Theology and the Bible

I gave a paper on Calvin last week, picking up on the recent historical work (by David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and others) that has given us a far better understanding of his context. One result of this is to revise our understanding of how to relate the Institutes and the Biblical commentaries. Roughly, an older way of reading Calvin saw the Institutes as the central text in his corpus, understood as some sort of proto-systematic theology, which everything else – including the commentaries – fed into; a better understanding of Calvin’s work sees his Biblical commentaries (and sermons) as central to his endeavour, with the Institutes not a systematics, but a text designed to aid Calvin in writing the commentaries, and his readers in reading the commentaries.

This reversal does, I tried to show, actually make a difference to how we understand Calvin’s theology. I ended the paper, though, with some freewheeling thoughts about the proper relationship of theology and Biblical studies. Here in St Andrews, we have been interested in this relationship for a while, of course – and mostly in the direction of how theology can influence Biblical studies. I can’t speak for my colleagues, who are far cleverer than I am, but it occurred to me in reading Calvin that I had always assumed that the final word was going to be dogmatic: after all our Biblical work was done, the final scholarly aim would be an ordered statement of Christian truth. The great texts of Reformed theology all seem to point in this direction (van Mastricht has his pars exegetica before moving on to the pars dogmatica; the great Leiden Synopsis invited the Biblical professors to feed in to a work of dogmatics, not vice-versa; &c.). This scholarship would then serve the pulpit and the pastoral visit, of course; but the basic intellectual aim was systematic and theological.

Calvin’s work suggests otherwise. The final academic task in Biblical exposition. Dogmatics is useful insofar as it serves exposition, and not otherwise. This is a surprising reversal, but one that, the more I think about it, the more I think it might perhaps be right. I have been thinking recently about the proper shape of evangelical theology, (in part because of my work with the Evangelical Alliance). It is obvious that an adequately evangelical theology ought to be determinedly Biblical, but what that looked like (having ruled out Grudem-like proof-texting as both intellectually inadequate and inattentive to the actual shape of the Biblical text) was something I struggle with. My new working hypothesis: it looks like Calvin.

5 Comments

  1. Joshua Woo
    Aug 17, 2009

    Hi Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your learning here. This approach is something that is refreshing to me. So far there have been only talks on how Biblical Studies serve as the foundation for dogmatic discourse.

    I find Alan Torrance’s essay in ‘Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible’ helpful. But that is only one essay, while such topic by its nature demands a more in-depth treatment. Would like to discover more in this area.

    Best regards.

  2. craig gardiner
    Aug 18, 2009

    Thanks for this Steve, it has proved most helpful, it resonates with my own biography and I suspect not a few others who studied and still try to study doctrine but who now spend more time in pulpits, front rooms and at bedsides than in the library or lecture hall. The more I engage in the regular exposition of texts and lives the more I have to return to an edited dogmatics that in retrospect should have been loose leaf bound from the beginning.

  3. Steve H
    Aug 18, 2009

    Thanks for the comments, folks.
    @Joshua: welcome to the blog…
    @Craig: brilliant! That’s going into my definition of a proper Reformed dogmatics: ‘Reformed dogmatics should always be bound loose-leaf…’

  4. CTN
    Aug 19, 2009

    I once heard a preacher introduce Karl Barth as worth reading for the very same reason – i.e., to help us understand Scripture better. That certainly got the attention of some skeptical evangelicals!
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
    ~Chris

  5. Steve H
    Aug 19, 2009

    Hey Chris, thanks for the comment. I think Barth would like to be introduced like that… I think the problem with our evangelical understanding of Scripture sometimes is that we misunderstand perspicuity to mean that all the meaning of Scripture is transparent, and so we need no aids to help us grasp its teaching.

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