A Mini-Paper in Rough-draft Form: Rapproachment Between Biblical Studies and Systematic [Dogmatic] Theology

As usual I embroil myself in lively discussions online. Last week and into the present, I began to engage in some discussion, primarily with Pastor, Blogger, and BibleFacebooker, Lawrence Garcia; the discussion revolved around the relation between biblical studies and systematic or dogmatic theology, and because of this quote that Garcia posted on Facebook:

The caveats advanced by Piper are well-known, and no scholar of repute would engage in the oversimplified procedure envisioned by him. That said, it is possible to trace trajectories of Jewish thought from Ben Sira to the Mishnah; it is possible to have a reasonably certain grasp of the theology engaged by Paul and the other New Testament authors. At this point in time, it should not have to be said aloud that the New Testament documents were not, in the first instance, addressed to us, and a common-sense recognition of this basic datum must inevitably result in a certain amount of reconstruction of the context of Paul. This is not to make the context more important than the text, nor is it to say that Paul is not to be understood on “his own terms.” Rather, it is just Paul’s Sitz im Leben that serves to illuminate what “his own terms” actually are. When it comes to such central vocabulary items as “law,” “covenant,” “righteousness,” and “justification,” there is sufficient intelligibility from the sources that the so-called New Perspective on Paul, in principle including Wright, may fairly claim to have shed considerable light on the actual issues under debate in Paul’s day. Certainly, caution must always be exercised in the weighing of historical texts, but even with all the caveats in place, the cause of biblical exegesis is not served by turning back the clock. Once a Copernican revolution has occurred, it will not do to retreat into a pre-Copernican universe. [Don Garlington]

I took some issue with the idea that Wright & co. has offered this kind of Copernican revolution in biblical studies. And so this launched me into (off the cuff) trying to articulate an alternative approach to biblical studies that is more theologically and ecclesially attuned (relative to its appeal to the history of interpretation). It is no secret that Wright & co. rather denigrate Mediaeval theology in general, and Reformational theology in particular; indeed the quote from Garlington contra Piper (a contemporary representative of a branch of the Reformed faith) illustrates this kind of disdain—by the way I have disdain for Piper’s kind of Reformed theology as well, but at the same time I do not have a problem with engaging with  Mediaeval theology in general, and think that it offers some helpful theological and biblical categories that ought to be seriously considered by any Christian student of the Bible.

Rather than rehashing some of the stuff I have already offered (which is the material of the last post), I would like to somewhat close this foray (with the qualification that I can revisit this at any time I deem necessary in the future) by quoting a kind of healthy rapproachment between what may have been polarized much too quickly in my talking points with Garcia; a rapproachment between how we ought to conceive of the relationship between the two disciplines, respectively, of Biblical Studies and Systematic (Dogmatic) Theology. Here is how C. Gavin Rowe and Richard B. Hays end their essay entitled simply Biblical Studies in the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (at length):

[W]e thus come, finally, to the question with which this essay began: the relation of biblical studies to systematic theology. The history of the relationship outlined in this essay suggests that where the subject matter of biblical exegesis and of dogmatic theology is not taken to be the same, there exists no real ground for mutual interaction between the two disciplines. Indeed, such interdisciplinary interaction may even be logically precluded, and the point of a biblical studies essay for this handbook would then be to say ‘Hands off!’ to the systematicians. At best, systematic theology could attempt to appropriate the ‘results’ of biblical exegesis. Such an essay would consist of a simple summary of the most significant advances in biblical studies, which the systematicians could then put to use–a contemporary remnant of the older proof-texting approach.

However, where the subject matter of biblical exegesis and of dogmatic theology is thought to be the same, the two disciplines are of necessity inseparable. In this respect, to refuse interdisciplinary work between biblical interpretation and constructive theology is to deny the coherence of the subject matter itself. Today, however, the complexity of the interpretive task may warrant a continued, though always provisional and cooperative, division of labour between biblical scholars and systematicians. The exegete concentrates upon the refraction of the subject matter through the particular witnesses, thereby penetrating more deeply into the particular shape of the subject matter and helping to avoid banal theological generalities (Childs 2004: xi). And the theologian concentrates more upon the whole of the subject matter as it is expressed through the understanding of scripture in the dogmatic tradition, thereby helping to avoid the tendency toward fragmentation in exegesis (the old problem of losing the forest for the individual trees).

Yet, in continuity with the ancient church, there is no final division between biblical interpretation and theological reflection, for they are united in the common task of attending to the subject matter of scripture. Their actual relationship is thus dialectical, in the sense that within their respective foci there exists a constant movement between the particulars of the biblical text and the whole of systematic reflection in an effort to do justice both to the exegetical thickness of doctrine and the theological coherence of biblical exegesis. [C. Kavin Rowe and Richard B. Hays, Biblical Studies, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 452.]

Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann

The Modern period (the 18th and 19th centuries respectively) has engendered a methodological gap between biblical studies and systematic (dogmatic) theology; one  that the precritical Christian church (starting early on in the Patristic and even Apostolic period) never knew of. I think what Rowe and Hays are calling us back to, along with people like Matthew Levering, John Webster, J. Todd Billings and others, is to get back to a more organic approach to thinking Christianly and Scripturely, and yet to do so with the gains made through the Modern period (of which both N.T. Wright & co. as well as Barth & co. are representatives of).

