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The Three Amigos: Biblical, Systematic & Historical Theology

As a constant advocate for Biblical Theology, some imagine that I want Biblical Theology instead of Systematic Theology. I don’t.

Systematic Theology does not hold as much interest for me as for others who are more naturally inclined to that type of theological conversation, but Systematic Theology is an important part of the life of the church, as is another, often overlooked, mode of doing theology—Historical Theology.

In spite of the fact that the egocentric nature of most people has caused Systematic Theology to dominate Christian thinking & church life, and to often drown out the voices of Biblical & Historical Theology, I still imagine these three modes of theological investigation like close friends that work together toward one purpose. Each has different  “personalities.” Each has different strengths & weaknesses. Each has the ability to compensate for what the others lack, bringing a type of checks and balances to the theological life of the church.

Biblical Theology is a way of approaching Scripture in order to understand & organize for presentation the intended theological message of the inspired writer unit by unit in his own terms & categories. It’s about the text in context. It may be compared to a safari tour of the landscape and wild life of the Bible, where the reader, through inductive method and historical-grammatical-literary hermeneutics/ interpretive theory is drawn into the world of the biblical writers in all its messiness. It’s question is, “What did the writer mean by this?”

Systematic Theology is a way of approaching theological issues using Scripture, Logic, Reason, Philosophy, etc. to answer the ever increasing & ever changing questions of the church in an ever changing world as it seeks to give an accounting of the Christian faith. It’s about us, and our issues. It is about using the Bible as one tool among others to hash out our issues. It is usually conceived topically, organizing itself, even if only mentally, into major categories of traditional interest: Theology Proper, Bibliology, Anthropology, Harmatiology, Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Angelology & Eschatology. Systematic theology maps out trajectories of thought, extends principles logically, and works by analogy. It’s question is, “How should I respond in thought and action to this issue?”

Historical theology is a way of approaching theological issues with a focus on the socio-historical & cultural mechanisms that shaped the church’s address of these theological issues over the millennia. In either a synchronic (moment & place in time snapshot) or a diachronic (developing through time & space movie) study, Historical Theology dispassionately unpacks the who, and when and why of the church’s theological wrangling. Its question is, “What did those Christian’s believe and why did they believe it?”

Biblical Theology is a necessary anchor & foundation for Systematic Theology. It prevents proof texting. It holds interpreters to an honest appraisal of the intentions behind each passage. Systematic Theology is a necessary means of making beneficial use of Biblical Theology in life & church. It prevents disinterested description of what others somewhere in some far away land thought about things. It forces the issue, “What about you?” Historical Theology is a necessary means of analyzing & testing Systematic Theology in context. It prevents both narrow minded exclusivism (You can’t be really Christian if you don’t look and think like me) and mental shackling to poorly conceived traditions (Honestly, there were certain things that they didn’t know they didn’t know when they said that.). 

Do you find that one of these is most natural to you? Then, by all means, cultivate that discipline… but never lose sight of the importance of all three theological amigos for the health of the church.

[1] media pic is from sxc.hu

One thought on “The Three Amigos: Biblical, Systematic & Historical Theology

  1. John Gilkenson says:

    Very good. I understand now that’s it my ego that gravitates me towards systematic theology..jk

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