Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2004, p. 88.
In our previous article we discussed Cocceius’ historical approach to the study of theology. We began to show the error of his “historical (or biblical) theology,” as that is compared to what is known as “systematic theology.” We continue, now, our treatment of that comparison.
The Importance of Systematic Theology
Systematic theology is important and crucial for the life of the church. The reasons are not difficult to understand.
God is Truth. God is all truth. He is the embodiment of truth, and all truth is in Him. He is one God and, because He is all truth, the truth is one.
God’s revelation of His truth is one in Jesus Christ, for all revelation is in and through Christ and His work.
The record of that revelation in Holy Scripture is one. Even though Moses wrote a part, Isaiah another part, and Jude yet another part, the one Author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit. Scripture’s unity lies in infallible inspiration. Frequently the plea for biblical theology arises from those who make light of divine inspiration.
Thus Scripture teaches one doctrine of God, with all other doctrines as sub-headings, in such a way that the whole teaches the same truth, and never can there be found any contradiction. The Spirit does not contradict Himself. Job 19:25-27agrees perfectly with I Corinthians 15:42-53, for the Spirit wrote them both. And Genesis 1 and Genesis 2agree completely with the fourth commandment and Romans 4:17b, because the Holy Spirit was the divine Author of both passages.
It is this unity of Scripture that biblical theology denies. The principle of interpretation “Scripture interprets Scripture” is minimized or lost completely. With the loss of this principle, the regula fidei (rule of faith) is ignored.
This latter is especially important. The whole of the truth that the church has confessed in the past and confesses today is a truth based upon the whole of Scripture. When we seek to know what God has said about a given truth, then we search the whole of Scripture to find this out. If we want to know whether the will of God revealed in Scripture requires that infants be baptized, we go to both the New Testament and the Old to learn concerning this doctrine. We hold steadfastly to the dictum: “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is in the New explained.” Scripture does not give us an exhaustive treatment of one doctrine in one given text. We must search all the Bible.
Our confessions contain this regula fidei. Our confessions bring together what all God’s Word says about a given doctrine. That is their beauty, their power, their importance in the church. No wonder that Baptists do not like confessions. They prefer to prove their points by jumping about from text to text and refusing to interpret any given text in the light of the whole of Scripture. Arminians are cut from the same cloth. They will always appeal to John 3:16, but they refuse to interpret John 3:16 in the light of Romans 9. Well-meant offer defenders jump on II Peter 3:9 or Ezekiel 33:11. And when it is shown that their interpretation of these verses contradicts John 12:37-41, they weakly fall back on paradox, and refuse to acknowledge that Scripture interprets Scripture.
Systematic theology is nothing else but taking the whole of Scripture as one’s textbook, discovering what the whole Word of God teaches about a given doctrine, and relating all the doctrines to each other so that they form one whole. In this way we come to know the living God in all His glory and perfection.
If, for example, one possesses a beautiful portrait of one he loves, he does not study each small part of the portrait by itself. He would never, thus, come to see the portrait as a whole. Each section, taken by itself, gives no information. Only when each small bit is studied in relation to the whole can one see the portrait in all its beauty. Biblical theology thinks that by studying Genesis 17:4in separation from Luke 2:7 one can come to a knowledge of the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ, which portrait is in the Holy Scriptures. This is obviously nonsense.
Taking the whole of Scripture as one’s textbook does not preclude the historical-grammatical method of interpretation; indeed, following this method enriches one’s understanding of systematic theology and gives one a full and broad view of the one truth of God in Jesus Christ.
The Dangers of Biblical Theology
Biblical theology, in distinction from systematic theology, leads to many dangers. Some of these dangers appeared in the thinking of Cocceius. He became somewhat dispensational in his thinking, because he considered the Old Testament by itself and not in its relationship to the New Testament. This, in turn, led him to a wrong view of the Sabbath.
Biblical theology has had its proponents over the years. A new chair in biblical theology was established in Princeton Seminary for the express purpose of giving the renowned Gerhardus Vos a professorship in the seminary. Many seminaries have followed the practice by abandoning systemic theology and have taught only biblical theology. This has led to strange positions.
