Biblical Theology Articles

Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Not so widely known among the writings of John Murray are two articles on systematic theology which appeared in this Journal in 1963 . These articles are important because, written just a few years prior to his retirement, they provide us with his matured reflection on the field in which he labored with such distinction as a teacher and writer. Significant also is the fact that of the two articles the second in its entirety is given over to the relationship of systematic theology to biblical theology. This in itself suggests the importance that over the years he had come to attach both to the latter and to this relational question for a proper understanding of the nature and task of systematic theology. In what follows here I would like to continue the discussion of this question reflecting on what Professor Murray and several others in the Reformed tradition have written that bears on it. While focused in this somewhat restricted, some may even feel introverted, fashion, the discussion, because of the basic nature of the question, should also touch on concerns felt increasingly by those with other backgrounds.


It is worth keeping in mind from the outset that the question of the relationship between systematic theology and biblical theology is a relatively recent, even modern, one in the history of theology. This is especially true in the line of Reformation orthodoxy. Understood generally as the effort to provide a compendium or comprehensive summary of what the Bible teaches, systematic theology, or dogmatics, is almost as old as the church itself. Origen’s De Principiis , Augustine’s Enchiridion , the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, Calvin’s Institutes , the imposing productions that flourished in the context of 17th century Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy, such as those of Turretin and Gerhard, as well as the work of more recent figures like Charles Hodge and Herman Bavinck are all monuments to the longevity and established place of dogmatic endeavor in the life of the church.

In contrast, biblical theology, conceived of in some sense as a distinct discipline, is comparatively new and has had a rather problematic history . Apparently the expression “biblical theology” occurs for the first time at the beginning of the 18th century within German pietism. There it functions as part of a kind of “back to the Bible” movement, in reaction to allegedly speculative and other unbiblical elements in orthodox (Lutheran) dogmatics. Passing over here the important question of how warranted this reaction was , we should note that in pietism biblical theology does not yet refer to a new or special, discipline. Further, it is bound up with the same high view of the inspiration of the Bible present in Protestant orthodoxy.

By the latter part of the century, however, the situation is radically altered. The term now occurs with great frequency and with reference to a distinct discipline of study. More importantly, this development takes place, largely on German soil, in the context of the late Enlightenment with its rationalistic rejection of the inspiration and canonical unity of Scripture and its self-confessed, unambiguous point of departure in human autonomy. Again, as in pietism, an element of reaction is dominant and again the front of reaction is orthodox Christianity, in particular its tendency to ignore the historical origin and nature of the biblical documents. The Altdorf inaugural address of J. P. Gabler (1787) is customarily seen as defining the program of this new discipline and marking out the broad lines that subsequent developments have taken . It is noteworthy that, as the title itself explicitly indicates, this initial program statement is structured in terms of a contrast between biblical theology and dogmatics. The gist of Gabler’s position is that biblical theology is an historical, and for him that means a purely descriptive, discipline, concerned to discover what in fact the biblical writers thought and taught; dogmatics, on the other hand, is a didactic or normative discipline, concerned to provide contemporary statement of faith based ultimately not on the Bible but on philosophy and the use of reason.

In retrospect, Gabler inaugurated trends within the “historical-critical” tradition that have significantly shaped its development down to the present. The virtual divorce of biblical theology from dogmatics has proven especially fatal, precipitating a crisis of historicism in biblical studies that is periodically glossed over but remains unresolved. The end result of this biblical theology-almost a “critical” commonplace today-is that there is none, that doctrinally and conceptually the Bible is a disunity, embracing a plurality of diverging and even competing theologies .

The summary observation to be made at this point, then, is that as a distinct discipline biblical theology first emerges as part of the Enlightenment and in reaction to the alleged failure, especially in its dogmatics, of traditional (orthodox) Christianity to do justice to the historical character of the Bible.


In view of the developments just noted it is of interest to inquire how biblical theology as a particular theological discipline came to have a positive place within the Reformed tradition. A useful point of departure here would appear to be the appointment of Geerhardus Vos to the faculty of Princeton Seminary as its first Professor of Biblical Theology beginning in the fall of 1893. What are the antecedents of this development? This proves to be a difficult question to answer satisfactorily. In his inaugural address given in May 1894 Vos, conscious of occupying a new chair in the Seminary, undertakes a full treatment of biblical theology as a special discipline but does not give any real indication of how he is dependent upon others for the position he spells out . In the charge to Vos given on this occasion the point is made, with particular reference to the teaching of J. A. Alexander and C. W. Hodge, that biblical theology in the technical sense is not really new to the Princeton curriculum . In view, however, is the attention given by these men to the contents of Scripture “in their historical surroundings and developments,” which so far as one can tell did not measure up to the definiteness of Vos’ conception and belongs more properly to what is usually called special introduction .

