Ontology, Economy, ST, and BT

Those who dive into the articles I’m about to recommend are going to have to understand a little something about the parallels Carl Trueman is drawing:

Ontology (from ων, οντος) = Systematic Theology (or ST)

Economy (from οικονομος) = Biblical Theology (or BT)

Got it? Yeah, you do. Think of the ontological equality in the Trinity (the Father is not any better than the Son; each person is equal). Parallel that with the unity of God’s revelation which is seen by a sound systematic theology (ST).

Now think of the economic subordination and distinction in the Trinity. Parallel that with the discrete corpora (the Pentateuch, Solomon’s writings, Paul’s epistles, John’s letters) distinguished by biblical theology (BT).

Carl Trueman

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Carl Trueman in this important article from way back when (Themelios 27:3, 2002) fears that the legitimate insights of BT are pushing out those of ST:

The triumph of biblical theology has been so complete in some quarters that we now need to realise that this new establishment might itself be generating problems of its own.

Trueman has a few major points:

  • Many preachers aren’t doing BT right; they’re just making superficial tie-ins to Jesus from throughout the Bible.
  • BT has made some preachers think that 1700 years of ST can be defenestrated (thrown out the window!).
  • A rampant BT fragments biblical truth, forgetting that the fact of God’s speaking provides a unity to the Bible.

Points taken. In my spiritual life I’ve seen the damage of neglecting to make ST conclusions from BT data.

Graeme Goldsworthy

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But not all agreed with Carl Trueman, so he graciously allowed Graeme Goldsworthy, the doyen of BT, and a gracious Christian himself, to publish a reply in Themelios 28:1.

Goldsworthy questions whether BT has really become so prevalent (he should be so blessed!). He grants Trueman’s argument that BT has been done poorly—but doesn’t this argument belie BT’s alleged prevalence? If BT isn’t being done right, is it really so overwhelmingly strong?

As for the first point mentioned by Trueman above, Goldsworthy says:

The problem of mediocrity in preaching is, I suggest, not that we keep on ending up at Jesus but the very opposite.

That is, the Jesus bad practitioners of BT end up at is not the Christ of Scripture:

Where we so often do end up is with a pale and distorted shadow of the biblical Christ, and there are many forms of this parody of the real Jesus. These can often be found in favourite evangelical clichés when given, as they often are, without proper explanation: ‘ask Jesus into your heart’; ‘make your decision for Jesus’; ‘come to Jesus and experience joy with a capital J’; (these are respectively closer to Aquinas, Bultmann, and Schleiermacher than to biblical truth). Preachers who end up with the same hackneyed clichés about Jesus are not preaching Christ,

Goldsworthy recognizes a problem in evangelical theology, but says it is certainly not the triumph of BT over ST. It is the separation and the attempted balance of the two. BT and ST need to talk: this is the hermeneutical spiral. BT and ST also need to be not 50/50 but 100/100: this is the trinitarian way of unity and diversity.

Let me put that another way. Like the Trinity, BT and ST are not separate-but-equal; instead they are involved in a constant “dance” (perichoresis), always interweaving and active.

For example, BT won’t get you to the Trinity like ST will (and must!), but BT is

the only means of preventing every biblical text having equal significance for Christians (e.g. we need it to sort out what to do which the ritual laws of the Pentateuch). It prevents us from short-circuiting texts so that we isolate them from their theological context and then moralise on their application to believers.

Goldsworthy was courteous in his reply, but he had to be a bit frustrated. The emphasis to which he had dedicated his life was being misunderstood and maligned! It speaks well of Trueman that he was happy to include Goldsworthy’s rich reply.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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