Did you know that it’s technically impossible to tune a piano? No, Really. It seems that the octave cannot be divided into 12 equal semitones without there being some dissonance. Ancient tuning systems would focus on making certain of the intervals as in-tune as possible, stashing the dissonance into lesser used portions of the scale. This gave rise to things like the “wolf note” or the “devil’s interval”, which were particularly dissonant sounding notes or intervals. An instrument tuned in this way would sound very good in certain keys, but absolutely miserable in others.
Bach introduced the idea of “Well Temperament” which was the precursor of the modern “Even Temperament” which are tuning systems designed to spread the dissonance out evenly throughout the scale with the result that “technically” none of the notes are perfectly in tune, but the dissonance is hardly noticeable (especially to our 21st century ears that have never heard anything else) and the instrument can readily play in any key with equal proficiency.
This, to me, forms a great analogy of Systematic Theology vs. Biblical Theology. Study Theology for any length of time and you will realize that we just don’t have all of the answers. There are certain things in Theology, even the most Biblically Accurate Systematic Theologies, where there seem to be competing realities that we can’t seem to reconcile. How do we reconcile God’s Sovereignty with Man’s Responsibility? How do we explain the Trinity? What is going to happen in the Last Days? Study any of these issues for long enough and you will come away with your head spinning – but hopefully in a good way.
The classical approach to these issues is Systematic Theology which is an attempt to resolve as many of the tensions as possible by putting forth a framework upon which to hang the answers to all of these questions. By doing this, the theologian builds a structure on a foundation that appears very solid. Every question has an answer, and there appear to be no contradictions.
By contrast, Biblical Theology would be more like Equal Temperament. It’s purpose is not to spread tension out, directly, but it’s effect is much the same. Biblical Theology is exegetical in nature and builds its theology out of the text, relying on the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, and not requiring an interpretation to fit into any previously chosen system in order to properly interpret its meaning. Biblical The0logy allows the text to speak for itself, drawing from it to discover whatever theological realities it teaches. Rather than attempting to solve (or hide) the tensions in various things, Biblical Theology embraces them, allowing the richness of God’s revelation to come through as God intended to communicate it. The result is that there are no ignored texts, but there are questions that don’t have straight-forward answers.
Which is better? I think both are important, but due to both the finite nature and fallen nature of man’s mind, there are weaknesses to both. The biggest danger I see with Systematic Theology is that, left unchecked, the System can take on a higher authority than the Word of God. This is never the intent, but it can happen nonetheless. This can lead to certain problems, not the least of which being eisegesis. A lesser problem may be that you’ll find that certain of the answers that are given are based more on reasoning that is clearly intended to keep things within the parameters of the system than on the Scriptures. Press for direct Biblical support on these particular questions, and you’ll be met with hems and haws. You’ve found the wolf note. This is fine if it is understood what question is being answered by these answers. The question is not “What is X Y or Z,” the question is “Given Premises A and B, what would X, Y or Z logically be?” Systematic Theology can be really valuable in helping us evaluate and formulate rational understanding of what is logically derived from the Word of God, but the System ought always be evaluated to ensure that the foundation is built on is Biblically accurate and Biblically prioritized.
By contrast, Biblical Theology has direct Scriptural support for everything, but it doesn’t always fit together into a cohesive whole that resolves the tensions the way the Systematic Theologian desires. But even more dangerous, it can lend itself to having too narrow an interpretation of any given passage, missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.. Each passage must be interpreted within its historical and textual context if the full richness of its meaning is to be exegeted, which requires answering certain questions: What happened before? What happens next? What is the Big Picture? How does this passage fit into the big picture? Answering these questions would seem to require a certain degree of Systematic Theology!
So we seem to be in a Catch 22! What’s the solution? Don’t try to tune the piano perfectly! It can’t be done! Embrace the tension. We need to let God be God, and accept the fact that we can’t answer every question. There are times when Systematic Theology is extremely useful, and there are times when we just need to wrestle with what the text right in front of us is saying, even if we can’t seem to figure out how it fits into our system. And it’s even better when we use both Biblical and Systematic Theology to refine each other, with the goal of better understanding what God’s Word says, and what that means for us, but our hearts need to be receptive to what his Spirit will teach us through the Word.
I write this on the heels of doing some informal research into New Covenant Theology, as espoused by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, along with the similar, but slightly different, ideas communicated in Kingdom Through Covenant (a book that, actually, I have not yet had the time to read for myself), and the more historical Baptist Covenant Theology of 1689 Federalism. This post was a bit of an epiphany (which I like to call a BFO – Blinding Flash of the Obvious) as I watched this video trying to critique New Covenant Theology and I realized that New Covenant Theology and the Kingdom Through Covenant approach has arisen mostly out of Biblical Theology. It’s heavily dependent on exegesis of Matthew 5 and Hebrews 8, among other passages. On the other hand, 1689 Federalism is a well developed Systematic Theology that takes into account certain questions that Biblical Theology doesn’t quite address directly, leaving these scholars with a sense of incompleteness and inadequacy about NCT. I find that many my exegetical Biblical observations leads me to the NCT idea, but that if I had to hold to a System, I would feel right at home in Federalism.