The major writings of the Princeton faculty during this period do not shed a great deal of light on our question. On the opening page of his Systematic Theology Charles Hodge distinguishes between biblical and systematic theology. “The office of the former is to ascertain and state the facts of Scripture. The office of the latter is to take those facts, determine their relation to each other and to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency.” The conception of biblical theology in view here is not amplified or further defined. While restricted in the sense that it is contrasted with systematic theology, it is apparently conceived of rather broadly as equivalent to exegesis or exegetical theology.

In discussing theological encyclopedia A. A. Hodge sees biblical theology as that sub-branch of exegetical theology “which traces the gradual evolution of the several elements of revealed truth through every successive stage to their fullest manifestation in the sacred text and which exhibits the peculiar forms and connections in which these several truth are presented by each inspired writer.” He does not even touch on the relation between biblical and systematic theology. This is somewhat surprising because he indicates that the former is to a certain extent subject to the topical arrangement distinctive of the latter (p. 21). At any rate biblical theology plainly does not figure prominently in his theological method.

B. B. Warfield gives a noticeably different accent. Writing in 1896 (thus two years after Vos’ inaugural) on the idea of systematic theology he gives much greater prominence to biblical theology and treats in some detail its relation to systematic theology . Biblical theology is the synthesizing crown of exegetical theology, the “last word” (p. 67), “the ripest fruit of Exegetics” (p. 65). As such it is not a rival or even parallel to systematic theology. Rather, “it is the basis and source of Systematics” (p. 66). “Scientific theology rests…most directly on the results of exegesis as provided in Biblical theology” (pp. 73f). His remarks as a whole, however, are essentially formal and therefore have a certain vagueness. What is lacking is any definition of biblical theology or description of what it entails, other than an oblique reference to “the historical element that attaches to Biblical theology” (p. 68). Accordingly there is no clear indication of the way in which the synthesis provided by biblical theology is foundational to systematics or exercises a controlling influence upon it .

Vos was well-acquainted with the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, the most important figures in Reformed theology in Holland during this period. If anything, however, they provide less that is explicitly positive on biblical theology than what we have found to be the case on this side of the Atlantic.

Writing in 1894 Kuyper rejects biblical theology not only in name but in concept . Theology, as he defines it, presupposes dogma as a product of the life of the institutional church, both of which, in turn, presuppose and are based upon the completed Scriptures. Consequently, there is no theology in Scripture. Theology can only come into existence where Scripture is complete. It should not be overlooked, however, that Kuyper develops this rejection in a section where he gives a positive place to the notion of the history of revelation and welcomes further attention to it. This points materially towards Vos’ concern in biblical theology.

Bavinck is virtually silent on biblical theology. Relevant, however, is what he has to say in a section of his Dogmatiek dealing with special revelation . So far as its content is concerned, he identifies three basic characteristics of special revelation. It is (1) historical and progressive, (2) made up of deeds as well as words and teaching, and (3) soteriological. He also observes that the first two characteristics, that is, the historically progressive and the deed character of special revelation, have been better recognized in more recent theology than in the older theologians . In other words, according to Bavinck the basic material qualification of biblical revelation is that it is redemptive-historical and it is just this factor that needs further, more concerted attention. Again, perhaps even more so than in Kuyper, the work of Vos is on the horizon.

This brief survey of representative writers permits the generalization that within the Reformed tradition Vos has no predecessors for his conception of biblical theology. In this respect his work can be called creative and injects a fresh impulse into Reformed theology. In balance, however, the fact of his appointment, the more formal discussion of Warfield, and the material concern of Bavinck and Kuyper indicate at least incipient appreciation for the direction in which he was going as well as a recognition of its importance. This sympathy, we can surmise, reflects what no doubt is also a contributing influence in Vos’ own work, that is, an awareness that there is substance to the “critical” charge that heretofore orthodox theology has not given adequate attention to the historical character of the Bible.

