Monday, 31 October 2011

"Biblical theology" and "systematic theology"

A section from a handout about Joshua's conquest for my Bible college students:

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Biblical theology and systematic theology

What we will discuss in this handout is the meaning of the conquest. When I say meaning, I mean in terms of “Biblical theology”. What is “Biblical theology?”

Biblical theology” is when we try to understand each part of the Bible in its historical setting (historical context). “Biblical theology” is often compared with “systematic theology”. “Systematic theology” tries to look at the whole of the Bible and answer the question “what does the Bible teach?” Biblical theology, on the other hand, tries to understand how the Bible's story develops over time; how God's revelation came and grew. Biblical theology helps us to preach rightly from different parts of the Bible. Noah was not Moses. Moses was not Abraham. Abraham was not David. David was not the apostle Paul. They all had one faith – they loved God and trusted in the promised Messiah. But what they knew and could respond to, and how that love and trust were expressed in their lives, differed very much. So:

Systematic theology tries to “systematise” the Bible's teaching – i.e. organise them. It answers questions like: “How are we saved?”, “What is the Trinity?”, “What happens at the end of the world?”, “What is the church?” and so on. When we write our confessions of faith or doctrinal statements in our churches (“We believe in one God who exists in three eternal, distinct persons...”) we are doing systematic theology. But...

Biblical theology tries to deal with each part of the Bible in its own setting. It answers questions like “how did God reveal Christ before he came?”, “what did Abraham know about salvation?”, “if David had many wives, then does that mean I can too?”, “should we hope to be rich like Solomon was?”, “how are we related to Israel?” and “how should I preach from the book of Judges?” When we try to understand our place in the world, and the place of other people from the Bible in the world, and how we relate to “old” parts of the Bible, then “Biblical theology” is the tool we use.

Systematic theology” and “Biblical theology” are not contradictory to each other. They are not competing; we do not choose one or the other. Rather they are complementary; we need to do both. Both together help us to get a good understanding of the Bible. Do not misunderstand the words, but note the way they are being used - “systematic” theology should of course also be “biblical” in that it comes out of the Bible; Biblical theology should also be “systematic” in that it is not chaotic or contradictory, but it is also consistent and organised.

It is true to say that many Westerners have been strong in systematic theology, but weak in Biblical theology. Western churches have often tended to treat the Bible as if it were “timeless” - as if it just gave us simply a list of eternal truths about God, sin, salvation and so on. A list of things to believe or to not believe. They have often overlooked the Biblical story and its progress and development. Westerners do not always see the need to see their story. Westerners often do not think so much in terms of stories; they just want a list of doctrines to accept or reject. Often people outside the West are much more sensitive to the story. They want to know who their people are, what their history is, and where we are all going. Westerners are often much more focussed on the individual person and their salvation, and they forget about God's big plans for his creation and for history as a whole. If we can get better at “Biblical theology”, then we will often be more useful preachers and teachers in Africa and other non-Western countries. It will also help us to become better at “Systematic theology”.

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