Biblical and Systematic Theology:
A Digest of Reformed Opinion on Their Proper Relationship
B. B. Warfield 
Biblical Theology is "the ripest fruit of Exegetics, and Exegetics has not
performed its full task until its scattered results in the way of theological
data are gathered up into a full and articulated system of Biblical Theology
The task of Biblical Theology, in a word, is the task of coordinating
the scattered results of continuous exegesis into a concatenated whole, whether
with reference to a single book of Scripture or to a body of related books
or to the whole Scriptural fabric
"The relation of Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology is based on a true
view of its function. Systematic Theology is not founded on the direct and
primary results of the exegetical process; it is founded on the final and
complete results of exegesis as exhibited in Biblical Theology. Not exegesis
itself, then, but Biblical Theology, provides the material for Systematics.
Biblical Theology is not, then, a rival of Systematics; it is not even a
parallel product of the same body of facts, provided by exegesis; it is the
basis and source of Systematics. Systematic Theology is not a concatenation
of the scattered theological data furnished by the exegetic process; it is
the combination of the already concatenated data given to it by Biblical
Theology. It uses the individual data furnished by exegesis, in a word, not
crudely, not independently for itself, but only after these data have been
worked up into Biblical Theology and have received from it their final coloring
and subtlest shades of meaning - in other words, only in their true sense,
and after Exegetics has said its last word upon them
"We gain our truest Systematics not by at once working together the separate
dogmatic statements in the Scriptures, but by combining them in their due
order and proportion as they stand in the various theologies of the Scriptures.
Thus we are enabled to view the future whole not only in its parts, but in
the several combinations of the parts; and, looking at it from every side,
to obtain a true conception of its solidity and strength, and to avoid all
exaggeration or falsification of the details in giving them place in the
completed structure. And thus we do not make our theology, according to our
own pattern, as a mosaic, out of the fragments of the Biblical teaching;
but rather look out from ourselves upon it as a great prospect, framed out
of the mountains and plains of the theologies of the Scriptures, and strive
to attain a point of view from which we can bring the whole landscape into
our field of sight
"The immediate work of exegesis may be compared to the work of a recruiting
officer: it draws out from the mass of mankind the men who are to constitute
the army. Biblical Theology organizes these men into companies and regiments
and corps, arranged in marching order and accoutered for service. Systematic
Theology combines these companies and regiments and corps into an army -
a single and unitary whole, determined by its own all-pervasive principle.
It, too, is composed of men - the same men which were recruited by Exegetics;
but it is composed of these men, not as individuals merely, but in their
due relations to the other men of their companies and regiments and corps.
The simile is far from a perfect one; but it may illustrate the mutual relations
of the disciplines, and also, perhaps, suggest the historical element that
attaches to Biblical Theology, and the element of all-inclusive systematization
which is inseparable from Systematic Theology. It is just this element,
determining the spirit and therefore the methods of Systematic Theology,
which, along with its greater inclusiveness, discriminates it from all forms
of Biblical Theology, the spirit of which is purely historical
"Scientific Theology rests, therefore, most directly on the results of Biblical
exegesis as provided in Biblical Theology
. It may be useful to seek
to give a rough graphic representation of the relations of Systematic Theology
as thus far outlined:
Geerhardus Vos 
"The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological
Discipline" (Vos's 1894 Inaugural Address as Professor of Biblical Theology
at Princeton Theological Seminary)
"The line of revelation is like the stem of those trees that grow in rings.
Each successive ring has grown out of the preceding one. But out of the sap
and vigor that is in this stem there springs a crown with branches and leaves
and flowers and fruit. Such is the true relation between Biblical and Systematic
Theology. Dogmatics is the crown which grows out of all the work that Biblical
Theology can accomplish
[Biblical Theology] will not so much prove
these doctrines, as it will do what is far better than proof - make them
grow out organically before our eyes from the stem of revelation."
"Introduction: The Nature and Method of Biblical Theology" (Chapter One of
"Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with
the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.
"In the above definition the term 'revelation' is taken as a noun of action.