We are brought, then, to the further observation that in the tradition of Reformed orthodoxy there have been only a handful of attempts working with an elaborated conception of biblical theology to discuss its relationship to systematic theology. Professor Murray appears to be alone in having devoted a separate study to it. Inasmuch as the germinal remarks of Vos are in the background of his own discussion we can treat them together here . Before turning to do that, however, it will perhaps be well to repeat what was stressed at the outset and by now should be all the more apparent, namely, that the question of the relationship between systematic and biblical theology is a relatively new one, particularly in the Reformed tradition. This suggests, in view of the basic, encyclopedic nature of the question that there may be aspects of it which have not yet surfaced and that it requires extended, maturing, and concerted reflection beyond that which can be given here.


Murray follows his former teacher in defining biblical theology as “that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” In view of objections to the term “biblical theology” both prefer the name “History of Special Revelation.” From this several factors basic to their outlook can be highlighted. (1) For both that special revelation had a history is undeniable. The historical character of special revelation is essential, integral to it as revelation and precluding any tension or discontinuity between revelation and history. (2) For both the discipline in view is concerned with the actual revelatory process “in back of” the Bible and of which the production of the biblical writings is a part. The focus is on the historically progressive and differentiated character of special revelation, its historical diversity and multiformity. (3) While not explicit in the definition just cited the organic character of the revelation process is insisted on by both. This process is not heterogeneous, involving ongoing self-correction. Nor does it have anything to do with an evolutionary movement from what is erroneous and defective to what is relatively more true and perfect. To illustrate Vos repeatedly uses the organic model of maturing plant life, of growth from a perfect seed into a perfect tree or flower. The movement of the revelation process is from what is germinal and provisional to what is complete and final . (4) In view of the flexibility and preference of both respecting terminology the national question we are concerned with can also be expressed in terms of the relationship between the history of revelation (or the historically differentiated character of revelation) and systematic theology (dogmatics). This, it seems to me, is a particularly useful observation for it suggests that the relationship in view has a different character and perhaps more basic dimensions than come to mind with the use of the common noun “theology” and the distinguishing adjectives “biblical” and “systematic.” The latter terminology is at a disadvantage, among other reasons, because it can be taken in a compartmentalizing sense, and indicating parallel disciplines, each going its own way more or less independently of the other and, when necessary, holding out for its own “rights.”

Taken as a whole a certain degree of ambiguity attaches to the statements of both Vos and Murray on the relationship between systematic and biblical theology. On the one hand are those statements that view them side by side as separate disciplines, compatible to be sure, but apparently independent of each other . Along this line, against the background of what both have in common as exegetically based and synthesizing or coordinating disciplines, the concern is to show the differences between them. This is seen to be a difference in method or principle of structuration. The approach of biblical theology is historical, while that of systematic theology is logical . The former deals with revelation as an activity or process, the latter deals with it as a finished product. Vos uses the difference between drawing a line (biblical theology) and a circle (systematics) to illustrate how they differ.

On the other hand both men are intent on bringing out the definite connection between the two disciplines, in particular the importance of biblical theology for systematics, and this is certainly the burden of their discussion as a whole. In making the distinction just noted Vos immediately qualifies it by adding: “Still it should be remembered, that on the line of historical progress there is at several points already a beginning of correlation among elements of truth in which the beginnings of the systematizing process can be discerned.” Elsewhere he finds among the practical uses of biblical theology that it “imparts new life and freshness to the truth” by making us aware that “the Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.” Further, it corrects the impression that the basic tenets of Christianity rest on isolated proof texts by showing that its system of doctrine grows organically from biblical revelation .

Murray is even more emphatic that “biblical theology is indispensable to systematic theology” (p. 41) and devotes six pages (40-46) to clarifying this proposition. The core of his remarks, expressed with characteristic precision, is worth quoting here in its entirety (pp. 44f):

Systematic theology is tied to exegesis. It coordinates and synthesizes the whole witness of Scripture on the various topics with which it deals. But systematic theology will fail of its task to the extent to which it discards its rootage in biblical theology as properly conceived and developed. It might seem that an undue limitation is placed upon systematic theology by requiring that the exegesis with which it is so intimately concerned should be regulated by the principle of biblical theology. And it might seem contrary to the canon so important to both exegesis and systematics, namely, the analogy of Scripture. These appearances do not correspond to reality. The fact is that only when systematic theology is rooted in biblical theology does it exemplify its true function and achieve its purpose.

