Monday, 18 August 2008

The Difference between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology

Systematic theology is an exposition of truth about God and his purpose and interaction with humanity based both on scripture and what can be known or surmised from general revelation (e.g., psychology, science), as it is probed from a person’s contemporaneous perspective and synthesised into a coherent logical system to address the comprehensive life questions facing the world in which he currently lives.

This definition is rather off the cuff and may have some weaknesses, but two points worth emphasising is that 1) systematic theology employs the logical categories and priorities of the contemporary world, and 2) systematic theology is not solely based on scripture (special revelation), but also on knowledge culled from other sciences (general revelation).

This may be compared with biblical theology. Biblical theology is an exposition of biblical truth according to the Bible’s own terms and categories and urgencies. It is limited in terms of its basis to the biblical text itself apart from the sciences, although the disciplines of archaelogy, history, sociology, etc., may shed light on our understanding of the text.

Biblical theology is descriptive, while systematic theology is prescriptive. Thus, biblical theology tells us what they believed back then, while systematics tells us what we ought to believe. Of course, the biblical writers wrote with a view that their theology was something which should be imported and imposed world-wide for all time and for all people, and thus, the prescriptive nature of the text cannot be gainsaid. Yet, the task of biblical theology as a discipline is to sort out their beliefs back then precisely so that systematic theologians can put it into modern categories and logical systems to prescribe to moderns how they should now live.

On a side note, one should distinguish that systematics is an exposition of what one should believe, while apologetics is a defence of that exposition.

Two further observations are in order. First, a person can take a biblical theology approach to individual books and corpuses of the Bible and produce such a thing as a “biblical theology of the Pastoral Epistles” or a “biblical theology of the Pentateuch.” The same is true of the two testaments. There is such a thing as a “biblical theology of the Old Testament” and a “biblical theology of the New Testament.

Of course a proper biblical theology takes into account the entire canon. One certainly cannot do a biblical theology of the Johannine writings and call it simply a biblical theology. This is especially true of a biblical theology of the New Testament; one can produce a biblical theology of the New Testament, but without the Old Testament, it cannot truly be called a biblical theology.

Secondly, biblical theology can be organised in various schema and still be considered a biblical theology. Biblical theology does not require a sequential or a synchronic presentation in order to qualify as biblical theology. In Gerhard Hasel’s Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, examples of these various schemas are outlined. He discusses 1) Dentan’s paradoxical attempt to present a biblical theology in traditional dogmatic categories, 2) the Genetic-Progressive presentation, 3) the Cross-Section presentation, 4) the Topical presentation, 5) the Diachronic presentation, 6) the “Formation-of-Tradition” presentation, and others (28-114). My point here is that the no matter how you organise or present the “stuff” of biblical theology it will still be recognisable as a biblical theology, so long as it is descriptive of the biblical text and retains its same categories and priorities.

In passing, one should note that the older systematic theologies cannot be relied upon for accurately distinguishing between systematics and biblical theology for the simple reason that biblical theology is a relatively young discipline, with relatively few biblical theology works being published prior to the 20th century, and only blossoming into full flower in the last half of the 20th century.

This concludes my discussion of the differences of biblical theology and systematics. Here are some supporting citations and thoughts from important works (all EMPHASES belong to me):

Waltke (An Old Testament Theology): Dogmatic (systematic) theologians serve the church best when they rely on orthodox biblical theology for explications of Scripture from which they frame abstract universal propositions in accordance with a coherent system APPROPRIATE TO THE CHURCH’S CONTEMPORARY SITUATION (31).

Waltke: [Famed systematician Charles] Hodge failed to realize adequately that the biblical writers had their own priority of ideas and coherency of thought and that the biblical theologian aims to honor that priority and arrangement by tracing the trajectory of the themes that are found in and run through the books (51).

Waltke: Systematic (dogmatic) theologians present the Christian message to the CONTEMPORARY WORLD. They draw the impetus for organizing this message from outside the Old Testament. John Calvin…organized his material according to the four divisions of the Apostle’s Creed. Philip Melanchthon organized his theology according to one book of the Bible, Romans. Since the seventeenth century, theologians typically employed philosophical categories derived from Greek thought, such as Bibliology, (the study of the Bible), hamartiology (the study of sin), penumatology (the study of the Spirit), and so on (64).

