Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Theology

There are many areas of knowledge one can study that are helpful to learning more about God, His creation, and the Christian faith in particular. Broadly speaking, however, there are four major domains of knowledge Christians must engage with should they desire a deeper knowledge of God and love of His truth. Attaining knowledge, both in its propositional and personal forms, increases our capacity to fulfill our sacred mission of spreading the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation, as well as bringing us closer to our final goal, ultimate union with our Creator. Without knowledge zeal alone is, as Paul points out, catastrophic to saving grace:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:1-4

Therefore, as we pursue becoming more well-rounded thinkers about God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s world, it is helpful to have some method of organizing this spiritual endeavor. The four primary knowledge domains we must entertain in order to achieve our goal of becoming disciplined followers of Christ are: Theology (Systematic and Biblical), Apologetics (Philosophical & Historical), Church History (pre-Reformation & post-Reformational), and Spiritual Formation (Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation).

Since these are very broad categories, it is right to point out that within each domain there are a number of disciplinary subsets one could study. This part of discipleship is related to the German idea of wissenschaft, particular knowledge that can become increasingly microcosmic and analytical. For example, today one is usually not just a “Bible scholar” but minimally a “New Testament” or “Old Testament” scholar, and even then usually an expert in a specialized subset of New Testament or Old Testament studies (e.g. textual criticism, Pauline studies, Septuagint studies, etc.). All of these sub-disciplines become extremely relevant to becoming an expert in the larger domain of Biblical Theology, and, as such, all of these subsets of knowledge lend to us knowing the Bible better. In turn, knowing the Bible better tends to help us know its Author better. Of course, this kind of analytical knowledge is good only insofar as we continually submit our studies to the bigger reality, namely, the person and program of Jesus Christ.

In this series, I will dive into the manifold sub-disciplines, but only consider these four broader domains in an effort to help beginners focus their studies, so as to train the mind and heart for the sake of the Gospel. In this first of four blog posts I will outline the primary discipline of Theology.

Augustine: The First Systematic Theologian

Systematic & Biblical Theology

Theology is our primary pursuit. The study of God is what we are essentially about as Christ followers. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has stated succinctly that theology is simply “speaking well of God.” As such, we must do theology well in order to serve God well.

However, the theological domain entails two kinds of theology, both with their own distinctive approaches to the ultimate goal of knowledge of God. These are Systematic and Biblical theology.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology takes off in the early Middle Ages, with the publication of Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, written sometime prior to 1160, and which dominated systematic theology until the Protestant Reformation. Before Lombard’s Sentences, St. Augustine was the most influential systematic theologian of the Western Church and was so for its first 900 years. Augustine’s theology still impacts us today and for good reason. After Augustine and Lombard, Thomas Aquinas was the greatest pre-Reformation systematic theologian in Church History, writing his Summa Theologica in mid-13th century. The earliest systematic theological writings that were particularly Lutheran/Reformational were composed by Philip Melanchton, Martin Luther’s close associate. So before the Reformation, the main systematic theologies that influenced the Church’s doctrine and practice were developed by Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. Melanchton was the first Lutheran systematic theologian after Martin Luther’s “break” with the Roman version of the church.

John Calvin, however, was the first real, complete reformational systematic theologian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559), setting the stage for some of the best theological writing in the church’s history by 17th century Puritan thinkers such as Francis Turretin, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Stephen Charnock. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Protestant tradition of systematic theology was carried forward in the Americas by men like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, W.T.G Shedd, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield.

Finally in the 20th century, there are three German thinkers whose work dominates academic theology, greatly shaping contemporary, western, Protestant religion (for better or worse). These are Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. Other very influential, systematic theologians of the 20th century include:

Reformed Theology: Herman Bavinck, G.C. Berkouwer, Millard Erickson, Louis Berkhof, Abraham Kuyper

Lutheran Theology: Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck

Weslyean/Methodist Theology: Thomas Oden, William Abraham

Anglo-Theology (various denominations): T.F. Torrance, John Webster, Colin Gunton, Sarah Coakley

Roman Catholic: Hans Urs von Balthasaar, Henri du Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Bernard Lonergan.

Systematic Theology in principle tries to answer broad, categorical questions related to various and sundry aspects of God, creation, and revelation. These aspects are often called theological loci, and the traditional loci of a given theological system are usually as follows (and often found in this order):

1) Prolegomena

2) Doctrine of Revelation (General, i.e. Natural Theology, and Special Revelation, i.e. Bibliology)

3) Doctrine of God (Trinity, God’s Attributes, also called Theology Proper)

4) Doctrine of Creation (Nature & Anthropology, Angelology & Demonology)

5) Doctrine of Sin (Hamartiology)

6) Doctrine of Christ (Christology)

7) Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)

8) Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology)

9) Doctrine of Angels & Demons (Angelology)

10) Doctrine of Last Things (Eschatology)

Obviously the order of these categories can shift according to the intention and logic of the theologian. Karl Barth, for example, famously began his 12-volume Church Dogmatics with the Doctrine of “The Word of God.” That itself should raise an important question in the reader’s mind, namely: “why would one theologian start with the Bible, while another starts with the doctrine of God?”

In sum, however, systematic theology is the attempt to give an orderly account about God and His creation using Scripture, Reason (philosophy and science) and human experience to answer the greatest number of fundamental questions about the Christian faith. This is a very different endeavor however from its theological counterpart: Biblical Theology.

Biblical Theology: What Does The Text Actually Say?

Biblical Theology

Unlike Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology focuses all its efforts on the study of the Bible, or what systematic theologians call Special Revelation. It looks at the Bible, how it was formed (e.g. the canon of Scripture and the composition of individual books or corpuses); how its parts work together (Old and New testaments); how individual books should be studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for their own sake. This means it is not necessarily the task of the Biblical Theologian to consider or argue for how a passage, part of a book, or book of the Bible fits into some broader theological system.

