On Systematic & Biblical Theology

In the past, when I have studied theology, systematic theology was my cup of tea. I truly found it the most desirable discipline of theological and biblical studies.

What is systematic theology?

Basically, it’s a manner of studying Scripture from a thematic approach. Meaning, we form systems of theology as we study specific topics or themes within the Bible. For example, Christology is the specific study of Christ throughout the Scriptures (i.e., one would probably start in Genesis 3:15). Or anthropology is the specific doctrine of humanity as found in the whole of Scripture (coming from the Greek anthropos). Eschatology is the specific study of last things (coming from the Greek eschaton). And so on and so forth.

For me, that was my meat and potatoes with studying Scripture.

On the flip side of the coin, there is biblical theology. This is more about studying Scripture book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. It is about starting in Genesis and understanding Genesis from chapter 1 right through chapter 50, doing this verse by verse. Or with Romans or Isaiah, etc. Actually, this approach would be better known amongst Bible students as exegetical theology. But I am looking to keep the terms more simplified.

So, though one cannot do this in the purest of senses, when we read a specific verse that makes a specific point, in biblical theology, we are not so much concerned about what other passages in Scripture say to form a system about that specific point and topic. We allow that specific passage that we are reading right there to inform us.

Now, of course, there are other approaches to theology such as historical theology, practical (or pastoral) theology, etc. But, in our approach to studying Scripture, biblical and systematic theology become the two main perspectives.

Neither are bad. Actually, both are good and help balance each other out. But, what I have found personally in my life is a shift more into biblical theology, moving more towards a centre and away from a heavy emphasis on systematic theology.

For some, the idea of systematic theology is scary. Systematising can make some think of incredibly boxed theology. So I want to go ahead and say we don’t need to chuck it out all at once, the whole proverbial baby with the bath water. But what I have come to realise is that systematic theology can rob one of allowing a particular author within a particular context to speak forth the revelation of God as intended within that particular passage. It can become a roadblock whether we want to admit it or not.

Case in point – We are reading Genesis 3 about ‘the fall’. What do we want to do? Probably jump to Psalm 51:5, Romans 5:12-21 and other passages, to construct a doctrine of sin, or even more, ‘original sin’. Again, such is not problematic in the bigger scheme of understanding the complete revelation of God in Scripture. But such can be problematic in allowing God to communicate via Genesis 3. We jump ahead when we should be putting the brakes on and allow Genesis 3 to speak to us as Genesis 3.

The worst that systematic theology can lead us into is extremely tight formed theological boxes. We all have them, me included. But biblical theology becomes a helpful remedy in guarding against this. Again, systematic theology is a good and helpful discipline within theological studies. I still have four systematic books sitting on my shelves, of which Wayne Grudem’s is the most well-known. But, I have realised increasingly that systematic theology can only take us so far in our studies. Or, systematic theology can become a roadblock towards a faithful understanding of God’s progressive revelation as laid out in Scripture.

So, let us embrace the text of Scripture. And even, at times, let us embrace a particular part or verse of Scripture as is, without turning to other parts and authors to inform us. God just might speak to us in that difficult passage or awkward reading.

15 thoughts on “On Systematic & Biblical Theology

  1. Scott; I enjoyed reading this. Would it be fair to say that our Biblical Theology should be the foundation of our Systematic Theology?
    I’m thinking that if we can’t get the contextual understanding of the passage right; we can’t develop that further into a Systematic format.

  2. I really appreciated having these terms explained in straight forward language. I would have to agree with the thrust of this post. I think exegetic study and preaching go together. Systematic too easily leads to proof-texting. Certainly it is vital to examine subjects, but for me I try to keep it within the greater context of the biblical (exegetic) theology. In other words, a subset – a methodical approach to following rabbit trails, if you will.

  3. Craig –

    Would it be fair to say that our Biblical Theology should be the foundation of our Systematic Theology?

    Yes, I think that is probably a good summary statement.

