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The field of systematic theology is currently experiencing a make-over. Gone are the days when system is nonchalantly evoked as a meaningful term for a meaningful enterprise. Gone are the days of system's being weighed down by its own importance, unhampered by empirical reality in its weightless flight above the fray. Development over the last thirty years in the theological, historical, and philosophical disciplines has discredited system as the royal genre of thought. System's totalizing hegemony over the other is an idea relegated to the past. These are now the days to celebrate difference, the irreducible individuality of the other who eludes the clutches of the I by voicing its distinctive located particularity.

Such is the fate of system in the academic universe it once ruled. Will nostalgic reminiscence or joyful relief greet this destiny, or will protagonists of system retrench the ideal of Western thought into petrified lines? Or yet, can a new determination of system breathe new life into dry bones?

The question I address in this paper is: by what rationale can system be conceived in relation to the historical enterprise of biblical studies? I begin by developing a model of "open systems" on the basis of the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) in order to provide an epistemological account of system that draws from both empirical and conceptual reason. I conclude the paper with a discussion of "open systems" [1] in theology that appeals to the Bible for its empirical and historical determination.

The Epistemology of Open Systems

Biblical theology was intended at its inception in Johann Philipp Gabler's program to mediate the growing rift between the historical study of the Bible and dogmatic theology. Yet the rationale for filling the gap rests on an epistemological decision for either a dualism between a historical description and a theological prescription or a monistic continuity between these two forms of thinking. I discuss in this section a post-Kantian model of system that explains the inner connection between history and its corresponding concepts. I argue that Schleiermacher's model is best suited to biblical theology because it explains why predicates derived from history are attributed to their corresponding concepts without invoking an intermediary scheme to establish the connection.

The key epistemological question, first posed by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason's doctrine of the schema, concerns the fit between intuition and concept. How can a claim be made for the correct fit between intuition and concept? Kant appealed to the schema in order to explain how particular principles ensure that predicates are correctly subsumed under their corresponding concepts. Schleiermacher, however, solves the problem quite differently. [2] He bypasses Kant's two-source theory of knowledge and adopts a Leibnizian continuum based on the principle of identity. For Schleiermacher, knowledge is constituted by two poles, an organic pole responsible for providing an image based on the aggregate of perceptions from which concepts arise and an intellectual pole responsible for subject predication in acts of judgment formation. The continuum between organic and intellectual reason explains why the perceived image (Bild) is cognized by the rational pole as a concept (Begriff) without requiring the input of additional rules to connect an intuition with its corresponding concept.

A non-dualist epistemological continuum explains why results from empirical study can be appropriately predicated of their corresponding concepts. This model holds in Schleiermacher's case for both the natural sciences and the humanities. Although the model is developed in the Dialektik, a text primarily interested in objects found in nature, it is applicable to the area of study called "ethics"-the science of the principles of history. The method of judgment formation, predicating historical predicates of their corresponding concepts, has significant implications for theology (in the broad sense of the term including philosophical theology, exegesis, religious history, dogmatics, and practical theology). Theology is, according to Schleiermacher, a wholeheartedly historical enterprise. Its object is historical religion and its result is the determination of the change that a religion undergoes in history. No truths for all time are to be culled from the biblical material, as Gabler deemed the task of dogmatic theology. Rather, theology as a "positive science" (Schleiermacher's term) is exclusively focused on the historical determination of its concepts.

Schleiermacher's open theological system is characterized precisely by the oscillation between conceptual knowledge and empirical knowledge. Empirical knowledge determines the historical predicates of concepts, while conceptual knowledge depends on empirical knowledge for its determination. As a result of this intimate connection between concept and predicate, concepts remain penultimately open to new empirical determinations. The oscillating movement characterizing predication is a never-ending process. New data is continuously incorporated into the process of concept formation; novelty enters into this process by the new predicates gleaned from experience, and concepts are infinitely revisable in their integration of new data. The epistemological rationale of Schleiermacher's model permits no abstraction of the concept from empirical reality without empirical determination. The openness of his system advocates the epistemological commitments of a critical philosophy that refuses to "speculate" apart from experience.

Open Systems in Biblical Theology

Schleiermacher's open system presents a model of systematicity that connects those disciplines informing the study of religion: theology, philosophy, history, and biblical studies. The strength of Schleiermacher's model rests on its capacity to relate conceptual thought with empirical thought in a relation of mutual determination. Although concept formation is dependent on historical study for determination, it does not preclude its own special task of conceiving the "one among the many." It is this task that must be highlighted for a biblical theology that wants to build the bridge between biblical studies and theological studies. [3] The mediation between the one and the many requires a degree of conceptual "speculation" if there is to be predication at all. The concepts themselves arise from an investigation of text and tradition: for example, righteousness as a key attribute of God in the Bible. Yet the concept must be determined for its unity in order to introduce some type of univocity into the discussion. So often dialogue between theologians and biblical scholars is prohibited at the start because of a misunderstanding concerning the minimal unity of a concept required for discussion at all: for example, the philosophical discussion of theodicy focuses on moral goodness while the biblical discussion identifies theodicy with a question concerning divine righteousness.

One key task of biblical theology is the clarification of its key concepts. If biblical theology leaves unexamined its philosophical presuppositions or its theological categories, then it is prone to the charge of "dogmatic" imposition still haunting the discipline. Although this charge presupposes a dualist epistemology-empirical reason pitted against conceptual reason-that in my opinion cannot be sustained, it does reveal, albeit in a naïve way, the necessity for serious clarification of conceptual issues inevitably arising from historical research. The question from a monistic epistemological perspective becomes one of the appropriateness of particular concepts for mediating knowledge of the Bible to systematic theology (and vice versa), the determination of which is the task of biblical theology. One such concept is the "unity of the canon," the focus of a book I recently edited with Christof Landmesser entitled One Scripture or Many?. [4] By taking up a concept not explicitly mentioned in the biblical text but an attribute predicated of the text by the tradition, the authors contributing to the book sought to determine the canon in terms of philosophical clarification that went well beyond the delineation of canon in the material terms of a book list. This philosophical discussion of unity by both historians and theologians introduced other key concepts implied by the concept of unity, for example unity as both a transhistorical objective reality and a transhistorical subjective and hermeneutical reality. The unity of a book spanning thousands of years of composition was construed in view of the ways in which a religion and its texts change through time.

