Breaking the stalemate between systematicians and biblical scholars . . . philosophers?

Responding to a quote by Carl Trueman, Carlos Bovell writes – Whose job is it to get us out of this mess? [Bolding mine:]

. . . Is the question, “What does it mean for scripture to be God’s Word?” a systematic question or a biblical studies question? It would seem to me a theological question. So how explicitly involved in theology is biblical studies? Very, if biblical scholars are the ones who should answer this question. But there’s a catch: only a restricted set of answers to this question will be accepted by the systematicians.

So now one might ask, How explicitly involved in biblical studies is theology? Considerably, but from whence does systematics get its primary materials for the work of systematizing? Biblical studies? Or is it already there in the theology itself? This is a dog chasing its tail. Each discipline apparently has its own set of tools and each discipline studies a very different sort of data set, yet somehow the systematic dimension is assumed to have priority (especially in the present context). Not only that, but Carl seems to imply that the discipline of biblical studies has not been holding its own and is now expected to fall back in line (with systematics, that is).

Yet biblical studies is theoretically what provides systematics with the materials for its theologizing. Without this data, the theology produced would not be scriptural, which is the ultimate goal. Theology also has as its resource all of what has come before in historical theology. Still, scripture is supposed to be given priority. But for the last 20 years or so the materials set forth by evangelical biblical scholars have increasingly become of such nature that suggests systematics should begin pondering whether it is in need of revision. . . .

It is a very interesting post – especially in light of the Westminster controversy over Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation (Bovell is a Westminster grad) and other debates within evangelicalism. I was mostly drawn to his description of the “circularity” of the debate between theologians and biblical scholars. I wrote a bit about that here.

Bovell thinks it is “officially” the philosophers job to break the impass and to rework “what it means to say that the Bible is the word of God?” While technically he may be right, I’m not holding my breath for the philosophers. To be honest, I think the impass – if it is to be broken – will be worked out over time in a more socio-cultural way than intellectually. Then again, I tend to see the whole debate in terms of socio-cultural phenomena (the clash of two ways of being), and I’m fairly entrenched in one of them.

What do you think of Bovell’s proposal?

5 thoughts on “Breaking the stalemate between systematicians and biblical scholars . . . philosophers?

  1. Richard L. Lindberg says:

    Why is it the work of philosophers to unravel this? As a WTS grad (1979, 1980) our doctrine of Scripture is taken from Scripture. Thus we need biblical and systematic studies. This has been the approach at WTS generally as reflected in the works of Machen, Young, Stonehouse, Gaffin, Dillard and Poythress, as well as Van Til and Murray. All of them began with Scripture’s self-witness. The key is which set of presuppositions you use. This is where Professor Enns deviates from the tradition of WTS in my opinion. He looks at the same phenomena and believes the doctrine of Scripture is need of revision.

  2. mertesfamily says:

    I think it is hard to make hardline decisions in favor of the biblical, theological and/or philosophical over the others in bringing sense to this hermeneutical circle (or downward spiral depending on how you look at it). On the one hand you have the small child humming ‘Jesus love me’ before even having the ability to read (this is the greatest presupposition and conclusion that comes from an accurate reading of the Bible) and the postmodern student of religion who appreciates the texts only as they back up her own presuppositions. For the most part, I find that hardly anybody is actually picking up the Bible while leaving room for great work to be done on their presuppositions which have already been formed by what Christianity means to them as they have encountered the community of faith. I agree with you Ben that the socio-cultural cannot be underestimated in this case. For myself, I look more to the hermeneutics guys who have (or at least should have) good bearings in both biblical studies and theology but specialize in the interaction of these two fields as it applies to real people in their joys and struggles interpreting the Bible and determining just how it is God’s revelation and authority in our lives.

  3. Ben says:

    Sorry guys, I was out last week. Thanks for your comments.

    Richard, I personally am not a fan of philosophers, I just thought Bovell posed an interesting question, and I liked his articulation of the stalemate. One question for you: would you include the PHENOMENA of Scripture within “Scripture’s self-witness”? I think that fundamental presupposition is where this debate is being fought . . . and why there is a stalemate.

    Luke, I’m with you on leaning on the hermeneutics people, but as you already know, I’m very biased in this debate. There is also a wide spectrum of disagreement within the hermeneutics field. When you get here, we are going to have a lot of long, fun talks. The uses of Scripture by real people is likely to be one of them. You can straighten me out. ;-).

  4. Richard L. Lindberg says:


    When I wrote of the self-witness of Scripture I mean it in the way I think WTS usually does: what Scripture has to say about itself, namely its inspiration from God as in 2 Tim 3:16. Yet all through Scripture there is the record of God speaking and people recording his words. What Peter says in I Peter about not reporting made up myths I would apply to the whole Scripture. There is also the obvious role and work of human authors, Moses, David, Solomon, the prophets, Luke, Paul, Peter, John. Luke indicates that he has done research to present the most accurate picture of Christ’s life and work. The phenomena of Scripture are part of Scripture’s nature, but I wouldn’t see them as part of the witness of Scripture to itself. I’d have to think that over some. What I see as the problem with I&I compared to earlier works by the WTS faculty is that Dr. Enns sees the phenomena and sees difficulties whereas earlier profs found ways to deal with them. Dr. Dillard in his essay in Inspiration and Inerrancy (the other I&I) saw positive and negative uses of harmonization and other ways of dealing with discrepencies and still maintained the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. He did not see the need to re-write the doctrine of Scripture as Dr. Enns did.

  5. Ben says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful follow up comment. I appreciate your willingness to dialogue on this. I have another question that came out of your latest comment, “Why don’t we see the phenomena of Scripture as part of Scripture’s witness to itself?” This is a genuine question on my part to get at why we have the presuppositions we do; I’m not attempting to prove any particular point.

    Another thought, Dillard probably pushed the envelop during his time as well, and I’m sure there were some who though he had gone too far (I’m especially thinking of some of his conclusions about Chronicles).

    I can appreciate that you feel like Enns has stepped out of bounds, but he – and his (now former) Biblical studies colleagues – have argued that he is clearly within the WTS tradition. It was a fair debate, and he did admit that he should have stated a few things differently to be more clear. Overall, I think the honest debate got railroaded by other socio-cultural phenomena. I also feel that “needing to re-write the doctrine of Scripture” is a bit strong to characterize his intentions. Maybe “to help us rethink certain articulations of those doctrines” would have been a fairer statement.

    Thanks again for your input.

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