Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (8): What Roles Do Philosophical Theology and Systematic Theology Play?

For many Christians, the words “philosophical” and “systematic” do not have the best of connotations. “Philosophy” reminds them, perhaps, of certain philosophers who have mocked Christianity, such as Nietzsche or several of the New Atheists. Likewise, “systematic” might conjure up images of theologians whose “system” subverts or overrides the biblical testimony, or whose books are so dense and technical that one wonders who could possibly understand them. And while these negative impressions might sometimes have been earned by practitioners of these two disciplines, I think that both disciplines can be helpful tools in a theologian’s toolbox, if treated appropriately. I will give you a hint: I am going to suggest that it will be helpful for the church if professional theologians will do systematic theology in such a manner that they move a step or two away from philosophical theology and step or two toward biblical theology.

The Nature and Legitimacy of Philosophical Theology

There are various ways of conceiving the task of philosophical theology, but it will suffice here to say that philosophical theology is the appropriation of philosophical tools for the task of theology. Such appropriation has been evident since the earliest days of church history, in which the church found itself needing to interact with a language and a Greco-Roman framework of thought that were not designed with the needs of Christian theology in mind. McGrath writes, “On the one hand, it was necessary to go beyond the insights of scripture in order to meet the new intellectual challenges faced by the Christian communities; on the other, it was necessary to ensure that these extensions of the scriptural vocabulary and conceptual framework were consonant with its central insights.”[1] Indeed theologians in the present era wrestle with the same challenge, acknowledge that some level of philosophical theology is unavoidable, and find appropriate ways to draw upon his context’s conceptual languages and frameworks.

The Nature and Legitimacy of Systematic Theology

As with biblical and philosophical theology, there are more than a few ways to conceive systematic theology. For the purpose of this chapter, we will define systematic theology as a discipline which draws upon the biblical narrative in order to conceptualize and articulate the biblical faith in a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified manner for a particular cultural context.[2] Because it is done for a particular context, it often conceptualizes and articulates the biblical faith in relation to questions that arise outside of the text, and with categories that are not explicitly found in the text. It is “systematic,” by nature of the fact that it is organized based upon a set of presuppositions, and also on the basis of pedagogical and presentational concerns. A faithfully biblical systematic theology will be “systematic” without flouting the biblical ordering, lopping off awkward biblical data, or otherwise relegating Scripture to a secondary status. It will seek to construct systematic conceptions of the biblical material that arise comfortably from the biblical narrative, resonate with its core teachings, take into account all of the biblical data, and recognize its own secondary status in relation to Scripture. Further, we note that faithful theologians will not read the Bible in order to construct “great systematic theologies.” Rather we construct systematic theologies that help us read the Bible better, systems that lead us to deeper and richer exegesis. Scripture is primary, while systematic renderings of it are secondary.

The Relationship of Systematic Theology to Philosophical Theology and Biblical Theology.

Evangelical systematic theologians generally sustain conversation, at some level, with both biblical theologians and philosophical theologians. Systematic theologians are sometimes dependent upon philosophical theology for certain concepts with which to articulate the Christian message. Rational representation of the Christian message requires concepts, which are abstractions of the more concrete and historical biblical narrative(s). Philosophical theology provides those concepts, and has done so throughout church history. For example, the early church fathers spoke of Christ as being homoousios with (or, “of the same essence as”) the Father. They did so in order to speak clearly and in a common language within their cultural context. Philosophical concepts can function as a sort of intellectual shorthand which allows for more direct apprehension than can be had from the sprawling narrative of Scripture, composed as it is of narrative, poetry, prose, and other genres.

However, these concepts can undermine the Bible unless the theologian defines those concepts biblically, filling them with Christian meaning drawn from the biblical narrative. In his seminal article on this topic, Michael Williams writes, “I want to argue this precise point: the biblical narrative structure, the story of God’s relationship with his creation-from Adam to Christ crucified and resurrected to Christ triumphant in the restoration of all things in the kingdom of God-forms the regulative principle and interpretive key for systematic theology no less than it does for biblical theology. This suggests that a systematic theology that is oriented to the biblical narrative and scriptural ways of knowing ought to be redemptively-historically grounded rather than ordered to a cultural convention of rationality or an extra-biblical conception of system.”[3]

If the concepts drawn from philosophical theology are ever “cut free” from the narrative and allowed to “float” on their own, the result will be a distortion or subversion of the biblical teaching. For example, Christian theologians have drawn upon Aristotelian philosophy in order to conceive and articulate God’s attributes in terms of God’s “pure actuality,” “simplicity,” “aseity,” “necessity,” and so forth. But if God is described merely in those terms, without those terms being defined by the biblical witness about God and his mighty acts in history, we have not understood who God is. We have contemplated some abstractions about a purported deity, but we have not understood or embraced the God of Israel who alone can save. For this reason, we affirm that biblical theology, rather than any culturally conditioned philosophical framework, is the home environment of systematic theology.

