Systematic vs. Biblical Theology

Joseph Mattera, who organized the conference I mentioned attending about a week-and-a-half ago, noted what he believes to be 21 Seismic Shifts of the Evangelical Church. In his 14th point he says in part:

Regarding how we approach theology: Systematic theology is losing steam because it usually only includes about 20-30 topics of the Bible, based on what each writer deems important.

Biblical theology is gaining more popularity because this discipline takes the approach of studying the Bible as it was written (instead of topically and thematically) which enables each subject or topic to unfold as we inductively study each book in both the New and Old Testaments, as God’s word originally intended. (This is in contrast to artificially lifting passages out of various books of the Bible and systematizing Scripture thematically.)

What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree? This sounds remarkably like the debate over topical vs. expository preaching. Here, systematic theology would be likened to topical preaching in the sense that it lifts passages and systematizes them, whereas expository preaching lets the Scriptures unfold like Biblical theology (although I’d say Biblical theology has a lot more going on than just that; the interplay between and within testaments is a key feature that requires  not only unfolding, but also some ironing and hanging in the closet—excuse the metaphor).



14 thoughts on “Systematic vs. Biblical Theology

  1. There’s a term for a theology that merely lifts key passages, verses, and phrases out of the Bible and organizes them into a shortlist of doctrinal themes: we call it bad systematic theology. This is far from representative of the discipline, and more and more evangelical theologians seem to be recognizing the methodological limits (bankruptcy?) of such a procedure.

    Over against the dichotomy suggested here, I assert that good systematic theology must be biblical. (This does not mean, however, that the tools and the idiosyncrasies of what we know as the sub-discipline of “biblical theology” may be allowed to control the theological task.)

  2. I think expository preaching has some systematic theology thrown in. The exposition occurs in reference (at least partly) to broader Christian doctrines.

  3. That is a valid point about bad systematic theology, however, the weakness of even good systematic theology is that it takes the Biblical data and sifts it through the grid of our categories. Well done Biblical theology will let the Bible give you categories for your starting point. The answers gained from Biblical Theology should then control the task of good Systematics.

  4. I have to say I have little interest in reading systematic theology to find out ‘what the truth is.’ I’ll read it more for ‘how to enjoy the truth’ after reading biblical theology. That’s why I like Barth, even if much of his early stuff was off the wall – he sounds like he’s enjoying the truth.

  5. Darren: Good point. So you’d agree that Norm Geisler is an example of bad systematic theology, right?

    James: Yeah, I guess I can see that.

    J40Bob: Wouldn’t most systematicians suggest that the categories of systematic theology are derived from the Bible rather than from some external factor? And wouldn’t biblical theologians prefer something like ‘narrative unfolding’ over ‘theological loci’ anyway?

    Benjamin: Nice distinction. I have a love-hate relationship with systematic theology. I read something bad (like Geisler) and I hate it. But then I read something good (like Bavinck) and I love it.

    Bryan: Was that bleh in reference to systematic or biblical theology?

  6. Nick: I haven’t looked at Geisler in particular, but Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology does begin with the suggestion that theology is the thematic assembling of Bible verses.

    Might be worth looking at Bobby Grow’s post today on John Webster’s account of theology as “biblical reasoning.”

  7. Nick it was directed at biblical theology. It’s not that I dislike it but more that I prefer it as simply a descriptive task. Instead the results often are put forth as normative regardless of how small the sample of the Bible (a single book, author, etc.) Of course I’m sure the move to make the results of BT normative are probably tied up with certain views of scripture but still it doesn’t sit right with me.

  8. My love of Barr is what influenced my thinking on this. He seemed to argue for more of a descriptive role for biblical theology that sees it as data to be used by ST (not what he considers pan-biblical theology which is often what people have in mind when they think of ST). At least that’s what he seemed to be arguing for in Concept of Biblical Theology.

  9. Nick – have you got Beale’s ‘New Testament Biblical Theology’? I’m about 3/4 of the way through, and it’s looking to be the best work of theology I have ever read. It’s just the patient tracing of historically developing themes that too many STs seem blind to.

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