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Systematic Theology As Exegesis

Strange days are upon us as Christian theology takes shape in the twenty-first century.  Some biblical scholars are working on projects that resemble works of systematic theology (e.g., Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology).  Systematic theologians are working on biblical commentaries in series like the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible or the International Theological Commentary, edited by two figures recently called the Batman and Robin of Reformed theology – Scott Swain and Michael Allen.

Of course, this would not have appeared strange to the church fathers, the medieval doctors or the Reformers and their post-Reformation successors.  It was once the case that those who studied and expounded Holy Scripture most vigorously were the same individuals who wrote dogmatic treatises and entire systems of Christian theology.  While there are considerable advantages to be gained in allowing for the sort of specialization we have seen of late in the theological disciplines, there is also something lost.

Biblical scholars sometimes make comments about a text with little attentiveness to the theological implications of their words or to the fact that a proposed understanding has already been debated and addressed in previous centuries.  Systematic theologians sometimes carry out their business as if setting forth the content of the Bible were only tangentially related to their aims.  Both camps sometimes forget to talk to one another, or, worse, they are suspicious of the terminology and modes of discourse in play on the other side of the divide.  For this reason, it is encouraging to see genuine interaction taking place between biblical scholars and systematic theologians in edited volumes and in journals like the Journal of Theological Interpretation.

One major catalyst for my own sense of the close relationship between scriptural exegesis and systematic theology was a comment made by my Doktorvater, Ivor Davidson.  In one meeting as we both expressed frustration with certain theologians’ lack of engagement with Scripture, he remarked that ‘theology is exegesis’.  That comment stuck with me, and at first I assumed it was a somewhat hyperbolic gesture toward the fact that good systematic theology will pay attention to the results of scriptural exegesis already undertaken by someone else, somewhere else.  However, as I meditated on that comment over time, I realized that he in fact meant it to be understood precisely as he said it.  Systematic theology is exegesis.  In the remainder of this short post, let me flesh out what I think that means.

First, it means that the work of systematic theology is to set forth the meaning and implications of the teaching of Holy Scripture in an orderly manner.  Systematic theology done well is an exposition of what is there in the Bible.  On the one hand, it is different from exegesis if the term ‘exegesis’ is taken to mean an explanation of the meaning of individual biblical texts, with relatively little engagement with the full scope of biblical teaching and with the post-biblical theological tradition.  On the other hand, systematic theology is actually one form of exegesis if the term ‘exegesis’ simply means an unfolding of the meaning of biblical teaching.

Second, though its formal presentation of Christian doctrine is different from that of the Bible, systematic theology can and should treat the same material content as that of the Bible itself.  This formal difference involves the ordering of the material and the terminology and concepts utilized.  John Owen aptly speaks to both aspects of this formal difference.  On the one hand, Owen is keen to commend the form and ‘distribution’ of Christian doctrine as it appears in the occasional writings of Scripture because he believes it to be suited to God’s design for his word (i.e., the fear of the Lord and concrete obedience in the situations of life).  On the other hand, he also acknowledges that the ‘methodical disposition’ of scriptural doctrine in ‘our catechisms and systems of divinity’ will ‘help the understandings and memories of men’ (Works, 4:188-91).  In other words, Scripture is sufficient, but setting out and expounding its articles of faith in a topical, ‘commonplaces’ arrangement will enrich our apprehension and retention of what Scripture teaches.  When it comes to the conceptual difference between systematic theology and Scripture, Owen writes that

use is to be made of word and expressions as, it may be, are not literally and formally contained in Scripture, but only are, unto our conceptions and apprehensions, expository of what is so contained.  And to deny the liberty, yea, the necessity hereof, is to deny all interpretation of the Scripture – all endeavors to express the sense of the words of it unto the understandings of one another, which is, in a word, to render the Scripture itself useless (Works, 2:379).

Even with these formal differences in mind, systematic theology deals with the same articles of faith as are laid down in Scripture.  In this connection, the early Reformed theologian Amandus Polanus says that theology ‘ought to treat of nothing else than the things which Scripture encompasses’ (Syntagma, II.1).

Third, as systematic theologians take seriously their discipline’s dependence on the teaching of Scripture, this will require them to take seriously the work of biblical scholars as they seek to unfold the sense of Scripture.  Likewise, it should prompt biblical scholars to take seriously the work of systematic theologians.  When systematic theology is done well and seen to emerge from the sacred page, those who tend to be suspicious of systematic theology ought to engage it more thoughtfully, perhaps even taking the time to understand the traditional concepts and distinctions at work in Christian dogmatics, particularly since such concepts and distinctions originally emerged in attempts to understand the teaching of Scripture.  Not all use of extrabiblical or even ‘philosophical’ terminology is an attempt to smuggle alien meanings into the text, and Old and New Testament specialists should be prepared to evaluate these uses on a case-by-case basis.

When systematic theology is practiced as a form of exegesis, it will be bound to the word of God and therefore of real benefit to the church.  It will also encourage dialogue across the disciplines and, one may hope, will have a unifying effect in the faculties of universities and seminaries where the future leaders of the church are being trained.

By Steven Duby

Steven Duby is assistant professor of theology at Grand Canyon University. He is the author of Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account, and his research interests focus on theology proper and Christology.

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