Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Two Sides One Coin?

One of my ongoing theological concerns is the tension between dogmatics and biblical studies. It strikes me that some of the discussions and debates within Reformed evangelical circles come down to this: Which area takes priority? What is the relationship between the two? Can we work so that both are practised within confessional boundaries? If possible would this be a good thing anyway?

There are several chapters in Always Reforming about the nature of theology. Richard Gamble writes on ‘The Relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’.

Gamble begins with definition, and states that theology is “the appropriation by the regenerated mind of that supernatural/natural information by which God has made himself the object of human knowledge.” The Scriptures of the Bible provide the information. God’s revelation of himself is progressive and redemptive. It is progressive in the sense that earlier parts of the Bible’s story inform later parts. It is redemptive in the sense that some events within the story are given heightened importance. Not all the facts of the story possess redemptive power.

Gamble refers to Vos in his definition of biblical theology. It is the study of the form and content of supernatural revelation in its historical unfolding. What then is systematic theology? Gamble cites several Reformed theologians who suggest the need for a new structure to systematic theology. Some even suggest the term should be discontinued. Following John Murray and Richard Gaffin, Gamble proceeds to argue that biblical theology should be normative. Systematic theology should be modelled according to the insights of biblical study and exegesis. Gamble concludes his essay with some objections to biblical theology as the normative discipline, and then discusses how culture influences exegesis and theological method. He maintains that the strengths of biblical theology should inform developments within “systematic” theology.

Restless and Reforming verdict: This is all fair enough though examples of how the classic dogmatic categories should be adjusted are conspicuously absent. Those who admire the likes of Vos, Murray and Gaffin should ponder more how biblical theology informs or shapes their take on the Reformed confessions. Apart from the American revisions on church state relations, why have there been so few substantial and constructive changes?

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