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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Yaroslav Viazovski

Biblical and Systematic Theology: Sworn Friends?

August 11, 2015 •

Let me start with a quotation. It does not matter who said that. What he said matters:

Exegetical theology investigates biblical teaching as the basis of our talk about God. . . . dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.

These words immediately throw us into the ocean of issues related to biblical and systematic theology. But we will look just at two or three of them. (For further discussion of biblical theology see a recent blog by David Garner ‘Vos 121’.)

First, the author of this quotation gives different names to the disciplines under discussion. Biblical theology is called ‘exegetical theology’. Systematic theology is called ‘dogmatics’.

Strictly speaking, ‘Biblical theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.’ (Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 5) That is, biblical theology is exegetical theology interested in the historical development of the revelation in the Bible. But what is true for the latter is also true for the former as its subset. So for the sake of simplicity we will equate the two.

‘Dogmatics’ is a great word to describe systematic theology. It explains that ‘systematics’ is not just about ‘system’ or an orderly treatment of the biblical data but it’s about ‘dogma’, that is, about what we ‘must’ believe.

Descriptive vs. Normative

In other words, biblical theology is descriptive, dogmatics is normative. One discipline establishes what the prophets and the apostles believed about God, the other discipline says what we ‘must’ believe about Him.

For example, Moses believed in one God, he was a monotheist. Does it mean that we should believe in one God and be monotheists? Obviously, as Christians, we must believe in the Trinity, that is, in something Moses never and could not believed. To give an example from the New Testament, James wrote that we are justified not by faith only but by faith and works. As Protestants we cannot take these words at their face value, we want to correlate them with what Paul says about justification by faith alone.

Thus, it is not enough to discover what the prophets and the apostles believed, we also should build a hermeneutical bridge from their beliefs to our own faith. We should somehow move from the descriptive to the normative.

The distinction between the descriptive and the normative is one of the basic differences between biblical and systematic theology but it makes these disciplines friendly enemies. If the faith of Moses is not exactly our faith and if we cannot accept James on his own without the contribution of Paul then the biblical theology as a descriptive discipline, apparently, creates a problem for systematic theology as a normative discipline which aims to produce a unified set of beliefs on the basis of the prophetic and the apostolic witness.

How can systematic theology can be done at all in face of biblical theology which uncovers contradictions between the various parts of the Bible and thus denies the divine inspiration of the Scripture?

However the descriptive/normative distinction is not necessarily a problem for the inspiration and authority of the Scripture. And this is why. The revelation of God progressed, developed as the divine redemptive history unfolded. That’s why the measure of Moses’s understanding of God differs from the apostles’ depth of insight into divine being. However the revelation in the different epochs of the redemptive history is not contradictory, it is organically connected. The later revelation builds on and incorporates the earlier epoch because it is one and the same God who acts in different times according to his single, unified plan which does not have to be modified on the way.

The New Testament does not reflect the same historical development as the Old Testament. In the New Testament we have a variety of perspectives on the same redemptive act of God in Christ. This phenomenon is known as unity and diversity of the New Testament. Again, diversity does not imply contradiction. The same God the Spirit inspired all New Testament authors therefore their witness is one whole in spite of all the variation of emphases in their historical accounts and theological instructions.


We can also put the distinction between the descriptive and the normative in somewhat milder terms and say that the systematic theology is translation of the biblical theology into the current language that is relevant for us today. It will not do to simply repeat the prophetic and the apostolic testimony word for word. As we need translation of the biblical text from Hebrew and Greek into English so we need translation of the theology of the biblical authors into the language of our own theology if the former to make sense for us.

So man is primarily a being called (by grace) to hear and believe God’s Word. But, as part of this call, he is also summoned to proclaim this Word ‘even to the very ends of the world.’ He must repeat this Word in additional words of his own and seek to understand this Word by using additional concepts of his own. This is the task of [systematic] theology. (Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, p. 75)

For instance, Paul speaks about ‘hope of glory’ and ‘boasting’ in Romans 5:2. It makes sense to translate these concepts into the language of assurance of salvation. And the more common example is the word ‘Trinity’. The term is not found in the Scripture at all but its use is sine qua non for any systematic theology claiming to be Christian. Likewise it was necessary for Luther (and for us) to add the word ‘alone’ to the Pauline phrase ‘justification by faith.’

The priority of the systematic over the biblical

Second, the word ‘basis’ is used twice in the first quotation: ‘. . .biblical teaching as the basis of our talk about God. . . ’ and ‘. . .what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets. . . ’. It sounds logical and incontrovertible. Of course! Systematic theology is based in biblical theology! But is it?

From a purely theoretical point of view, there are no brute facts and there are no raw ‘biblical data’. Before we come to ‘facts’ we already have a theory by which we are going to interpret them. This is a commonplace, a truism for science. And this works for biblical and systematic theology at the most fundamental level too.

John Calvin recognized this. He wrote his Institutes with the specific purpose: to instruct his readers in (then) new evangelical theology so that they would know what to see in the text when reading the Bible! ‘. . .it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word. . . if anyone rightly grasps it [the Institutes], it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.’

An example will show how it works. What is the meaning of the image of God in Genesis 1:26-28? From the point of view of at least one type of biblical theology the answer to this question must be given strictly in terms of the immediate context and the sociopolitical situation in which the text was written (whenever it was). Hence, the image of God is human dominion over the world which reflects God’s own kingly rule over his creation.

It is interesting that this functional interpretation of the image of God was a minority in the church history until the last century. Calvin knew of it and flatly rejected it. He believed that we truly see the image of God in its restoration in us by Christ! He (to put it simply) understood imago Dei as human ability to know God and the world.

However the type of biblical theology we just have described does not, of course, allow any Christological considerations to work as an interpretive key for Genesis 1. Any relational understanding of the image based on the Trinitarian view of God is also excluded because Trinitarian thinking emphatically was not a part of Moses’ worldview. Systematic and biblical theology seem to be irreconcilable at this point.

You may object: ‘Away with this lame type of biblical theology! Let’s do biblical theology in such a way that allows the New Testament to throw light on the Old!’

I agree. Let’s do what you suggest. Let’s make the systematic theology the basis of the biblical theology. Let’s agree that the Bible is unified by the redemptive history and the work of the Holy Spirit in such a way that the later stages of this history can interpret the earlier ones.

And this is just one example of systematic theology being the basis of biblical theology and not vice versa. Think about Luther’s insight into Paul’s concept of justification. It changed the ‘biblical theology’ of his day radically. The entire Protestant reading of the Bible since then is dependent on this insight.

This is not to say that there is no sense in which biblical theology is the basis of the systematics. Without biblical data systematics would be a blind and arid speculation. Biblical theology does inform, challenge and change the systematic statements. The new systematic insights, in their turn, help to appreciate the biblical text more. This is an iterative process. But we must not be afraid to say that systematics has priority over biblical theology. Otherwise the biblical and systematic theology will remain as two shores of the river which never come together.

The relation between the two disciplines is complex and often uneasy. Nevertheless they must learn not just to tolerate but to be open to one another. Otherwise, each being by itself, biblical theology will become history of religions, and dogmatics will turn into natural theology. They will finally disappear merging with their neighboring secular disciplines. 

Yaroslav Viazovski (Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, M.A.R. Reformed Theological Seminary) is a pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in Minsk, Belarus, as well as the head of Gospel and Reformation Publishing House which specializes in translation and distribution of Reformed literature in Russian language. He is also trying to start a Reformed seminary in his home country Belarus.

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