Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020
John Murray, Biblical Theology and Systematic-Theological Method
This article provides an analysis of the theological methodology of John Murray. Specifically, it examines the way in which Murray defended the coherence of the distinct disciplines of biblical theology and systematic theology, and further proposed and practised the integration of the two disciplines. Its analysis proceeds first to explicate Murray’s definition of biblical theology, second to assess the fundamental role Murray reserved for scriptural exegesis in systematic theology, and third to show how Murray framed biblical theology’s regulative role for exegesis and thus indispensability for systematics. In light of this integration, lastly this article defends Murray’s systematic-theological method against the possible charges that it constitutes either a species of “biblicism” or presents an arid theological rationalism.
Interest in the discipline of biblical theology has proliferated significantly over the past decades. New monographs which either give whole biblical theologies of the Testaments or give a biblical theology of some particular biblical theme or corpora are being published with a rapidity which the purchasing power of most book budgets of pastors and scholars cannot match. Especially within the world of evangelicalism, the discipline of biblical theology seems to be in full flower. The present flourishing of the discipline alone warrants a re-visitation of the dogmatic method of John Murray as a man who advocated and modelled in action the integration of the fruits of biblical theology into the work of dogmatic or systematic theology. But a re-visitation of Murray’s dogmatic method is also worthwhile given that it has been the subject of criticism precisely on the point of his way of relating the disciplines of biblical and systematic theology.
This article will first argue that Murray’s manner of integrating the work of biblical theology into the discipline of systematics presents a fecund and hermeneutically responsible way of pursing the work of cultivating and then curating the dogmas which are latent in the organism of Scripture as the principium cognoscendi unicum of the science of systematic theology. It does this by supplying to the dogmatician the requisite hermeneutical tools for exegetically handling Scripture as a revelatory organism given within the matrix of redemptive-history. The remainder of the article will attempt to clear Murray’s method of two indictments: (1) that is presents a species of “biblicism”, and (2) that it proffers an aridly rationalistic theological method.
II. Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology and the Principium of Scripture
1. Murray’s Definition of Biblical Theology
Any treatment of the relationship which Murray framed between biblical and systematic theology comes with the desideratum of defining what is meant exactly by the disciplinary designation “biblical theology”. A dizzying array of models of what it constitutes confronts us. Or, as the bon mot of D. A. Carson observes, “Everyone does that which is right in his or her own eyes, and calls it biblical theology.” Murray himself recognised this definitional menagerie which was already burgeoning in his own day:
But it is necessary to point out the radical divergences that exist between the viewpoint reflected in the definition by Vos… and some of the representative exponents of biblical theology in the last two decades.
As for Murray, he embraced the definition of biblical theology proffered by his former teacher at Princeton Seminary, Geerhardus Vos. This embrace appears in Murray’s programmatic treatment of the relationship between the disciplines of systematic and biblical theology.
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 the latter is logical, that of the former historical. Vos’ definition puts this difference in focus:
Biblical theology is that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” The pivotal term in this definition is the word ‘process’ as applied to God’s special self-revelation.
Murray adopts Vos’ charge that the titular designation “biblical theology” bears a certain conceptual deficiency and indicates that he shares with Vos a preference for the disciplinary title “history of special revelation.” Given the persisting cacophonous range of what is put forth as biblical theology at present, Murray’s shared misgivings with Vos on this point continue to be relevant. Nevertheless if it was difficult “to change a name which has the sanction of usage” from Vos’ vantage point in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems virtually impossible to disgorge the term from the mouths of theological scholarship now that it has accumulated the sanction of usage from nearly another full century. So, rather than charge off on a quixotic campaign to convince the theological world to shift in vocabulary, the disciplinary title of biblical theology, it seems, will have to remain in our usage for now with all of its descriptive deficiencies.
Granting the term then, it is evident that certain theological presuppositions underly Vos’ and Murray’s notion of biblical theology. First, their definition operates with an identification of Scripture as a species of God’s special revelation. Murray writes,
Furthermore, inscripturation is a mode of revelation and so with inscripturation there are revelatory data that belong only to the inscripturation itself. Inscripturation does not merely provide us with a record of revelations previously given by other modes; Scripture is itself revelation.
Special revelation is understood to be a wider circle in which God discloses himself to his creatures, but the only abiding deposit of that divine activity is Scripture.
Second, their definition operates with the dogmatic commitment that God’s self-disclosure forms a unified organism which progressively unfolds over the process that is tethered to redemptive history. Murray understands biblical theology as a department of theological science which is dedicated to studying the ontogeny of this divine revelation with its structural lineaments and specific organic components. This understanding proceeds on the basis of the theological commitment that there is such a unified and developing organism. In Murray’s framing of biblical theology, this robust commitment to the fundamental unity of this progressive self-revelation rules out of hand a certain kind of diffidence which might be shown by other species of biblical theology. Namely, it rules out any attempt to attribute a “distinct witness” to the Old Testament which appraises it as a document that could be sufficiently understood and rightly interpreted in hermetic isolation from its final fulfilment in the revelation of the New Testament. Murray does caution,
To be concrete, we may not import into one period the data of revelation which belong to a later period. When we do this we violate the conditions which define the distinctiveness of this study.
But then he qualifies this admonition:
We are not prevented thereby from using the data of later periods of revelation in determining the precise import and purport of earlier data, their import and purport, however, in the precise context in which they were given.
Murray’s student and institutional heir at Westminster Seminary, Richard B. Gaffin, expresses this commitment of both Vos and Murray well.
