Allow Biblical Theology to Shape Systematic Theology, Not Reverse

This week on the Bellator Christi Podcast, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Chad Thornhill. Dr. Thornhill is the Professor of New Testament Greek, the Chair of Theological Studies, and Associate Professor of Apologetics at Liberty University. Dr. Thornhill discussed his findings from his book A Chosen People: Paul, Election, and Second Temple Judaism as it pertained to the understanding of individuals in the Second Temple Judaist period.

In addition to his discussion pertaining to his research, one of the most important points made by Thornhill on the podcast related to biblical hermeneutics (that is, Bible interpretation). He said that he taught his students not to read information back into Scripture, seeking to prove a particular point. Rather, the student should interpret the Bible according to the information given by the author to his intended audience.[1] This technique is much more difficult as it must involve in-depth research by the Bible student. But the difficulty is worth the time invested as it presents a far more accurate interpretation.

Truthfully, adherents of all theological interpretations have been guilty of reading into a passage what the person wants to read. This is true for both Calvinists and Arminians, for Molinists and Thomists alike. In the end, biblical theology must shape a person’s systematic theology. What is meant by “biblical theology” and “systematic theology”?

Biblical theology is understood as the “study of the Bible that seeks to discover what the biblical writers, under divine guidance, believed, described, and taught in the context of their own times.”[2] In other words, biblical theology is the understanding of the biblical writer’s theology. What did he believe? What was he intending to communicate? What did he desire for his readers to know? What were the circumstances surrounding his message? To answer these questions, one must use exposition to find the answers; that is, to remain true to the writer’s intention. Using this method, a person will eventually see the big picture of the Bible, which leads to a true systematic theology. Now, what is “systematic theology”?

Systematic theology is understood as an articulation of “the biblical outlook in a current doctrinal or philosophical system.”[3] Systematic theology looks at the overall picture as it pertains to particular doctrines. Whereas biblical theology will seek to examine, for example, what John believed about Jesus in his Gospel and letters; systematic theology will show what the Bible teaches about the identity of Jesus. It is imperative that one possesses a strong biblical theology before one can hope to hold a strong systematic theology.

Often and unfortunate as it may be, biblical expositors will often elevate the systematic theology of John Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, Arminius, Wesley, and Molina over that of the biblical text. When this is done, the expositor will jump through hoops in order to twist the Scripture into his/her theological system. Expositors force passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and Romans 9 into their paradigm, while often being untrue to the nature of the text. If such a passage does not fit into one’s systematic theology, then that particular aspect of one’s systematic theology needs to be examined against the biblical text and against the overall message of the Bible itself. The great theologians such as those mentioned earlier need to be studied fervently. If perchance a person holds to a doctrine that has been rejected by the vast number of theologians throughout history, then one had better possess strong and valid reasons for accepting such a claim. Yet while Calvin, Aquinas, Wesley, Molina, and Arminius are important and extremely knowledgeable, one should take note that they are not infallible. The Scriptures are infallible. The theologians were mere mortal men trying to understand the truths of Scripture. So, we should study them with the understanding that if their teachings contradict the Scriptures, then the Scriptures should be accepted and the particular theologian’s viewpoints rejected.

Systematic theology is extremely important! My major in graduate school was in theology, particularly systematic theology, so I hold a great deal of interest in the matter. Do not misread the message of this post. I believe that systematic theology is of utmost importance. However, I do think the challenge offered by Dr. Chad Thornhill should be adhered by all students of the Bible. The Bible should shape our systematic theology, not the other way around. Such is true also for a person’s political and social beliefs. If the Bible is God’s Word (which I believe it is), then it is the final authority of truth.

© August 16, 2016. Brian Chilton. 

Sources Cited

[1]  Chad Thornhill, interviewed by Brian Chilton, Bellator Christi Podcast (August 15, 2016), podcast, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/pastorbrianchilton/2016/08/15/election-from-the-perspective-of-second-temple-judaism-w-dr-chad-thornhill.

[2] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), Logos Bible Software..

[3] Ibid.

