Theology: systematic or biblical? (An illustration)

A couple of disclaimers to start:

  1. The title should not imply that there has to be an either/or; much less that systematic theology is necessarily unbiblical!
  2. This is not meant to be a scholarly piece – it’s really just a simple illustration.

I’ve just started a six part series for Portstewart Baptist Church (where I was formerly pastor) in what they are billing as a Spring Theology School. As part of the introduction yesterday evening I used an illustration that went like this:

Let’s say you have a copy of a biography of a significant politician, for example. The biography itself might start with the background of his family, proceed through the person’s childhood and education, his (or her) first steps into politics, rising to power and what they did when they were in power. It tells a story. But at the back you might have an index that would tell you which parts of the book contain references to various subjects. Let’s say Europe was important, or tax policy: you’d look up the index and it would give you all the pages that refer to the particular theme. It would be useful if you wanted to cut to the chase and see how the person related to any of those issues, but it would not give you much of a sense of the storyline or the overall picture.

Same thing for approach to the Bible and its themes. We can take a systematic approach whereby we define a list of major topics (God, humanity, Jesus, the work of redemption, etc) and arrange all of the relevant passages and verses according to their contribution to one or other of the themes. It’s a systematic approach that helps us define our doctrinal views, for example on the Trinity, or the deity of Christ.

However it’s possible to do this without paying adequate attention to the developing storyline of the Bible: in fact an overly systematised approach can cause us to miss the force of particular individual sections. Biblical theology is more concerned about how each part of Scripture contributes to the developing picture. Rather than slicing everything up into categories, it reminds us of the progression of God’s plan.

The challenge is to do both and allow each to inform the other in appropriate ways.

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