Theology’s often inappropriate relationship with philosophical theology began in the patristic period, but gained steam in the medieval period, as the scholastic method fostered an impulse toward abstraction. Theology became an exercise in abstract, metaphysical knowledge of God divorced from the concrete particularity of the historical narrative. In fact, the Reformers sought to reform theology on this exact point. Luther’s “theology of the cross” was an attempt to assert the priority of the narrative over metaphysics. “Luther’s fundamental point . . . is that the narrative of the crucified Christ must be interpreted on the basis of a framework established by that narrative itself, rather than upon the basis of an imposed alien framework.”[4] The theologian of the cross is the one who allows his conceptual framework to arise naturally from the biblical narrative rather than vice-versa, interpreting the biblical narrative on the basis of a preconceived system.


[1] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 6

[2] This definition draws upon, but modifies and expands, the definition given by John Webster, that “systematic theology aims at a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified conceptual representation of Christian teaching.” Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,”12.

[3] Michael Williams, “Systematic Theology as a Biblical Discipline,” in All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary, ed. Robert A. Peterson and Sean Michael Lucas (Fearn, Tain, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 167-196.

[4] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 65.wordstat google

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (7): Who Needs the Bible When They Have a Good Systematic Theology?

An anonymous reviewer once skewered a book by saying, “This book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.” That’s clever and it made for a nice dig against a certain book, but there is a sense in which any text of theology is good only to the extent that it is not original. This is because a faithful Christian theology lashes itself to the biblical text. (Now, I do not mean to imply that our theological formulations cannot be constructively creative, or that our formulations are a-cultural. I simply mean that as theologians, we are conceptualizing and articulating “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”) Theology is a love affair with God, undertaken by our interaction with his love letter to us. For this reason Christian theologians treat biblical studies and biblical theology as the sine qua non for evangelical theology (the condition without which it could not exist). Scripture provides the basic categories, themes, and framework within which evangelical theologians work. The Bible has priority. But what does it mean to make the Bible a priority in the task of theology? We mention four initial imperatives about biblical interpretation before moving on to a discussion of biblical theology.

Reading the Scriptures:

Hermeneutics is the theory and practice of interpretation. Theologians must approach the biblical text with a proper hermeneutic, which will include at least these four imperatives. First, when reading Scripture, we seek to understand what the biblical author was trying to communicate. Although we cannot “step inside” the biblical author’s mind in order to access his mental state, we can access the biblical author’s communicative purposes through the text.[1] Second, we read the text with a hermeneutic of love. To do so means that we value it for its inherent worth and beauty, rather than using it toward some other means (such as proving our theological systems). We approach it patiently, attentively, like a lover, rather than impatiently and inattentively, like, perhaps, a Sonic drive-thru customer. N. T. Wright writes, “Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself. . . . In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.”[2] The process of interpretation is a conversation with the text, one in which the reader can gain real understanding of the text, and in so doing, gain real understanding of the world outside of the text (external reality).

Third, we read the text with a hermeneutic of trust. We trust Scripture and are suspicious of ourselves, rather than trusting ourselves and being suspicious of Scripture.[3] Fourth, we read the text humbly. We recognize that we read the text with historical, cultural and existential biases that threaten to distort the text. For this reason, we seek continually to bring our exegetical conclusions back to the text for “cleaning.” David Clark writes, “In light of cultural and life issues and concerns, a theologian listens to Scripture, then develops tentative hypotheses, and then goes back to the Bible in a dialogical movement. . . . He seeks to flesh out his hypotheses and to test them for adequacy to Scripture, internal coherence, and explanatory power for life.”[4] Furthermore, we seek the help of the Christian community in reading Scripture. When we read the Scriptures in this manner, we are more likely to avoid the interpretive distortion that can be brought about by our biases and limitations.