Waltke: Biblical theologians differ from dogmaticians in three ways. First, biblical theologians primarily think as exegetes, not as logicians. Second, they derive their organizational principle from the biblical blocks of writings themselves rather than from factors external to the text. Third, their thinking is diachronic—that is, they track the development of theological themes in various blocks of writings. Systematic theologians think more synchronically—that is, they invest their energies on the church’s doctrines, not on the development of religious ideas within the Bible (64).

I. Howard Marshall (New Testament Theology): “[Systematic theology] is intended to DESCRIBE a theology that is not so much a description of what Christians believe as rather what they OUGHT to believe” (43).

Gerhard Hasel (Old Testament Theology): In detailing the birth of the discipline of biblical theology Hasel writes, “…Johann Philipp Gabler…made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to [biblical theology]…. Gabler’s famous definition reads: ‘Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine maters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things” (17).

Hasel: “Biblical theology is not aiming to take the place of or be in competition with systematic theology as the latter expresses itself in the form of system building based on its own categories either with or without the aid of philosophy” (33).

Millard Erickson (Christian Theology): “So we propose a more complete definition of theology: that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the context of CULTURE IN GENERAL, worded in a CONTEMPORARY IDIOM, and related to ISSUES OF LIFE… (21).

Erickson: “Theology must also be CONTEMPORARY . While it treats timeless issues, it must use language, concepts, and though forms that make some sense in the context of the present time…. It is not merely a matter of using today’s thought forms to express the message. The Christian message should address the questions and the challenges encountered TODAY” (24).

Erickson: In distinguishing two competing approaches to biblical theology with systematic theology, Erickson writes, “We might today call this the distinction between descriptive biblical theology and normative biblical theology. Note, however, that neither of these approaches is dogmatics or systematic theology, SINCE NO ATTEMPT IS MADE TO CONTEMPORIZE OR TO STATE THESE UNCHANGING CONCEPTS IN A FORM SUITABLE FOR OUR DAY’S UNDERSTANDING” (24-25).

D.A. Carson (“The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology” in Doing Theology in Today’s World, Woodbridge and McComiskey, eds.): Biblical theology is bounded in two ways. “First, its subject matter is exclusively biblical…. Second, it organizes its subject matter in ways that preserve corpus distinctions. It is less interested in what the New Testament or the Bible says about, say, the sovereignty of God, than it is in what Paul (or Isaiah, or John) says about this subject…. This means, in turn, that biblical theology is organized chronologically, or better, salvation-historically…--both within any one corpus…and from corpus to corpus (45).

Carson: “Systematic theology, then is Christian theology whose internal structure is systematic; i.e., it is organized on atemporal principles of logic, order, and need, rather than on inductive study of discrete biblical corpora (45).

Since Carson is not so interested in contrasting systematics with biblical theology, some of his statements about systematics which actually do contrast with systematics need to be elucidated. For example, when he emphasises that systematics poses atemporal questions (45-46), this implies that biblical theology addresses the priorities of ancient Israelites and early Christians which may not necessarily coincide with those urgencies facing humanity in other cultures or time spans.

Carson rightly discerns that biblical theology is imminently concerned with the theology of a given corpus (the doctrine of land in Joshua, resurrection in the Johannine literature, the kingdom of God in Matthew, etc.). He also rightly discerns that there is such a thing as unity and diversity between the corpora, and that one corpus might take a different perspective on any subject matter, and that good biblical theology must ultimately integrate these different perspectives into a unified theology. It is important to note, however, that the synthesis of a given theological issue in the various corpora is neither the product nor the task of systematic theology. Such a synthesis is still entirely the domain of biblical theology. Now, if the results of such a synthesis were to be applied to the contemporary and eternal questions which dog humanity, and re-cast in logical hierarchies and categories, as well as integrated with whatever other knowledge can be culled from the realm of general revelation, then the final result would be systematic theology.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Doing Coptic Papyrology in Leipzig

I attended the Second International Coptic Papyrology Summer School in Leipzig, Germany last month. It was a first class experience. We had an 18:6 student to teacher ratio, with 26 lectures, a tour of the Egyptian museum, a papyrus-making practicum, and about 28 hours of hands-on manuscript analysis. Students were given their own Coptic manuscript (dating back to 5th to 8th centuries), and were given responsibility for transcribing, translating, analyzing and presenting them to the Summer School, with guidance from the teaching staff. Additionally, students and teachers alike generally ate all their meals together, affording the opportunity for excellent informal discussion. The setting at the University of Leipzig also was first rate.