While not explicit in the definition just cited the organic character of the revelation process is insisted on by both. This process is not heterogeneous, involving ongoing self-correction. Nor does it have anything to do with an evolutionary movement from what is erroneous and defective to what is relatively more true and perfect. To illustrate, Vos repeatedly uses the organic model of maturing plant life, of growth from a perfect seed into a perfect tree or flower. The movement of the revelation process is from what is germinal and provisional to what is complete and final.
The organic model of Vos and Murray thus assumes a fundamental continuity of identity between the Testaments which obviates any attempt to isolate them in a decidedly discrete treatment from one another. Their approach assumes a kind of organic continuity of identity in the single unfolding organism of God’s revelation. This establishes as a prerequisite for the practitioner of biblical theology that they self-consciously and expressly treat Old Testament theology as the nascent to adolescent historical stages of the same organism of revelation which reaches its coming of age in the New Testament.
To say that these are dogmatic commitments which inform the disciplinary definition of biblical theology as it is pursued by Murray is not thereby to indict him with a methodological transgression. Rather, it is to make explicit what is sometimes left tacit in the world of biblical scholarship. Whether expressly admitted or not, dogmatic commitments about that nature of revelation and the textual entity of Scripture, commitments which dwell in the realm of the systematic-theological locus of prolegomena, are always assumed in any model of biblical theology. There is an inevitable reciprocity that must exist between biblical theology and systematic theology; the biblical theologian does not and cannot start to go about their discipline with a theological tabula rasa informing the nature of that discipline. The pretensions of a sort of non-theological objectivity posited, for example, by James Barr in his admonitions about the proper method of biblical theology cannot evade this either. It too assumes fundamental things about the nature of the revealing activity of God in the history behind the text of Scripture and in the text of Scripture itself. And it proceeds to define the discipline of biblical theology in light of them.
2. Exegesis and Systematic Theology
Having explored what exactly Murray understands by the discipline of biblical theology, we are now positioned to see how he advocates its deployment for the enrichment of the task of systematic theology.
Barr pilloried Karl Barth for including exegetical attention to Scripture in his Church Dogmatics, alleging that it “encouraged a confusion of the boundaries between biblical and dogmatic theology”. John Calvin similarly is given a rap across the knuckles by Barr for daring to do a kind of biblical theology that depends “on ad hoc redefinitions of the terminology”. Among other things, such assessments display an unfortunately banal failure on the part of many modern biblical scholars to account for the rigorous, linguistic, humanist training of Calvin and other Reformation and Post-Reformation theologians. Their training in humanism is largely responsible for the rise of the early modern biblical scholarship which rejuvenated widespread expertise in the linguistic dynamics of the Greek and Hebrew Testaments. Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment biblical scholarship too often betrays a certain generational arrogance which has forgotten from whence the first tools of their work with the original languages and textual criticism of the biblical text has come. Barr is an unfortunate exemplar of this.
One can safely imagine that Murray would be the recipient of a similar stricture from Barr as Barth and Calvin had been. Under Barr’s paradigm, apparently the dogmatician dare not approach even the foot of the holy mountain of Scripture to exegete its meaning for himself. Rather he must wait at the base camp with the rest of the Israelites and receive the determinations which the high-priestly work of modern critical biblical scholarship has made as the appointed mediators between the text of Scripture and the rest of the world.
But Murray would not countenance such higher-critical pretensions. His model was an older Protestant model which did not buy the bill of goods hocked by the rise of the Enlightenment historical-critical tradition that insisted upon seeing the distinct theological disciplines of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology as hermetically-sealed compartments of the theological encyclopedia. Murray’s method is, in important ways, a descendent of the classic method of the Reformation and post-Reformation which incorporated persistent exegesis of the biblical text.
Murray was renowned for the way in which he gave exceptional exegetical attention to biblical texts as a systematician. Cornelius Van Til aptly described Murray’s conviction that “systematic theology must, first, grow out of and be the ripe fruitage of penetrating, linguistic exegesis”. One student attests, “Reverent, precise exegesis was our daily fare in Professor Murray’s lectures.” Furthermore, it is important to note that the exegesis Murray practiced in class was not the sort that assumed the accuracy of a given English translation of a biblical proof text and left matters with a quotation from an English version. As Edmund P. Clowney notes,
Before studying systematic theology with Professor Murray, we had spent a year with apologetics, the biblical languages, church history, and preaching. Following the Westminster curriculum, we needed Greek and Hebrew first. Murray taught the topics of theology by exegeting the principal biblical passages in Hebrew or Greek from which those doctrines were drawn.
Beyond the testimonials of his students to the methodological commitment of Murray in his class lectures to the primacy of biblical-theological exegesis for systematic theology, we also have ample evidence of this careful method distributed throughout the corpus of his writings. Consider for example his extended canonical appraisal of the meaning of baptizo in his work Christian Baptism, or his survey of the views concerning Paul’s use in Rom. 5:12 of the phrase eph hoi pantes hemarton in The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, or his treatment of the Hebrew phrase ʼervah galah in his Principles of Conduct. More examples could be multiplied, but of course the most conspicuous monument to Murray’s magisterial competency in exegesis is his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. William Hendriksen observed in his laudatory review of the first volume of the commentary,
It is not often that a professor is “good” in two fields, in this case, systematic theology and New Testament exegesis. Professor Murray’s reputation as a teacher of Reformed dogmatics is outstanding and unquestioned. The present volume proves that he is also an exegete of the highest rank. And should not exegesis and systematics dwell in the same house?
