Competition or Teamwork: Can Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Practical Theology, Historical Theology Work Together?

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Like a driver overcorrecting in the snow, we often skip over truth while veering into extremes. Sometimes, dedication to the exegesis of an individual passage or the overarching narrative of Scripture can cause even the best of scholars to ignore the great doctrines interwoven in and presented in Scripture. At times, there have been those who were so given to the doctrines of Scripture that good exegesis of passages was ignored.

These extremes are sometimes manifested among those who specialize in either Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, and Practical Theology. Although we may, and even should, specialize in one area, we should never operate without the entire “team” of theological study and practice. Extremes are unhelpful, unwise, and only beget further extremes.

Extremes in Theological and Exegetical Emphases

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck described how these extreme positions had manifested themselves historically and the negative consequences which followed. He wrote:

From the beginning, Scripture served as the rule of faith and the foundation of all theology. As the church spread into and engaged the broader world, it became necessary to clarify and firm up the rule of faith against false teaching. This led to the rise of a strong episcopal teaching authority and an increased dependence on authoritative church tradition. Over time the weight of tradition increased while Scripture’s role receded. The Reformation sought to renew the church’s moorings in Scripture and, in time, gave rise to an antischolastic “biblical theology.” The philosophical reversal in philosophy, represented by Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel, produced yet another theological method—the subjective. Experience replaced knowledge as the foundation of theology, which was itself separated from science and metaphysics. Taking the starting point in Christian consciousness, attempts were made to ground theology in morality, the feeling of absolute dependence, or the unfolding of the universal Spirit. The concern about normativity and objectivity eventually led to an emphasis on the scientific study of religion, its history, and psychology. Christianity was to be studied critically, just as the other religions of the world.[1]

Biblical theology, scholastics, dogmatics, systematic theology, and experience can all have a helpful role in our approach to Scripture. Each of these influences must be held in its proper place. Biblical theology is, by its very nature, descriptive of the Biblical text. Systematic theologians gratefully use that data to describe Biblical doctrines and prescribe behaviors. Practical theologians use Biblical and Systematic theology to put the information into practice. Neither of these emphases should be held against the other. We will all find an area in which we find greater usefulness and emphasis. However, every Christian should be involved in each of these areas.

How to Hold Theological Emphases in Balance

To be theologians for the church, we must be involved in Biblical theology for the foundation of our journey. Biblical theology then serves systematic theology, which directs practical theology. The entire process is then informed and critiqued by historical theology. None of these emphases is in competition with the other. Each held in its proper place serves the other. Biblical theology describes what the Bible says. Systematic theology makes prescriptions based on the Biblical data gained from Biblical theology. Practical theology acts on the prescriptive nature of systematic theology. Historical theology reflects upon and critiques these efforts so that future generations may better glorify God.

Perhaps there are some helpful examples of those who have combined exegesis with systematic theology. Geerhardus Vos can serve as a helpful model for balance in theological emphases. Vos is well known as the father of reformed Biblical theology and was the first professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton. Vos wrote the very influential book The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline; Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments; The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews; and other works in that field. He was also the author of several works involved in systematic endeavors, including the four volumes Reformed Dogmatics which were published after his death.  Vos, then, demonstrated how Biblical and Systematic theology could coexist.

More popularly, John Calvin can also serve as an example of how to combine exegesis with systematic theology. John Calvin’s name is immediately associated with his Institutes of the Christian Religion which is the most popular and influential treatment of systematic theology ever composed. Unfortunately, his 23 volume commentary on the Bible is not as well known, although it is still competitive with the best of modern scholarship.

Cooperation Rather than Competition

In order to know God and glorify him as best we can, we should utilize every good tool at our disposal. Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, and Practical Theology should be a team rather than competition. Each of these areas of emphases has treasures to offer and none should ever operate without the help of the other. When we separate these emphases, we will find ourselves suffering from extremism. When we utilize all these specializations, we can see God and serve God more fully.


[1] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 59.

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