Exposing the inner unity of the Scriptures:

Biblical theology is a discipline which studies the various biblical texts as a whole, seeking to apprehend and express their unity, and doing so by means of categories taken from the texts themselves. As such, it lays the basis for systematic and integrative theology, whose theologians also seek to apprehend and express the unity of the Bible, but often in relation to questions that arise outside of the text, and with categories that are not explicitly found in the text. Biblical theology is a rather diverse field of studies.[5] Evangelical biblical theologians are unified in their belief that the Bible exhibits unity amidst its diversity.[6] For this reason, we think that systematic and integrative theologies benefit particularly from narrative-shaped biblical theologies. “Over the past few decades, one of the most exciting developments in biblical studies has been the growing recognition among scholars that the Bible has the shape of a story. . . . It functions as the authoritative Word of God for us when it becomes the one basic story through which we understand our own experience and thought, and the foundation upon which we base our decisions and actions.”[7]

Indeed, the narrative approach is helpful because of the narrative quality of Scripture. Not only does the majority of the Bible consist of narrative, but even the non-narrative books (e.g. epistles) are in constant conversation with the Old Testament narrative(s) and the life of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:1-13). Further, it is helpful for apologists who seek to show the explanatory power of the biblical narratives in contrast to other narratives, for pastoral theologians seeking to employ the narrative for shaping Christians’ worldview, and, most importantly for our purposes, for systematic and integrative theologians who want to locate the major heads of doctrine within the Bible’s home environment, which is its overarching narrative framework. Finally, it is helpful because it helps us to read the text within its totality (tota Scriptura).


[1] See Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 43-97. Also, see Anthony Thiselton’s “adverbial” understanding of authorial intent. Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 558-562.

[2] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 64.

[3] This point is worked out in detail in Craig Bartholomew’s “Philosophy, Theology and Biblical Interpretation: Watson, Dooyeweerd and Vanhoozer,” an unpublished paper delivered in 1995 at the Bible and Theology Conference at King’s College (London).

[4] Clark, To Know and Love God, 51.

[5] New Testament scholar D. A. Carson has listed six different conceptions of biblical theology; Old Testament scholar Gerhard Hasel lists no fewer than ten major methodologies in the field of Old Testament theology. D. A. Carson, “Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995), 17-41; Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 4th ed., rev. and exp. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 38-114.

[6] For an evangelical response to objections that some scholars have leveled against the unity of Scripture, see Craig Bartholomew, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (ed. Craig Bartholomew et al.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 144-171.

[7] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 21.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (1): The Most Exciting Endeavor of All

I will never forget my first day of Systematic Theology. (The year was 1996. Think Billy Ray Cyrus. America Online. Super Nintendo. Doc Martens. Et, as they say, cetera). I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, Micah Patisall, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher, and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?

In all seriousness, however, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constructivist and human response models). After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

Since that day, many things have changed. I lived and served in Central Asia for two years, came back to the States to work on a Ph.D. in Theology, worked in student ministry as an itinerant preacher, was hired to teach intellectual history at The College at Southeastern, transferred over to the mission department, got married to Lauren and had two little girls, became a pastor/elder at The Summit Church, and finally now split my time between the theology and missiology departments at Southeastern. Throughout all of these changes, however, one of the things that did not change was the desire to do theology-the desire to know and love God, and participate with him on his mission. There is nothing more important, more rewarding, more practical, or more exciting than “doing theology.” And, in fact, every Christian is called to be a theologian (although most will not be professional theologians or systematic theologians, per se) precisely because theology is all about knowing and loving God, and joining him in his mission.

Now, I find myself teaching theology at Southeastern, and trying to explain to first and second year students how one goes about the task of theology. I have not found this to be an easy endeavor (and I’ve got a long way to go until I can do it well) but it has been a rewarding journey and fruitful in many ways.

The present blog installment is the first in an ongoing series, “Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus,” which will deal with the task of theology, including questions such as: What is the purpose of theology? What is the relationship of theology to worship, discipleship, and mission? Why do we have confidence that we can know anything at all about God? Should our theology be affected by such things as reason, culture, experience, and church tradition? What is the relationship between theology and philosophy? Between theology and science? Between faith and learning? Who is our primary audience when we do theology? These are deep and powerful questions and, unfortunately, our treatment of them will have to be concise and in most cases surface-level. But hopefully the series somehow will be helpful in sustaining an ongoing conversation on the most exciting endeavor in all of God’s good creation: doing theology as a servant of Jesus.