Perhaps an even more apt metaphor for capturing the way that Murray understood exegesis to relate to systematics is not to speak of them as two residents in the same house, but rather to say that the house of systematics must by necessity have its structural integrity established upon a foundation of proper exegesis. Murray asserts,
The paramount consideration, however, is the demand residing in the fact of revelation, namely, that the Word of God requires the most exacting attention so that we as individuals and as members in the solidaric unity of the church may be able to correlate the manifold data of revelation in our understanding and the more effectively apply this knowledge to all phases of our thinking and conduct.
Murray’s fastidious deployment of Hebrew and Greek exegesis in his work as a dogmatician is at home with the way Scott R. Swain has framed the theological task as one of “reading as an act of covenant mutuality”. Swain’s expressive summary captures the spirit of Murray’s relentless pursuit of exegesis in systematic theology:
The commerce and communion between God and his people is an inherently textual phenomenon. The eternally eloquent God has stooped to speak a word of saving consolation to us… Because God communicates Christ and covenant to us in Holy Scripture, Christians read.
Murray understood well this inherently textual nature of God’s covenant relation to his people.
It does not stretch the boundaries of plausibility to think that Murray’s inexorable use of exegesis as the alpha point of his systematic theological work had in back of it the exhortation of his teacher Vos,
The point to be observed for our present purpose is the position given to exegetical theology as the first among these four [departments of theology]. This precedence is due to the instinctive recognition that at the beginning of all theology lies a passive, receptive attitude on the part of the one who engages in its study. The assumption of such an attitude is characteristic of all truly exegetical pursuit. It is eminently a process in which God speaks and man listens.
If systematic theology would dare to speak about God, then it must pay meticulous attention to what God has already spoken about himself. A corollary of the conviction that God has spoken about himself sufficiently, authoritatively and perspicuously in the pages of Scripture is that the dogmatician must be an intensely attentive reader of that Scripture. And to be an intensely attentive reader requires one to be an intensely attentive exegete. The biblical imperative to “hear” (shema) hangs over the task of dogmatics. The ear is the primary organ of obedience no less in the intellectual obedience to which the believing reasoning of the dogmatician aspires. If this is true, then it is the intransigent duty of the dogmatician to be first an exegete of Scripture. This conviction drove the totality of Murray’s labours and found expression in his hands with astonishing rigour. Down to his dying days, Murray left behind him copies of the Greek New Testament worn from his unremitting reading. The worn pages of those artefacts attest to the personal conviction of his exhortation:
Systematic theology has gravely suffered, indeed has deserted its vocation, when it has been divorced from meticulous attention to biblical exegesis… systematics becomes lifeless and fails in its mandate just to the extent to which it has become detached from exegesis… Exegesis keeps systematics not only in direct contact with the Word but it ever imparts to systematics the power which is derived from that Word. The Word is living and powerful.
3. Biblical Theology, Exegesis, and Systematic Theology
Understanding the exegetical imperative that operated in Murray’s dogmatic method positions us then to understand exactly how he understood the discipline of biblical theology to be an indispensable tool for the dogmatician.
Systematic theology is tied to exegesis. It coordinates and synthesises the whole witness of Scripture on 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.
Attention to this observation will preserve dogmatics from the conceptual pitfall we find exemplified in Thomas Aquinas, a pitfall which cannot adequately account for the redemptive-historical character of special revelation. Thomistic-Aristotelian realism affirms that science properly is concerned with the universal. Thus, in the opening of the Summa Theologiae Aquinas has to apologise before Aristotle for the fact that Scripture is pre-eminently concerned with particular, historical events and persons. Aquinas’ interlocutor gives the objection which he wishes to meet. In Question 1 article 2 the interlocutor objects that Christian theology does not appear to be a science. And the second reason given for this is as follows,
Besides, a science is not concerned with individual cases. Sacred doctrine, however, deals with individual events and people, for instance the doings of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the like. Therefore, sacred doctrine is not a science.
To this point Aquinas replies,
Sacred doctrine sets out individual cases, not as being preoccupied with them, but in order both to introduce them as examples for our own lives, as is the wont of moral sciences, and to proclaim the authority of the men through whom divine revelation has come down to us, which revelation is the basis of sacred Scripture or doctrine.
Aquinas here reduces the theological significance of the historical particulars of redemptive-history to examples and authoritative mouthpieces of revelation. The concrete, particular, redemptive actions of God in redemptive-history become a residuum for which Aquinas seems to have no account available for how to relate their significance to sacred doctrine. Strikingly, we should observe that not least of these particular, redemptive actions of God in redemptive-history are the “individual cases” of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension.
The historical particularity of redemptive-history is a difficulty to be solved for Aquinas. It is so because he takes the Aristotelian, hierarchical preference of the universal to be a sound preference for the science of Christian theology. In the hierarchy of truth, the abstract universal is a rung above the particular. A Thomistic-Aristotelian notion of “science” and thus theological science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of biblical revelation as it has come in the manifold concreteness of redemptive-history. It cannot satisfactorily account for the irreducibly historical character of special revelation as it is given through “individual events and people”.
In contrast to this, Murray’s way of framing the relationship of the discipline of biblical theology to systematic theology imparts to the latter a theological framework which is not embarrassed by the historical particularity of the redemptive-historically mediated text of Scripture. Rather, it takes the historical particularity of God’s redeeming and revealing actions, as they are authoritatively attested to and interpreted in the text of Scripture, as the basis for theological science. And it takes exegesis of that Scriptural text as the alpha-point for that science.