Well known Coptologists on the teaching staff included Anne Boud’hors, Stephen Emmel, Sebastian Richter, guest speaker Uwe-Karsten Plisch, and others. Georg Schmelz (Mannheim/Heidelberg) in particular spent hours with me working on my transcription. Students attended from Spain, Sweden, United States, United Kingdom, France, Austria, Germany, Finland, and Canada.

I was given a papyrus manuscript about the size of a regular sheet of paper (27 cm x 17 cm) with seventeen lines of text written lengthwise. The text itself measures 23 cm x 14.5 cm. Perhaps as much as 20-30% of the text has been lost, mostly broken off on the right (especially in four finger-like lacunae), but also due to ink fading and holes elsewhere. The manuscript varies unevenly from a light to medium brown colour, with dark brown ink.

The manuscript is a letter, written from someone named Stephanos John the Less (or perhaps, the Lowly) to a superior named Papa Damine; their names are written on the verso (back side). Given the extensive reference to prayers and to God, a reference to the Church and to a deacon, as well as the reverential tones of address, the letter seems to have been written in a religious setting, perhaps having something to do with a monastery. The main topic of concern, judging from the surviving text, is that certain books had arrived in good order. The Coptic word for book occurs six times. Its provenance is unknown.

This letter had not been analysed previously by any modern scholar. In recent years, it was encased in glass, but had not been catalogued in the old inventory at Leipzig. Indeed, since this was a letter sent from one individual to another, one might assume that I was one of the very few people to have ever read it, now or then. While somewhere deep in my subconscious mind I may have held out hopes that the letter contained clues about the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, or about some important bit of missing history, letters of this kind usually are not important by themselves. Instead, they are most useful when they are fitted together with scores and hundreds of other letters to give us a picture of life in antiquity.

The text was written in a “regular hand;” the scribe lacked the sort of skill typically requisite for fine literary works. The letters are rather awkward, tight, and thin, without artistic variation in thickness. They typically have a pronounced slant, especially with the letters tau and iota, and were written in unligatured block letters. Sometimes the letters are so tight that they were probably difficult to read even when the ink was fresh. At places, one may easily discern where the scribe had to re-ink his writing tool. Further analysis is necessary to discern if the formation of the letters might suggest a date or provenance.

The text is written in fairly “normal” Sahidic, with few dialectical indications. For example, there is but one occurrence of the beta personal suffix instead of fai. At some points, there is deviation from literary Sahidic, such as the unexpected use of the definite article with holokotte, as if the gold coins were some specific, known coins, as well as the unexpected absence of one or two object markers. There occurs also an otherwise unattested variation of the name Enoch. There appears to be three instances of apparent spelling errors. In the six occurrences of ϫwwme(book), it inexplicably occurs once as ϫwwmi. In addition to nomina sacra, there is one titular abbreviation.

The text seems to follow standard letter writing conventions of the day. A good half of the letter appears formulaic. The actual issue which is addressed is found in the middle nine lines, while the introductory and concluding lines consists of standard greeting and closing formulae.

One of the unresolved difficulties of this letter is the shift of narrative voice. It begins in the first person plural. Then at some point, it shifts to first person singular. Later, it makes a reference to a certain Stephen. This last fact is especially odd since the author’s name is said to be Stephen. Indeed, although the text is lacunose, the closest context is a warning not to look (or consider?) something…of Stephen.

