In his influential address, “Discourse on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology, and the Right Determination of the Aims of Each,” Johann Philipp Gabler (1753–1826) lodged the programmatic proposal that scholars ought to distinguish between biblical and systematic theology. In his lecture, delivered at the University of Altdorf in 1787 (the year the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia), Gabler urged his colleagues to place their theological edifice more overtly on a scriptural foundation: “There is truly a biblical theology, of historical origin, conveying what the holy writers felt about divine matters.” Gabler claimed that a biblical theology conceived along these lines would provide the historical and rational scientific framework enabling systematic theology to relate biblical truths to contemporary life and thought.
At its core, Gabler’s distinction between biblical and systematic theology marks an important foundation stone to this day. Biblical theology is essentially a historical discipline calling for an inductive and descriptive method. We must carefully distinguish between biblical and systematic theology before we can accurately describe the theology of the biblical writers themselves. Some of us may find this to be a truism hardly worth stating. But as a survey of the last decade of biblical-theological research will show, the need to (1) ground biblical theology in careful historical work, (2) conceive of the discipline as essentially inductive and descriptive, and (3) distinguish biblical from systematic theology continues to be relevant, even urgent, if the discipline is to continue its viability.