Biblical Studies People or Systematic Theology: Who Is Better at Writing Systematic Theologies?

I have an advanced copy (due out October 29th, 2013) of Michael F. Bird’s forthcoming Systematic Theology: Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. In opening the first few pages, naturally, Bird explains, a little, what has motivated him to attempt to write a Systematic Theology, and in light of the fact that his specialized training as a PhD from Queensland is in the field of Biblical Studies and not Systematic Theology. I found what he writes, interesting, especially in regard to what he believes serves best as the informing discipline for engaging in the writing of a Systematic Theology, and what purpose he thinks Systematic Theology serves vis-á-vis Biblical exegesis. He writes:

What is more, traversing biblical and theological studies is all the fashion these days. Many theologians are writing biblical commentaries, as in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series. Meanwhile several biblical scholars are trying to be theologians in the Two Horizons series of biblical commentaries. If theologians can write commentaries, why shouldn’t a biblical scholar write a systematic theology? What is more, I would point out that John Calvin wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion primarily as a way of clarifying disputed matters that he never had time to engage in his various biblical commentaries. Great Christian thinkers like B. B. Warfield and Leon Morris taught and wrote in the fields of New Testament and systematic theology. I contend that systematic theology should, in its ideal state, be an aid and clarification to exegesis and be undertaken by those with a solid grasp of biblical studies. [Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology, 25-6.]

I would clarify, that John Calvin’s Institutes actually functions in a Confessional (pace Charles Partee) mode and not in an actual Systematic one that we moderns think of it as today, and yesterday. So I would contest this parallel a bit, between trying to juxtapose what Calvin did and what Systematic Theology tries to do today (which is less Confessional and organic, and more Analytic and static). But beyond this, I would like to pose a question; do you believe that Systematic Theology is better framed by biblical studies guys and gals, or someone who is more of a historical and systematic theologian (by training and practice)? I don’t really believe this is an either/or, but I do think that behind this—this question—there is more to it. There is a prior commitment to a theological and hermeneutical methodology, of the kind that I have found that most biblical studies folks aren’t as thoughtful towards as are systematic people. In other words, I find that systematic people are more critical in regard to the theological implications present in the text of Scripture, and thus are better suited toward engaging with the purported exegesis provided by the biblical studies folk in a way that engages with the depth dimension or inner logic that provides the presupposition of the scriptural text’s occasional givenness. This is one reason, in principle, that I might disagree with Bird; biblical studies has a hard time knowing how to read the text of scripture theologically, and thus has a hard time knowing how to organize its material content in a way that is sensitive to the contours of the history of Christian ideas that shape the history of Christianity.

My conclusion is that, as the body of Christ, we all have our place; and that as a rule, trained systematic and historical theologians are better suited to write systematic theologies than are biblical studies folks. That said, I look forward to engaging further with professor Bird’s Evangelical Theology. 

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4 comments

  1. I’m glad you raised this issue, Bobby. This has been floating in my mind for some time since I first encountered Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (which I’m not entirely as fan). When I saw that Bird published a systematic theology, I was like “I hope he doesn’t write like Grudem!” Interestingly, some British scholars like theologian Paul S. Fiddes (who trained in Old Testament) and NT scholar Richard Bauckham (who first study theology) are able to seamlessly move between the disciplines without trouble. I hope Bird is able to do this.

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  2. Hi Jason.

    I’m an unfan of Grudem’s theology; we used it along with Millard Erickson in undergrad (more Erickson than Grudem). I am a big fan of Bauckham’s work, and haven’t read much of Fiddes. I would say that the audience of Bird’s work is much more the evangelical college student or seminarian, and thus is a little different in expression as compared with Bauckham’s stuff. I have only just begin reading it, and thus far I like the tenor of what I am reading. How can you not like someone who says that they are “most Barthian” in approach relative to thinking about prolegomena :-)? Thanks for the feedback, Jason.

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