When studying the doctrine of creation, as with most theological topics, one must choose how and from which axiom they will begin their examination. Typically, at least within most theological topics, there are two general places one starts – one, from a systematic perspective, and the other from a biblical perspective. Now, before judgement is cast, I am not saying here that biblical theology is the only “biblical” option; systematics does use Scripture to make sense and justify doctrines, but both do it in a different way.
Systematic theology is more of a scientific method, one that seeks to systematically make sense of specific doctrines – creation, sin, atonement, Christology, etc. – and does so by formulating a doctrine and conforming that doctrine to the Bible, making sure it is “biblical.” This can be quite helpful for framing a particular doctrine and being able to articulate what the Bible as a whole says about it. Within the doctrine of creation, a systematic theologian would argue that a specific doctrine of creation is biblical by formulating what the doctrine is and how it is justified by means of examining what the Bible says as a whole. For example, Herman Bavinck, a Dutch theologian, in his Reformed Dogmatics, Volume II, says, “Creation is the initial act and foundation of all divine revelation and therefore the foundation of all religious and ethical belief” (Bavinck, 407). He later states that “God is the sole, unique, and absolute cause of all that exists. He has created all things by his word and Spirit (Gen. 1:2-3; Ps. 33:6; 104:29-30; 148:5; Job 26:13; 33:4; Isa. 40:13; 48:13; Zech. 12:1; John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2; etc.)” (Bavinck, 407). While Bavinck’s use of Scripture is encouraging and reaffirming, the reader does not know the particular context of each verse and how they interplay with the rest of their particular passage and book. In this example, Bavinck distinguishes what creation is and that God is the creator of all things and then conforms that theology with the Bible.
Biblical theology seeks to derive theology from within the Bible. Rather than looking at what the whole Bible says about any given topic, biblical theology looks to understand a specific piece of the Bible, whether that be a book or passage, from within rather than attempting to conform a particular doctrine to what the Bible says. Whereas systematic theology attempts to justify an already structured doctrine and reading and conforming that doctrine to the Bible from that certain constructed paradigm, biblical theology seeks to comprehend what the Bible says on its own terms first rather than second. It attempts to recognize the genre, context, language, and people, both writers and hearers, from that specific point in history. Time and place are paramount for biblical theology. This allows for biblical theologians to comprise their theology from within the Bible first rather than construct it and then conform it. For example, John Walton, an Old Testament scholar and biblical theologian, in his doctrine of creation begins with context – who wrote the first books, why did they write them, who did they write the books to, what were they trying to ultimately communicate, etc. Walton is seeking to understand the context of the Bible from within, from its original authors and hearers in their particular context and language. Not that Walton is unconcerned with other doctrines and how they intermingle with other parts of the Scriptures, he rather pursues the text from within in order to rightly understand that particular text in order to then rightly understand the rest of the narrative.
Doing theology is not easy, nor should it be. The Bible is an ancient text, co-written by God and man, and it takes work to grasp all that it is trying to say. While both ways of doing theology – systematically and biblically – can be helpful and useful, I argue that the biblical theology approach to Scripture treats the Bible as it has been written as a piece of literature. The Bible is not a scientific, theological textbook made to be systematized and neatly ordered, filed, and placed so that we can conform our doctrines to the Bible. The Bible is a divine piece of literature, comprised of poetry, narrative, and apocalyptic genres, all written from a specific people to a specific people in a specific time and place. If we are to understand the Bible on its own terms, I believe we must derive our theology from within.