Judge with Right Judgment: Making the Move from Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology

by Luke Stamps

This post also appeared at the Credo magazine blog.

Last week, I posted a short article on the differences between Charles Hodge and Herman Bavinck with regard to theological method.  Bavinck criticized Hodge’s “empirical” method by which he treated the Bible as a “store-house of facts” that must be collected and organized by the theologian.  In its place Bavinck offered his own “genetic-synthetic” method, by which he sought to tether dogmatics more closely to the theological development already present in Scripture. 

But this insistence upon the organic relation between biblical theology and systematic theology should not be misunderstood as a conflation of the two disciplines.  Bavinck acknowledged that the two have different forms and methods, even if they share a common source, namely, God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture.  Dogmatic or systematic theology arranges theological truth according to various topics, or loci, such as God, man/sin, Christ, salvation, and so forth.  Biblical theology is organized according to the various corpi of biblical literature and ultimately along the plotline of redemptive history.  Or, as Gerhardus Vos famously put it, biblical theology draws a line and systematic theology draws a circle. 

Still, this way of distinguishing the form and method of the two disciplines does not necessarily show how the two are related.  It seems to me that more work needs to be done in order to show how one moves from biblical theology to systematic theology.  Systematic theology must, in one very limited sense, go beyond the Bible; that is, it must do more than simply repeat the words of Scripture.  It must also explain all that Scripture says about a particular topic in a way that is intelligible to the contemporary culture.  It also must develop theological models or concepts that help preserve, explain, and defend all that Scripture says on a given topic, especially in the face of heretical or unbelieving challenges.  But how can we know that the concepts of systematic theology accurately reflect the theological developments already present in Scripture?  As Kevin Vanhoozer has stated the problem, how can our systematic theology be “biblical”?  How can we make the move “from canon to concept”? 

One of the most promising proposals in recent years on this question comes from Lutheran theologian David Yeago.  Yeago claims that a doctrine can be faithful to Scripture even if it uses terms that are very different from the ones used in Scripture.  Theology does not simply repeat the language of the biblical concept.  Instead, theology seeks to render the same judgment as the biblical text in a way that addresses the needs of the present context.  The classical example of this problem is the Nicene dogma—that Christ is of the same substance (homoousia) as the Father—and the question of its faithfulness to Scripture.  Yeago specifically addresses Philippians 2, where the Apostle Paul declares that Christ is in “the form of God” and possesses “equality” with God. Obviously, the Scriptures do not speak of Christ in terms of Nicaea’s homoousia.  But an excellent case can be made that this doctrine renders the same judgment as Philippians 2, albeit in different conceptual form.[1]  Systematic theology is not simply a rote repetition of biblical theology, but is instead a faithful application of Scripture in different contexts.  John Frame has defined theology precisely in terms of this application step.  According to Frame, theology is “the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life.”[2]  Frame’s definition emphasizes the fact that theology is not merely an academic discipline but is intended to “meet the spiritual needs of people, to promote godliness and spiritual health.”[3]  This application takes various forms, so that, in this view, systematic theology covers a wide range of other theological disciplines: philosophical theology, pastoral theology, apologetics, evangelism, church life, ethics, and so forth.  Seen in this light, systematic theology is essentially applied biblical theology.  And in order to produce a faithful application, systematic theology must seek to render the same judgments as Scripture itself. No doubt, there will be disagreements about which rendering of a doctrine is more faithful to the biblical judgments, but these are the kinds of questions that systematic theology must continue to grapple with.

In short, systematic theology involves judging “with right judgment” (John 7:24).  Systematic theology requires the theologian, having traced a particular topic along the redemptive-historical plotline of Scripture (biblical theology), to articulate the doctrine in a manner that remains faithful to this biblical development and that speaks to the needs of the contemporary context (systematic theology).  Thus, systematic theology is organically related to biblical theology, but it isn’t simply reducible to biblical theology.

[1]David S. Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis,” in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Stephen E. Fowl (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 87-100.

[2]Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 76.

[3]Ibid., 81.