Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Trueman—Goldsworthy Debate (Biblical Theology and Epistemology)

I was in the midst of doing software applications deployment work at the office last night when, while waiting for my colleagues to wrap up, I came across the Trueman—Goldsworthy debate. Finding out that two of modern Christian orthodoxy's pillars—both of whom I highly esteem—had some words to say to each other really got me excited, to say the least. Though the debate occurred many years ago—year 2002, I think—the issue that was tackled seems to be possessed of a timeless nature and certainly has relevance even to the present time; the subject being biblical theology—its nature, potential dangers, and relationship to the other theological disciplines, especially systematic theology.

Carl Trueman gave vent to what he perceives as the danger of biblical theology's usurpation of systematic theology's place in the church's theological discourse. This he likened to a "revolution" in which the element that once was the "outsider" or the "rebel" now has become the "establishment", thereby wielding the greater influence if not the only. He rightly lamented the uncouth implementation of biblical theology by some of its proponents wherein if Christ is even made to "leap from the page", it is an unbiblical Christ that ends up flopping on the floor. He also raises the concern that an overemphasis on biblical theology has the potential of making the church lose sight of what its forefathers labored hard for, namely, the systematization of biblical doctrine in the forms of its catechisms, creeds, and confessions, thereby eroding the ground on which its faith is based as these systematics adhere to Scripture. This he calls a forsaking of "ontology" for "economy", i.e., a giving of too much import to the saving acts of God over the being of God. Finally, he calls for "balance" between biblical and systematic theology, making an appeal for the reclaiming of the ground that systematic theology supposedly lost to its biblical cousin.

Graeme Goldsworthy responds in his classic lucid, and yet very much erudite, fashion (if you've read any of his books, you know what I mean). He observes Trueman's statement of the problem as bordering on exaggeration, and that it has the potential effect of sowing a misunderstanding of the function of biblical theology in church life. In this he challenges the claim of the "establishment" status that biblical theology supposedly currently enjoys. While assenting to the possibility of the various errors (Trueman's "mediocrity") that are open to the implementation of biblical theology, this he states is not inherent to the method itself but to the improper actualization of it. And with regard to the charge that biblical theology is overshadowing systematic theology's rightful place in the theological milieu, and that there is the distinct danger of losing the heritage of the church's catechisms, creeds and confessions, with the neglect of the "ontology" of theology over its "economy", Graeme makes the case that biblical and systematic theology have never been in such a relationship of mutual exclusivity. In fact, he claims, the biblical writers, along with all of the divines of church history, utilized biblical theological method in coming up with their systematizations in what apparently is a relationship that is best described as the hermeneutical spiral. He categorically goes against the proposal of a "balance" between the two paradigms, seeing that such a balance is not to be found in Scripture or is propounded by it. Instead he advances the notion that the relationship between biblical and systematic theology is perichoretic, in that while each carries its own distinctions, an inter-penetration exists that makes the realization of one impossible without the other.

I was deeply impressed by Graeme Goldsworthy's treatment of the matter at hand, and sorely disappointed at Carl Trueman's hasty generalizations. Goldsworthy actually made an appeal to the nature of knowledge (epistemology) in his defense of biblical theology. One cannot know about categories, abstractions, and absolutes without coming to grips with particulars, specifics, and instances, and vice-versa. Scripture makes plain that the created order (particulars) bears testimony to God and His many divine attributes (abstraction), though not in a salvific way. Conversely, God's moral will (abstraction) shows us why the Decalogue, with its imperatives (particulars), is good and is to be obeyed and lived out. The relationship between induction and deduction is perichoretic. With that said, let me leave you with this wonderful quote from Goldsworthy's response:

" will never be a good biblical theologian if you are not also striving to be a good systematic and historical theologian, and you will never be a good systematic theologian if you ignore biblical and historical theology. Between the various theological methods (we could add pastoral theology) there is not balance but the perichoresis of the hermeneutic spiral." — Graeme Goldsworthy


  1. Abusus non tollit usum - Abuse is not an argument against proper use.

    I side with Goldsworthy on this one. People who oppose BT often do so because they focus on the abuses that have taken place. They fail to appreciate the work of orthodox men like Vos, Ridderbos or Gaffin probably because they never really understood what these guys are saying.

  2. Carl Trueman is prone to these "not-too-well-thought-of" outbursts, I think. LOL.

  3. When Trueman is right he's right:) I have to agree with Trueman that modernists use biblical theology to denigrate systematics.

    But that being said, it is also true that systematic theology is merely proof texting if it is not based on solid biblical theology.

    I did a minor in systematic theology in college so I have a great interest in systematic theology that is well done.



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