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  5. By Biblical Theology do you mean understanding the whole context of person, group, city, current events at the time written, living situation, language nuances, etc.?

  6. Brien –

    By biblical theology, you will of course learn about specific people, events, places, etc. But if we come to a specific person, i.e. Noah in Genesis, we don’t necessarily head over to 1 Pet 3:18-22 to give us more information on Noah and the event and make a systematic doctrine out of it. We allow Genesis 6-9 to inform us as it was intended to inform us.

    Don’t know if that helps.

  7. Good post, Scott =). Many folks nowadays even wonder whether systematic theology is a legitimate project, if the various voices of scripture are offering different perspectives on the same ultimate truth.

  8. Thanks for your post.

    I talk about 3 contexts that are important, the immediate context of the teaching unit and book of Scripture; the subject context across the whole Bible and the cultural context of what the text meant to the original reader. That latter is often the least known and can result in getting wrong interpretations, which when made across the whole subject matter makes gross distortions. So subject context AKA systematic theology has the potential for great damage when mistakes are made.

  9. I appreciated these thoughts.

    I’m reading Mimi Haddad’s essay in the (so far excellent) book Global Voices on Biblical Equality, edited by Spencer and Spencer and Haddad. From it:

    “Reform movements also help us to discern not only the meaning of Bible words, but how these words illuminate the overarching moral principles of Scripture. Here we observe the interdependence of biblical and systematic theology. To interpret Scripture accurately, one most not only interpret each passage of Scripture carefully after a thorough understanding of the historical context, but also ascertain the meaning derived from each passage fitting consistently and harmoniously with the rest of the theological doctrines and moral principles of the Bible. For example, our understanding of a particular passage concerning human relationships (or anthropology) must be interpreted consistently alongside our understanding of the Trinity. There is an interdependence and internal consistency among biblical themes. Biblical theology cannot do violence to systematic theology, just as systematic theology must work harmoniously with biblical theology. Scripture must inform Scripture, both biblically and theologically. Reform movements compel us to read Scripture more consistently. The exegetical and interpretive lessons garnered in reform movements assist future generations as they work to read Scripture consistently.”

    And so, amen. I think when we are complaining over systematic theology, we are complaining over its faulty applications and those apps not oriented toward any movement in the teaching of scripture where such exists, even as we might complain similarly for some exegetical work…. Perhaps we’ve all seen too little synergy at times and poor theological results, but I can say the same for some exegetical work such that I’m drawn toward statements like this one by Haddad.

  10. Helpful thoughts. I guess something like a systematic theological approach can be useful in ensuring we don’t take passages out of context but understand what the whole of Scripture says on something. But I wonder whether in trying to work out what Scripture says on an issue, we might sometimes subject some very different Biblical thoughts (sometimes perhaps best appreciated through a Biblical theological approach) to some very human reasoning and miss the tensions and contrasts which Scripture so often doesn’t resolve for us because there is more mystery in some issues than we would sometimes care for.

  11. Matt –

    Yes, I think you have stated something that is true. We must allow for both, but guard against the ever-tight boxes that can arise from systematic theology.

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  13. Hi
    I’ve heard a comparison between ‘boxed-theology’ and ‘centred-theology’. How does this fit in your descriptions? Someone else mentioned ‘closed-fist-theology’ and ‘open-hand-theology’– quite emotive I know, but similar I think. Where could I read more about this?

  14. Hi Richard –

    I’m not sure I’ve heard all of those terms. Nevertheless, I think I can understand what is being communicated. I’d say we would have to be careful of being overly ‘boxed’ and ‘closed-fisted’ with our theology. Of course, we all pay lip-service to such. But maintaining such is difficult. And, yes, we are called in Scripture to develop sound doctrine and beliefs. So we need a balance here. And I think balance means recognising Scripture is first and foremost a story-narrative, and also allowing for tension to exist between passages of Scripture. At times, maybe A + B = A + B, rather than A + B = C.

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