by Dr. Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in Westminster Today Magazine 1/1 (spring, 2008), 11-13, as a condensation of “Kinds of Biblical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 70/1 (spring, 2008), 129-142. Used with permission.]
Biblical theology has long served an important role at Westminster Theological Seminary. And it is blossoming in other quarters as well. Because errors and misunderstandings abound, serious Bible students must sort out the different meanings of the term biblical theology and understand its relationship with systematic theology.
Biblical theology of one sort had a history even before Westminster Seminary was founded. Historians point especially to the German biblical scholar Johann P. Gabler, who defined biblical theology in 1787 as a distinct historical discipline: discovering “what in fact the biblical writers thought and taught.”1
But Gabler rejected the Bible’s authority. He drew a sharp line between the task of describing past biblical writers (whose views allegedly could not be accepted today) and the task of propounding present-day belief—which was supposed to be “in agreement with the deliverances of reason.”2 Gabler’s thinking was corrupted by non-Christian rationalism.
A new definition
A decisive turn came from Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949). Vos saw the need to re-found the discipline of biblical theology on genuinely biblical and God-honoring principles. Vos framed this definition: “Biblical theology is that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”3
Vos’ definition focused on revelation as process, before and up to the time of its deposit. “Biblical theology deals with revelation as a divine activity,” he wrote,“not as the finished product of that activity.”4
Vos himself preferred the term “history of special revelation,” but he settled for the expression already in use. Because several of the earlier definitions of biblical theology placed it closer to the Bible than systematic theology, Vos was at some pains to stress that the two are parallel disciplines:
There is no difference in that one [of the two disciplines] would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this that the one transforms the biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principle by which the transformation is effected differs in each case. In biblical theology this principle is one of historical, in systematic theology it is one of logical construction. Biblical theology draws a line of development. Systematic theology draws a circle.5
Vos expects the two disciplines to interact fruitfully. For example, he tacitly uses input from systematic theology in his formulation of biblical theology. He requires above all that biblical theology work with a doctrine of special revelation and with a conviction about the divine authority of the Bible. He also draws on biblical teaching about the sovereignty of God and the unity of God’s plan of redemption.
Vos does not explicitly point out that he is drawing on systematic theological doctrine; he presupposes rather than debates the use of orthodox theology as a foundation for biblical theology. There is no question for Vos that, as the newer discipline, biblical theology should build its investigatory framework using all the pertinent resources from centuries of systematic theology.
And how might biblical theology provide a root for systematics? Gaffin suggests three ways:
• Biblical theology reminds systematic theology of God’s historical activity as a theme integral to redemption and therefore one to be incorporated within systematic theology itself. Students of the Bible must continually watch out for a tendency to abstraction and to “timeless” formulations— those that, in the end, threaten to make Christianity into a religious philosophy rather than the announcement of the good news of Jesus’ accomplishment.
• Systematic theology must engage in accurate exegesis of the texts to which it appeals for support of its doctrines. Exegesis must attend to context, including the context of the various epochs of redemption and the plan of God, who works out his purpose in each.
• A systematizing process is already beginning to take place within Scripture, as evidenced in the theology of Paul or of Hebrews. Systematic theology ought to learn from and build on these beginnings.
The influence of systematic theology on biblical theology
In these formulations above, the flow is all in the direction from biblical theology to systematic theology. Like Vos, Murray and Gaffin presuppose a reverse flow, according to which biblical theology will develop its framework of investigation in harmony with systematic theology. But a danger arises when this reverse flow is not affirmed explicitly—that scholars less respectful of systematic theology will fall back in the direction of Gabler’s idea of independent disciplines.
This tendency arises from: (a) a desire for an allegedly neutral methodology that would enable us to converse both with mainstream biblical scholarship and with the postmodern world; (b) suspicion of and consequent disrespect for classical systematic theology; (c) a desire to “follow the evidence where it leads” while dispensing with the authority of the Bible.
But as Vos emphasized, biblical theology can also be conducted with presuppositions consistent with the Bible.
Vos conceived of biblical theology as a unified discipline, the “history of special revelation.” But nowadays we can distinguish different related emphases.
First, like Vos, students of the Bible can conduct an overview of the history of the whole of special revelation. The character of that overview depends on what someone presupposes about special revelation and the authority of the Bible.6
Second, Bible students can follow the historical development of a single theme within the whole of special revelation, or a small cluster of related themes—such as the theme of covenant or kingship, divine warrior or theophany. Sometimes, such thematic biblical theologies use their theme as a kind of organizing center for the whole of the Old Testament or the whole of the Bible. Such information from themes may suggest ways of enriching systematic theology.
Third, students may examine the distinctive theological and thematic shape of different biblical books and different human authors. Vos engaged in such study in his work on The Pauline Eschatology and The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This third kind of study, combined with the second, appears also in Gaffin’s work on the centrality of Christ’s resurrection in Pauline theology.7
The rich interpenetration of biblical theology and systematic theology enhances both disciplines and enables us to understand God and his Word more deeply. The eternal God has revealed himself unambiguously in the successive stages of revelation, stages set out in the pages of Scripture and climaxing in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).
Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987).
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 38/3 (spring, 1976), 281-299.
John Murray, “Systematic Theology: Second Article,” Westminster Theological Journal 26/1 (Nov., 1963), 33-46.
Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspective in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).
Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; reprint, Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975).
Geerhardus Vos, The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline (New York: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1894).
Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).
Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956; reprint, Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975).
Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1988).
1 Gaffin, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 38/3 (spring, 1976), 283; see also Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 17-20.