Biblical Theology deals with revelation as a divine activity, not as the
finished product of that activity. Its nature and method of procedure will
therefore naturally have to keep in close touch with, and so far as possible
reproduce, the features of the divine work itself. The main features of the
latter are the following:
" The historic progressiveness of the revelation-process
"It has not completed itself in one exhaustive act, but unfolded itself in
a long series of successive acts. In the abstract, it might conceivably have
been otherwise. But as a matter of fact this could not be, because revelation
does not stand alone by itself, but is (so far as Special Revelation is
concerned) inseparably attached to another activity of God, which we call
Redemption. Now redemption could not be otherwise than historically
successive, because it addresses itself to the generations of mankind coming
into existence in the course of history. Revelation is the interpretation
of redemption; it must, therefore, unfold itself in installments as redemption
does. And yet it is also obvious that the two processes are not entirely
co-extensive, for revelation comes to a close at a point where redemption
"In Biblical Theology the principle is one of historical, in Systematic Theology
it is one of logical construction. Biblical Theology draws a line of development.
Systematic Theology draws a circle. Still, it should be remembered that on
the line of historical progress there is at several points already a beginning
of correlation among elements of truth in which the beginnings of the
systematizing process can be discerned
"Our dogmatic constructions of truth [are] based on the finished product
There is a point in which the historic advance and the
concentric grouping of truth are closely connected
"Biblical Theology relieves to some extent the unfortunate situation that
even the fundamental doctrines of the faith should seem to depend mainly
on the testimony of isolated proof-texts. There exists a higher ground on
which conflicting religious views can measure themselves as to their Scriptural
legitimacy. In the long run that system will hold the field which can be
proven to have grown organically from the main stem of revelation, and to
be interwoven with the very fibre of Biblical religion
John Murray 
"Biblical theology deals with the data of special revelation from the standpoint
of its history; systematic theology deals with the same in its totality as
a finished product. The method of systematic theology is logical, that of
biblical theology is historical
"Our perspective is not biblical if we do not reckon with this history and
with the process and progression which it involves. And our study of special
revelation would not only be too restricted but it would also be dishonouring
to God if it did not follow the lines of the plan which he himself pursued
in giving us this revelation
"The covenantal institution is basic to any construction of redemptive history
It should be apparent how indispensable to biblical
theology is the covenant concept and how far removed from the biblical data
our theology must be if it is not oriented to the successive unfoldings of
covenant grace and relationship
"When biblical theology is conceived of as dealing with 'the process of the
self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible', it must be understood that
this specialized study of the Bible, so far from being inimical to the interests
of systematic theology, is indispensable to the systematic theology that
is faithful to the Bible
"Biblical theology is indispensable to systematic theology. This proposition
requires clarification. The main source of revelation is the Bible. Hence
exposition of the Scripture is basic to systematic theology. Its task is
not simply the exposition of particular passages. That is the task of exegesis.
Systematics must coordinate the teaching of particular passages and systematize
this teaching under the appropriate topics. There is thus a synthesis that
belongs to systematics that does not belong to exegesis as such. But to the
extent to which systematic theology synthesizes the teaching of Scripture,
and this is its main purpose, it is apparent how dependent it is upon the
science of exegesis
What then of biblical theology? What function
does it perform in this process? Biblical theology recognizes that special
revelation did not come from God in one mass at one particular time. Special
revelation came by process. It came progressively in history throughout ages
This process was not, however, one of uniform progression
Redemption, as Geerhardus Vos observes, 'does not proceed with uniform
motion, but rather is "epochal" in its onward stride.'
"If biblical theology deals with the history of revelation it must follow
the progression which this history dictates. This is to say it must study
the data of revelation given in each period in terms of the stage to which
God's self-revelation progressed at that particular time
to our present interest, it is this principle that bears directly upon exegesis.
Exegesis is the interpretation of particular passages. This is just to say
the interpretation of particular revelatory data. But these revelatory data
occur within a particular period of revelation and the principle which guides
biblical theology must also be applied in exegesis. Thus biblical theology
is regulative of exegesis.
"Systematic theology is tied to exegesis. It coordinates and synthesizes
the whole witness of Scripture on the various topics with which it deals.
But systematic theology will fail of its task to the extent to which it discards
its rootage in biblical theology as properly conceived and developed
The exegesis with which [systematic theology] is so intimately concerned
should be regulated by the principle of biblical theology
is that only when systematic theology is rooted in biblical theology does
it exemplify its true function and achieve its purpose.
