The Insufficiency of Biblical Theology ?

Over the last thirty years, evangelicalism has seen a strong resurgence and appeal for biblical theology.  Evidences of this are the expanding series of books edited by D.A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology; the New Dictionary for Biblical Theology; and the rising appeal of the subject among younger evangelicals.  Just come to Southern Seminary, and you will find students who, next to John Piper, have been most influenced by Graeme Goldsworthy.

Yet, is biblical theology enough?  Is it sufficient for the task of theology?  Some believe it is.  Fred Sanders, for instance, in his doctoral dissertation–now published as The Image of the Immanent Trinity–argues that the doctrine of the Trinity went awry as it entered the realms of philosophical discussion and systematic exploration.  The early church fathers (i.e. Irenaueus, Tertullian) spoke of God in biblical-theological terms, whereas later theologians (i.e. Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine, to name a few) employed philosophical nomenclature and concepts to define the Trinity.  Sanders argument is that this systematizing and (mis)use of philosophical categories distorted the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, and that in order to recover a biblical concept of the doctrine we should appeal to biblical theology and a theological interpretation of Scripture.

I am not as sure.  Before beginning doctoral work in systematic theology, I would have believed it to be true that biblical theology was sufficient for doctrinal formulation, but after considering it further, I see the need for all the disciplines of theology (biblical, systematic, philosophical, and practical).  So, in this way, “biblical theology” alone is insufficient.

Now please hear me, I am not saying that the Bible is insufficient.  On the contrary, it is all-sufficient and gives us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4; cf. Deut. 29:29).  What I am saying is that the discipline of biblical theology, reading the Bible along the lines of its progressive revelation and its redemptive-historical makeup, is a part of a greater whole.  I think that today, biblical theology can be so emphasized that the other disciplines can be overshadowed and (un)intentionally de-emphasized.  The simple point I am trying to make is that biblical theology needs dogmatics, just like dogmatics need biblical, and of course, theology is always benefitted by considering the way in which doctrines have developed and deviated throughout the course of church history.

Herman Bavinck cautions against the same thing and articulates a fuller sense of doing theology.  Consider his argument,

Scripture is not a legal document, the articles of which only need be looked up for a person to find out what its view is in a given case.  It is composed on many books written by various authors, dating back to different times and divergent in content.  It is a living whole, not abstract but organic–[this is a favorite expression of HB].  It nowhere contains a sketch of the doctrine of faith; this is something that has to be drawn from the entire organism of Scripture.  Scripture is not designed so that we should parrot it but that as free children of God we should think his thoughts after him.  But them all so-called presuppositionaless and objectivity are impossible.  So much study and reflection on the subject is bound up with it that no person can possibly do it alone.  That takes centuries.  To that end the church has been appointed and given the promise of the Spirit’s guidance into all truth.   Whoever isolates himself from the church, i.e., from Christianity as a whole, from the history of dogma in its entirety, loses the truth of Christian faith.  That person becomes a branch that is torn from the tree and shrivels, an organ that is separated from the body and therefore doomed to die.  Only within the communion of saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended (Eph. 3:18)…. Accordingly, the contrast [or independence] often made between biblical theology and dogmatics, as though one reproduced the content of Scripture while the other restates dogmas of the church, is false (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena [Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2003], 83).

In this brief paragraph Bavinck shows why his Reformed Dogmatics are so illuminating as he consistently expounds Scripture, scours the annals of church history, and uses rigorous logic to formulate doctrine.  Accordingly, what emerges in his dogmatics is a biblical, systematic, and historical theology where each discipline enriches the other.  I think this model is optimal, and of course should also include the appropriate use of philosophy and analytical theology.

As people of extremes, Bavinck’s counsel reminds us to engage all forms of theology to perceive and proclaim the glorious truths of God’s word, and only as we do that can we explore the depths of God’s all sufficient word.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss