Biblical vs Systematic Theology
Oftentimes, we hear other churchgoers say "that's biblical" when they argue with us about their private interpretations or denominational traditions. This becomes a problem when multiple people each claim to have "biblical" ideas that all contradict each other. However, this dilemma is hardly unique to congregants alone, but church leaders routinely engage in it themselves. This article defines what makes an idea "biblical" as opposed to "systematic" when it comes to hermeneutics, the study of scriptural interpretation.
In the Old Testament, Joseph son of Jacob asked, "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Gen. 40:8). Likewise, in the New Testament, Simon Peter warned, "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Pet. 1:20). Nowadays, instead of trusting the Bible like we claim to doctrinally, we ask ignorant questions such as, "How do you know that you are right?" The point of reading scripture is know what the authors intended to tell us, their readers. For example, John son of Zebedee wrote, "But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). If we ignore John's reason, the logical conclusion is that we may not have eternal life! Therefore, biblical theology deals with the actual literary themes and instructions of the Bible. In contrast, systematic theology deals with topics that may or may not coincide with it. Let us further explore these methodological differences, and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Biblical theology, simply put, is the "theology of the Bible," focusing on the actual writers and their relationship with God as he works through history and culture to inspire them. Biblical theologians, by trade, methodically interpret scripture with a blend of historical context, cultural background, inductive study, and descriptive teaching. This means to "speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where it remains silent." Paul of Tarsus gave a similar admonition when he wrote, "That you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, 'Nothing beyond what is written,' so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another" (1 Cor. 4:6). For example, a biblical-theological reading of Paul's letters considers what he intended by the word "justification" in his first-century world rather than the prescriptive doctrines of systematic theologians later in church history.
Biblical theologians prioritize the historical-grammatical method. Instead of arranging scriptural lessons by topic with questions such as "What does the Bible say about going to church?" they study them in their original format. For example, a biblical theologian knows that Jesus' teaching, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matt. 18:20), relates to this rabbinical lesson from the Mishnah: "When two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence [Hebrew: Shechinah] rests between them" (Avot 3:3). This contrasts with the usual systematic approach by many pastors who read it as: When a couple of Christians get together to read the Bible, they're having church.
The method of biblical theology is inductive reasoning, to research and formulate thought to know what the author himself meant to say. Think of this as a conversation with a real person, knowing we must be good listeners and ask unbiased questions to preserve the relationship and maintain good communication. Biblical theologians see the authors as real men rather than the sum of their ideas. Finally, they strive to be descriptive by restating Bible themes using the actual words of the writers.
According to Merriam-Webster, systematic theology is a "a branch of theology concerned with summarizing the doctrinal traditions of a religion (such as Christianity) especially with a view to relating the traditions convincingly to the religion's present-day setting." Simply put, the main goal of a systematic theologian is to justify a denominational or otherwise sectarian doctrine by reading it into the Bible. However, if we only read biblical theology, we would have no tools to apply the gospel now in the present. Theologians systematize the Bible to bring together all the verses on a given topic to make a unified doctrine. Problem is, when we take verses out of their literary or historical context to fit verses the authors never intended, we can make the Bible say anything. Furthermore, systematic theologians often ignore or twist verses, and even whole passages, that do not fit their doctrines. For example, Paul's lesson in Romans 9 and 10 features themes of both God's sovereignty and human free will. Yet, most church leaders teach their people to emphasize one over the other. The ancient readers of Paul's letters did not see a contradiction between predestination and free will like we often do today.
Systematic theology is helpful for contemporary questions the Bible may not answer directly, or for ones it seems to give conflicting ideas. For example, the early church needed to reconcile how Jesus could be God incarnate while still teaching monotheism. So, they systematized the trinity of God as doctrine. While the early church leaders read scripture, they had to gather all the verses on the topic of God's intrapersonal relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. After this, they had to apply logic to form a coherent system to teach all Christians. However, we must be careful not to make rash statements like, "The Bible says that God is a trinity," when the authors never made such a claim. This faulty thinking led the Catholic Church to pressure Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) to add the Johannine Comma to 1 John 5 ("There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth" [7-8]) in the 1522 Novum instrumentum omne. Because the scriptures do not overtly say that God is a triune, some church leaders simply added their own verse to the text. Likewise, the "Jehovah's Witnesses" rewrote John 1:1 in their defective New World Translation (NWT) to teach against the trinity. Both Old and New Testaments forbid us from adding or taking out words from the Bible (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19; cf. Matt. 5:18). While systematic theology has its uses, it should always complement biblical theology and never contradict it.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, in your wise providence you appoint leaders for the mission of your church: Give grace to us your servants, to whom responsibility is now given: so empower us with the truth of sound doctrine, and endue us with holiness of life, that we may faithfully serve before you to the glory of your great name, and the benefit of your holy church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Alexander, T. Desmond, Brian S. Rosner, D. A. Carson, and Graeme Goldsworthy. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity Diversity of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000.
Augustine, Jeff. "What Is The Difference Between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology?" (blog). Lakewood: Colorado Christian Univ., 2022. https://www.ccu.edu/blogs/cags/2021/03/biblical-theology-vs-systematic-theology.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019. pp. 516-17. http://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BCP2019.pdf.
Köstenberger, Andreas. "What is Biblical Theology?" FTC.co. For the Church (blog). Kansas City: Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2019. https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/what-is-biblical-theology.
Levine, Joseph M. "Erasmus and the Problem of the Johannine Comma." Journal of the History of Ideas 58.4. JSTOR Collection. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. pp. 573-96. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3653961.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2011.
Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. "Systematic theology." Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/systematic%20theology.
Poythress, Vern. "The Relationship between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology" (blog). Ed. Justin Taylor. Austin, TX: The Gospel Coalition, 2010. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-relationship-between-systematic-theology-and-biblical-theology.
Septimus, Daniel, and Brett Lockspeiser, eds. The William Davidson Talmud. Sefaria.org. Brooklyn: Sefaria, 2022. https://www.sefaria.org/texts.
Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
van Miert, Dirk, Henk Nellen, Piet Steenbakkers, and Jetze Touber, eds. "Scriptural Authority and Biblical Criticism in the Dutch Golden Age." Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017.