He then goes on to illustrate this conviction with two observations (pp. 45f) similar to those made by Vos. First, attention to the history of revelation, the distinguishing concern of biblical theology, counteracts “the tendency to abstraction which ever lurks for systematic theology.” Second, Systematic theology is premised on the unity of Scripture. In bringing to light the true, organic character of that unity biblical theology discourages systematics from wresting passages from their scriptural and historical context or citing them as disjointed proof texts.


The preceding sketch will have made plain how much Vos and Murray are in agreement in their conception of biblical theology and its relationship to systematic theology. It is fair then to say that this aspect of their thinking constitutes a direction. What more pointedly is the impetus of this direction? Where does it take us? What horizons does it bring into view? At least tentative answers can be given along several lines.

(1) Biblical theology focuses on revelation as an historical activity and so challenges systematic theology to do justice to the historical character of revealed truth. This is an elemental consideration but one which is often overlooked or not appreciated. The “tendency to abstraction” of which Murray speaks as an ever present danger for systematics can be described more pointedly as a tendency to de-historicize, the tendency to arrive at “timeless” formulations in the sense of topically oriented statements which do not adequately reflect the fact that God’s self-revelation (verbal communication) is an integral part of the totality of his concrete activity in history as sovereign Creator and Redeemer, and thus a tendency which obscures the historical, covenantal dynamic apart from which his relations to men and the world lack integrity and so lose their vitality and meaning. Vos observes that “the circle of revelation is not a school, but a ‘covenant’” and that “the Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.” The pattern of these statements is striking. The structure “not…but…” is hardly formulated in a void. It has in view the undeniably intellectualistic tendency within traditional orthodox dogmatics as well as the rationalism of the “critical” tradition. We can recall here too what was quoted above from Bavinck to the effect that the redemptive-historical character of revelation has begun to receive adequate attention only recently and was largely ignored by earlier theology.

Still in making this kind of observation it would be quite misleading, as is often done by its more enthusiastic advocates, to create the impression that biblical theology brings something totally new into the life of the church. Rather it is largely a matter of correcting and balancing certain trends of the more recent post-Reformation past. Already in the second century in its life and death opposition to gnosticism, and by holding fast to the Old Testament as its own, the church testified to its deeply rooted appreciation of the uniqueness of Christian revelation and the salvation revealed in Christ as covenantal or historical in character. Antecedents of this struggle and the answer to be given are present in the New Testament itself, among other places in what Paul writes to the Colossians and John’s first two letters. In this sense one can say that from the very beginning the church has had an essentially “biblical-theological” outlook, even if it is also true that almost from the beginning factors have been present which have tended to weaken it. The question that needs to be asked is to what extent in the period following the Reformation orthodox Protestant dogmatics, by allying itself first with Aristotelian and then with Cartesian patterns of thought, fell into the vitiating tension between revelation and history it was trying to oppose. In recent decades in American Reformed and evangelical circles the discussion has largely focused in the area of apologetics around the insights of Dr. Van Til. The scope of that important discussion needs to be expanded. At any rate anyone who thinks he detects the specter of a relativizing historicism in biblical theology rightly conceived of simply reveals the flaws in his own theological foundations.

(2) Biblical theology is indispensable to systematic theology because biblical theology is regulative of exegesis. This insight of Professor Murray, which at a first glance may not seem to address directly the relation between biblical and systematic theology, provides the key to understanding not only that relationship but the true significance of biblical theology itself. How does biblical theology regulate exegesis? To ask this is to raise a methodological question of the most basic proportions.

The answer to this question can be given perhaps most easily in terms of a consideration central to both exegesis and systematics, namely, the unity of the Bible. As itself revelation Scripture is a record of revelation. It witnesses to the special revelation of God which consists in his ongoing covenant faithfulness in word and deed and which has its consummation in the person and work of Christ. In an important respect inscripturation as a mode of revelation is not an end in itself but the (necessary and sufficient) means to an end . And the proper focus of interpretation is the subject matter of the text, that is, the history with Christ at its center that lies in back of the text. With a view to its content, then, a primary and essential qualification of the unity of the Bible is that that unity is redemptive-historical. The context that ultimately controls the understanding of a given text is not a literary framework or pattern of relationships but the historical structure of the revelation process itself. In the final analysis the analogy of Scripture is the analogy of parts in an historically unfolding and differentiating organism.