At the end of the day, I think my concern with N.T. Wright in particular (as I have already highlighted elsewhere) is his tone and posture toward Dogmatic theology. I think like all of us are prone to do, he is too invested in his own discipline, and thus this posture fosters a certain trajectory for those who follow him; a posture that becomes almost antagonistic toward what might be perceived as dogmatic (or even Mediaeval) theology–and a posture that make the sons and daughters of Wright’s seed twice the sons and daughters of hell as he is (in other words, I mean to say that many of Wright’s students have not waded through the process that Wright himself has in order to arrive where he has personally, and so his offspring do not, in general, have the same kind of balance that Wright himself may or may not have).

And thus instead of working from this dialectic between biblical studies and systematic theology, Wright, and even more so, Wright’s students tend to reinforce the Modern divide between biblical studies and systematic theology; a divide that was self-consciously present even as it was being developed. Johann Philipp Gabler in 1787 in a lecture identified this divide between biblical studies and systematic theology (as noted by Rowe and Hays), and Rowe and Hays describe this kind of Gablerian divide (the one that I see happening once again, in general, among many of Wright’s students today):

[T]aking these matters together, it becomes apparent that Gabler’s model of the theological enterprise mandates a wall between historical exegesis and systematic reflection, since systematic theology in itself is in principle incapable of inquiring into the biblical text. It is the wrong tool for the task—like trying to eat soup with a fork—for the Bible is not theology but religion. Systematic theology is thus removed from the Bible and placed in a separate sphere of inquiry. Systematic theology, if it seeks to be ‘biblical’, will have to wait for the completed results of historical exegesis. [Rowe and Hays, p. 442.]

This sounds a lot like the sentiment I encounter frequently (not just from my buddy Larry Garcia) among the adherents to the New Paul Perspective[s] in particular, and biblical studies folk in general. There is a kind of repristinating of the Modern period, and the hard and fast lines between the two disciplines; such that Systematic theology  (per the perception among biblical studies practitioners) remains in the realm of a kind of Docetic, Gnostic, Idealist pie in the sky dream world that has no real traction in the real world offered by biblical studies.

Rowe and Hays continue:

[T]he corollary, furthermore, to the notion that historical exegesis is the science proper to biblical interpretation is that the biblical texts are situated first of all not in the immediate life of the church but in the past. A sense of the vast chronological distance between the genesis of the texts and the present theological reflection thus became a constitutive feature of biblical interpretation. In that the Bible could no longer speak directly from its time to ours—it needed mediation through historical research—the space was opened for the (now perennial) question of ‘development’ to arise: how did we get from there to here? It was but a short step from this question to the inference that truly historical interpretation—that which attends to phenomena in their proper chronological sequence—not only entails the bracketing out of later ecclesial doctrine and systematic theology but also potentially undermines it. [Rowe and Hays, p. 442.]

This gets back to the tone that I am concerned with among many of Wright’s & co’s. adherents; it is not usually or all that frequently some of Wright’s material insights, per se, but the tone within which his conclusions are couched–it is this tone that causes me to dig my heels in, and thus turns me towards a stronger polarity in regard to my appropriation of Wright than I actually have.

I would like to move beyond this ‘wall’, once again, between Biblical Studies and Systematic (Dogmatic) Theology. I think the rapproachment that Rowe and Hays offer above is a helpful summary towards a way forward. And I think Matthew Levering in his book Participatory Biblical Exegesis and John Webster in his book The Domain of the Word (among other authors, like Francis Watson et al.) offer a more fruitful trajectory past this apparent impasse. The proposal is that we get back to the Thomist sacra doctrina reality of the community’s relation and engagement with the text of Scripture, that we understand that as we read Scripture we do so in dialogical conversation with the Teacher (per Thomas Torrance, see his The School of Faith & Divine Meaning), and we do so from a posture of relational and participatory love within the Triune life of God (per Augustine) that we have been adopted into through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ by Spirit wrought faith. And we understand that as part of this ongoing dialogue and fellowship between our Christian God, and ourselves as His people, that attendant to this we have critical tools available to us to help thicken our conversation with God through the text as He has given it to us, and continues to give it to us grounded in the ongoing heavenly session of the Son for us (per Barth, cf. Heb. 7.25).

Matthew Levering summarizes this kind of way forward this way:

[…] The emphasis on scriptural interpretation as seeking union with a Person (the triune Teacher) makes intelligible the claim that the real Jesus, taught in the Scriptures, is not obscured by the development of the Church’s teaching. Rather the Church’s teaching, as a participation in the revealed sacra doctrina that is Scripture and tradition, illumines more deeply the Teacher narrated in Scripture. [Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 78.]

There is a way forward; all sides just need to be Christian (Bobby!) in posture about it, and we can live, move and breathe together.

The sum of all we have said since we began to speak of res thus comes to this: it is to be understood that the plenitude and end of the Law and all the sacred Scriptures is the love of a Being which is to be enjoyed and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us…. That we might know this and have the means to implement it, the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine Providence for our salvation…. Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.

-Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book I, 35-36, §§39-40 (p. 30) cited by Levering, p. 81-2.

This entry was posted in Hermeneutics. Bookmark the permalink.