Earlier today the great Andrew Wilson tweeted thusly:
Biblical theology should take priority over systematic theology, because God’s answers should take priority over our questions.
— Andrew Wilson (@AJWTheology) May 17, 2014
Who knows the wealth and complexity of arguments that lie beneath the tweet – I don’t doubt that they are impressive. But here was my twitter length response:
Systematic theology *does* take priority over biblical theology because no-one reads the meaning of Scripture like a bar code @AJWTheology
— Glen Scrivener (@glenscrivener) May 17, 2014
Let me explain what I’m getting at.
It is very tempting to think of theology as a two stage process. First a pure biblical scholar simply reads off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive tools. Then a systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order. In this process, the Bible’s answers come first and then shape our questioning later.
But as Ben Myers says here: ‘It’s theology all the way down.’ Theological pre-suppositions and commitments necessarily guide and shape all Christian activity from exegesis to exposition to pastoral work, to evangelism to hospitality to everything.
And yet the idea that the Bible can be neutrally read is so tempting. We would love to conceive of revelation as propositions deposited in a handy compendium simply to be extracted and applied. Yet, eternally and most basically, the Word is a Person (John 1:1). And His book is Personal (John 5:39). It’s not something we judge with our double-edged swords – the Word judges us. (Heb 4:12)
Andrew is trying to honour this dynamic of Scripture judging us (not us judging Scripture) and that is vital. But precisely because Scripture judges us, we must allow it to judge our exegetical and hermeneutical presuppositions too. This involves a whole web of Scriptural interpretations and theological understandings that are not a one-way street – they are a complex web.
Let me point to an extreme example of where this goes wrong. It’s a million miles from Andrew’s position or intention, but consider the Socinians. They were “just being biblical” as they cast aside the creeds and became unitarians. They claimed to be clearing away the artificial edifice of trinitarian theology and getting back to the pure message of Jesus and the apostles. I don’t doubt that on some level they were sincere. I also don’t doubt that they were wildly mistaken about their own interpretive neutrality. They were children of their time (as are we all), and instead of “just being biblical” they were “just being rationalists who were claiming to be biblical.” The trouble is that we’re all something-ists no matter how much we claim we’re only being biblical.
And that’s no bad thing. As I read Scripture I ought to be a believer, filled with the Spirit who confesses Jesus as Lord, baptised in the triune name, a member of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, reading the word in the communion of the saints – living and dead. Such dynamics are not the mere fruit of “Biblical Theology” – they are the result and the foundation of deep, christological and ecclesial reflections upon Scripture. It’s chicken and egg – and that’s the way it ought to be if I’m to read the Scriptures scripturally.
As I speak of the theological presuppositions inherent in Bible reading, I’m not trying to undermine the perspicuity of Scripture. After all, Jesus spoke of the Scriptures as absolutely clear. He never made excuses for theological error. He never gave even the slightest bit of latitude by conceding a certain obscurity to the Bible. He never assumes that His theological opponents have just mis-applied an interpretive paradigm. If they get it wrong He assumes they’ve never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)!
But we must go further. Jesus tells the Pharisees why they get it wrong: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matt 22:29) And, again, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40) Those in error are are wrongly oriented to the Power of God and the One of Whom the Scriptures testify – Jesus. This is not simply a wrong orientation of the intepreter but of the interpretation. Scripture reading must be oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God (i.e. by the Spirit to Christ). Within this paradigm – a paradigm which the Scriptures themselves give us – the Bible makes itself abundantly clear.
But this paradigm is an unashamedly and irreducibly theological one. It is the result of exegesis (e.g. studying the verses given above) but it is also the pre-supposition of such exegesis. Theology is not the end of the process from exegesis to biblical studies and then to the systematician!
Methodologically, the Bible must come first. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying ‘Biblical Theology’ must come first. No, the Bible stands above both Biblical and Systematic theology. And the two-way interchange between both is what ensures that the Bible is read according to its true nature. If you’re a Biblical Theologian who wants the Bible on top – let systematics help you!