Here is a preliminary translation:

With God, before all things, we greet and bow a multitude of times
before the footstool of the feet of your piety of honoured father
…from least to greatest
…greatly your prayers…
through your fatherhood in… …these two books…
(to receive?) the money in books to us. As for the rest, I sent (and) they…
…to us on the fourth. And they brought them in good shape. Behold God!
your prayers brought the remaining books to us. And…
…the matter which satisfies the will of God. Do not look…
…a book of Stephan to us a little of Marine. You…
…go up to them… …well that…
book and your… God … of the books…
we work well. And as the prayer be upon us, then we are (habitually) doing it for your pi-
ety. And the prayer [be] on us and your holy prayers [be] upon the
church. …bow to your piety…
the Deacon greets you nicely. And Enoch salutes you. Salvation
be to you. Until next time. Be well.

With God of Jesus, Papa Damine. Stephanus the Less.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Developments in Textual Criticism and the Münster Colloquium

25 years ago, people were writing articles about the death of textual criticism, as if everything that could be said about the field had already been said.

Now, we are experiencing some important developments in various aspects of the field. Specifically, we are facing a major attack on the reliability of the transmission of the text, as well as a new method behind the publication of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament text.

Last week, the Institute for New Testament Text Formation Research (INTF) held a major colloquium in which about 55 of the very best text critics were present. If you care to know, I'm talking about people such as Eldon Epp, Larry Hurtado, Barbara Aland and all the Münster people, David Parker and the Birmingham [England] people, the Tyndale House people, Dan Wallace, Bill Warren, Tjitze Baarda and the Amsterdam people, Joel DeLobel, Paul Foster, David Trobisch, Maurice Robinson, Michael Holmes.) No, Bart didn't come.

I was the junior-most member present. I was entirely star-struck, but all the legends of the field were so gracious and warm and welcoming. We all stayed at a hotel which had a couple of lounges which were conducive to sitting down and chatting over coffee, even to the late hours of the evening. We had our meals together too. These personable conversations were so good that the conference was worth attending even if you didn't attend any of the sessions.

Early on, it became obvious that a good number of people think that the transmission of the text from about 80 C.E. to 170 C.E. was so wild and erratic that we will never be able to backtrack from our oldest manuscripts (late second to early third century) to the "original" text.

My PhD project focuses on this particular issue as it is reflected in one particular "wild" manuscript which is one of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel.

The other major issue is the new method for assessing textual variation being used by the INTF which produces the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament text. This is THE critical text which serves (more or less) as the basis for all our recent translations of the New Testament, as well as most commentaries.

INTF has developed a computer program which charts the relatedness of a given textual variant to other variants in the same variant unit. They call it the Coherence Based Genealogical Method (CBGM), although some people are simply calling it the Münster method. The method is probably too complex for me to understand, let alone explain. In fact, one of the concerns is that so few outsiders understand it well enough to be able to critique it. Nonetheless, the Nestle-Aland 28th ed will be corrected against it in the Catholic Epistles (i.e., James-3 John) when it comes out in 2010.

An interesting result of the Münster method is that it is finding more and more individual Byzantine readings to be more plausible. This accords well with the general flow of textual criticism over the last 20 or 30 years. I should hasten to say that this does nothing to help out the theory of the priority of the Byzantine text, but simply reinforces the notion that one cannot dismiss a reading simply because it is Byzantine.

One would have thought that Maurice Robinson--one of the world's only Byzantine priortists--would have been pleased to hear that the Münster method was pushing for more Byzantine readings. I talked to him about the issue on several times. Prof. Robinson has to be one of the very nicest, most engaging, and most interesting personas in all of textual criticism.

If I understood him correctly, Prof. Robinson says that he has read every article written by Gerd Mink (the brains behind the Münster Method) whether in German or in English. While many were hesitant to accept the method on the basis that they really didn’t understand it, Prof. Robinson was stating that he opposed the method precisely because he did understand it. He claimed that if he were to feed his presuppositions into the computer’s programming, the Münster method would spit out a Byzantine Priority schema.

To be sure, Prof. Robinson often has a way of seeing the otherwise overlooked elephant in the room. However, condemnation from one corner of the room probably is not enough to dismiss the Münster method. It will be interesting to see how people like Dan Wallace (Dallas Seminary), Bill Warren (New Orleans Baptist Seminary), the Tyndale House people, and Epp and Holmes react to it in the coming years. David Parker and Birmingham seem to be solidly behind the method.

