In his book Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundmaentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelism, Robert Gundry asks,
Does the Bible present theological data to be organized neatly, or a range of canonical options to be kept discrete? To what extent should the theological enterprise be systematic? To what extent selective? Ought systematic theology to dominate biblical theology or vice versa? Or ought they form a partnership of equals, or go their separate ways? (p.95)
Gundry’s questions are by no means new, and in recent scholarship there has been a renewed interest in the relationship between systematic theology and biblical studies. In this line the recent volume, Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament, edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds, Brian Lugioyo and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, takes up Gundry’s specific questions in an attempt to show how the two disciplines relate.
I’ve asked Ben to describe for us some of the issues in this book.
1) The contributors to the volume are New Testament scholars and Systematic Theologians. Can you describe for us some of the different approaches or assumptions that emerge from the juxtaposition of these groups and essays?
The volume’s essays address a number of topics and do begin with a number of assumptions. The first five essays come from a New Testament studies perspective and the latter five come from a theological perspective. As you might expect, the NT scholars more often begin with the biblical text and move toward a discussion of theological implications. The theologians address theological issues with often less connection to the biblical text. Those realities only seem to fit the stereotypes that each discipline has of the other.
In Kevin Vanhoozer’s introductory essay he challenges biblical scholars not to view their work as handing off a baton to theologians. He argues that the work that biblical and systematic theology do is similar in that they both address “theodramatic” judgments. Biblical theology is more sensitive to single authors and texts while systematic theology considers God’s role in the broader scheme of things. Vanhoozer’s challenge is important because the essays point out the difficulty of each discipline continuing in its own ruts. The assumptions of the authors indicate the extent to which we continue to work in these disciplines in discontinuity from the other.
Webb Mealy’s essay on Revelation is a case study in how one’s theological presuppositions tend to influence the way exegetical arguments are made and conclusions are reached. Roger Newell argues something similar with regard to how suffering, or the desire not to suffer, has led to certain interpretations of eschatology. He refers to it as “sentimental exegesis.”
One of my favourite essays is Jennifer Powell McNutt’s examination of the use of James during the Reformation. She unearths some really interesting information about how James 5:16 was used quite extensively and about Luther’s use of James, even though he called the epistle a book of straw.
2) How does this volume as a whole answer Gundry’s questions about the relationship between the two disciplines?
Surprise, surprise, the volume does not completely answer Gundry’s questions. I would say that most of our contributors think that biblical and systematic theology form a partnership of equals, but it is telling that two to three of the NT essays lean toward the baton view of biblical studies that Vanhoozer warns against (two of them explicitly so). What the volume does provide are ten essays that are aware of the tension between biblical and systematic theology and attempt to bridge the divide. They highlight the challenges we face after a long separation of the disciplines.
3) One of the difficulties I think many face when trying to cross discipline boundary lines is the amount of literature to read. How have you overcome this?
Working across discipline boundaries does require a lot reading. My essay on “Eucharistic” language in John 6 was one of the most difficult essays I have ever written. There is so much secondary literature on John 6 before you even consider history of reception and Eucharistic theology. I wouldn’t say that I “overcame” the challenge. For example, a thorough paragraph on Thomas Cranmer’s view of John 6 would require days of reading. I read some, but I never would have finished the essay if I tried to become an expert on Cranmer or Calvin or John and Charles Wesley before I said anything about them. However, I learned quite a lot about John 6, especially its reception, its use in various debates, and about how theological presuppositions influence perspectives on biblical texts.
4) The volume is written in honour of Robert Gundry. How has he influenced your scholarship and your teaching?
I took New Testament survey and first year Greek with Bob. He was extremely influential in the beginning stages of my interest in the academic study of the Bible, and he has continued to be as we have kept in touch over the years. I have always been impressed with Bob’s care for the biblical text and his willingness to stick with views his exegesis leads him to, even if they are not popular. Most evangelical NT scholars always connect him with the infamous ETS vote of over thirty years ago, but his position on certain aspects of Matthew are based on a close, redaction-critical reading of Matthew’s source material. I’m not sure anyone has actually refuted his readings of these sections. Bob’s concern for the church is apparent in a number of his writings, including The Church and the Tribulation and in some of his recent Books and Culture When you read through his body of literature, it is easy to see that he has remained consistent in his exegetical rigour and in his beliefs. That consistency, love of the text, and academic rigour have definitely been influential to me in my teaching and scholarship.
5) If someone was looking for a PhD thesis addressing the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, what would you suggest?
I would say that there are plenty of opportunities. Obviously, there are only certain programs that will look kindly to such a PhD thesis that attempts to reconcile biblical and systematic theology. But considering the amount of literature that will need to be read and assessed, someone pursuing a project like this will need to have a narrowly focused passage or doctrinal issue that can provide an example for the interplay of biblical and systematic theology.
6) Now that you have finished this project, what can we be looking forward to next?
I am currently co-editing a book on Jewish apocalyptic thought and the New Testament that is scheduled to be released with Fortress Press next year, and my own work continues to include the Gospel of John and Jewish apocalyptic literature. A book length project is in the works on that subject.
I would like to thank Ben for answering these questions and be sure to check out his blog at Divinity United. The book is available now or you can get it from Mohr Siebeck at SBL.