Should Theology be Preached? Biblical vs. Systematic Theology

I am not sure of its history, but nowadays it seems that there is a prevalent divide between what is called systematic theology and biblical theology and how each should be applied in a Sunday morning setting. The ways the two are typically defined places systematic theology as what one does if one’s a theologian and biblical theology as what one does when one encounters a particular passage. For example, my prof last night put it this way (as I have heard several others before him say), that when he preaches through passages like Romans 8 and Ephesians 1 he preaches predestination, but when he preaches Romans 10, he preaches free will. In other words, he, like many others, believes that the Bible is ambiguous to human reason and is a collection of ambiguities that must be preached as the preacher believes they are presently presented.

The problem with this notion of the Bible and on biblical theology is that texts like Romans 10 do not exist in a vacuum, but they exist in their immediate contexts, Romans 10 particularly sandwiched between Romans 9 and 11, and in their greater context upon the Law and the Prophets. Nothing, as this notion of biblical theology propones, can be taken simply as one thinks that it is alone, but it must be considered along side the declarations of whole of Scripture.

In spite of this, the biblical theology issue is more a philosophical issue than it is an hermeneutical one. I say this because most of those who say that they preach “biblical theology” come from a more Arminian bent and declare that some texts in spite of clear texts like Romans 8-11 and Ephesians 1, that there exist texts that support what they hold to be philosophically true. Thus, when Paul writes, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” many take it to be a declaration of free will, though the text speaks nothing of it. It’s an assumption that is, frankly, contrary to the declarations of Scripture and even the declarations of Romans 10. It assumes that all men have the capacity to call upon the Lord in their present state as natural human beings which is clearly not the case.

Paul demonstrates this is not the case, for in the verses that follow it the apostle writes of Israel, “But they have not all [hearkened to] the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:16, 17). I translated the word that is translated in the ESV “obeyed” to “hearkened to” because in the Greek that word, aside from a preposition placed at the front, is the exact same word in tense and form as “heard” in the latter part of the verse. In other words, Paul is essentially saying that the Israelites have heard the gospel, but they have not heard it. Paul clarifies this in Romans 11, writing, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day (v. 11:8). What does this mean except that one can heard the Gospel with their ears but cannot hear it apart from a supernatural work by the Spirit of Christ? For this is exactly what the apostle means to say in v.10:17, namely that one’s faith comes from hearing, but one’s hearing comes from the creative word of Christ.

Paul writes similarly in 2 Corinthians 4, using the illustration of sight instead:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor. 4:3-6).

In other words, Paul in Romans 10 is demonstrating what he demonstrated in 2 Corinthians 4, namely that God creates in the soul the ability and the capacity to see him and to hear his Gospel and does so efficaciously. The difference between the two texts is the application of the truth–in 2 Corinthians 4, the application of this doctrine is made upon the world and unbelievers in general, and in Romans 10 it is applied to the Israelites. Nevertheless, the truth is the same, and it is missed when Romans 10 is preached in the manner of what some people call “biblical theology.”

In short, what some call biblical theology is more philosophical denial and intellectual laziness than it is faithfulness to the text. I loathe the declaration that systematic doctrines should not be preached through exposition, for I do not believe that one can preach a text rightly apart from understanding the whole. I honestly could not preach Romans 10 like many preach Romans 10, because it rips it from the greater purpose of the apostle in the section of Romans 9-11, namely the reason and purpose of Israel’s disbelief.

Categories: Theology

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2 replies

  1. I thought that systematic theology was asking "What does the Bible say about X?" whereas biblical was asking "What does passage Y say?" Indeed, the two should never contradict, but should be used together to efficiently discover what God says to us.


  2. You're right, that's what systematic theology and biblical theology are by definition. But you probably would not believe how many times I've heard some say that they preach by means of biblical theology and use it as an excuse to be ambigous and unfaithful to a particular text and the whole of Scripture. It's not biblical theology, but they it that.


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