This provides an indication of the real issue raised by biblical theology. Frequently the impression is gotten, particularly by beginning students of theology, that biblical theology is a novelty that enables the initiate to leave behind a plebeian understanding of Scripture and gain access to an inner sanctum of higher insights reserved for the privileged few. Such an attitude of theological elitism is not only unedifying but also betrays a serious undervaluing of biblical theology. It fails to grasp the fundamental hermeneutical significance of biblical theology. At stake is not simply the existence of a particular theological discipline but nothing less than the correct interpretation of Scripture. At issue is not one exegetical option among others but a right handling of the word of truth. Exegesis itself is misunderstood if biblical theology is seen as no more than a step (even the most important) in the exegetical process. It does not appear to be going too far to say that in “biblical theology,” that is, effective recognition of the redemptive-historical character of biblical revelation, the principle of context, of the analogy of Scripture, the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, so central in the Reformation tradition of biblical interpretation, finds its most pointedly biblical realization and application. All exegesis ought to be biblical-theological. To the extent that there is hesitation on this point the relationship between biblical and systematic theology will remain unresolved.

Earlier we spoke of an element of ambiguity in the statements of Vos and Murray on the relationship between systematic and biblical theology. That ambiguity can be removed by recognizing that the expression “biblical theology” may be used in two senses. It can refer to those studies that confine themselves to following explicitly a genetic or historically differentiating plan of investigation and presentation. Examples would be the conception of the covenant in the prophets of the Restoration or Jesus’ teaching concerning the Holy Spirit or, more broadly, the theology of Isaiah or Paul. In this sense the relationship between biblical and systematic theology is surely reciprocal. In any given instance specialized studies such as those just mentioned necessarily interact with the broader, topical outlook of systematic theology. It is wrong and naive to “suppose that the former can be carried out independently of the latter, and it is questionable that ultimately they have any justification apart from the contribution they make to the over-all, unified understanding of Scripture with which systematics is concerned. But the term “biblical theology” can also be used in a second sense, with the accent on its adjective “biblical-theological” and referring not to a particular discipline but more broadly to a basic assessment of Scripture that involves methodological foundations and procedures essential to any correct exegesis of the text. As I have tried to point out in the immediately preceding paragraphs, this is the more elemental sense, where the deepest ties with systematic theology come to light. The indispensability of biblical theology to systematic theology is the indispensability of exegesis to systematic theology, no more and no less.

(3) It is customary to raise objections to the name “biblical theology,” especially the adjective . As we noted, both Vos and Murray prefer the designation “History of Special Revelation.” Still it seems important to hold out for the propriety of applying the noun at least to parts of the actual revelation process recorded in Scripture. If it is correct that central to a proper conception of theology is reflection on salvation as revealed in Christ in the fulness of time, on the fulfillment of the covenant promises and the primary, binding implications of that fulfillment for the life of the church and the world, then much, if not all, of Scripture itself (either prospectively or retrospectively) is theology, indeed in portions of Paul’s writings and the book of Hebrews theology of a decidedly “systematic” and carefully argued kind. Recognition of this is important because it brings to light a factor of continuity, especially with the New Testament, that serves to keep the subsequent theological activity of the church firmly and organically rooted in the Scriptures, determined by them not only in its conclusions but also in the questions with which it begins. Reformed theology ought to challenge itself with the consistent awareness that its prolegomena are given by the Bible itself. In this connection it is interesting to note the shift that takes place in Vos’ thinking. In his inaugural address, presumably under the influence of Kuyper, he rejects all but the most attenuated application of the term “theology” to biblical revelation , although his position as a whole undermines this rejection. Subsequently, after following this program over many years of teaching and writing, he comes to speak quite uninhibitedly about Paul’s theology and eschatology and the theology and philosophy of redemptive history of the writer of Hebrews , and to point out that the beginnings of a systematizing process are already discernible in Scripture .

Attention to the actual process of revelation inevitably brings one to conclusions about revelation as a finished product. This is particularly true for the New Testament and can be seen by identifying the program of New Testament biblical theology. The difference from Old Testament biblical theology is reflected in the rather prosaic observation that the Old Testament is composed over a millennium and deals with a span of time considerably longer, while the New Testament is written within one generation and is oriented to what took place in less than a century. So far as the history of revelation as a whole is concerned, the New Testament is not so much concerned with process and ongoing development, which are essential structural characteristics of the Old Testament, as with the end point of the process. This is not to deny that an element of progress is present in the New Testament. It is there in the movement from the ministry of John the Baptist, through the earthly ministry of Jesus to the founding of the church and its spread through the ministry of the apostles from Judea to the surrounding gentile world. And this progress is at the heart of the gospel message. Even more basic to the structure of New Testament revelation, however, is that it is diverse and synchronous witness to Christ, the final and consummate self-revelation of God, from the perspective of his exaltation. The New Testament itself is an embodiment of what Paul calls the manifold or many-sided wisdom of God ( Eph 3:10 ), that multiform wisdom that pertains to the unsearchable riches of Christ, to the administration of the mystery hidden in ages past, revealed in Christ, made known among all the nations, and consummated at his return (vss. 8, 9 ; cf. vss. 2-6 ; Rom 16:25, 26 ; Col 1:25-27 ; Eph 1: 10 ).