One devastating result of this approach to Scripture has been an emphasis on the human authorship of various books. While proponents of biblical theology have refused to go so far as to deny (in whole or in part) the divine authorship of Scripture, it is not difficult to see how the jump from biblical theology to higher criticism can be made. The Scriptures are one because they have one Author, God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, through infallible inspiration, painted the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every part must be explained in the light of every other part. The unity of Scripture leads to an understanding of the one portrait of Christ, through whom we know the one true God. It makes no difference that the Holy Spirit painted this portrait of Christ over a period of more than a thousand years. He alone is the divine Artist, and He never changes.
But when one breaks Scripture into parts and studies each part in relative isolation from the whole, one must concentrate in some measure on the human instrument, the men God used to write the Scriptures: Amos, Jude, Obadiah, Matthew, Paul, and all the rest. One must determine how the writings of each one differs from the writings of the others. Then one must determine how the theology of one differs from the theology of another. The result is that one gets (I use familiar clichés found in most seminaries) “a corpus of Johanine literature,” that is, the writings of the apostle John; “Pauline eschatology”—frequently in distinction from and perhaps somewhat different from the eschatology of Isaiah. I recall vividly a discussion in a class I was taking in which the professor insisted that any passage in Paul was irrelevant to a discussion of the meaning of a similar passage in John, because we are, after all, dealing with a “pericope in Johanine literature.”
I am fundamentally uninterested in anything Pauline or Petrine in eschatology. I am deeply interested, when I come to Scripture, to learn the Holy Spirit’s eschatology. If this is not true, then all I can do is read Scripture as I would read a Festschrift, in which many authors write glowing essays in praise of some renowned theologian.
If one’s interest is solely in what the Holy Spirit writes, then he must study the whole of Scripture and each part in relation to all the rest, for the Holy Spirit is the Author of it all. One must follow the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture” because the Holy Spirit, who wrote it all, alone can interpret His own book, something He does by means of His own book.
Biblical theology can be deadly. The method has recently been employed by the so-called “Auburn Four” in defense of the heresy of justification by faith and works.¹ In the first chapter of the book, Doug Wilson argues strenuously against confessions. It is understandable that he does, for our confessions give to us what the church of the past, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, found in Scripture concerning any one doctrine. The church brought the teaching of the whole of Scripture together concerning each doctrine of Holy Writ. The confessions are what Luther called the regula fidei, the rule of faith.
Steve Schlissel argues against knowledge through propositions. He claims that faith is in a person, not a proposition (p. 24). Strangely, he writes:
If Truth is raw rationality, then one must tidy up all one’s propositions. But if Truth is personal, then one must get to know the Person better. And you get to know a person better by knowing his character. His character is revealed in the degree of correspondence between his words and deeds. That is why the Bible is given in the form of a story rather than a systematic theology (p. 25).
It is hard to understand what Schlissel means, but it is clear that he employs the biblical theology method to destroy knowledge through propositions. But how, apart from propositions, can we know anything? By inner feeling? By mystical contact? By an intuitive sixth or seventh sense? The fact is that all our knowledge is through propositions, even our knowledge of things earthly, and including our acquaintance with people.
Scripture speaks of a personal, experiential knowledge of God that is the knowledge of faith. But the knowledge of faith that is personal and experiential consists of “a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed in His Word.”²
But to such strange ideas, set forth with the express purpose of denying the truth of Scripture, does biblical theology lead.
Herman Ridderbos wrote a book, the English translation of the title of which is The Theology of Paul. It is a popular book and widely read. It proceeds from the perspective of biblical theology. It seeks to understand, as the title indicates, what Paul believed concerning the truth of God. Frequently, what Paul believed is quite different from what John believed or Peter believed. What then? What saint of God cares what Paul believed? His interest (and everlasting salvation) is in what the Holy Spirit taught—be it through the instrumentality of Paul or Peter or Moses. The search of what the Holy Spirit teaches leads us to the whole of Scripture. That way is the way of systematic theology, not the wandering heretical paths of biblical theology.
¹The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons. Debating the Federal Vision. Edited by Calvin Beisner. The Knox Theological Seminary Colloquium on the Federal Vision. Published by Knox Theological Seminary, 2004.
²Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7.