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Fitting the pieces of the Bible together

"Fitting the pieces of the Bible together" Continued...

John Frame
Reformed Theological Seminary
John Frame
Nor should we assume that there is only one possible definition of something. Sin can be defined as (1) transgression of God’s law or as (2) rebellion against God’s lordship. Other definitions, too, may be possible, but let’s just consider these. Of course, if you define sin as transgression of God’s law, you may well need to make it clear that such transgression constitutes rebellion. And if you define it as rebellion, eventually you will probably need to say that the rebellion in question is a rejection of a divine law. You may use either definition as long as you understand that each implies the other. You may choose either one as your definition, as long as you recognize the other as a description.

So of course, definitions are not something to live or die for. We should seek to understand the definitions of various writers, recognizing that someone who uses a different definition from ours might not differ with us at all on the substantive doctrine.

Long and Short Definitions

Theologians often prefer very long definitions. One of Karl Barth’s definitions of theology is an example:

Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s work—science learning in the school of the Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science labouring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word ofGod.[2]

Here Barth tries to bring a large amount of theological content into his definition. This attempt is understandable, since every theologian wants his concept of theology to be governed by the content of theology. So he tries to show how the very definition of theology reflects the nature of the gospel, the content of Scripture, the preeminence of Christ, the nature of redemption, and soon.

I think this is a mistake. In his Semantics of Biblical Language,[3] James Barr warned biblical scholars of the fallacy of supposing that the meanings of biblical terms were loaded with theological content. The meaning of Scripture comes not from its individual terms, but from its sentences, paragraphs, books, and larger units. For example, the word created, just by itself, out of all context, teaches us nothing. But “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) teaches us a great deal. “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16) teaches us even more.

The same warning is appropriate for theologians. Certainly our theological methods and conclusions must be derived from God’s revelation. But our definition of the word theology need not recapitulate those conclusions, though it must certainly be consistent with its conclusions. That is, the definition of theology cannot be a condensation of all the content of the Scriptures. Yet it must describe an activity that the Scriptures warrant.

Theology as Application

Let us then attempt to develop a concept or definition of theology.[4] The basic idea of theology is evident in the etymology of the term: a study of God. But we should seek a more precise definition.

As I will argue in chapters 23–28, in Christianity the study of God is a study of God’s revelation of himself. Natural revelation and word revelation illumine one another. Scripture (our currently available form of word revelation) is crucial to the task of theology because as a source of divine words it is sufficient for human life (2 Tim. 3:16–17), and it has a kind of clarity not found in natural revelation. But natural revelation is a necessary means of interpreting Scripture. To properly understand Scripture, we need to know something about ancient languages and culture, and that information is not always available in Scripture alone. Nevertheless, once we have reached a settled interpretation as to what Scripture says, that knowledge takes precedence over any ideas supposedly derived from natural revelation.

So theology must be essentially a study of Scripture. It should not be defined as an analysis of human religious consciousness or feelings, as in the view of Friedrich Schleiermacher.[5] But we need to ask how theology is to study Scripture. Theology is not interested in finding the middle word in the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes, for example.

Charles Hodge saw theology as a science that dealt with the facts of Scripture, as an astronomer deals with facts about the heavenly bodies or a geologist deals with facts about rocks. He said that theology “is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.”[6] If Schleiermacher’s concept of theology is subjectivist, Hodge’s might be called objectivist. Schleiermacher looked inward, Hodge outward. Schleiermacher looked primarily at subjective feelings, Hodge at objective facts. To Hodge, theology seeks the objective truth about God through Scripture. He wants the “facts” and the “truths.”


1. A few Bible passages come close to defining something, such as 1 John 3:4 (sin); 1 John 4:10 (God’s love). But are these definitions, or only contextually significant descriptions? Of course, the precise distinction between definition and description is not always clear.

2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 49–50. He uses a somewhat shorter definition in CD for the related concept dogmatics: “As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.” CD,1.1:4.

3. James Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 129–40, 246–96.

4. In all the discussion below, it should be evident that the term theology refers both to the activity of seeking knowledge and to the texts in which that knowledge is recorded.

5. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (New York: Harper, 1963).

6. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 1:19.

7. Didaskalia is translated “doctrine” in 1 Timothy 1:10; 4:6; Titus 1:9; 2:1. Of course, we today often use doctrine as a synonym for theology.

8. Another way of bringing out the practicality of theology is to note that the term has often been used (by Abraham Kuyper, for example) to denote the knowledge of God that believers receive by saving grace, as in John 17:3. The early pages of John Calvin’s Institutes discuss this saving knowledge of God in Christ. On the first page Calvin says that we cannot rightly know ourselves without knowing God, and vice versa. On this concept of theology, see SBL, 73–78.

9. Later, I will indicate three perspectives that we can bring to bear on many theological questions. In my definition of theology, those three perspectives are Scripture (normative), persons (existential), areas of life (situational). So my definition of theology contains these three elements.

10. Exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology are all misnomers. Exegetical theology is not more exegetical than the others, nor is biblical theology more biblical, nor is systematic theology necessarily more systematic.

11. Meaning is not something different from application. See my discussion in DKG, 83–84, 97–98. When someone asks, “What is the meaning of this passage?” he may be asking for a number of things, including (1) a translation into his language, (2) an explanation of its function in its immediate context or in the whole Bible, and (3) help in the personal appropriation of its teaching (what does it mean to me?). These forms of meaning are also forms of application, so the two terms cover the same ground. It is therefore misleading for someone to claim that items1 and2 represent meaning, but3is merely application. All of these are questions about meaning and also about application. All questions about meaning are questions about application, and vice versa.

12. Full disclosure: I do not have an earned doctorate. I completed all requirements for the Ph.D. at Yale University except for the dissertation. In 2003 I received an honorary D.D. degree from Belhaven College. So critics are welcome to dismiss my comments here as sour grapes if they prefer. I trust that other readers will respond in a less ad hominem fashion.

13. John Murray’s lectures in systematic theology consist almost entirely of the exegesis of biblical passages that establish Reformed doctrines. He explains his method in his important article “Systematic Theology,” in MCW, 4:1–21.


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