Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (7): Who Needs the Bible When They Have a Good Systematic Theology?

An anonymous reviewer once skewered a book by saying, “This book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.” That’s clever and it made for a nice dig against a certain book, but there is a sense in which any text of theology is good only to the extent that it is not original. This is because a faithful Christian theology lashes itself to the biblical text. (Now, I do not mean to imply that our theological formulations cannot be constructively creative, or that our formulations are a-cultural. I simply mean that as theologians, we are conceptualizing and articulating “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”) Theology is a love affair with God, undertaken by our interaction with his love letter to us. For this reason Christian theologians treat biblical studies and biblical theology as the sine qua non for evangelical theology (the condition without which it could not exist). Scripture provides the basic categories, themes, and framework within which evangelical theologians work. The Bible has priority. But what does it mean to make the Bible a priority in the task of theology? We mention four initial imperatives about biblical interpretation before moving on to a discussion of biblical theology.

Reading the Scriptures:

Hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation. Theologians must approach the biblical text with a proper hermeneutic, which will include at least these four imperatives. First, when reading Scripture, we seek to understand what the biblical author was trying to communicate. Although we cannot “step inside” the biblical author’s mind in order to access his mental state, we can access the biblical author’s communicative purposes through the text.[1] Second, we read the text with a hermeneutic of love. To do so means that we value it for its inherent worth and beauty, rather than using it toward some other means (such as proving our theological systems). We approach it patiently, attentively, like a lover, rather than impatiently and inattentively, like, perhaps, a Sonic drive-thru customer. N. T. Wright writes, “Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself. . . . In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.”[2] The process of interpretation is a conversation with the text, one in which the reader can gain real understanding of the text, and in so doing, gain real understanding of the world outside of the text (external reality).

Third, we read the text with a hermeneutic of trust. We trust Scripture and are suspicious of ourselves, rather than trusting ourselves and being suspicious of Scripture.[3] Fourth, we read the text humbly. We recognize that we read the text with historical, cultural and existential biases that threaten to distort the text. For this reason, we seek continually to bring our exegetical conclusions back to the text for “cleaning.” David Clark writes, “In light of cultural and life issues and concerns, a theologian listens to Scripture, then develops tentative hypotheses, and then goes back to the Bible in a dialogical movement. . . . He seeks to flesh out his hypotheses and to test them for adequacy to Scripture, internal coherence, and explanatory power for life.”[4] Furthermore, we seek the help of the Christian community in reading Scripture. When we read the Scriptures in this manner, we are more likely to avoid the interpretive distortion that can be brought about by our biases and limitations.

Exposing the inner unity of the Scriptures:

Biblical theology is a discipline which studies the various biblical texts as a whole, seeking to apprehend and express their unity, and doing so by means of categories taken from the texts themselves. As such, it lays the basis for systematic and integrative theology, whose theologians also seek to apprehend and express the unity of the Bible, but often in relation to questions that arise outside of the text, and with categories that are not explicitly found in the text. Biblical theology is a rather diverse field of studies.[5] Evangelical biblical theologians are unified in their belief that the Bible exhibits unity amidst its diversity.[6] For this reason, we think that systematic and integrative theologies benefit particularly from narrative-shaped biblical theologies. “Over the past few decades, one of the most exciting developments in biblical studies has been the growing recognition among scholars that the Bible has the shape of a story. . . . It functions as the authoritative Word of God for us when it becomes the one basic story through which we understand our own experience and thought, and the foundation upon which we base our decisions and actions.”[7]

Indeed, the narrative approach is helpful because of the narrative quality of Scripture. Not only does the majority of the Bible consist of narrative, but even the non-narrative books (e.g. epistles) are in constant conversation with the Old Testament narrative(s) and the life of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:1-13). Further, it is helpful for apologists who seek to show the explanatory power of the biblical narratives in contrast to other narratives, for pastoral theologians seeking to employ the narrative for shaping Christians’ worldview, and, most importantly for our purposes, for systematic and integrative theologians who want to locate the major heads of doctrine within the Bible’s home environment, which is its overarching narrative framework. Finally, it is helpful because it helps us to read the text within its totality (tota Scriptura).

[1] See Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 43-97. Also, see Anthony Thiselton’s “adverbial” understanding of authorial intent. Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 558-562.

[2] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 64.

[3] This point is worked out in detail in Craig Bartholomew’s “Philosophy, Theology and Biblical Interpretation: Watson, Dooyeweerd and Vanhoozer,” an unpublished paper delivered in 1995 at the Bible and Theology Conference at King’s College (London).

[4] Clark, To Know and Love God, 51.

[5] New Testament scholar D. A. Carson has listed six different conceptions of biblical theology; Old Testament scholar Gerhard Hasel lists no fewer than ten major methodologies in the field of Old Testament theology. D. A. Carson, “Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995), 17-41; Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 4th ed., rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 38-114.

[6] For an evangelical response to objections that some scholars have leveled against the unity of Scripture, see Craig Bartholomew, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (ed. Craig Bartholomew et al.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 144-171.

[7] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 21.