Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars

Written by Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, eds. Reviewed By Darian Lockett

What is the relationship between biblical and systematic theology? Are they disciplines related sequentially, one necessarily following the other; or, are they parallel disciplines which, starting with the biblical text, gather theological data only to arrange such data according to different sets of criteria? This volume brings together NT scholars and theologians who are interested in the intersection of biblical and systematic theology. The essays are composed by students of Robert H. Gundry as a kind of festschrift paying tribute to his influence. Appropriately, then, the guiding question taken up throughout the volume is Gundry’s own: “Ought systematic theology to dominate biblical theology, or vice versa? Or ought they form a partnership of equals, or go their separate ways?” (p. 1). Relying on either a particular exegetical issue or contemporary theological topic, the essays themselves wrestle with the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, while their authors, in tribute to Gundry, thoughtfully interact with the guiding questions posed by their former professor.

The volume is divided into three parts: Part 1 (pp. 7–38) introduces the theme of the volume with two essays. Benjamin Reynolds offers some introductory observations in his chapter “The Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the Work of Robert H. Gundry.” Reynolds outlines Gundry’s legacy of rich NT research with sensitivity to the questions of systematic theology. Following Reynolds’s opening survey, Kevin J. Vanhoozer offers his own sketch of the relationship between systematic and NT theology in his essay, “Is the Theology of the New Testament One or Many?” Vanhoozer charts the history of this relationship considering five case studies of how biblical and systematic theology find their relation in the work of Thomas Schreiner, Ben Witherington III, G. K. Beale, Michael Bird, and in the recent biblical theology by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum. Reacting to his colleague’s version of the relationship, Vanhoozer argues “Carson is not against systematic theology tout court, but he blesses it with faint praise only: ‘What is transparently clear . . . is that its organizing principles do not encourage the exploration of the Bible’s plot-line, except incidentally. The categories of systematic theology are logical and hierarchical, not temporal’” (p. 24). Quoting Carson, Vanhoozer continues, “I do not think that systematic theology is necessarily ‘a little further removed from the biblical text’ than biblical theology” (p. 24). Vanhoozer concludes, “Systematic theology is not simply a second step that follows biblical theology; rather, it is a partner in the exegetical process itself” (p. 38). I think the disagreement between Vanhoozer and Carson gets at one of the central issues—the prevailing assumption that biblical theology as a historical-exegetical discipline is necessarily closer or perhaps truer to the text.

Part 2 (pp. 41–153) contains five essays composed by NT scholars considering the intersection between biblical and systematic theology. Mark Strauss’s essay, “Christology or Christological Purpose in the Synoptic Gospels,” focuses on the degree of unity between the synoptic accounts of Jesus. He notes, “This challenge of unity and diversity is particularly acute with reference to the various Christologies of the NT” (p. 41). Rather than presenting hopelessly distinct Christologies, or a merely evolutionary (“history-of-religions-school”) or developmental Christology, Strauss concludes that the Synoptics contain a messianic, implicitly “high,” Christology which sets the foundation for later Trinitarian reflection (p. 61).

Reynolds’s second essay reflects on the history of interpretation of John 6, considering whether one should understand the imperative to eat and drink Jesus’s flesh and blood in light of the Eucharist. His essay helpfully wrestles with whether or not “systematic theology or biblical theology ‘should dominate the other’ or whether they should ‘form a partnership of equals’” (p. 80). Though Reynolds ultimately concludes that the language of John 6 is not Eucharistic, he argues for the “hand-in-hand” relationship of biblical and systematic theology. Roy Kotansky compares the differences between 1 Corinthians 15 and the Gospel narratives as they list the individual witnesses to the resurrection (“The Resurrection of Jesus in Biblical Theology”). The formative question for Kotansky is whether one should harmonize such accounts for the sake of a uniform biblical theology, or if biblical theology is better served by merely appreciating the complex portrait of the resurrection as reflected in the tension. He concludes: “Systematic theology can only come about when the details of historical exegesis, coupled with the source-critical analysis of even the smallest literary units within our available records, are first exiguously carried out” (p. 104). Thus, rather than mutual partners, the relationship is more of a one-way street from historical-critical exegesis through biblical theology to systematic theology.

