Saturday, August 1, 2009

Justification: "Systematic Theology vs Exegesis, a false dichotomy or real tension?"

In a previous post about Justification I outlined several questions that emerge from the debate. One of them was my speculation that underlying this debate is a presupposition about "Systematic Theology vs Exegesis, a false dichotomy or real tension?" This English blogger, Paul Helm confirms my suspicions.

For various reasons it is at present hugely fashionable to think of theology in narrative form: in terms of covenant (Horton), speech-act theory and ‘theodrama’ (Vanhoozer), and of history (N.T. Wright), for example. More generally, it is vogish to think predominantly in the category of history, redemptive history, biblical history, ‘biblical theology’, and to downplay or abandon the categories of systematic theology. In Wright’s case this way of thinking is habitual because he is first and foremost a historian, and so first and foremost he thinks in terms of historical sequences, of sequences of action, human and divine, and of their significance. He is much less interested in the ‘creedal’ statements in Scripture. He has little feel for the doctrinal debates in the history of the Church, and he sticks as closely as he can to the very words of Scripture and to the use of any analogies and metaphors that throw light on these.

Wright says, while not condemning systematic theology, that he wants exegesis to drive the debate about Justification. (Justification, Wright, 23) However as Mike Ovey so carefully explains in these lectures, thinking about the "whole counsel of God" is just as important doing exegesis. (More generally I've noticed that expository preaching is understood in the places I frequent as pure exegesis with application at the end rather then exegesis and systematics drawn together practically.) So when we think about Justification (itself a systematic topic) we need to strike a balance between exegesis and systematic theology rather then hold them in tension or pit one against the other.


Laura said...

Good summary. I appreciate Helm's gentle critique of Wright -- people too often pull out the heavy artillery against him which I find unnecessary.

The anti-systematic theology camp strikes me as a bit odd and more than a bit silly. No Christian ever makes it through life without asking, "What does the Bible say about ____? (holiness, marriage, prayer, money, etc.)" and that's all systematic theology amounts to, really.

Andrew Bowles said...

It's not so much a balance as a kind of 'hermeneutical spiral' whereby one corrects the other. Wright is trying to spiral down from systematic theology back to the text, and hasn't come back up yet. In that sense he's a step ahead of those who haven't yet made the turn back to the text which this issue obviously needs (Yes, I'm looking at you, John Piper).

Luke said...

Hi Andrew,

Although the irony is that Wright doesn't want to "go head to head" with Piper on the disputed verses.

The danger with the onion/spiral (The Hermeneutical Spiral, 22) is that smaller units of text can mistakenly be held to be more important then the whole. (Obviously the converse can be an error as well!)

Hi Laura,

I agree that down-playing systematic theology is a problem because we need it in our everyday Christian lives.

I also think this false tension between exegesis and systematic theology informs but doesn't decide the debate about Justification. It's a presupposition that colours the debate.