"1. Systematic theology deals with special revelation as a finished product
incorporated for us in Holy Scripture. But special revelation in its totality
is never properly conceived of apart from the history by which it became
a finished product. As we think of, study, appreciate, appropriate, and apply
the revelation put in our possession by inscripturation, we do not properly
engage in any of these [systematic] exercises except as the panorama of God's
movements in history comes within our vision or at least forms the background
of our thought
Therefore, what is the special interest of biblical
theology is never divorced from our thought when we study any part of Scripture
and seek to bring its treasures of truth to bear upon the synthesis which
systematic theology aims to accomplish. Furthermore, the tendency to abstraction
which ever lurks for systematic theology is hereby counteracted. The various
data are interpreted not only in their scriptural context but also in their
historical context and therefore, as Vos says, 'in the milieu of the historical
life of a people' because God has caused his revelation to be given in that
"2. Perhaps the greatest enrichment of systematic theology, when it is oriented
to biblical theology, is the perspective that is gained for the unity and
continuity of special revelation. Orthodox systematic theology rests on the
premise of the unity of Scripture, the consent of all the parts. It is this
unity that makes valid the hermeneutical principle, the analogy of Scripture.
A systematic theology that is faithful to this attribute of Scripture and
seeks earnestly to apply it cannot totally fail of its function
the various passages drawn from the whole compass of Scripture and woven
into the texture of systematic theology are not cited as mere proof texts
or wrested from the scriptural and historical context to which they belong,
but, understood in a way appropriate to the place they occupy in this unfolding
process, are applied with that particular relevance to the topic under
consideration. Texts will not thus be forced to bear a meaning they do not
possess nor forced into a service they cannot perform. But in the locus to
which they belong and by the import they do possess they will contribute
to the sum-total of revelatory evidence by which biblical doctrine is
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. 
Gaffin observes "how much Vos and Murray are in agreement in their conception
of biblical theology and its relationship to systematic theology."
He sees Vos and Murray leading us in a distinct direction which brings the
following horizons into view:
"1. Biblical theology focuses on revelation as a historical activity and
so challenges systematic theology to do justice to the historical character
of revealed truth
The 'tendency to abstraction' of which Murray speaks
as an ever-present danger for systematics can be described more pointedly
as a tendency to de-historicize, the tendency to arrive at 'timeless'
formulations in the sense of topically oriented statements which do not
adequately reflect the fact that God's self-revelation (verbal communication)
is an integral part of the totality of his concrete activity in history as
sovereign creator and redeemer, and which therefore obscure the historical,
covenantal dynamic apart from which his relations to men and the world lack
integrity and so lose their vitality and meaning. Vos observes that 'the
circle of revelation is not a school, but a "covenant"' and that 'the Bible
is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic
"2. Biblical theology is indispensable to systematic theology because biblical theology is regulative of exegesis. This insight of Professor Murray provides the key to understanding not only that relationship [between biblical and systematic theology] but the true significance of biblical theology itself. How does biblical theology regulate exegesis? To ask this is to raise a methodological question of the most basic proportions.
"The answer to this question can be given perhaps most easily in terms of a consideration central to both exegesis and systematics, namely, the unity of the Bible The proper focus of interpretation is the subject matter of the text, that is, the history with Christ at its center that lies in back of the text. With a view to its content, then, a primary and essential qualification of the unity of the Bible is that that unity is redemptive-historical. The context that ultimately controls the understanding of a given text is not a literary framework or pattern of relationships but the historical structure of the revelation process itself. In the final analysis the analogy of Scripture is the analogy of parts in a historically unfolding and differentiating organism
"It does not appear to be going too far to say that in 'biblical theology,' that is, effective recognition of the redemptive-historical character of biblical revelation, the principle of context, of the analogy of Scripture, the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, so central in the Reformation tradition of biblical interpretation, finds its most pointedly biblical realization and application. All exegesis ought to be biblical-theological. To the extent that there is hesitation on this point the relationship between biblical and systematic theology will remain unresolved
"The term 'biblical theology' can also be used in a second sense, with the
accent on its adjective 'biblical-theological' and referring not to a particular
discipline but more broadly to a basic assessment of Scripture that involves
methodological foundations and procedures essential to any correct exegesis
of the text
This is the more elemental sense, where the deepest ties
with systematic theology come to light. The indispensability of biblical
theology to systematic theology is the indispensability of exegesis to systematic
theology, no more and no less.