Attention to the New Testament as a record of the consummation of the history of revelation brings us to consider it in terms of the multiplicity of its post-Pentecost witness to Christ . But in view of the organic nature of the revelation process concern with its variety and diversity necessarily involves concern with the unity and coherence in which that divity consists and apart from which it is ultimately unintelligible. And when these considerations are joined with the further recognition, again in view of the organic nature of the history of revelation, that the decidedly theological unity-indiversity of the New Testament end point is not properly or comprehensively intelligible apart from attention to its rich and varied Old Testament roots, then the line between what is usually called New Testament (biblical) theology and systematic theology becomes difficult to detect .

All this prompts the not entirely modest proposal, in view of objections that can be raised against the term “systematic theology,” to discontinue its use and instead to use “biblical theology” to designate the comprehensive statement of what Scripture teaches (dogmatics), always insuring that its topical divisions remain sufficiently broad and flexible to accommodate the results of the redemptive-historically regulated exegesis on which it is based. This, it would seem to be, is the ultimate resolution of the relational question raised in this essay.

In the meantime, while we continue to speak of the relationship between systematic and biblical theology, it will be the task of the latter to minister to the former the rich perspectives of revelation seen in the context of its history and it will be the work of systematics to incorporate these perspectives into its constructions and formulations . In fact, there is much work needing to be done at present. This can be illustrated here only briefly and in one respect, but one that has important and far-reaching consequences. If there is one conclusion that a redemptive-historically sensitive interpretation of Scripture has reached, it is that eschatology is to be defined not only with reference to the intermediate state of individuals following death and to the second coming of Christ but inclusive of his first coming and the present existence of the church in the world . This is an insight of a magnitude that requires recasting not only eschatology but also the other loci as traditionally conceived, especially christology, soteriology, both accomplished and applied, and ecclesiology. Nor is this a matter of purely scholarly concern. At the present time large sectors of the church are in unrest, searching for a deeper understanding and a more satisfying experience of who they are in Christ. On many fronts the Reformed community vacillates between intellectualism and pietism in various unstable combinations with others rejecting these uneasy amalgams in search of an alternative that would be genuinely reformational. In this situation nothing is to be so much desired as attitudes and life styles that are more authentically those of the New Testament. How many believers today understand themselves with the apostle as those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” ( 1 Cor 10:11 )? How many experience that they are members of God’s eschatological kingdom not only at hand but already present? How many grasp with some perception of its vast implications that in the interim between the resurrection and return of Christ the existence of the church in the world is determined by the overlapping tension between this age and the age to come? At stake here are concerns essential not only to theology but to the whole church in every aspect of its life.