Biblical Theology tries to understand any given part of the Bible, especially particular books, passages of books, or even phrases and individual words, in their own immediate context. Thus, biblical theologians focus on very specific things like Paul’s theology of ministry in the pastoral epistles or even the authorship of the pastoral epistles. Typical biblical theological pursuits are:

  • Lexicography (the study of semantics, grammar, and syntax of the biblical languages)
  • Form criticism & Redaction criticism (controversial areas of Higher Biblical Criticism that are concerned with the origins of biblical books and passages)
  • Textual criticism (i.e. manuscript studies, also called “Lower Criticism”)
  • Critical and expository work of particular books or authors (e.g. commentaries, Pauline studies, Johannine theology, etc.)
  • Comparative historical/literary studies (e.g. Ancient Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman biography)
  • Hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation, which is a foundational philosophical undertaking that relates to all other biblical studies)

Biblical Theology is often said to have begun with J.P Gabler’s 1787 inaugural address at the German university of Altdorf (see Andreas Köstenberger’s article), where biblical studies was delineated from systematic theology. This segregation of the two disciplines eventually included its evolution into Old Testament and New Testament studies.

As Biblical Theology grew into its own discipline, it tended to become increasingly separated from more abstract work of at least some systematic theologians. To the point that today there is a movement in Evangelical and Roman Catholic circles to reconnect the two disciplines. The proper balance of Systematic theology (also known as “Dogmatic” theology) and Biblical Theology safeguards against Christian thought that is too atomistic or fragmented (too biblical), or theology that is too broad and not grounded in the very words of the Bible (too systematic).

John Webster lays out this dilemma:

We may be led to say something like this: Scripture is not simply one of a set of immanently-conceived communicative practices, a “historical” or “natural” entity of which a sufficient description can be given by identifying the natural properties of texts and their agents (whether authorial or interpretative). Nor is Scripture a historical or natural entity upon which we superimpose “religious” evaluations that encourage “spiritual use” or “theological interpretation.” Rather, without in any way denying the natural properties of scriptural texts, we may say that Scripture’s place in the divine economy of redemption and revelation is determinative of its nature. This nature, in turn, directs its reception.

“Biblical Reasoning”, ATR/90:4, pp. 739-740

In spite of this dilemma of balancing these two modes of theologizing, both are necessary. And, because of advances in linguistic and historical studies (e.g. the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.), Biblical Theology has become incredibly specialized Thus, the reality that one individual will be both an expert biblical exegete and a top-notch systematician, with all the necessary philosophical training, is a very rare phenomenon today.

Historically, Biblical Theology has been dominated by German-language scholarship. Names like Bauer (F.C., Bruno, and Walter), Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer, Wellhausen, Bultmann, von Rad, Noth, and many, many more are synonymous with the biblical interpretive paradigms they helped to create. Paradigms that often go under the title “Higher Biblical Criticism” or HBC. However, many of these great bible scholars also brought unwarranted philosophical presuppositions to their discipline, presuppositions that, to some degree, downgraded the Bible from the divinely inspired revelation of a transcendent God, to a bible that is merely a production of human intellect and culture conditions (see Webster’s pithy response to this above).

The difference maker for theological apologists, especially as we relate to the issue of the reliability and authority of scripture, will often be in discerning which aspects of HBC we can accept into our systematic theology and which ones we must reject based on necessary metaphysical commitments to a historical, and proclamatory Gospel message.

To know the difference between useful HBC and corrosive HBC, and how one decides on one view or the other, can mean winding up in the scholarly camp of someone like a Bart Ehrman, as opposed to that of a Craig Keener. Thus, while we should always engage with liberal or skeptical scholarly views, there are also excellent contemporary, theologically conservative biblical scholars we should also access. For example:

Old Testament: John Walton, Daniel I. Block, Tremper Longmann III, Gordon Wenham, Bruce Waltke, Derrick Kindner, Edwin Yamauchi, Nahum Sarna (Jewish), Jacob Milgrom (Jewish), Jeffrey Tigay (Jewish), Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad (a bit liberal, but a huge name in 20th century OT studies), Umberto Cassuto, John Goldingay, and, more recently, Michael Heiser.

New Testament: N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, Karl Rahner (Catholic), Michael Kruger, Andreas Köstenberger, Michael Bird, Peter O’Brien, D.A. Carson, Michael Licona, I. Howard Marshall, Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington III, Jocahim Jeremias, E.P. Sander, James Dunn, Moises Silva, Robert Jewett, and Ramsey Michaels.

Because OT and NT studies are so specialized there are simply too many people in the field to give an adequate list. But the above names are all highly regarded 20-21st century Evangelical scholars (unless otherwise indicated in parentheses). For additional Biblical Theological resources these surveys edited by Tremper Longman III, and D.A. Carson are indispensable for anyone looking to go deeper into the Biblical texts: Old Testament Commentary Survey, and New Testament Commentary Survey. These surveys will also save pastors a great amount of time when looking for commentaries to prepare for their sermons.

Conclusion: Theology is both Systematic and Biblical

In sum, the goal of any born-again Christian will be to think theologically about the Bible, i.e., understanding it always as God’s Divine Word to man. At the same time it is crucial to think biblically about Theology, making sure that when we teach church doctrines they can be grounded in the text of Scripture. Without thinking theologically, we can get into an academic and purely analytic study of the Bible that leaves no room for its divine Author. Without thinking biblically, we can get a view of god that is very far removed from the God of the Bible, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.

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