The relationship between systematic and Biblical theology is one of the defining issues that faces Reformed dogmatics at the moment. Some say that to breath new life into the discipline, systematics needs to integrate more closely with Biblical theology (ie. Don Carson & Kevin Vanhoozer). Others claim that such a reorientation would rob dogmatics of its distinctive value (ie. Paul Helm). John Murray was deeply influenced by Geerhardus Vos, the father of modern Reformed biblical theology. He has some very interesting things to say about this subject. Murray makes a careful distinction between the disciplines. Biblical theology deals with the process of the self-revelation of God in Scripture. Its task is to trace the progressive, historical development of revelation. Systematic theology reflects on Scripture as a finished product. Systematics is structured logically, while Biblical theology is structured historically. But, argues Murray "systematic theology must be concerned to be biblical not one whit less than biblical theology." (p. 9).
Murray discusses developments within the field of biblical theology. He insists that the discipline must focus on the revelatory acts and words of God. Attention given to the epochal character of revelation in biblical theology makes it "indispensable to the systematic theology that is faithful to the Bible." (p. 15). The professor was aware that, "Systematic theologies have too often betrayed a cold formalism that has been prejudicial to their proper aim and have not for that reason and to that extent promoted encounter with the living Word of the living God." (p. 15). Murray acknowledged that systematics sometimes has to deal with somewhat abstract subjects that can seem as dry as dust. But, he points out, "dust has its place, especially when it is gold dust." (p. 16). He also reminds us that Biblical studies is not exactly a dust free zone.
Kevin Vanhoozer voices a common complaint about the exegetical weakness of some systematic theology,
"One typically begins with a doctrinal confession and then sets off trawling through the Scriptures. One's exegetical 'catch' is then dumped indiscriminately into the parentheses irrespective of where these parts were found". (Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12 (1994). p. 104, cited in The Gagging of God by D.A. Carson, Zondervan/Apollos, 1996, p. 543.)
That sounds familiar! There must be more to systematics than a summary of Reformed doctrine followed by a string of proof texts. Murray's emphasis on the indispensability of biblical theology to the task of dogmatics helps to avoid this tendency.
"In 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 be concrete, we may not import into one period of the data of revelation which belong to a later period....Thus biblical theology is regulative of exegesis". (p. 19).
For John Murray, biblical exegesis is not incidental to dogmatics,
"Systematics becomes lifeless and fails in its mandate just to the extent to which it has become detached from exegesis. And the guarantee against at stereotyped dogmatics is that systematic theology be constantly enriched, deepened and expanded by the treasures increasingly drawn from the Word of God. Exegesis keeps systematics not only in direct contact with the Word but it ever imparts to systematics the power which is derived from the Word. The Word is living and powerful". (p. 17)
"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." (p. 19)
John Murray concurs with Vanhoozer's strictures on proof texting in systematics. Rooting systematics in Biblical theology will help to avoid this stultifying tendency,
"Revelation is seen to be an organism and the discrete parts, or preferably phases, are perceived to be not sporadic, unrelated and disjointed oracles, far less heterogeneous and contradictory elements, but the multiform aspects of God's intervention and self-disclosure, organically knit together and compacted, expressive not only of his marvellous grace but of the order which supreme wisdom designed. Thus 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 the unfolding process, are applied with that particular relevance to the topic under consideration." (p. 21)
It is only when systematic theology is based on the exegesis of Scripture and informed by biblical theology that it can truly fulfil its task. The aim in systematics is not simply to abstract and isolate the propositional content of Scripture. Murray proposed a much richer, almost theodramatic theological vision,
"Since the Bible us the principal source of revelation and since the Bible is the Word of God, systematics is the discipline which more than any other aims to confront us men with God's own witness so that in its totality it may make that impact upon our hearts and minds by which we shall be conformed to his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of the truth". (p. 21)
Unless otherwise stated, page references are to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 4: Studies in Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982.