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.

 

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