Beyond Flatland: once more unto the BT/ST breach
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
I've just revised my 2019 Vos Lecture that I gave last March at Geneva College. I decided to revisit Geerhardus's Vos famous analogy comparing biblical theology and systematic theology to a line and circle, respectively. BT is like a line, says Vos, because it works with a historical principle; ST is like a circle, because its constructive principle is holistic and logical. This relationship is clearly germane to my own systematic theology project, so where do my geometric leanings lie?
Well, the first thing to say is that I regret somewhat the dividing wall of hostility between the two figures. Both lines and circles have their own journals, professional organizations, procedures, and culture. Yet the project of reading the Bible theologically is not well served by this division.
My essay looks at Gabler's 1787 lecture that first distinguished the two disciplines, and at Langdon Gilkey's devastating critique of the Biblical Theology Movement, published as "Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language." Gilkey exposed the contradiction at the heart of the BTM: they highlight acts of God but never specify what kind of acts they are, with the result that what starts out looking like theology (the mighty acts of God) ends up looking more like religious studies (the smitten reactions of ancient Israelites).
Hence one of my principal claims: biblical narrative raises questions only ontology can answer. Whereas Gilkey was concerned about OT language about the mighty acts of God, my essay examines the narrative of Jesus' death on the cross, which explains the riff my title works on Gilkey: "Staurology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Narrative." In particular, I look at the significance of one particular detail: Jesus' loud cry from the cross, and I do so in dialogue with N. T. Wright's reading of that narrative.
Biblical narrative raises questions only ontology can answer.
The point of the essay is to argue that sometimes a little ontological clarification goes a long way in making sense of biblical narrative. At its best, systematic theology does not impose foreign conceptual grids upon the biblical text; rather, it reads the text in ontological-historical context. And this brings me to Flatland, Edwin Abbott's 1884 classic book that imagines what it would be like to experience a three-dimensional figure in a two-dimensional world.
To cut to the chase: systematic theology is not a circle but a three-dimensional sphere. I fear our biblical interpretations will always fall somewhat flat if we never ask the ontological questions: to read or not to read Jesus' loud cry from the cross in grammatical-historical, redemptive-historical, and ontological-historical context – that is the question, for systematic theologians and all other readers of the Bible.
Oh yes: my essay will appear in the fall 2019 Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, in an issue devoted to reading the Bible theologically.