Granted, we need to temper our criticisms of Aquinas’ approach by recognising that there is a proper desideratum of universality for theology if it is to be a science. To embrace historical particularity is not to dismiss universality. Recognising this is all the more important against the tidal wave of post-modernity. Holding together the concrete particularity of redemptive history which is centred in Christ, and the universal implications and relevance of that redemptive history centred in Christ, is at the core of the relationship between biblical and systematic theology. The dogmatician aims to set forth the totality of God’s revelation in the particulars of Scripture as it is given in redemptive history, to set forth that totality as dogmata which command the confessing apprehension, assent and trust of the nations. Dogmatics, then, is inherently a science which attempts to trace and set forth the universal nature and implications of the redemptive-historical particular. To do this properly it must deploy the resources of biblical theology in the execution of the systematic-theological imperative to develop its body of dogmatic truth from Scripture as the principium cognoscendi unicum of dogmatics.
Systematics fails in its task of exegesis to the degree that it neglects biblical theology because it is this that provides the redemptive-historical framework – with all of its historical and epochal particularity – within which the texts of Scripture must be set as they summon our exegetical attention. Inscripturated revelation is given within the epochal iterations of redemptive history – the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, the Davidic, the Royal, the Exilic, the Post-Exilic and the Messianic:
The science concerned with the history of special revelation must take account of this epochal character and it would be an artificial biblical theology that did not adhere to the lines which this epochal feature prescribes.
As biblical theology attends to the anatomical study of the lineaments of the organism of God’s redemptive revelation as it progresses through the developmental stages of its epochs, it provides the proper hermeneutical matrix for exegetical treatment of Scriptural texts as they have been given within the particularities of those epochs.
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.
Biblical theology serves dogmatics in so far as it presses the dogmatician to be self-aware of how a particular biblical text and its revelatory content are situated in the progressive unfolding of redemptive history. It thus presses the dogmatician in his exegesis to avoid drawing naïve systematic-theological conclusions from a given text in ways that end up by-passing the necessary hermeneutical steps involved in the biblical-theological task of situating that text in its place in redemptive history and the whole organism of biblical revelation.
This integrative feature of biblical theology as a bridge between systematics and exegesis is intimately related to the boundaries demarcating the text of Scripture itself from the church’s responsive labours of dogmatics. Gaffin has perceptively diagnosed the deficiencies involved in Abraham Kuyper’s – and, by way of implication, Herman Bavinck’s – attempts to regulate anything that can rightly bear the moniker “theology” as categorically distinct from what occurs through the human agency involved in the authorship of Scripture. Kuyper claims, “If Holy Scripture is the principium of theology, then theology only begins when Holy Scripture is there.” Against this, Gaffin (following Vos) has convincingly argued that we can rightly speak of Paul and other biblical authors as theologians. However, what is salutary in Kuyper and Bavinck’s observations is that the text of Scripture has not been given to us in the literary genre of dogmatics. Gaffin (following Vos) also recognises this:
Elsewhere [Vos] finds among the practical uses of biblical theology that it “imparts new life and freshness to the truth” by making us aware that “the Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.” Further, it corrects the impression that the basic tenets of Christianity rest on isolated proof texts by showing that its system of doctrine grows organically from biblical revelation.
This observation points up the way that biblical theology offers its service to the exegetical work of the dogmatician. The dogmatician must exercise circumspect awareness of the difference between the text of Scripture on the one hand as it is understood in its redemptive-historically concrete, variegated literary character and on the other hand a dogmatic textbook which attempts to synthesise the data of biblical revelation into the logically ordered cyclus of the dogmatic loci. This self-consciousness of the difference between the organism of Scripture and a dogmatic textbook requires of the dogmatician that he lean upon the work of biblical theology. Bavinck’s observations are instructive in this regard:
Scripture is the principle of theology. But the Bible is not a book of laws; it is an organic whole. The material for theology, specifically for dogmatics, is distributed throughout Scripture. Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers. Nothing can be done with a handful of proof texts. Dogma has to be built, not on a few isolated texts, but on Scripture in its entirety. It must arise organically from the principles that are everywhere present for that purpose in Scripture. The doctrines of God, of humanity, of sin, of Christ, etc., after all, are not to be found in a few pronouncements but are spread throughout Scripture and are contained, not only in a few proof texts, but also in a wide range of images and parables, ceremonies and histories. No part of Scripture may be neglected. The whole of Scripture must prove the whole system.
By deployment of biblical theology, the dogmatician is rendered more competent in his task to situate with percipient care this vast and variegated data of Scripture in its proper, epochal milieu in redemptive history. He will therefore read poetry, parable, wisdom, law, historical narrative and typology in Scripture with a hermeneutical skilfulness which has been shaped by an alertness to where all these literary treasures of special revelation find their proper place in the progressive unfolding of redemptive history. As biblical theology is “regulative of [his] exegesis”, the systematician will work with greater adroitness in his lapidary task of bringing forth all the particular dogmas which are divinely disclosed in the organism of Scripture, the dogmas with which he is charged as a systematician to present in the system of their manifold, synthetic relationships to one another. To put it another way, biblical theology equips the dogmatician to handle the principium cognoscendi unicum of Scripture in a way that is responsive to its ineradicably organic and historical character as it is the fruit of a long and progressive maturation of God’s redemptive self-disclosure:
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 exercises except as the panorama of God’s movements in history comes within our vision or at least forms the background of our thought. In other words, redemptive and revelatory history conditions our thought at every point or stage of our study of Scripture revelation. 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.
