Marquette Scripture Project

Scripture and Systematic Theology

For biblical scholars to begin asking questions about the theological meaning of the biblical text is immediately to re-introduce theology to the discipline. This does not mean, however, that the whole field of systematic theology now has purview over biblical scholars and the theological meaning of the text. Yes, systematic theologians are equipped through their training to grapple with the myriad philosophical problems that emerge when managing multiple simultaneous theological insights. (And there will be an overwhelming simultaneity when it comes to Scripture.) But they are not, as it currently stands, well-armed to approach the Bible.

Biblical scholars express deep and rightful concern when they complain that systematic theologians do not really know the Bible they use. It is true. Systematic theology leans far more heavily on philosophy than Scripture, and it shows. If systematic theologians are suddenly interested in the Bible again, now that theology is allowed in the Bible again, they had better start reading it again. And this means knowing its history as much as it means knowing its canon.

There is a certain level at which, of course, systematic theologians have a right to ask all kinds of anachronistic questions of Scripture. If it really is a governing text for the discipline of systematic theology, a lasting source of revelation, then it must by all means address the current theological context. (And biblical scholars are not the guardians of theological insight any more than theologians are.) All the same, it is rather telling that these systematic reads of Scripture – these efforts to make it relevant – end up sounding so weird.

When biblical scholars for their part attempt to approach and appropriate biblical theological meaning, they have shown an unfortunate confusion and hesitation. This is not soothing for systematic theologians to observe. Interest in theological exegesis has devolved into an uncertain stand-off between history and theology. Some appear to be interested in theological exegesis simply so that they can re-affirm those dogmatic beliefs they already hold. This is unhelpful. Others are reticent toward theological insight because they wrongly believe history to be more accurate than dogma. This is an absolutely false dichotomy.

Of this much we are assured: no one wants to be (overtly) a-historical. Has it occurred to us that, much as we are historical beings, theology will always carry with it the a-historical? This is precisely because it is about eternal truth in history. So, a lack of historicity can be detested – but not as an unmitigated measure of truth or falsity. Otherwise, history has again become the prime governor of verified fact, and this was precisely the flaw in extreme uses of historical-criticism. (Not that systematic theologians, and our gleeful lack of attention to history, have made eternal truth all that appetizing.)

Such is a brief summary of the troubled relationship between the two disciplines, one that only scratches the surface of history and theory. I will now attempt some commentary about my own field (systematic theology) and how it ought to approach Scripture.

Theologians must realize that we are not well trained in Scripture. Systematic theologians, and I speak now particularly as a Catholic systematic theologian, do not read Scripture enough and certainly have only the most general idea what biblical scholars are doing with it. Part of this ignorance exists because biblical scholars became specialized beyond the practical capacity for systematic theologians to understand or employ their insights, not all of which pertain to theology in any case. But this ignorance is also a real lack of responsible attention. I myself admit that my own work has failed to allow Scripture a consistent place. (Protestant systematic theologians have problems with Scripture peculiar to them, and I dare not cross that battle-line while I am in the middle of picking a fight with my own dear brethren.)

Theologians must listen to biblical scholars. This is distasteful, of course, because it admits a serious weakness. We do not know what we are talking about when it comes to Scripture. Biblical scholars comprehend the Bible and its history much better than theologians do. Pride will do no one any good here.

Theologians must know when not to listen to biblical scholars. Because theological exegesis is, in its current state, so confused and in the midst of development, not everything biblical scholars argue is helpful. There are many moments when biblical scholars no longer consider long-adopted exegetical insights viable. This does not always make such insights in fact unviable – for there is a difference between scholarly consensus and ecclesial truth, and the latter is not dependent on the former while (and here I make everyone uncomfortable) the former is dependent on the latter.

Magisterial influence is yet another difficult discernment, especially for Catholics, though I am convinced it is not always as complicated as we render it. It is easier to agree in theory that the Church ought to lend insight to theological exegesis than it is to work out that theory in practice. The Catholic Magisterium stubbornly maintains its right to serve as the final judgment when it comes to authoritative teaching on revelation, and this of course includes the Bible. It is popular now for scholars to dissent from the official Church, since scholars are in most cases more knowledgeable about the topic anyway. We ought perhaps instead to pause and consider the range and limits of our expertise, since it is not the same sort of expertise to which Magisterium lays claim.

Ecclesial authority is uncomfortable, and the nature of truth is uncomfortable, and obedience is uncomfortable. But they must be addressed, or we are failing the most basic kind of honesty. Nor will I, for my part, tolerate a new Magisterium composed of scholars, as I have little doubt we will be more burdensome to people of faith than bishops are.

As a whole, systematic theologians have a troubling tendency to leave behind the Bible. This can happen in a number of ways, though the most popular is the (not unreasonable) claim that the Bible does not directly answer the question at hand. I must wonder to what extent this is a serious mistake. Yes, the Bible functions in a manner remarkably different than systematic theology. The Bible is deeply literary, often mystical, and intertextually complex. Still: how can the Bible abide in theology beyond a merely distilled meaning, and without becoming literalist?

I by no means request that systematic theologians must always cite biblical texts. The mere citing of the Bible does not make a work biblical. Nor does the claim of presuming a “biblical worldview” while never bothering to cite the Bible make a work biblical. How, then, can systematic theology remain biblically informed, yet without unnecessarily burdening it with an unnecessary, even fundamentalist, biblicism –  placing philosophy and the Bible in conflict?

So I close with a kind of awe over the immensity of the problem. I admit that systematic theology only poorly incorporates the Bible in its work, and this is further complicated by the confusion in biblical scholarship. Nor can I resist further aggravating everyone by wondering whether perhaps the official Church has achieved a union between Scripture, history, and theology that the academy has yet to realize. By all means, scholarly work and Magisterial work are not the same – but they are not unrelated, and we are perhaps too quick to dismiss the Magisterium as “pastoral.” After all, a survey of the use of Genesis in the encyclical tradition of the 20th century alone reveals a rather stunning display of continued exegetical development (increasingly historically aware), parsed in tandem with theological development. That is just one example. To read the encyclicals is to watch Scripture, history, and theology begin to speak to one another. Perhaps the encyclicals are ahead of us on this point and not behind, and I do not suggest this as if it were a product of some personal devotional obedience on my part. I suggest it as a scholar. I ask, genuinely, whether there is an insight here – developed almost unconsciously – that theologians and biblical scholars can discern and employ in their own fields. Whether there is a coherent unity at work that we can, with great effort and creativity, take up as our own and indeed develop further.


About maximustheconfessor

Assistant Professor in Catholic Systematic Theology.

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This entry was posted on August 3, 2010 by in Theology.
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