“Systematic Theology,” vol. 25, 2 (May, 1963), pp. 133-142 and “Systematic Theology: Second Article,” vol. 26, 1 (Nov, 1963), pp. 33-46.
This history has been traced in a number of places and from a variety of perspectives. Cf., e.g., the surveys of O. Betz in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, II (New York: Abingdon, 1962), pp. 432-437, Martin Kähler in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, II (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), pp. 183-185, and, at greater length, W. J. Harrington, The Path of Biblical Theology (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1973), pp. 19-259. A definitive survey has been attempted by H.-J. Kraus, Die Biblische Theologie: Ihre Geschichte und Problematik (Neukirchener Verlag, 1970).
In view of the lack that continues high priority needs to be given at present to analysis of developments within 17th century Protestant orthodoxy that not only attempts to be careful and searching but is also sympathetic to it, particularly by its commitment to the inspiration and final authority of Scripture.
De justo discrimine theologiae biblicae et dogmaticae regundisque recte utriusque finibus (On the proper distinction between biblical and dogmatic theology and the correct delimitation of their boundaries); accessible in German translation in O. Merk, Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments in ihrer Anfangszeit (Marburg: N. G. Elwert, 1972), pp. 273-284.
E.g., S. Mowinckel, The Old Testament as the Word of God (New York: Abingdon, 1959), pp. 16-20, and the quite emphatic discussion of E. Käsemann, “The Canon of the New Testament and the Unity of the Church,” Essays on New Testament Themes (Studies in Biblical Theology, 41, Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, 1964), pp. 95-107.
The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1894). There are only two footnotes, which make passing reference to the work of T. D. Bernard (p. 19) and K. F. Nösgen (p. 35).
By the Rev. Abraham Gosman.
Op. cit., p. vii. The minutes of the faculty meeting of May 1, 1891, contain the following recommendation: “The Faculty would represent to the Board of Directors that, in their judgment, it is of great importance that a professorship of Biblical Theology should be established in this Seminary….Its growing importance demands that it should be erected (vid.) into a separate department and be made the exclusive work of a separate professor. Generous friends of the Seminary have pledged such an addition to its funds as to make them sufficient for the support of such a professor” (Letter of Charles Willard, librarian, Princeton Theological Seminary, to Mr. Nack Jae Choe, May 24, 1972).
Cf. the published class lectures of Hodge, Gospel History (Princeton: Charles S. Robinson, 1876) and Apostolic History and Literature (Princeton: C. S. Robinson, 1887).
Systematic Theology, I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893 , 1f). So far as I have discovered this is the reference to biblical theology in Hodge.
Outlines of Theology (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1879), p. 22.
“The Idea of Systematic Theology,” Studies in Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1932), pp. 65-68, 73-74; note also the diagram in n. 9, p. 74.
A survey of the broader Presbyterian and Reformed scene in America at this time and subsequently yields essentially negative results. So far as I can discover from examining places where theological encyclopedia or prolegomena to theology is being discussed, the southern theologians, Thornwell, Dabney, and Girardeau are all silent on biblical theology, as are L. Berkhof and J. O. Buswell, Jr. W. G. T. Shedd displays an almost condescending attitude to biblical theology as he conceives of it, particularly in relation to dogmatics (Dogmatic Theology, I [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888], pp. 11-14). An important exception to this picture is Shedd’s colleague, Charles Augustus Briggs, who in 1890 was appointed to the newly established chair of biblical theology in Union Seminary, New York, and who wrote repeatedly on the subject. Briggs is not brought into the discussion here, however, because he adopts an essentially “critical” conception, as can be seen, among other things, from the way in which he employs a threefold distinction between biblical theology, biblical dogmatics, and systematic theology (General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900], pp. 594-597) and from his assertion that biblical theology precludes any longer believing in verbal inspiration (The American Presbyterian Review, new series, II , 304).
Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerheid, III (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1909), pp. 166-180. I have discussed this rejection more fully in “Geerhardus Vos and the Interpretation of Paul,” Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), pp. 229-231.
Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, I (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1967 ), pp. 315-318.
Cf., ibid., pp. 315f: “De historia revelationis is eene wetenschap, die nog van jonge dagteekening is en op ernstige beoefening aanspraak mag maken.” (“The history of revelation is a discipline of recent date and may lay claim to serious study.”)
Vos’ position is expressed for the most part in two places, in his inaugural address (op. cit., note 6 above), pp. 9f, 38-40, and in Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), preface, pp. 13, 24f, cf. pp. 25-27. E. P. Clowney touches on this relational question in Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), p. 16; cf. also E. J. Young, “What is Old Testament Biblical Theology?,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 31 (1959), 139f, cf. p. 53, and The Study of Old Testament Theology Today (London: James Clarke, 1958), p. 110; F. H. Klooster, The Adjective in “Systematic Theology” (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1963), pp. 18-21; J. O. Boyd, “Biblical Theology in the Study and the Pulpit,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 2 (1930), 71 (now, slightly abridged, in The Banner of Truth, 146 (Nov 1975), 1f. Too late for consideration here, I have come across the stimulating article of W. D. Jonker, “Eksegese en Dogmatiek,” in W. D. Jonker et al., eds., Hermeneutica. Erebundel aangebied aan prof. dr, E. P. Groenewald…(Pretoria: N. G. Kerk-Boekhandel, 1970), pp. 157-179.
Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 13; Murray, “Systematic Theology: Second Article,” p. 33. For amplification and fuller documentation of the discussion in this paragraph see in their entirety Vos’ inaugural, Biblical Theology, preface, chapter I, and Murray’s article. Cf. also Clowney, op. cit., chapter I, and O. P. Robertson, “The Outlook for Biblical Theology,” Towards a Theology for the Future (ed. C. H. Pinnock and D. F. Wells; Carol Stream, Ill.: Creation House, 1971), pp. 65-91.
Vos, Theology, p. 23; Murray, p. 33.
This is Vos’ own language (Theology, p. 13; Inaugural. p. 8).
Vos, Theology, pp. 15-17; Inaugural, pp. 16-24; Murray, p. 36. Cf. Vos, Inaugural, p. 24: “Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity” (original italics).
There can be little question that this is what has largely happened since the time of Gabler. It strikes me too that we come here upon a characteristic mentality still encountered on Reformed soil.
Vos, Theology, preface, pp. 13, 24f; Inaugural, p. 39; Murray, p. 33.
The use of the term “logical” in this connection is conventional (as is Vos’ use of “systematic,” Inaugural, p. 39). While the appropriateness of these adjectives for distinguishing the discipline in view is subject to question, surely the intention is to identify its topical or loci structure (cf. Murray, pp. 40f, 44). In describing what the two disciplines have in common Vos says that both “transform” the biblical material (Theology, pp. 23, 25) - hardly a happy choice of language.
Theology, p. 25.
Theology, pp. 26f; cf. Inaugural, pp. 37f, 40.
Theology, pp. 17, 26; “It is certainly not without significance that God has embodied the contents of revelation, not in a dogmatic system, but in a book of history,…(Inaugural, pp. 37f); cf. Clowney, op. cit., p. 15: not “in the form of a theological dictionary.”
“We further observe that the formation of the Scriptures serves no other purpose than to perpetuate and transmit the record of God’s self-disclosure to the human race as a whole. Compared with revelation proper, the formation of the Scriptures appears as a means to an end.” (Vos, Inaugural, p. 8; cf. Theology, p. 13). Cf. also Murray, p. 42: “The Bible does not provide us with a complete history of special revelation….But we must believe that the pattern found in the Scripture reflects the pattern followed in the history of revelation as a whole.”
Cf., e.g., those raised by Vos, Theology, p. 23. Objections can also be raised against the adjective in “systematic theology” “Systematic” or “logical” hardly serves to identify the topical approach that distinguishes it.
Inaugural, p. 34.
The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961 ), pp. 11, 29, passim.
“Hebrews, The Epistle of the Diatheke,” Princeton Theological Review, 14 (1916), 3.
Theology, p. 25. It should also be noted that his original reservations about using the term “theology” in this sense are missing from the objections to the name “biblical theology” in Theology, p. 23.
This is pointed to by Vos (Inaugural, p. 21): “There is one more feature of the organic character of revelation which must briefly allude to. Historic progress is not the only means used by God to disclose the full contents of the eternal Word. Side by side with it, we witness a striking multiformity of teaching employed for the same purpose. All along the historic stem of revelation, branches are seen in to shoot forth, frequently more than one at a time, each of which helps to realize the complete idea of the truth for its own part and after its own peculiar manner.” Cf. the rest of his discussion to the bottom of p. 23. What Vos writes is particularly applicable to the rich proliferation that characterizes the New Testament end point of the revelation process.
Cf. in this connection the remarks of Warfield, “The Person of Christ,” Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), pp. 175f, particularly the following observation (p. 176): “In its fundamental teaching the New Testament lends itself, therefore, more readily to what is called dogmatic than to what is called genetic treatment.”
The responsibility on both sides needs to be emphasized here. There are mounting indications that at present much of the most able evangelical biblical scholarship in the English-speaking world is being carried on in indifference or uncertainty toward dogmatics (as well as with an attitiude toward historical-critical methodology and presuppositions that can only be called naive and incautious). This is bound eventually to result in pastors and churches that are theologically confused and doctrinally illiterate.
It is to the credit of Vos and also a vindication of his approach that he anticipates along with very few others in his time what by mid-century had become an at least formal consensus over almost the entire spectrum of New Testament interpretation. Cf. esp. The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958 and “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (by the Members of the Faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 209-259.

This article first appeared in Westminster Theological Journal (38.3) Spring 1976, 281-299 and appears here with permission. No part of the article may be copied or reproduced in any format without the prior permission of the publisher. For further information on WTJ, visit:

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