III. Clearing Indictments
The term “biblicism” is often deployed in theological discourse in a way that is akin to the dynamics Plantinga has observed about the use of the term “fundamentalist”. It has a meaning which can expand or contract depending on the pejorative intent of the person using it. For Barr it is an appellation that belongs to anyone who “suggests that the Bible alone is the final decisive authority in theology” – or, in other words, any historically confessional Protestant. John Bolt has indicted Murray’s systematic-theological method with being a biblicism of a different sort. Bolt’s notion of “biblicism” seems to be descriptive of any systematic-theological method which asserts that “Christian theology is in fact nothing else but good exegesis and interpretation of Scripture alone”.
Murray does acknowledge that systematic theology must deal “with the data of general revelation insofar as these data bear upon theology”, but in definition and practice Murray sees its task much as the Hodges do: the systematic (rather than historical) ordering of biblical givens. Strictly speaking, both are forms of “biblical theology”; one is the comprehensive logical structuring of biblical doctrine, the other is historia revelationis.
The most prominent problem at work in Bolt’s essay overall is the ambiguity surrounding his central proposal, namely whether or not he is advancing the claim that Scripture is not in fact the principium cognoscendi unicum of theology. If the defining characteristic of “biblicism” is that it takes Scripture to be the sole source or principium unicum for the material content of the body of dogmatics, then it is difficult to see how Bolt’s definition of “biblicism” would in fact be any different than Barr’s. Bolt writes of this grouping of theologians that their commitments place
them in the same methodological sphere as the first generation or two of Christian theologians who had available to them as their source for doing normative theology only the apostolic testimony that eventually became the canonical texts of Scripture. Today, however, we have some two millennia of Christian church reflection on Scripture along with certain received consensual dogmas…
This raises the question, then, if Bolt actually conceives of the history of the theological labours of the church and their creedal fruit as supplemental sources proper for dogmatics. Or put another way: are these things further principia which the dogmatician must take alongside of Scripture as authoritative sources for dogmatics? Bolt would surely shudder at answering this question in the affirmative given the fact that he sets forth Turretin and Bavinck as alternative theological models which he wishes to emulate.
It seems more congruent with Bolt’s intent that “biblicism” is not understood to be a dogmatic method which takes Scripture to be its principium cognoscendi unicum but rather is a method that (1) simplistically and naively sees its discipline as the simple arrangement of biblical proof texts with a very limited or even wholly absent attention to their synthetic relationships and the good and necessary consequences of those biblical texts and (2) attempts to bypass or ignore the historic theological reflection of the church which has long laboured to develop biblical dogmas out of the organism of Scripture.
If this is accurate, then applying the appellation “biblicist” to Murray is dubious on account of several factors. The first is the way in which he accounts for the synthesising character of the work of systematic theology. The second is the way in which he accounts for the necessity of engaging the historical dogmatic labours of the church.
First, it can hardly be said of Murray that he saw “Christian theology” as “in fact nothing else but good exegesis and interpretation of Scripture alone”. While Murray insisted upon rigorous linguistic exegesis to be the starting point of dogmatics, he did not think it to be the ending point. Murray asserts,
All other departments of theological discipline contribute their findings to systematic theology and it brings all the wealth of knowledge derived from these disciplines to bear upon the more inclusive systemisation which it undertakes.
Systematics necessarily involves the exegesis and interpretation of Scripture, but it has not exhausted its disciplinary task in them. It aims at a “systemisation” which methodologically moves forward from sound exegesis of the biblical text to the further steps involved in its craft. That further step is characterised by Murray as one of synthesis:
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 synthesises the teaching of Scripture, and this is its main purpose, it is apparent how dependent it is upon the science of exegesis.
And in case one might think that Murray saw this synthesis as a rather simplistic comparison of various texts of Scripture as they mutually interpret one another, Murray adds a qualification:
The principle known as the analogy of Scripture is indispensable to exegesis for “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself”. But the analogy of Scripture is not to be equated with the synthesis which is the specific task of systematic theology.
Murray does not elaborate in this essay on what might be involved in the difference between systematic-theological synthesis and the “analogy of Scripture”, but it is not unwarranted to surmise that he would have affirmed that it hinges on the way dogmatics draws out implications from the data of Scripture and casts them into technical language which utilises philosophical terminology in the classical way that designates philosophy as the handmaiden to theology. Murray certainly deployed such technical terminology throughout the corpus of his writings and engaged in the ratiocinative processing which synthetically drew together the data of Scripture and cast it into dogmatic form. So, the charge of biblicism does not convincingly stick to Murray on account of this alone.
But secondly, the charge does not stick because Murray insisted upon and methodically practised a rigorous use and engagement with the dogmatic labours of the church catholic. Typical of this is the admission he made in the preface of one of his most famous works, Redemption Accomplished and Applied:
I am conscious of the profound debt I owe to numberless theologians and expositors. Acknowledgement in details would be impossible. Other men have laboured and we have entered into their labours.
Murray by no means thinks that the dogmatician can responsibly bypass the vast deposit of the theological and confessional traditions of the church. To the contrary, Murray asserted that the work of the Holy Spirit as the Doctor Ecclesiae hands to the dogmatician a divine writ which summons him to engage the theological fruit of the work of the church catholic.
The Holy Spirit, in accordance with Christ’s promise, had led the apostles into all truth (cf. John 16:13) in a way consonant with their unique commission and function. But he has also been present in the church in all the generations of the church’s history, endowing the church in its organic unity as the body of Christ with gifts of understanding and expression. It is this ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit that explains the development throughout the centuries of what we call Christian doctrine. Individual theologians are but the spokesmen of this accumulating understanding which the Spirit of truth has been granting to the church.
