Biblical and Systematic Theology, Both/And
The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest,” argued the Dutch-American theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949). But this is not to dismiss out of hand “dogmatics” or the enterprise known as “systematic theology.” Instead, serious students of the Bible should employ both methods as mutually supportive for growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Avoiding a handbook approach, Vos utilized the classic distinction between systematic theology that draws a circle and biblical theology that draws a line.
Explanation of geek-speak: This is the difference on Google Maps between the “Traffic” view and the “Terrain” view. Click on one button and you get a street map with the city plan, major and minor thoroughfares, and all their intersections (i.e., systematic theology). Toggle the switch and you get the full-color topography (i.e., the biblical-theological lay of the land). Circle and line, traffic and terrain, street and topographical map—that’s the difference between systematic and biblical theology.
Too often systematic theology gets short shrift, as if it is a kind of theological reflection further removed from the story of the Bible. Not so—it is simply a complementary reading strategy. In other words, as Christians we have to consider both the unfolding drama from one stage of redemptive history to the next, its peaks, valleys, rivers, and plateaus. But navigating life east of Eden also necessitates a street map, as anyone who has tried to use a topographical map for cross-country travel can tell you. Systematic theology assumes a unified and coherent story and then organizes and categorizes themes to show logical connections. Pilgrims making their way through this life need both to fully grasp the richness of the Bible.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Modern Reformation.