Judith Gundry’s essay, “Anxiety or Care for People?,” reaches a similar conclusion. After a close reading of 1 Corinthians 7:32–34, she concludes that because of Paul’s eschatological concerns he addresses the theme of striving for the benefit of others vis-à-vis one’s marriage commitments. Reflecting on the implications of her study upon the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, Gundry asserts that historical-critical exegesis must be the starting point for any good interpretation of scripture such that scholarly investigation must have priority over theological reflection and application. J. Webb Mealy offers a final essay taking up the Christian theological commitment of reading biblical passages in light of a greater unity (“Revelation is One: Revelation 20 and the Quest to Make the Scriptures Agree”). He contrasts his own reading of the text with that of G. K. Beale and notes that “each of us brings an external agenda to the passage” (p. 135). The result is that two different theological approaches to the text are thrown into sharp relief—one a rubric focused on amillennialism (Beale) and the other focused on premillennialism (Mealy).

Part 3 (pp. 157–271) contains five essays composed by systematic theologians considering the influence of the NT on the task of systematic theology. In “James, ‘The Book of Straw,’ in Reformational Biblical Exegesis,” Jennifer McNutt considers the complex and nuanced appreciation of the authority of James within the exegetical work of both radical and magisterial reformers. Though Luther judged James critically for its “urging works alone apart from faith . . . its neglect of Christ and the chaotic organization of its topics,” the reformer nonetheless appealed to James in a number of ways in order to support his theological convictions (p. 172). It was Luther’s conviction regarding the unity of the text of Scripture that enabled him to be critical of James while at the same time relying on James where it aligned theologically with other texts. McNutt sees “a level of partnership between text and theology . . . in the practice of Reformation exegesis . . . rooted . . . in one’s hermeneutical assessment of scripture and the value, above all, of the unity of the text” (p. 176). In a second essay, Vanhoozer contrasts Classical and Evangelical Calvinism in their respective understanding of union with Christ (“The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 [with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism]”). After considering Evangelical Calvinism’s claims for ontological union with Christ for all, Vanhoozer argues in favor of the Classical view that union with Christ is reserved only for the elect who have been incorporated into Christ’s person and work through faith—concluding, with Gundry, that “older is better.” Brian Lugioyo considers how exegesis and theology are necessary for understanding how the text speaks to contemporary issues of neuroscience (“Ministering to Bodies: Anthropological views of Sōma in the New Testament, Theology, and Neuroscience”). Roger Newell challenges what he considers “sentimental exegesis” bound up in pre-tribulation rapture eschatology-escapism (“Instead of Sentimental Exegesis: The Significance of Suffering for Christ and his Church”). And finally, Gary Deddo offers an insightful outline of T. F. Torrance’s theological method (“T. F. Torrance on Theological and Biblical Studies as Co-Servants of the Word of God, Living and Written”). Deddo argues that aligned properly with God’s work of revealing himself and reconciling humanity to himself, “biblical studies and theology may very well be reconciled while still offering distinct but overlapping . . . service” (p. 271). This is followed by a postscript written by Stan D. Gaede and an appendix listing in full Robert Gundry’s publications. The volume also includes a brief foreword written by close friend and present Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, Tremper Longman III.

The volume itself focuses on a clear question (the relationship between biblical and systematic theology), yet individual essays posit this relationship in various ways (the relationship between NT theology and Systematic theology; unity and diversity in the NT; biblical studies and theology; biblical and systematic theology; text and theology). Indicative of the wide range of possible construals of the relationship, this diversity is true to the current state of the discussion. Revealing too is the fact that some essays implicitly reject the relationship as a “partnership of equals” (Kotansky concludes that theology is beholden to historical exegesis; Judith Gundry understands that the historical-critical method is largely uninterested in questions of modern relevancy) or only register the question of the relationship as an add-on question to an otherwise unrelated research question (Strauss only mentions the relationship in his opening paragraph failing to return to it directly).

Other essays are more successful in integrating exegetical or theological study into the larger question of the volume. Mealy’s essay on Revelation and Reynolds’s second essay on John 6 are good examples of balancing careful exegetical and reception-historical investigation with probing methodological questions regarding the relationship between biblical and systematic theology. Several essays in the collection echo Vanhoozer’s judgment that biblical and systematic theology must truly walk together hand-in-hand in order to penetrate the text’s meaning. Thoughtfully representing a variety of perspectives, this collection contributes to the ongoing Christian reflection on the Bible’s unity and contemporary relevance in light of the academic disciplines of biblical and systematic theology.

Darian Lockett

Darian Lockett
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA

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