One wonders if all this will lead to a competing edition of the Greek New Testament.

For a more robust review and discussion of the colloquium, go here and to the blog posts prior to it:

Goethe-Institut and Learning Theological German

A good reading knowledge of German is important for doing PhD research in the humanities. In addition, a scholar should be adept enough in German to listen to an academic lecture in German. How does one acquire these skills?

The Goethe-Institut is well known and respected for teaching German. The Institute has an extensive program from the beginning steps in German to advanced German. Unfortunately, although there are many strong points about the Goethe method itself, the program is not suitable for academics.

I attended the Institute located in Hamburg. The facilities are truly first rate and conveniently located across from the central train station. The personnel are friendly and dedicated. Perhaps one of the strengths of Goethe is that as soon as you walk into the facilities, there is such a concerted emphasis on German-only that you almost feel guilty for speaking English.

My A4 Intensiv course (four weeks) consisted of an initial introductory day of placement testing on the first Monday, followed by daily (Mon-Fri) instruction over a period of three weeks, until the fourth week. On the fourth week, classroom instruction concluded on Tuesday which comprised a review for those taking the course exam. These details are important to note, for all the course details on the website and correspondence otherwise suggest that the last day of instruction is on the final Thursday of the fourth week. For my part, I did not find out otherwise until the final Tuesday afternoon, an hour prior to conclusion. This had major implications for my travel itinerary. Moreover, instead of getting a good four weeks of instruction, in effect, the A4 Intensive provides only 15 days of classroom instruction, or 16 days if you count the review for the exam.

Classroom instruction was from 9:00 to 1:30. This included a 30 minute lunch break and an additional 15 minute short break.

Classroom instruction was very effective. In my program, we had a 1:6 teacher-student ratio. This was supplemented usually by the presence of a Goethe-Institut teacher-in-training assistant so that we actually had a 1:3 teacher-student ratio for most of the time.

Teaching was generally very lively and engaging. The course was taught 95% in German, even from day one. Not only was this method desirable, but it was nearly necessary since we had two Russians, an Iranian, and a Mexican in my class. There were times, however, that an explanation for a German word would go on and on and on, when a simple English translation would have been more time-efficient. The classroom instruction was effective in helping us students become accustomed to speaking conversational German.

My class had the misfortune of having our initial teacher go on holiday. Then, our assigned substitute missed several days due to illness. We ended up having four different teachers. One got the impression that some exam material was overlooked in the process.

My major disappointment in the classroom instruction was that grammar was taught assuming that students had no background in it. Consequently, the instructor spent a huge amount of time explaining the concept of the accusative case, for example. After several hours, I began to wonder how long it would take to teach the dative case…. On the other hand, some of the other students seemed to never fully grasp the concept and were left with their heads spinning.

On a related matter, the scholar seeking a German Sprachkurs should be aware that Goethe-Institut aims its instruction at a 20-something audience wanting to learn to say things like, “I meet you at the disco at 10 pm” and “I like to go on cruises.” We had one lesson on German beer lexicon.

Another misfortune was that, in my case, I had previously actually finished an entire course book on reading German, and had translated some very difficult academic German. However, because I could not say things like, “I would like a hamburger and coke,” I was assigned to the very beginning German course. To be sure, I needed to take beginning German precisely because I couldn’t say such things. However, I desperately needed to improve my ability to read German, but Goethe-Institut did nothing to help me in this matter.

When I approached the personnel at Goethe-Institut about this problem, I suggested that a reading group would be very helpful. This seemed to the Institute director to be a sensible solution. However, despite her enthusiasm and expressed intention, such a reading group never materialised.

Seeing that my reading skills were going undeveloped, I ended up hiring a private tutor. This was a very beneficial move, especially since my tutor was so good. I paid him 15 euro/hr, and met with him an hour a day. When classroom instruction ended so abruptly for me, I was able to meet with him three to four hours a day over my last four days in Hamburg.

Goethe-Institut is very expensive. For many people, the expenditure may prove entirely beneficial. You get a great teacher-student ratio; you get first rate teachers with a first rate teaching method; you get first rate facilities. However, perhaps a better approach for some people would be to attend a less expensive program and apply the savings to hire a private teacher.

