Richard Gaffin 32 Years Ago on Systematic Theology

Another blogger just recommended to me two articles on the relationship between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. One is by Richard Gaffin, written in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1976 (the other is from 2008 by Vern Poythress).

In it he traces the history of the understanding of Biblical Theology with special focus on Old Princeton and its heirs at Westminster. Let me hit the high points:

  • J.P. Gabler viewed BT as wholly descriptive because he bought into a history/revelation dichotomy. Moving, though, to orthodox scholars…
  • Charles Hodge “conceived of [BT] rather broadly as equivalent to exegesis or exegetical theology.”
  • A.A. Hodge paid it little more attention than Charles.
  • B.B. Warfield makes BT the foundation of ST, but doesn’t spell out the implications.
  • Abraham Kuyper rejected BT as he understands it.
  • Herman Bavinck is “virtually silent” on BT.

This near silence among conservative luminaries of the 19th century left room for destructive critics to claim that evangelical theologians were not paying enough attention to the historical dimension of revelation.

So along came Geerhardus Vos, followed by John Murray, both of whom preferred to call BT “the History of Special Revelation.” One prominent illustration of their approach is that of the organic unity between an acorn and an oak tree. The acorn is perfect, but you cannot understand it unless you know it’s on its way to something. BT makes sure that ST keeps that whole acorn-to-oak (or in our case, Creation-Fall-Redemption) story in mind.

For more on BT and ST, I refer you to two stimulating articles I mentioned in a relatively recent post.

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.

1 thought on “Richard Gaffin 32 Years Ago on Systematic Theology”

  1. I Gaffin’s comment about Bavinck very interesting. Gaffin knows far more about Bavinck than I do, but when I read the section in Reformed Dogmatics on Christology, it seemed to me that Bavinck begins by doing BT–tracing the development of Christology through the testaments. Only after what seemed to be a BT survey did he turn to the questions of historical theology and philosophy. In other words, at least in his section on Christology, it seemed to me that Bavinck was doing a good job of integrating BT into his ST.

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