlight was his extraordinarily incisive point that Barth's uniqueness lies in the fact that he has a "doctrine of reprobation".

Anonymous said...

Yes, Holmes' discussion on Barth's view of predestination was the clearest I had ever come across at that point . . . I've read McCormack since, which I also have found helpful and more developed of course. Anyway here we are talking about dogmatics again, or is this "biblical theology"---hmm ;-).

keep up the good work!

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for this Ben. I'm in total agreement with you here. I made a similar post on this issue a few days ago here. I've just posted a quote by Childs on this issue today here. If theology is faith seeking understanding, then it would seem that we should respect the inevitable presense of dogma not only on epistemological grounds (i.e. it's unavoidable), but on theological grounds (i.e. it's the very reason I read by Bible in the first place).

MM said...

Great post. I notice that Chris Seitz has just put out a brief piece on point, in reflection on Brevard Childs- here:

Phil Sumpter said...

I've brought this issue in relation to the Emmaus road stroy here.

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