where does biblical theology fall short?


I stumbled upon this in John McLeod Campbell’s The Nature of the Atonement (1878):

[H]ow often have the points of agreement between the type and antitype been dwelt upon, as if to see that agreement was to understand the atonement, although the fullest recognition of that agreement leaves the questions still to be answered – Why must He who is to be the atoning sacrifice for sin, be Himself the Holy One of God? How does His being so qualify Him for bearing our sins? In what sense could they be, and have they been laid upon Him? Being laid upon Him, how is the shedding of His blood an atonement for them? How is His moral and spiritual perfection so connected with, and present in His bearing of men’s sins, and in His tasting death for every man, as that “we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins,” because He, “through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God?”

These questions are not answered by tracing the points of agreement between the type and the antitype, and therefore the seeming progress made in the understanding of the atonement by such tracing is altogether illusory.

Campbell sharply poses the question I’m tackling in my project: What is the relationship between biblical and systematic theology — between an interest in the grand narrative, longitudinal themes and typological correspondences in the Bible on the one hand, and a more philosophical, even ‘metaphysical’ concern with the ontological presuppositions of what has been fulfilled in Jesus on the other?

Suggestively (for my purposes anyway), it is precisely in relation to the person and work of Christ that Campbell finds biblical theology deficient — that is, exactly where we’d like it to carry us the furthest!


  1. Yes! This is a great quote. Interestingly, Stephen Holmes’ The Wondrous Cross chapter on the Old Testament comes to similar conclusions, though at less depth.

    1. The apparent depth of Campbell may be more indicative of his — notoriously difficult — style. Something Natalie tells me I occasionally come close to imitating!

  2. Hey Chris,

    Not sure how to phrase this question: Do you think scripture contains a “systematic theology” within itself? It clearly does have a “biblical theology”…sorry for the dodgy phrasing.

    1. Great question, Matt. I’ve been wondering something similar. A couple of (unsystematic) thoughts:

      First, there seem to be moments approaching what we would call ‘systematic theology’ in the New Testament — e.g., in the Lord’s prayer or the ‘hymnic’ sections of Paul’s epistles. What’s really interesting about this is the doxological context we find them embedded in. Maybe systematic theology is/should be a form of doxology? (NB: According to Paul Helm, Calvin didn’t even like the label ‘theology’ — preferring to describe what he was trying to systematise in the Institutes as ‘religion’.)

      Second, there are some obvious differences between systematic theology as we know it and even these biblical statements — e.g., the greater concern with specifying thing about the being and nature of God in the Nicene Creed. I’ve just read an article by Richard Muller (called ‘Christ in the Eschaton: Calvin and Moltmann on the Duration of the munus regium‘) where he suggests that, given Calvin’s overt hostility towards speculation, his more obviously ‘systematic-theological’ and metaphysical statements emerge (i) under polemical pressure and (ii) as a result of ‘the inner drive of theology toward explicit formulation’. I like that.

    2. Looking over my comments I realise that it’s starting to sound a bit like Torrance — (orthodox) theology simply emerges over time as the reality that the gospel announces exerts pressure on our thinking. For Torrance there’s an inexorability to the development of theology — which is not a real development but simply about it attaining greater clarity over against the various errors and ‘dead ends’ that are recognised.

      But the problem with this is that the messiness of the history of theology is flattened out. Things aren’t so simply and straightforward are inexorable. When you look closely at the errors and ‘dead ends’, the people championing them usually have reasons — good reasons — to end up there. And these reasons are impossible to disentangle from their theological, pastoral and cultural commitments. There’s no way to peel away their ‘contingency’ to get at their ‘coherent’ core.

      All of which makes me want to pause and ask myself, What exactly do I mean by ‘systematic theology’? And what status should I grant it?

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