The clarification of concepts is a task that must be constantly checked with the empirical determination of these concepts if it is not to be divorced from the very data that it is called to conceptualize. By admitting the significance of this task, biblical theology underlines the essential historicity of its procedure. Paradoxically, conceptual clarification highlights historicity, rather than flying away from it. Concepts that are developed from empirical, textual, and historical sources reflect the inevitability of reason's structuring of the manifold of perceptions. The historicity of concepts in turn underlines the fundamental revisability of concepts; if new empirical data is discovered, it is either integrated into an already existing series of concept formation or questions the truth of that series. Furthermore, an orientation to the concepts highlights the essential hermeneutical determination of biblical theology. Concepts serve as transhistorical bridges facilitating the understanding of ancient texts and communicating results to one's contemporaries. Although these concepts are determined at some minimal definitional level and must be kept open as to possible revision, they function to mediate a transhistorical "something" that matters to both author and reader/hearer. Whether studied in terms of the philosophical question concerning reality, or the religious studies question concerning religion, or the theological question concerning the particular configuration of the self/world/God relation, the "something" of which the biblical texts make claims can be debated and discussed.

If biblical studies can be sensitized to conceptual-theological or philosophical issues integral to the text, then the close proximity to biblical scholarship by systematic theology is one that might prove to be enlivening for this field. Systematic theology has been plagued since seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy by the proof-text method of biblical use. The proof-text method presupposes the conceptual power of systematic theology; in order for conceptual sense to be made out of a historical manifold, various procedures of abstraction, semantic equivocation, and dialogical agreement are invoked to create the parameters of transhistorical dialogue. What systematic theology's strength is, however, seems to get in the way of the converse strength of the historian's procedures that differentiate the concepts according to historical univocity, show the irreducibility of difference that cannot be sublated into a higher unity, and advocate the diversity of lexical meanings in different historical contexts. Although the two tasks must be kept separate, there is a way in which both disciplines should be at least aware of their interdisciplinary conceptual potential. This is particularly important for systematic theology that tends towards philosophical aridity if it is loosened from the concretions of the religious history in which it is embedded. Theology is not philosophy and has its particular accountability to history in a way differing from philosophy's authoritative instance. Yet it is all too often forced into abstraction because of the diversity of lexical meanings of concepts offered to it by biblical scholars.

A model of open systems can prove beneficial to the dialogue between systematic theology and biblical studies. If philosophy can be called on to clarify the epistemological rationale for methodology, and if biblical theology takes seriously its bridge-building function on epistemologically convincing grounds, then systems of theology can be constructed with differentiated historical attention paid to its key concepts. And conversely, biblical studies need not shy away from the conceptual potential inherent in its own inquiry, but can provide historical determination of concepts with an eye out for the possible transhistorical continuity of these concepts in text and tradition. Biblical studies can admit to theological and conceptual interests without necessary diminishment of historical-critical questions, and conversely systematic theology can complement historical investigation with its own stress on constructing systems open to history.


The "lure of system" is one that constitutes the nature of scientific investigation as such in attempts to divide and classify empirical data into meaningful arrangement. Even historical methods that restrain hermeneutical or conceptual bridges by being exclusively attentive to the local cannot do away with dismissing conceptual interest altogether; the hermeneutical questions, the onto-anthropological presuppositions that permit communication and understanding at all between self and other, and the truth of the subject matter all gesture towards and invite conceptual inquiry. If system is integral to the human quest for communication and understanding, then a new conceptualization of contemporary theology must be worked out that is open to biblical work and conversely helps to sustain biblical interest.

A model of open systems, according to formal arrangement and material results, opens the possibility of conceiving biblical studies in closer proximity to theological and philosophical issues, while maintaining the distinctions between these disciplines. One goal for a biblical theology of the kind I am proposing is conceptual clarity in the historically-oriented disciplines and empirical concretion in systematic abstraction. Or maybe even the mere formulation of this goal can raise awareness concerning the possible intersections between the disciplines informing biblical theology today.

Christine Helmer is Associate Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology and is co-editor of the forthcoming SBL Symposium Series volume entitled Biblical Interpretation: History, Context, and Reality.


[1] The term "open systems" is one I borrow from the natural sciences in order to conceive systems that are developed together with empirical-historical determination. For an exploration of open systems in a comparison between the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Alfred North Whitehead, see Christine Helmer, in Cooperation with Marjorie Suchocki, John Quiring, and Katie Goetz, eds., Schleiermacher and Whitehead: Open Systems in Dialogue (TBT 125; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2004).

[2] Schleiermacher's philosophical work is entitled Vorlesungen über die Dialektik, in the Kritische Gesamtausgabe (vols. II/10,1-2; ed. Andreas Arndt; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002).

[3] For a discussion of biblical theology in its bridge-building capacity, see Christine Helmer, "Biblical Theology: Bridge Over Many Waters," forthcoming in Currents in Research: Biblical Studies (2004).

[4] Christine Helmer and Christof Landmesser, eds., One Scripture or Many? Canon from Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Citation: Christine Helmer, " "Open Systems": Constructive Philosophical and Theological Issues in Biblical Theology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2004]. Online:


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