Incorporation of the work of the discipline of biblical theology into the work of the discipline of dogmatics ought not to be understood to entail a jettisoning of the historical, doctrinal formulations of the church. The “theological heritage” of the church “deserves and demands” from theologians “understanding, fidelity, zeal, [and] practice”. Murray certainly never sought a dogmatics which repristinated tradition, as though dogmatics was merely the work of the museum curator whose sole job is to preserve artefacts in completely unaltered condition. To the contrary, he asserts,
However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality.
But Murray also never evinced a commitment to theological revolution which sought to overthrow the cumulative, dogmatic heirlooms of the church, particularly as they found expression in the confessional documents of the Reformed stream of the church. The pattern of the deployment of biblical theology which we see in the hands of Murray, however successful or unsuccessful it might be at points, is one that exhibited a desire to preserve the heirlooms of the dogmatic tradition of confessionally Reformed theology while also seeking to develop and expand their veracious splendour in fuller conformity to the rich contours of the organism of the special revelation of Scripture.
History likewise demonstrates how, after long neglect, the deposit of the past comes, in times of theological revival, to have renewed meaning and influence. Treasures that have suffered relative oblivion are rediscovered by a new generation… The theology that does not build upon these constructions or pretends to ignore them places a premium upon retrogression and dishonours the Holy Spirit by whose endowments and grace these epochal strides in understanding and presentation have been taken.
We find in Murray’s expert hand both a predilection for what we might call – in the vogue parlance of contemporary theology – theological retrieval, as well as a predilection for further doctrinal development animated by the vivaciousness of biblical theology.
2. Arid Rationalism and Rigid Finality
The moniker of “rationalism” is slung about the world of post-modern theological scholarship with the same sort of pejorative ambiguity as what was noted above about the term “biblicist”. Rarely is it accompanied by an attempt to define what exactly is meant by the term in its usage. Certainly, few theologians who have had this agnomen of shame pinned to them of late subscribe to an epistemology in the family tree of Descartes which seeks to develop and establish the whole body of human knowledge from a priori reason. In the usage of Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke it seems to indicate any theologian who believes in the abiding relevance of propositional truth in theology – in which case it basically seems to mean anyone who is not a postmodernist. But if the byword “rationalist” is meant as a term to indicate, in a broad sort of way, an epistemology which reposes itself exclusively on the powers of the human intellect in order to produce a body of propositions to which intellectual assent is the highest and nearly exclusive goal, then Murray can by no means be inculpated as such.
For all the methodological rigour which Murray sought to lend to his labours as a systematician through exactingly-attentive exegesis of biblical texts, we must not mistakenly think that he thereby thought he had crafted an intellectual mechanism which could be deployed to produce assured dogmatic results irrespective of the mysterious working of the Spirit. Rather, Murray asserts the indispensability of illumination in the work of systematic theology:
But it is a travesty for a man not knowing the power of revelation to pose as an expositor of it. This is just saying that the Scriptures cannot be properly interpreted without the illumination of the Holy Spirit nor can they be properly studied as God’s revelation apart from the sealing witness of the Spirit by whom alone we can be convinced that they are the Word of God. The person who addresses himself to the interpretation and formulation of the truth conveyed to us by revelation is destitute of the prime requisite if he is not imbued with the humility and enlightenment which the indwelling of the Holy Spirit imparts.
Murray by no means advocated that a fastidious use of exegesis and biblical theology could, in and of itself, perfunctorily yield to the systematician the treasures of the Scriptures by sheer dint of intellectual and methodological diligence. For the dogmatician not to be a grotesque charade, it must be the case for him that the viva voce of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture connects with the internal vitality of the illumined intellect of one who has been made receptive to that voice by the operation of that same Holy Spirit.
Further, Murray is cleared of the charges of arid rationalism by another consideration: The degree to which piety is conjoined to theological scholarship is often evident in the aroma which exudes from pages written by such godly men. This unmistakably rises from the works which flowed from John Murray’s pen. They have the redolence of a man who prayed as he wrote theology and wrote theology as he prayed. Woven into the fibres of his systematic-theological labours are the expressions of a man gripped by the majesty of the God about whom he wrote.
Yet, the evidence of just how much piety pervades the labours of a theologian is even more manifest to those near enough to his life to bear witness to the degree of authenticity of such a wedding of piety and theology. Murray’s life has no shortage of those who provide such testimonials. One shining example of this appears in the letter Cornelius Van Til sent to him upon news of Murray’s impending death:
Throughout the years of our association together you were to me (a) an example of godly living and (b) of utter devotion to your Lord. It was obvious to all of us that you loved your Saviour passionately, that you sought to serve your Lord with utter sincerity, and that your ambition was to point out to all men everywhere that only by the “good pleasure” of God can they be saved from the wrath of God. Nothing has helped me more, John, than to hear you pour out your heart in prayer for the church of Jesus Christ as a whole and for individuals in particular.
Far from producing a dogmatics which suffered from the spiritual dystrophy of arid intellectualism, Murray left to the church a body of work that is suffused with a spiritual vigour which rose from his own spiritual vigour. And his dedication to the persistent use of an exegesis which is regulated by biblical theology is an iteration of that spiritual vigour insofar as he understood it to keep his systematic-theological work “in direct contact with the Word” as “it ever imparts to systematics the power which is derived from that Word”.
