Hermeneutical Civil War Rages On

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Biblical theology versus systematic theology. Which is best? Is one right and one wrong? The debate continues among scholars and seminary students.

During my last semester of German this past summer, each of us had to present the German works we selected to translate. As we each went up, we kept the mood light and fun for all. The class was made up mostly of students seeking doctoral degrees in theological studies, which opened the door to some interesting, light-hearted, and playful ‘arguments’ between biblical theologians and systematic theologians—both claimed to be the most true to the text and, thus, the most accurate.

I know what you’re thinking: tuhmey-toh, tuhmah-toh. However, there are some differences. Put simply (very simply), biblical theologians examine the original language of a particular passage and gain their theology from that passage; systematic theologians look at multiple passages. view them together, and gain their theology from the whole. Systematic supporters argue that biblical theologians sometimes ignore other related passages and, thus, ignore the whole of Scripture; biblical theologians argue that systematic supporters sometimes ignore the original context and often cherry pick verses that fit their views. I’m sure that supporters of both sides who read this may want to explain the more detailed nuances differentiating the two, but that would be evidence for the problem: the civil war between the two rages on.

In class, supporters of each side jovially picked on the other (biblical theologians were in the vast minority), but this playful banter evidenced an underlying argument over which one is the most accurate hermeneutic. Is one method better than the other? Can one fully and accurately understand Scripture with only one? It seems that both sides, though they may claim that each is necessary, in fact argue that one is far superior to the other.

As one of the only evangelism students in the class, I sat back and listened to the barbs and thought, “What’s being accomplished in all this?” The debate between biblical and systematic theology seems silly, trite, and unproductive. How many people will be led to Christ by arguing whether Romans 1 should be understood only within Romans itself or if it is best understood in light of Galatians 5? How is the Gospel proclaimed by arguing whether biblical or systematic theology is better? It reminds me of fourth graders arguing in the schoolyard over the universal and paramount question about whose daddy is strongest.

Ending the Civil War Civilly

It is time for scholars to end the debate and realize that the two go hand-in-hand: sound theology is not biblical or systematic, it is biblical and systematic. If we are to practice proper hermeneutics and develop sound theology—if we are to end the pointless, destructive civil war—we must employ both. One is not superior to the other, but each has a role in the process equal to the other.

Recently I visited with one of my preaching professors and discussed the issue of the extent of the atonement—limited versus universal atonement. As I explained my view, the professor commented that my approach was too systematic and that I should not use this method, instead, I should be biblical. This puzzled me, not because I didn’t understand his advice, but because his advice seemed inadequate.

Furthermore, I found it interesting that this view was given at the same school whose hermeneutics classes advocated the idea of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, following the Augustinian teaching of letting the clearer passages explain the less clear passages. What better source of understanding God’s Word is there than God’s Word? In other words, be biblical and systematic.

Here’s my approach to hermeneutics: first, examine the text in its immediate context. This means, where you can, look at the original language and try to determine what the original authors (human and God) intended (good commentaries aid in this). The immediate context includes the surrounding verses, the chapter, and the book. This is the biblical theology aspect. Second, look at the text in the larger context of the Testament (New or Old, depending on the text) and the whole of Scripture; this is the systematic approach. Step two is especially helpful in passages where broad, unclear, vague, or otherwise difficult terms are used because other passages may help explain that verse or phrase.

Unity in Action

I will briefly apply this to two passages, one from each Testament. First we’ll look at Joel 2:28-29. This passage states, “It will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (NASB). This passage talks about people of all ages, both men and women, slave and free, receiving the Holy Spirit and being able to prophesy and experience revelatory visions. Joel is telling his original audience that, unlike what has been practiced in the past, when the Day of the Lord arrives (the context of the book), there will not be an elite class of people who have exclusive privileges in experiencing these things; these activities will not be limited to the prophets, but will be experienced across the social spectrum. This is step one: immediate context and the context of the whole book.

However, has this passage been fulfilled? If so, when? If not, how will it be? In Acts 2:14-18, Peter told the audience that the events of Pentecost, especially the speaking (or being understood) in multiple foreign languages fulfilled this passage. According to Duane Garrett, Paul understood Joel’s prophecy as being fulfilled by the unification of Jews and Gentiles under the singular banner of Christ (see Gal 3:28).1 Therefore, following step two (the systematic approach), it seems that Joel’s prophecy was definitely fulfilled at Pentecost and probably by Christians of diverse people groups uniting in Christ. Thus, this is a prophecy about God breaking down social, racial, and other human barriers by giving his Spirit to whomever he chooses.

Now we’ll look at 1 John 2:2. John writes, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (NASB). The keyword here is the last one, kosmou, from the word kosmos. John is saying that Jesus is the propitiation (payment for sin) for both him and his original audience and for the whole kosmos, or whole world. Put simply, Jesus’ death paid for the sins of the whole world. But who is the “world?” Kosmos refers to “humanity in general,”2 so John said that Jesus’ death paid for the sins of humanity. However, who makes up the “humanity” that Jesus saved through his death? Humanity in general can mean either (1) all individuals throughout all time, (2) certain individuals throughout all time, or (3) John is not trying to say specifically who is saved. The immediate context does not provide resolution or additional information to help clarify these questions. Nevertheless, step one is complete, despite unresolved questions.

Using step two, we learn that kosmos is a general term referring to all of creation through all time or simply creation in general; it is not a specific term. Thus, John remained vague in his statement, leaving us to ask what God and John had in mind regarding the extent of the atonement. Based in biblical theology alone, we either have universalism, limited atonement, or an intentionally non-specific statement. So, how did John understand the extent of the atonement? Other passages tell us specifically that Jesus died for the elect, for the church, for his sheep and that these sheep are found in every people group through all time. Therefore, following Augustine’s advice of letting Scripture explain Scripture, the “world” that John has in mind must mean the elect from throughout all creation in general. In the end, John’s objective in his first epistle was not to get into the nuances of the atonement, but to remind his original audience that Jesus’ death paid for the sins of more than just them and John’s, but that he paid for the sins of many people, whether Jew or Gentile, from all people groups around the world.

Conclusion

The two examples are not comprehensive, admittedly, but do show that biblical and systematic theology are both valid, needed, and equal. Sound theology cannot survive without both being used. Numerous quality commentaries, some even written by professors at Southwestern Seminary, employ both methods as they seek to understand the passage in light of its narrow (step one) and broad (step two) contexts.

When scholars get wrapped up in the debate between systematic and biblical theology and ignore the purpose of the church (to glorify God) and her mission (to evangelize, make disciples) then the debate is unproductive and even harmful. Indeed, when one steps back and looks at the debate, it becomes clear how silly the arguments can become. The best hermeneutical approach—the most viable method to achieve sound theology—is to employ both biblical and systematic methods. We must understand what the original authors meant, which means knowing what the human author intended and what God intended. This can only be done when the two methods are unified for the purpose of discipling the believers and evangelizing the lost.


1 Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, New American Commentary, vol. 19a (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), 369.

2 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. and transl. Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilber Gingrich [BDAG], 3rd Ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. “kosmos.”

About John L. Rothra
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  1. Dusty D

    John, let’s chat as soon as you have a chance.

    Dusty

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