It seems important to hold out for the propriety of applying the
noun [biblical theology] at least to parts of the actual revelation process
recorded in Scripture. If it is correct that central to a proper conception
of theology is reflection on salvation as revealed in Christ in the fulness
of time, on the fulfillment of the covenant promises and the primary, binding
implications of that fulfillment for the life of the church and the world,
then much, if not all, of Scripture itself (either prospectively or
retrospectively) is theology, indeed in portions of Paul's writings and the
book of Hebrews theology of a decidedly 'systematic' and carefully argued
kind. Recognition of this is important because it brings to light a factor
of continuity, especially with the New Testament, that serves to keep the
subsequent theological activity of the church firmly and organically rooted
in the Scriptures, determined by them not only in its conclusions but also
in the questions with which it begins. Reformed theology ought to challenge
itself with the consistent awareness that its prolegomena are given by the
"The New Testament itself is an embodiment of what Paul calls the manifold
or many-sided wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10), that multiform wisdom that pertains
to the unsearchable riches of Christ, to the administration of the mystery
hidden in ages past, revealed in Christ, made known among all nations, and
consummated at his return (vss. 8, 9; cf. vvs. 2-6; Rom. 16:25, 26; Col.
1:25-27; Eph. 1:10).
"Attention to the New Testament as a record of the consummation of the history
of revelation brings us to consider it in terms of the multiplicity of the
post-Pentecost witness to Christ. But in view of the organic nature of the
revelation process, concern with its variety and diversity necessarily involves
concern with the unity and coherence in which that diversity consists and
apart from which it is ultimately unintelligible. And when these considerations
are joined with the further recognition, again in view of the organic nature
of the history of revelation, that the decidedly theological unity-in-diversity
of the New Testament end point is not properly or comprehensively intelligible
apart from attention to its rich and varied Old Testament roots, then the
line between what is usually called New Testament (biblical) theology and
systematic theology becomes difficult to detect.
"All this prompts the not entirely modest proposal, in view of objections
that can be raised against the term 'systematic theology,' to discontinue
its use and instead to use 'biblical theology' to designate the comprehensive
statement of what Scripture teaches (dogmatics), always insuring that its
topical divisions remain sufficiently broad and flexible to accommodate the
results of the redemptive-historically regulated exegesis on which it is
based. This, it would seem to me, is the ultimate resolution of the relational
question raised in this essay."
To summarize Gaffin's formulation:
First, biblical theology, as a discipline motivated by the dynamism of the historical perspective, challenges systematic theology to avoid abstraction and to do justice to the historical, covenantal dynamic of divine revelation.
Second, biblical theology, as an exegetical methodology which is self-consciously cognizant of the unity of Scripture, guarantees that the hermeneutical process from exegesis to systematic doctrinal formulation is in accord with the Reformation's key interpretive principle, the analogy of Scripture.
Third, biblical theology, as modeled in the canon itself, especially the
New Testament (e.g., Paul's theological reflection on redemptive history),
keeps the church's post-canonical theological reflection firmly and organically
rooted in the Scriptures, determined not only in its conclusions but also
in the questions it brings to the systematic enterprise.
These selected readings have been placed primarily in historical order (although
Warfield's piece is technically later than Vos's Inaugural Address by two
years). One sees an organic and unified progression of thought. None of these
theologians disagree fundamentally that the basic order should be: exegesis,
biblical theology, systematic theology. However, one sees an increasing sharpness
and refinement in understanding the precise the relationships involved.
Gaffin's formulation is, to my mind, the most mature and helpful discussion
of all. I am not entirely comfortable with Gaffin's closing suggestion that
we discontinue the term "systematic theology." But his concern is a valid
one: biblical theology is already systematic to such a degree that the
distinction between the two may be artificial. I think a better way of putting
the matter is this. Both exegesis and systematic theology must be
redemptive-historically regulated. Exegesis must be, because the ultimate
and most determinative context of exegesis is the history of redemption.