And this point is related to the second charge that abounds among the polemics of postmodern evangelicals towards systematicians of the likes of Murray. The indictment is that non-postmodern theological methods aim at the production of a “timeless” system of truth which can safely dispose of the text of Scripture once it has completed its task of the production of a full text of systematic theology. Thus, Grenz and Franke:
In effect, the scholastic theological agenda meant that the ongoing task of reading the Bible as a text was superseded by the publication of the skilled theologian’s magnum opus. If the goal of theological inquiry was to extrapolate the system of propositions the divine Communicator had inscripturated in the pages of the text, it would seem that systematic theology could – and eventually would – make the Bible superfluous. Why should the sincere believer continue to read the Bible when biblical truth – correct doctrine – is more readily at hand in the latest systematic compilation offered by the skilled theologian?
One is hard pressed to think of any theologian in the history of the church who would have the audacity to make such a claim about their dogmatic labours. This is enough by itself to raise strong suspicion that Grenz and Franke are not doing here anything more than constructing a rather absurd kind of strawman. But if such an allegation were to be levied at Murray, his explicit methodological commitment to exegesis and his indefatigable deployment of that exegesis in the course of his career are at hand to exculpate him.
Murray understood well that all human theological efforts this side of the theology of vision given to the church in its heavenly beatitude bears the indelible character of the provisionality which belongs to all theologia viatorum:
In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge and from this fulness that resides in him he communicates to the church so that the church organically and corporately may increase and grow up into knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. It is this perspective that not only brings to view but also requires the progression by which systematic theology has been characterised. The history of doctrine demonstrates the progressive development and we may never think that this progression has ever reached a finale. Systematic theology is never a finished science nor is its task ever completed.
Murray by no means thought that his labours – or those of any other theologian – could produce a calcified body of truth that bore no potentiality for expansion, refinement or correction from the text of Scripture. While the dogmatician’s theological labours must not neglect the faithful work of the whole church catholic which has come before, if they are a confessional son or daughter of the Reformation, their theological labours presuppose that the immediately inspired and authentical nature of the autographs of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures intractably preserves the right of careful exegesis of Scripture in its original languages to correct and reform theological tradition. Exegesis preserves the right of the systematician to cut off from the body of dogmas which he elucidates in his work any excrescence which disfigures it due to a lack of proper attentiveness to the biblical text. And exegesis preserves the right of the systematician to develop further the latent potentialities in biblical dogmas which have been recognised by the church but not yet cultivated into full flower. Murray recognised the kind of effervescence which attends the theological labours of every generation of the church as well as the way in which the adjective “timeless” is somewhat maladroit to describe the theological fruit of those labours:
It is true, however, that the presentation of the gospel must be pointed to the needs of each generation. So is it with theology. A theology that does not build upon the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies upon the past evades the demands of the present.
This perennial task of dogmatic refinement, correction and growth brings into the picture the way in which Murray saw the discipline of biblical theology as capable of fertilising the dogmatician’s task. The systematic-theological vitality envisioned by Murray requires the sort of constant exegetical contact with the text of Scripture in its original languages that he advocated. The essence of Murray’s theological vision has been eloquently captured by Bavinck:
This is thus the delightful, but also the difficult task of the dogmatician, to dissect dogmas in their most hidden fibres, and to trace how they are wholly and entirely rooted in Holy Scripture. He must recapitulate the work of the church as it were, grow up out of Scripture the dogmata before our eyes, and produce them anew. Thereby he shall not in the slightest degree contribute to the church and confession the preservation of a fossilised and dead orthodoxy. Because he takes dogmas and dips them again and again into that fresh bath of the water of life that ripples in Holy Scripture.
Dipping the dogmatic labours of the church over and over again into the fresh bath of Scripture ought to mean dipping it into the rich vitality of the redemptive-historically mediated, progressively unfolded organism of revelation which biblical theology seeks to study. If exegesis is indispensable for dogmatics in order to keep it in this abiding, life-imparting contact with Scripture, and if biblical theology ought to be regulative for the exegesis of Scripture, then the use of biblical theology in the task of systematic theology ought to be nutrition for the full flourishing of the dogmatic calling of the systematician.
