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A Biblical Theologian in a Systematic Theology World

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When I passed inspection for receiving my ministerial license, the individual responsible for my review spread out, like a row of piano keys, the many pages of answers I gave to the theological questions I was asked to address in the process. He ummm-ed a bit, scratched his cheek, rubbed the back of his head, and said (I paraphrase as close to true as I can), “I’m not sure I’ve ever received answers to these questions quite like this. (stuttering a bit) Now, now, now… I think you are right… but I’m not exactly sure what to do with them.” Thus began yet another discussion about the “tension” between Biblical and Systematic Theology.

Ask me a question about what I believe about regeneration and you are going to be given a lesson in the meaning of the Greek term standing behind it, paliggenesia. However important the term regeneration has become for modern theological chit chat, it only appears in two places… with a different sense in each instance. Jesus uses it in Matt 19:28 to speak of the future kingdom of God, and Paul uses it in Titus 3:5 to speak about the transformation of the inner man in Christ. You will then hear an attempt on my part to discern the Old Testament origins of these two separate, but associated, ideas in the magnificently diverse new creation theme. If I’m feeling playful, I might encourage you to select another way of asking what you really want to know about my theology, knowing that whatever term you choose will begin this bantering process again. I don’t do this to be a jerk. This is just the way I think about theology, and the way I try to get other people to think about theology.

Prior to learning Hebrew during my first master’s degree, I had never heard of such an animal as Biblical Theology. I had written a paper on the Abrahamic Covenant as a royal land grant for one particular professor who did not seem to notice that I had said something new on the subject (at least as far as I could tell at the time). Therefore , I gave my paper to the messianic Rabbi from whom I was learning Hebrew. While traveling down an elevator a few weeks later, the Rabbi looked up at me (while I am not particularly tall, he was even more not particularly tall) and said, (again I paraphrase) “I have two comments on your Abrahamic Covenant paper. First, you have changed my thinking on the subject… excellent work. Second, I think you are confused as to whether you want to be a biblical theologian or a systematic theologian.” My reply was, “What is the difference?” He reached up and patted my cheek, saying, “You’ll figure it out.” Two years later, on that same elevator (I was a facility manager for the school and rode the elevators a lot) the Rabbi boarded. I looked down at him as though his remark had been only moments earlier and said, “Biblical.” He smiled and replied, “Good, we need more biblical theologians.”

I must disagree with the Rabbi on one point, however. There was no choice, no decision, as to whether I would become a biblical or systematic theologian. It was a discovery. I realized as I investigated the differences between these two modes of doing theology that I was a biblical theologian. That I had always been struggling to be a biblical theologian. That I had been struggling unwittingly to become such a thing even when I didn’t know what one was, when I had no other training or vocabulary or method for being anything but a systematic theologian.

The fall out of this discovery has been incalculable as I attempt to minister in a church wholly dominated by Systematic Theology, its questions, its categories, its answers and its methods. I must always explain my processes and why they are important, and suffer understandably, under the distrust and confusion of those who know no other way to think about God and the Bible. I must gently encourage, “Before you ask what a passage of Scripture means to you, ask what it meant to that soul who was inspired to write it.”

 

5 thoughts on “A Biblical Theologian in a Systematic Theology World

  1. John Gilkenson says:

    Lots of Christians say Christianity, the church, is all about the bible. Little attention to history, liturgy, etc. same Christians often talk about a personal relationship with Jesus or asking Jesus into your heart as a way to be saved. How is this biblical? Thoughts?

  2. Jon Ruthven says:

    This disconnect between biblical and systematic theologians is the reason why systematics is so traditional (and wrong). Here’s what I wrote in what I believe to be a seminal article:

    Toward the end of his life, Karl Barth told of a dream, in which he, like Moses viewing the promised land from Mt. Pisgah, found himself gazing at the prospect that “someone . . . perhaps a whole age, might be allowed to develop,” instead of traditional theology, a “theology of the Holy Spirit” (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 1977, 494). Indeed, Barth was aware that classic works on the Holy Spirit like those of Owen and Kuyper limited the Spirit to creedal concerns and specifically to Protestant actions within their ordo salutis. By contrast, brief works on the Spirit by Gloel (1888), Briggs (JBL,1900), Shoemaker (JBL, 1905), Wendt (1913) and especially Gunkel (1888), who shaped E. Schweitzer’s influential article, “pneuma,” 70 years later in TDNT—all laid out the New Testament’s more charismatic emphasis. These studies, however, had only limited impact on systematicians, who tend to engage each other and historical formulations rather than recent biblical theology. By skimming the titles of papers in theological journals and those offered in conferences, theologians today seem oddly incurious about the New Testament mission and message of Jesus.
    More traditional Pentecostals like Roger Stronstad, Gordon Fee, and Frank Macchia offer renewed interest in the biblical text, but like the new “charismatic” systematicians such as J. R. Williams, Wayne Grudem, and even V-M. Kärkäinen, all still find their basic theological structure in classical Protestantism. The “gospel” retains the traditional focus on the atonement, but now with an added, but possibly expendable, charismatic appendix.
    The first Protestants set out to establish a biblically grounded theology. But for all of their vaunted “reforming,” they ultimately only cleaned up and tweaked what had become the center of the Christian experience: the Mass. The central issues remained the same, especially the “cost” of expunging sins. The Reformers’ answer was a good one, “It’s free and here’s why,” but “salvation” retained its meaning: going to heaven and being good in the meantime.
    The most significant, but most underrated theological move that shaped Protestantism, that stymied their quest for a thoroughly biblical theology, however, was its wholesale denial of the characteristic work of the Holy Spirit as portrayed in the Bible.

    1. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Corey Flowers says:

    Great article, but that closing statement was perfect

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