Systematic theology must be redemptive-historically regulated, because the
finished product of revelation can never (or should never) shed the marks
of the historical, covenantal process that led up to it.
In other words, Gaffin insightfully suggests that biblical theology can be
viewed from two different perspectives: either as an exegetical methodology,
or as systematic reflection on the history of redemption. The former category
is the usual way of thinking about it. The second category is based on Vos's
profound insights into the fundamentally eschatological structure of Paul's
thought in The Pauline Eschatology. Paul is a theologian, systematically
reflecting on the meaning of redemptive history in light of the climactic
redemptive historical event - the incarnation, death, and resurrection of
Christ. Ridderbos is also helpful in this connection, for he shows us that
systematic theology is not a totally post-canonical, ecclesiastical project
(as Kuyper taught), but something that is evident within the canon itself
(Paul: An Outline of His Theology). Thus biblical theology is
not only an exegetical method, but, taking Paul as our guide, a theological
method as well .
In an e-mail dated February 1, 2000, Professor Gaffin graciously responded to my comments above:
"Just recently I have had called to my attention your digest on the relationship between Reformed BT and ST, on your web site. This survey, including your own reflections, is most helpful, and I plan to mention its availability to my classes beginning this coming semester.
"In your Reflections you write:
'I am not entirely comfortable with Gaffin's closing suggestion that we discontinue the term "systematic theology." But his concern is a valid one: biblical theology is already systematic to such a degree that the distinction between the two may be artificial. I think a better way of putting the matter is this....'
"I agree fully with your criticism (I have wished subsequently that I had not overstated myself that way; others have found it confusing). But I am grateful that you have clearly understood my concern and expressed it so well; yours is indeed 'a better way of putting the matter.'
"I would say also that another overall weakness, which I have eventually come to appreciate subsequent to writing the article, is that it does not take account of the role of historical theology, most especially the confessions of the church.
"More recently, I've found it helpful to use the analogy of plot analysis
of a great epic drama to describe the BT/ST relationship. The history of
redemption (set against the backdrop of creation and fall) is the 'drama,'
and ST, under appropriate topics (God, man, creation, sin, salvation, etc.)
and with an eye to the whole, discusses the actors and their interactions
that constitute the 'plot.' In this way the topical concern of ST with what
the Bible in its unity and as a whole teaches is maintained but in a way
that keeps it focused on the unfolding of covenant history to its consummation
in Christ (the concern of BT)."
 Benjamin B. Warfield, "The Idea of Systematic Theology," in Studies
in Theology (Oxford, 1932), pp. 49-87. The article originally appeared
in Presbyterian and Reformed Review 7 (1896) 243-71.
 Vos's Inaugural Address, "The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science
and as a Theological Discipline," may be found in Redemptive History and
Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (P&R,
1980), pp. 3-24. For a compare-and-contrast study exploring the views of
Warfield and Vos on the relationship between biblical and systematic theology,
see Richard Lints, "Two Theologies or One? Warfield and Vos on the Nature
of Theology," Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) 235-253.
 John Murray, "Systematic Theology," in Collected Writings of John
Murray, Vol. IV (Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), pp. 1-21. Originally published
as two articles in Westminster Theological Journal 25, 2 (May, 1963)
133-142, and 26, 1 (Nov., 1963) 33-46.
 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,"
in The New Testament Student and Theology, Vol. III of The New
Testament Student, ed. John H. Skilton (P&R, 1976), pp. 32-50. For
a more recent statement of his position, with little modification, but with
perhaps more in the way of specific illustrative examples of how biblical
theology can bring greater vitality to Reformed dogmatics, see Gaffin,
"The Vitality of Reformed Dogmatics," in The Vitality of Reformed Theology:
Proceedings of the International Theological Congress, June 20-24th 1994,
Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands, J. M. Batteau, J. W. Maris, and K.
Veling, eds. (Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok, 1994), pp. 16-50. Although I'm not
persuaded by every detail, Gaffin's broader methodological proposals and
the call for a biblical theological and eschatological approach to the
traditional loci of Reformed dogmatics, specifically the ordo salutis,
are warmly appreciated.
 For more on this see Gaffin, "Geerhardus Vos and the Interpretation of
Paul," in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy
and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. by E. R. Geehan (P&R, 1980),