There is an ironic shortcoming that seems to permeate the field of systematic theology: so many systematic theologians seem to be rather ignorant of the contributions made in biblical theology.
I should clarify a few things before going further. First, I am talking about Christian systematic theology. I am not concerned with the theological endeavors of other religions, at least not in this post. Second, I am claiming that a good number of systematicians are illiterate in the field of biblical theology. I am not claiming that they are illiterate or lacking in knowledge of the Bible. Third, by biblical theology, I am referring to the discipline that attempts to discern and retrieve the theology laden in the Old and New Testaments.
Whether a theologian considers herself to be liberal or conservative, as long as she considers herself Christian, the Bible and its theology are important to her work. Sure, the majority of works in systematic theology engage the Bible and attempt to bring its material to bear on their work. Most even see the Bible as foundational to their work. No doubt, these theologians have spent a great number of hours reading the Bible, and some may even be reading it in its Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages. And, no doubt, readers will see a plethora of biblical citations permeating the systematic theology works.
What readers will not see in a lot of systematic theology books is an abundance of citations for works in biblical theology. Occasionally, you will see some references to giants in the field of biblical theology, especially those that have been controversial. But for the most part, readers will not see a large number of references to the works of biblical theologians in the notes of these works.
This is a curious thing.
Again, most systematic theologians want their constructive endeavors to be founded on the theology retrieved from the Bible. However, when consulting extra-biblical sources for their research, most seem to prefer the developments of other systematic works. This is not a bad thing per se. Sure, systematicians need to be aware of the other contributions of scholars in their fields. However, the lack of engagement with biblical theological works is concerning.
I want to discuss briefly two reasons why systematic theologians should read more biblical theology.
First, biblical theology and systematic theology have a symbiotic relationship. And second, reading widely in the field of biblical theology can open our eyes to new ways of reading and interpreting Scripture.
Systematic theology needs biblical theology, and biblical theology needs systematic theology.
That systematic theology needs biblical theology seems obvious. If a systematic theology is going to be genuinely Christian, then its constructive theological endeavors need to have the theology of the Bible as its foundation. This is especially the case for those of us that identify as Evangelicals.
But does biblical theology need systematic theology? Does this not imply that we are letting our systematic doctrines determine how we read the Bible?
See, systematic theology is concerned with the coherence and truth-value of Christian doctrine. Christian doctrine, theoretically, is founded on the theology of the biblical documents. Again, biblical theology is concerned with discovering and retrieving the theology of the Bible. Sometimes, however, biblical theologians articulate what they find in the Bible in an incoherent manner, even if they don’t believe said theology to be incoherent. Demonstrating the coherence of theology, however, is the specialty of the systematician.
Now, demonstrating the coherence of the Bible’s theology is not the only task of the systematic theologian. The systematic theologian, theoretically, works constructively with the material retrieved by biblical theology, historical theology, philosophical theology, and even non-theological disciplines.
But here is my point: so many systematicians do exceedingly well when working with the material of historical and philosophical theology. So why do are so many so ill versed in biblical theology?
Readers always approach texts from their own horizons of understanding, and these horizons are made up of all their pre-understandings, or presuppositions. This is not to say that readers determine the meaning of the biblical texts. It is to say, however, that readers are active readers; they are not merely passive.
This is also not to say that readers should read their pre-understandings into the biblical texts. The complexities involved in theories of textuality and theories of meaning are too vast for this post. For now, I simply assert that authors encode texts and that readers decode them. Whether or not authors and readers are working with the same code is a different story.
Different readers read texts differently.
This is no different in the field of biblical scholarship. Different biblical scholars, all of who know the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages in which the Bible was written, read the Bible differently, thus yielding different interpretations. Not all biblical theologians agree on what they interpret the Bible to communicate. As a result, they write differing, and perhaps even conflicting, biblical theologies.
Since there are a variety of biblical theologies out there, and since well-qualified scholars write the majority of these, they deserve attention and consideration. Each of these demonstrates a different way Scripture can be interpreted, many of which might be contrary to our own interpretations. Most importantly, it is always possible that those interpretations contrary to ours could be right and ours wrong.
Again, the relationship between biblical and systematic theology is symbiotic: each needs the other. Differences in biblical theology result in differences in systematic theology. Should the systematic theologian become convinced that her interpretation of Scripture is wrong, and she adopts a new interpretation, the content of her systematic theology would change: perhaps for the better, perhaps for the worse.
Biblical theology and systematic theology need each other. In fact, they depend on each other. A great number of systematic theologians may cite the Bible throughout their work, often times for the sake of proof-texting their positions. However, few heavily cite and rely on works in biblical theology.
Reading widely in biblical theology can open the systematic theologian up to new interpretations of the Bible, ones that may prove preferable to her own.
Andrew Hollingsworth earned his PhD with a major in theology and a minor in New Testament from NOBTS.