Drawing Lines and Circles: The Interplay of Biblical and Systematic Theology

Much is made today of the apparent distinction between understanding the Bible as a set of propositions about God and understanding the Bible as a narrative. These are usually pitted against each other with some adherents of each camp lobbing attacks and the other. However, it is helpful to understand the interplay between these two very important and very helpful disciplines as demonstrated by the following quotes.

In reference to Biblical Theology’s relation to Systematic Theology, Geerhadus Vos wrote:

“There is no difference in that one would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this, that the one transforms the Biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principles by which the transformation is effected differ. In Biblical Theology the principle is one of historical, in Systematic it s one of logical construction. Biblical Theology draws a line of development. Systematic Theology draws a circle.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 15-16, emphasis original.

Building on Vos’ statement, Michael Horton, using a cartographic metaphor, writes:

“For example, the doctrine of the Trinity did not fall from heaven all at once but was revealed progressively as God’s plan unfolded in history. Biblical theology follows that organic development, while systematic theology pulls these insights in a formal dogma and relates the Trinity to other doctrines in Scripture. If biblical theology is a topographical map, systematic theology is more like a street map, pointing out the logical connection between various doctrines spread throughout the Scripture. Without biblical theology, systematic theology easily surrenders the dynamism of revelation to timeless truths; without systematic theology, biblical theology surrenders the Bible’s internal coherence–the relation of the parts to the whole.” Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 29.

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