John Frame critiques biblical theologians. Well, not really. He critiques the students who overstate what their biblical-theologian teachers have taught them. Those who are teaching Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary or at Moore College, for example, would never say that systematic theology is unnecessary or unhelpful. They would all agree systematic theology is necessary, helpful, and essential for the Christian. But not all those who study under a Clowney, Goldsworthy, or Gaffin are so sensitive to the interdependence of the distinct disciplines.
I love biblical theology and got very passionate for it in my days in seminary. Art Azurdia told a few of us at The Master’s College to read everything we could by Graeme Goldsworthy. It was life changing advice. I am so grateful for that word and for the subsequent fruit that’s come from it in my life and ministry. There is no class on biblical theology at The Master’s Seminary so I took a directed studies course and wrote a paper summarizing and critiquing Goldsworthy’s biblical theology reading everything he published up to that point in 2005. I praise God for the work of Goldsworthy (According to Plan, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christians Scripture, and Gospel and Kingdom) and that particular school of biblical theology (Vaughan Roberts in God’s Big Picture, Jonathan Gibson in Story of a Kingdom, Tim Chester in From Creation to New Creation, David Helm in The Big Picture Story Bible).
SOME CRITICISMS FROM JOHN FRAME
As life-giving and exciting as biblical theology is, there are some warnings that we must heed as those who study it as a discipline and John Frame in the last 10 minutes of this lecture gives several good ones:
1. Beware of pride that comes from knowing the biblical terminology, themes, and connections and seeing that others who are theologically trained don’t know the connections. “When you study biblical theology you become aware in a new way how the whole bible focuses on Christ and every passage has something to say about him studying the bible on its own terms. You come to see and feel how these whole developments in the OT are incomplete until the Lord Jesus comes and fulfills them” (John Frame).
2. Don’t say that this is the way to study the Bible. Don’t be suspicious of systematics as not using biblical language and being influenced by pagan philosophy, systematics imposes false categories on Scripture (to some extent these critiques of systematics are well-grounded). Don’t absolutize Biblical theology as the only way of looking at the Bible.
3. “I also want you to be aware of some of the limitations of Biblical theology. Remember that biblical theology is not the Bible.” It attempts to reproduce something of the structure of the Bible. But no theology could reproduce the structure perfectly or else they would just be quoting the whole bible. BT is theology like all other kinds of theology, it’s application. Men asking questions and experiencing needs and answering them from the Scripture.”
4. “Sometimes Biblical theologians seem to suggest that there’s something wrong in departing from the structure of Scripture itself in our theology. Sometimes biblical theologians seem to suggest that all theology must be a perfect reproduction of the structure of Scripture itself. That principle, I would submit, is a principle which confuses theology with the Bible. Theology is not the Bible. It’s not the job of theology to reproduce perfectly the structure of the Bible. If it did there would be no difference here. It’s not that job. In fact, theology must depart from the structure of Scripture in order to do its job. Theology must depart from the structure of Scripture in order to be true to Scripture. Theology must depart from the Scripture in order to recognize its own role as a finite human way of asking questions of the Bible. It is wrong to criticize systematic theology because systematic theology is less like the structure of the Bible than biblical theology is. That’s a wrong criticism of systematics and it’s a wrong way of recommending biblical theology. Biblical theology is not more biblical than systematics. It’s not more biblical because its closer resemblance to biblical structure. Now of course, if systematic theology, or any form of theology, distorts the bible, if it says anything untrue, that’s a basis for criticism. But the lack of precise structuring, the lack of structural identity is not a basis for criticism.”
5. Become more aware of the human element in doing, stating, and defending one’s understanding of biblical theology. “Biblical theology, I would argue, needs to become much more self-conscious of its human element. Biblical theology needs to become much more aware of the differences between itself and the bible. And biblical theology needs to learn how to recognize those differences and how to justify those differences and not just to take them for granted. Because if we take them for granted then we can’t even bring it under the lordship of Scripture. We can’t bring them under the judgment of Scripture.” Theology is a summary of Scripture and that way of summarizing it is a strictly human way of doing it.
6. Recognize the other valid and necessary forms of theology. Frame says: If we recognize that there is a difference between biblical theology and the bible then clearly biblical theology is not the only sound method of theology. It’s nice (and beneficial) to get close to biblical language. It’s also nice (and important) to bring the bible in connection with our own questions and needs which is more the focus of systematic theology. There is no rule that theology must only consist of biblical language or that would rule out biblical theology as well as systematic theology.
7. BT does tend sometimes to ignore the functions of Scripture other than historical narrative. The bible can (must) also be seen from other perspectives. The bible is also law. Everything in Scripture binds us and requires us to obey. The bible is covenant and this covenant has many different aspects to it. The bible is poetry.
He ends the lecture referring to a list of more critiques that I haven’t been able to find online. The closest thing I could find is this article critiquing and guiding preachers who seek to infuse biblical theology explicitly in their preaching ministry.
Here’s how Frame defines biblical and systematic theology in his most recent book: “Biblical theology expounds Scripture as a history of God’s dealings with us. It therefore focuses on Scripture as a historical narrative. But if it is theology, it cannot be pure narrative. It must be application, dealing with the meaning that narrative has for its hearers and readers. Systematic theology seeks to apply Scripture by asking what the whole Bible teaches about any subject… Systematic theology seeks to determine what we today should believe about forgiveness (or any other Scriptural teaching).” (Systematic Theology, 8-9).
I think Frame would agree with me saying that biblical theology gives us benefits systematic theology doesn’t give and is therefore necessary and helpful for study. I would also say that it is more precise though not necessarily more true to the Bible and truth (since truth doesn’t have degrees). I agree with Frame’s warnings here and have seen this pride in my own life while at a seminary that didn’t have a class on this. That being said, I’m still praying and desiring to study biblical theology at Southern Seminary soon in the Lord wills.