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Biblical theology and discourse analysis – Part 2

Posted by on Apr 9, 2009 in biblical theology, discipleship, scripture | 2 comments

In this series, I’m examining how macro-structure analysis (specifically, several tools of discourse analysis) can help the biblical theologian determine the various themes of Scripture. In the last post, I wrote about the relationship between biblical theology and exegesis. In this post, I’m going to examine the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology.


While recognizing several different (and sometimes competing) definitions of biblical theology, Carson also identifies several unifying aspects. One of these aspects is the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology. While there are many similarities between these two disciplines, Carson suggests one major difference:

[Systematic Theology] asks and answers primarily atemporal questions. In some measure it deals with the categories established by historical theology; at the same time its priorities and agenda are carefully constructed so as, ideally, to address the contemporary age at the most crucial junctures. This means, inter alia, that it often includes material at a second or third or fourth order of remove from Scripture, as it engages, say, philosophical and scientific questions not directly raised by the biblical texts themselves. These elements constitute part of its legitimate mandate.

Not so biblical theology. It is deeply committed to working inductively from the biblical text; the text itself sets the agenda… [A] biblical theologian, whether working on, say, the Pauline corpus, or on the entire canon, must in the first instance seek to deploy categories and pursue an agenda set by the text itself.(“Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective,” BBR 5 (1995): 29)

Thus, according to Carson, the primary difference between systematic theology and biblical theology lies in the locus of the themes and categories of the organization of its synthesis. Systematic theologians organize their information around historically traditional categories or around contemporary questions and concerns. On the other hand, biblical theologians attempt to organize their information around the categories found in the text of Scripture or around questions raised in the text.

Carson was not the first scholar to recognize this distinction between systematic theology and biblical theology. For example, over two hundred years ago, in his inaugural address, Gabler distinguished biblical theology from dogmatic theology. While his plan was different than Carson’s, Gabler did suggest that biblical theology described the views of the biblical authors while dogmatic theology used reason to propose present-day beliefs. (Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Kinds of Biblical Theology,” WTJ 70 (2008), 129—30)

Similarly, about a hundred years after Gabler, Schlatter encouraged the biblical theologian—the New Testament theologian, in particular—to express the theology of the biblical authors, not the theology of the scholar, nor the theology of his tradition, nor the theology of his time period. (The History of the Christ. Trans. Andreas J. Köstenberger; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 17—18) Schlatter was concerned that the theologian would begin with his own categories or questions. He said, “Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them.” (Ibid., 18) So, for Schlatter also, the distinction between systematic theology and biblical theology lies primarily in the way the material is categorized or organized. The biblical theologian should appropriate his themes from the text, not from contemporary society or from traditional categories.

In his A Theology of the New Testament, Ladd denotes the distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology as a defining factor of biblical theology. He writes, “Biblical theology is that discipline which sets forth the message of the books of the Bible in their historical setting. Biblical theology is primarily a descriptive discipline. It is not initially concerned with the final meaning of the teachings of the Bible or their relevance for today. This is the task of systematic theology.” (A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, 25) Analyzing and synthesizing biblical information in its historical setting and not for contemporary relevance is a difficult exercise. However, this distinction is important for defining biblical theology.

Fanning also explicitly clarifies the distinction between systematic theology and biblical theology. He says,

[B]iblical theology seeks to systematize the teaching of the Bible regarding God and his ways, but the organizing principles are different. Systematic theology consciously attempts to express the truth of God in ways relevant to and understandable by the contemporary culture. The categories and thought forms of biblical theology are often not readily grasped by present-day audiences. The job of systematics is to recast biblical ideas about God and his ways in terms that communicate these truths faithfully in today’s world and call people to respond in faith and obedience. (“Theological Analysis,” 284)

As Fanning also points out, the major distinction between systematic theology and biblical theology is the “organizing principles” behind each discipline. The biblical theologian must carefully navigate the biblical text in order to determine the categories and themes of this material. While the systematic theologian can “recast” the biblical material in terms and categories that communicate to people today, the biblical theologian does not have this luxury. He must remain with the patterns and categories of the biblical authors, even and especially if those themes are unfamiliar to the theologian or his audience.

Biblical theology plays an important role in the bridge between biblical exegesis and systematic theology. Beginning with the interpretation of passages, the biblical theologian must find his information and his categories in the text. Thus, exegesis is important for both content and organization, so that the theologian ensures (as much as possible) that he does not introduce foreign concepts into the analysis and synthesis of the biblical passages. The biblical theologian should look for exegetical tools and methods to help him locate biblical themes, because recognizing the distinction between systematic theology and biblical theology is not enough to guarantee that those foreign concepts do not drift into the biblical theologian’s work.

In the next article of this series, I’ll examine how several biblical theologians have identified scriptural themes.


Biblical theology and discourse analysis series
1. Relationship between biblical theology and exegesis
2. Relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology
3. Methods of discovering themes in biblical theology
4. Discourse analysis in biblical theology
5. Case study from Romans 12-15 and conclusion


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  1. 4-9-2009


    Very interesting stuff. Maybe a little over my head though.

    I asked a question at the seminar concerning systematic preaching vs topical teaching. Is there any relationship between what you are discussing here and the question I asked?

    For the average non-theologian where does this discussion on biblical and systematic theology play in their lives?



  2. 4-9-2009


    Biblical theology and systematic theology refers to the way we understand God, mankind, the world, etc. Biblical theology focuses on what the authors of Scripture says. Systematic theology attempts to communicate this to culture. Thus, “bioethics” would be a systematic concern (because culture is concerned about bioethics) but not a concern of the biblical theology, because the authors of Scripture did not write about bioethics.

    The methods of teaching (i.e. expositorty, topical, narrative) is a different matter. Like I’ve said before, I think its good to teach in a variety of methods because people learn in a variety of ways.