 

5 Tips for Reading Proverbs

At graduation, I had a chance to personally meet many of the wonderful professors at Liberty University that have impacted my life greatly over the course of these past three years. One particular professor caught my attention. He is Dr. Kevin King. King is a fascinating individual. He is a former police officer, who still looks as if he could physically pick up a house. During one of his courses, he had a classic phrase that he often used. “Stinky thinking leads to a smelly life.” When I met him, I told him what a blessing he was and how I have used that phrase many times. He jokingly said, “I can’t remember who I stole that from, but it is so true.” I agreed.

Proverbs help us avoid “stinky thinking.” The Proverbs point us in the direction of right thinking and right living. But, let’s be honest. Sometimes the Book of Proverbs is difficult to understand. Perhaps the problem with the Proverbs is that the reader often misunderstands the writing genre.  In this article I hope to provide you a working definition of a proverb, in addition to 5 tips that have personally helped me to better understand the Proverbs.

The Book of Proverbs is a “marvelous collection of wise sayings and instructions for living a useful and effective life.”[1] Thus, the Book of Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It is meant to impart wisdom to its readers to better their lives. Before we can properly understand the book, we must understand the nature of a proverb. What is a proverb anyhow?

What is a Proverb?

Proverbs are defined and characterized by “short, pithy statements; but the speculative wisdom, such as Ecclesiastes or Job, uses lengthy monologues and dialogues to probe the meaning of life, the problem of good and evil, and the relationship between God and people.”[2] Proverbs can provide an “object lesson based on or using some comparison or analogy.”[3] Duane Garrett notes,

“The most common form of Old Testament wisdom is the proverb. It may be defined as an ethical axiom, that is, a short, artistically constructed ethical observation or teaching. An observational proverb is a saying that describes human behavior without an explicit moral evaluation. A didactic proverb describes human behavior with a clear ethical-didactic purpose, that is, it includes an explicit moral evaluation.”[4]

Thus, a proverb is a means of communicating wisdom through life principles through short, effective means. Or, it is a “colloquial means of getting a point across.”[5] This makes one wonder, “how do we understand the Proverbs?” I have listed 5 tips to help the reader better understand the Book of Proverbs.

5 Tips for Understanding Proverbs

  1. Try to focus on general themes. While many of the proverbs appear random, they are gathered under one general focus. The proverbs are, however, scattered into different sections. For this reason, I have decided to use Max Anders’ topical format in his commentary on Proverbs in the Holman Old Testament Commentary rather than the strict, and more confusing, chapter-by-chapter format found in many other studies.
  2. Don’t overcomplicate the saying. The pithy nature of the proverbs is intended to bring about one generalized truth. Try to focus on the general truth presented.
  3. Understand that the proverbs are general rules and guidelines and do not address the exceptions. The Book of Proverbs lists general principles and truths according to the way life generally operates 95% of the time. Job, Ecclesiastes, and even some of the psalms describe life in the other 5%. Both Job and Ecclesiastes perfectly complements the generalized wisdom found in Proverbs.
  4. As we must always do in Scripture, we must understand the proverbs according to the culture of the time. Max Anders denotes that “There are some proverbs that cannot be understood unless we understand the culturally obsolete thing they are talking about.”[6]
  5. The proverbs are general statements of truth rather than divine promises. The Book of Proverbs notes, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV).[7] Yet, we probably all know of a set of parents who brought up their children in the ways of God only to see one or more of their children stray from the path. Is the proverb wrong? No, because the proverb is not a divine promise, but rather a general statement of fact. More times than not, children who are brought up right will remember their parents wisdom and will not depart from the ways of God.

Conclusion

Wisdom is critical for godly living. It is critical in order to make proper decisions and to live godly, moral lives. When the reader understands some basic hermeneutical information about the operation of a proverb, then the Book of Proverbs is unlocked for the reader. Godly wisdom which has spanned several millennia is then available to the reader. One must understand that God is the source of wisdom. Through God’s word and practical understanding, God offers wisdom to the one who seeks it. Such wisdom is especially found in the marvelous Book of Proverbs.

Copyright, May 30, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Note: Excerpts from this article were taken from the author’s Bible Study on Proverbs titled: “Proverbs: Pithy Life Lessons.”

Notes

[1] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger, III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, abridged ed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 938.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 940.

[4] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 29-30.

[5] John H. Walton, et. al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), 561.

[6] Max Anders, Proverbs, Holman Old Testament Commentary, vol. 13 (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 3.

[7] Scripture marked ESV comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).