Another indicator that Goethe-Institut is designed for non-academics is its textbook. I can’t recall the title of it, and I can’t look at it to see because I simply threw it away when I was done. It is full of pretty pictures and seems more designed to impress the reader with the notion that learning German is fun rather than being a bona fide grammar. Using the book as a supplemental workbook might be a good idea, but the German student needs a grammar with which he may become intimately familiar so that he can quickly consult it again and again for future reference.

Goethe-Institut has a cultural program to supplement its classroom instruction. The Institute makes this a prominent feature in its promotional literature and website. In my case, it consisted of various cultural experiences in the afternoons daily (perhaps an evening or two as well). I participated in two events: a city tour and a visit to a coffee shop to experience authentic German coffee along the riverfront. I found both experiences of minimal benefit. The city tour in the open-top bus was conducted entirely in a German which was spoken so quickly as to be entirely incomprehensible to most of the students. Consequently, each of us simply conversed to his own friends in his own native language. The authentic German coffee experience was similar, except that we ended up sitting at Starbucks since the other café was too crowded. Both events consumed the entire afternoon. Ultimately, I decided I could more profitably spend my time studying. This was altogether unfortunate, because I think the cultural program could be of great help if only there were some very simple German lessons built into the events.

If my sole purpose in attending Goethe-Institut had been to work on speaking and hearing German, then I must confess that it helped me enormously. If the course had assumed that the students had a basic understanding of language systems, then we could have approached grammar more aggressively, and I would have had even more practice at dealing with more complex sentences. However, one of my major goals was to work on my reading skills, but I regretfully say that Goethe-Institut was of no help to me at all in this regard. For this reason, I would recommend that the academic who needs to develop his German should try something else.

One possibility would actually involve Goethe-Institut. The Institute does offers special classes for businesses. If there were perhaps five or six academics willing to take a course together, I suspect that Goethe-Institut would be flexible enough to offer a course for academics. If so, I think that this would be extremely beneficial, and that Goethe-Institut would be perhaps the best place to do it.

Here's my shorter review in German:

Ich hatte leider nur 16 Tage Unterrichts bzw. 3-3/4 Stunden jeden Tag. In meiner Klasse waren wir sechs Schüler. Weil wir einen Praktikanten gehabt haben, war das Verhältnis von Lehrern zu Schülern 2:6.

Die Einrichtungen waren prima und modern, die Angestellten waren freundlich und professionell. Nach dem Unterricht bot das G.-I. jeden Tag ein Kulturprogramm an. Die Veranstaltungen, denen Struktur fehlte und die auf junge Leute abzielten, halfen leider nicht, Deutsch zu sprechen.

In mancher Beziehung war der Unterricht nützlich. Wir übten vor allem, miteinander zu sprechen. Das war mir hilfreich, weil ich bisher nur Lesen gelernt hatte. Da ich nur wenig Deutsch spreche, platzierte das G.-I. mich in Start Deutsch A-1.

Es hat weitere Enttäuschungen gegeben. Weil der Unterricht nicht auf Akademiker und Gelehrte ausgerichtet war, war die Grammatik sehr langsam und langweilig und oberflächlich. Der Unterricht hat meine Lesefähigkeit gar nicht verbessert. Weil das Lehrbuch viele schöne Bilder aber nicht viele Grammatikdiagramme oder Grammatikdaten hat, ist es nicht so gut. Ich werde nicht weiter mit diesem Buch arbeiten können.

Ich bat darum, dass das G.I. eine Lesegruppe als einen Teil des Lehrplans anböte. Das ist aber, trotz anfänglichen Wohlwollens, leider nicht geschehen.

Deshalb engagierte ich einen Privatlehrer. Wir trafen uns miteinander für jeweils eine Stunde an sechs Tagen, dann für je 3-4 Stunden an meinen letzten vier Tagen. Wir konzentrierten uns erst auf das Lesen, dann auf die Satzstruktur, danach auf das Verfassen von Texten und schließlich auf das Reden. Außerdem verbrachte ich viele viele Stunden mit Deutschlesen und -hören.