For a biography of John Murray see Ian H. Murray, “The Life of John Murray”, in Collected Writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 3:3-158. For a very brief biographical overview see Danny E. Olinger, “John Murray”, The Confessional Presbyterian 11 (2015), 3-4. back
Given the rise in popularity of the classic term “dogmatics”, I will be using it throughout this essay interchangeably with the term “systematic theology.” back
John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?”, in Reforming or Conforming?: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 68; D. G. Hart, “Systematic Theology at Old Princeton: Unoriginal Calvinism”, in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries, ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 22. back
D. A. Carson, “Systematic and Biblical Theology”, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity and Diversity of Scripture, ed. Brian S. Rosner, T. Desmond Alexander, Graeme Goldsworthy, D. A. Carson, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), 91. Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett have done the yeoman work of providing the theological world with a contemporary, taxonomical survey of this spectrum in their Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). back
John Murray, “Systematic Theology”, in Collected Writings of John Murray, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 4:11. back
Murray, “The Life of John Murray”, 29. back
This work was originally a two-part article published in sequential issues of the Westminster Theological Journal over a year. John Murray, “Systematic Theology”, WTJ 25, no 2 (May 1963), 133-142, and “Systematic Theology: Second Article” WTJ 26, no. 1 (November 1963), 33-46. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 9. Murray cites here Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 13. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 10. back
Vos, Biblical Theology, 14. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 19fn1. back
Ibid., 19. back
Ibid., 19fn1. back
Richard B. Gaffin, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology”, WTJ 38, no 3 (Spring 1976), 289. back
James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 58. For a helpful summary of Barr’s approach to biblical theology see Klink and Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology, 43-56. back
Barr, Concept of Biblical Theology, 71. back
Ibid., 3. back
For a helpful treatment of Calvin’s use of humanism see Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundations of a Theological Tradition, (New York: Oxford, 2000), 9-14. For a helpful treatment of Martin Luther’s use of humanism see Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, (New York: Oxford, 2009), 37-39. For a survey of the humanist background of the Reformation see Carlos M. N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2016), 64-113. For a treatment of the use of humanism among the Post-Reformation Protestant scholastics see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 34-37. back
Murray did this in a way that bears striking resemblance to the method of a theologian just now being rediscovered in English translation, Petrus van Mastricht. Mastricht began every locus of his Theoretico-practica theologia with an exegetical treatment of Scripture. The methodical arrangement of every loci of Mastricht’s Theoretico-practica theologia moves from the exegetical part, to the dogmatic part, to the elenctic part, to finally the practical part. Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico–practica theologia (Utrecht: W. van de Water, J.v. Poolsum, J Wagens, G. v. Paddenburg, 1724); Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, ed. Joel R. Beeke; trans. Todd M. Rester, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018). For a treatment of Mastricht’s theological method see Adriaan C. Neele, The Art of Living to God: A Study of Method and Piety in the Theoretico-practica theologia of Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706), (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2005). back
Quoted by Murray in “Life of John Murray”, 94. back
Walter J. Chantry quoted in “Life of John Murray”, 94. back
Edmund P. Clowney, “Professor John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary”, in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries, ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 29. back
John Murray, Christian Baptism, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 6-30. back
John Murray, “The Imputation of Adam’s Sin”, in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphint, (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2007), 209-222. back
John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 49fn3. back
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968). back
William Hendriksen, “The Epistle to the Romans”, WTJ 24 no 1 (Nov 1961), 90-91. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 5. back
Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation, (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 95. back
Vos, Biblical Theology, 4. Cf. “The very nature of theology requires us to begin with those branches which relate to the revelation-basis of our science. Our attitude from the outset must be a dependent and receptive one. To let the image of God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures mirror itself as fully and clearly as possible in his mind, is the first and most important duty of every theologian.” Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Discipline”, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 5. back
Murray, “Life of John Murray”, 156. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 17. back
Ibid., 19. back
For instance, Aquinas in his commentary on Aristotle writes, “Theoretical, i.e. speculative knowledge differs from practical knowledge by its end; for the end of speculative knowledge is truth, because it has knowledge of the truth as its objective. But the end of practical knowledge is action, because even though ‘practical men,’ i.e. men of action, attempt to understand the truth as it belongs to certain things, they do not seek this as an ultimate end; for they do not consider the cause of truth in and for itself as an end but in relation to action, either by applying it to some definite individual, or to some definite time. Therefore, if we add to the above the fact that wisdom or first philosophy is not practical but speculative, it follows that first philosophy is not fittingly called the science of truth.” Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, trans. John P. Rowan, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1961), 121. What is important to note for our purposes here is the preference in the “science of truth” for the abstraction of truth into a universal over the practical application of truth to a particular thing and a particular time. Such particularity is a lower order of science and lower order of truth for Aquinas as he agrees with Aristotle. back
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Latin Text and English Translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices, and Glossaries (60 vols., New York and London: Blackfriars in conjunction with Eyre & Spottiswoode and McGraw-Hill, 1964-1981), 1a., 1, 2. back
Ibid., 1, 2. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 17. back
Ibid., 18. back
Ibid., 19. back
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987), 19-30. The sections of Kuyper’s writings which Gaffin criticises can be found in Encylopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:166-180; 3:355ff; 3:395-404. Though Gaffin does not explicitly criticise him, Herman Bavinck holds the same view along with Kuyper: “There is as yet no dogma and theology, strictly speaking, in Scripture. As long as revelation itself was still in progress, it could not become the object of scientific reflection. Inspiration had to be complete before reflection could begin.” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003-08.), 1:607. See also Reformed Dogmatics 1:89, 1:116. back
Kuyper, Encylopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:167. back
Gaffin, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology”, 290-291. back
Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:617. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 19. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 20. back
Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000), 245. back
Barr, Concept of Biblical Theology, 70. back
Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Method?”, 68; 78. back
Ibid., 65. back
Ibid., 68. back
Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Method?”, 66. Emphasis added. back
Ibid., 79-82, 86-88. Cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:86; Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 1.8, 1.21. back
For a helpful contemporary treatment of “good and necessary consequence” see Ryan M. McGraw, By Good and Necessary Consequence, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012). For a classic treatment see George Gillespie, A Treatise of Miscellany Questions: Wherein Many Useful Questions and Cases of Conscience Are Discussed and Resolved; for the Satisfaction of Those, Who Desire Nothing More, Than to Search for and Find Out Precious Truths, in the Controversies of These Times, (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 1649), 238-245. back
Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Method?”, 65. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 4. back
Ibid., 17. back
Ibid., 17fn1. back
John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), x. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 6. back
Ibid., 6. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 7. back
Ibid., 7. back
For an account of a Reformed programme of theological retrieval, see Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015). back
Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 37. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 5. back
Quoted in Murray, “Life of Murray”, 154. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 17. back
Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 35. back
Grenz and Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 63. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 6. back
Murray, “Systematic Theology”, 9. back
Herman Bavinck, “Confessie en Dogmatiek”, Theologische Studiën 9 (1891) 3, 267. Translation my own. back