Theology is the most amazing subject, and one of the most misunderstood. It can relate to the entire discipline of religious studies, but Christian theology is more specifically the study of what the Scriptures say. This is not minimalism, since this study includes exegesis, historical criticism, careful analysis of method and epistemology, and then comes the careful presentation of this. Theology can thus be defined like this: disciplined discourse about God. This discourse is fully and finally constrained by the Bible.
Exegesis is the study and work carried out on the final form of the text which is considered as an integral and self-referring literary object. It includes, but is not limited to parsing, word study, and syntax at various levels (clause, sentence, discourse, genre) while being attentive to literary features and the running argument. The running argument is the idea that the task of the exegete is never complete. One can study a text using all the skill and tools available, and get to the end of the text and be satisfied, and in this sense it is complete, but the self-referential nature of the authority of Scripture means that an ‘end’ is never achieved, since it is God’s ever speaking Word to us through all generations. It is because there is always something to discover in God Himself, that there is likewise a never-ending discovery awaiting the careful reader of the Bible.
There are about six competing definitions of Biblical Theology, which make it quite hard to define. However, Biblical Theology may inductively focus on the whole Bible or select biblical corpora. It certainly involves a salvation-historical study of the biblical texts; this is the understanding and exposition of the texts along their chronological line of development – this aspect of Biblical Theology is vital for preachers today in a age of almost total biblical illiteracy. Five elements are essential to Biblical Theology: 1. It reads the Bible as an historically developing collection of documents. 2. It presupposes a coherent and agreed canon. 3. It presupposes a profound willingness to work inductively from the text – from individual books and from the canon as a whole. Its task is to deploy categories and pursue an agenda set by the text itself. 4. It clarifies the connections among the corpora, i.e. it is committed to intertextual study, because Biblical theology, at its most coherent, is a theology of the Bible. 5. Ultimately and ideally, Biblical Theology will call all people to a knowledge of the living God. In other words, it does not stop with the Bible’s structure, corpus thought, storyline, or synthetic thought; it must in a sense, capture the experiential, the existential element.
Biblical Theology focuses on the turning points of the Bible’s storyline, and its most pivotal concern is tied to the use of the Old Testament in the New. All Christians must read the Old as filtered through the New. Old and New Testaments are subsets of Biblical Theology, which forms the whole.
Historical Theology is the written record of exegetical and theological opinions in periods earlier than our own, a kind of parallel to the diversity of exegetical and theological opinions that are actually current. It is what is known as the diachronic study of theology, the study of the changing face of theology across time.
Systematic Theology is Christian theology with a systematic internal structure. This means it is organised on atemporal principles of logic, order, and need, rather than on inductive study of discrete biblical corpora. This is why it can address broader concerns in Theology. Thus Don Carson can say, “It is not merely inductive study of the Bible, though it must never lose such controls, but it seeks to be rigorously systematic and is therefore concerned about how various parts of God’s gracious self-disclosure cohere… The questions it poses are atemporal… the focal concerns are logical and hierarchical, not salvation-historical.”
Some people cheaply knock Systematic Theology, which is foolish. The issue is not whether it is legitimate, the issue is the quality of one’s Systematic Theology reflected in its foundational data, constructive methods, principles for excluding certain information, appropriately expressive language, and logical, accurate results. Ultimately, Systematics must be controlled by the biblical data and be aware of going beyond how various truths and arguments function in Scripture, not least because a number of fundamental Christian beliefs involves huge areas of unknown, such as the Incarnation, Trinity, and God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. It is precisely because the Bible has a unity that Systematics is necessary.
Who Needs Theology?
Theology is the most exciting thing on the planet, no, the universe, no even that’s too small. Theology is amazing because God Himself is amazing. I heartily recommend the book ‘Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God’ by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen as a great place to start. It will even make you laugh – who says theology wasn’t fun? My thanks for the above to Andy Naselli, who has worked closely with Dr Don Carson over many years. You have made theology exciting to me, and I hope the flame burns bright in others.