Who needs systematic theology?

Professor of theology and apologetics, Michael Horton, writes in a post at Westminster Seminary, CA’s, website:

One subject that brings even fundamentalists and liberals together is the criticism of systematic theology. For instance, many of us were reared to suspect that if someone clearly embraced some particular system (e.g., Calvinist, Arminian, or Lutheran), then that would probably lead to the suppression of biblical teaching wherever specific passages didn’t easily fit into a nice, neat doctrinal package. Others reared in more liberal circles heard the traditional systems ridiculed for their alleged dogmatism and parochialism-for their arrogance in thinking that the Bible actually was true, much less clear enough to have what one could seriously call a “system of doctrine.” How presumptuous for an ecclesiastical group to say, in the words of the Presbyterian form of subscription, that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture”!

These criticisms rightly warn against specific dangers. First, we should have a healthy fear of ignoring some Scriptures in the interest of maintaining our “system.” During every great shift in Christian theology-take the Reformation, for instance-it is always possible to treat the existing system as unalterable. But for we who are heirs to the Reformation, this would be ironic, since the reformers were rightly critical of the notions of an unerring magisterium and irreformable dogmas. In fact, the Reformation occurred because some biblical passages came knocking on the door of the church; and division resulted largely because the late medieval church simply refused to rethink its interpretation of Scripture in the light of clear exegesis. Never mind that dikaioo (Greek: “to declare righteous”) did not mean the same thing as iustificare (Latin: “to make righteous”) or that metanoia (Greek: “repent”) did not mean poenitentium agite (Latin: “do penance”). Late medieval Catholicism was not willing to be altered in the light of careful exegesis. We, as evangelical Protestants, should resolve never to make the same mistake in the way we appeal to our traditions and their confessional teachings.

Second, it is true that the Bible is not itself a systematic theology. It is a diverse collection of writings having both God and specific human beings as its authors. Scripture is God’s inerrant Word but not a mere handbook of doctrine and morals. As Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “The Bible is no more a system of theology than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics” (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 1872). The Bible is not organized according to loci, or “topics.” It is, rather, a collection of narratives, poetry, law, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature. Even its straightforward doctrinal statements are lodged in historical gospels and epistles where a practical intent-reconciling sinners to God in Christ by the Spirit, and leading them in faithful response-dominates.

Even while recognizing Paul’s writings as Scripture, Peter writes, “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). Although he attributes these errors to their own ignorance and instability, Peter is acknowledging the point elaborated by the Westminster Confession: “All things in Scripture are not equally plain in themselves, nor equally clear to all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some portion of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Chapter 1, Section VII).

So we must be careful to keep our systems open to correction by accurate exegesis, that is, by accurate interpretation of biblical passages. And we must beware of equating our confessional and systematic theologies with Scripture itself. No responsible evangelical theologian has ever attributed final authority to any system. In fact, the Protestant scholastic successors of the great reformers especially stressed the splendid distinction between archetypal theology (God’s own knowledge) and ectypal theology (our knowledge). Creatures will never attain a God’s-eye view of anything, not even of themselves, but will always possess only a finite version of “the way things are.” Our older theologians used to call this “ectypal theology” theologium viatorum-the theology of pilgrims on the way-to contrast it with the theologium beatorum -the theology of the glorified in heaven. All believers living today are equally pilgrims. Although I am convinced, as a Reformed Christian, that our confession is the most consistently biblical, I realize that it must always be compared with Scripture and that it is only a reliable secondary standard because it is faithful to Scripture and not because either it or the church possesses any intrinsic authority.

I may conclude, on occasion, that our community could be challenged to think differently on a particular issue in the light of God’s Word. This challenge may come from my own exegesis, or from that of non-Reformed brothers and sisters, or even from my being challenged to rethink my previous reading of Scripture because of some question raised outside the discipline of theology. Yet these challenges shouldn’t cause one to abandon systematic theology; they simply make its task more urgent. We need to think more, not less, about Scripture’s consistent teaching on the great theological topics. We need to incorporate insights gleaned from our own scriptural study and from that of our other brothers and sisters in other traditions, but this can be done effectively only if we ourselves belong to some community of interpretation.

He concludes his essay with these words on why every Christian needs systematic theology:

How does systematic theology relate to laypeople? Biblical scholars may need to listen to systematic theologians and vice versa, but surely the average layperson can’t be expected to attain the rank of “systematic theologian.” Of course, that’s true. In fact, even a biblical exegete can’t be expected to become a systematic theologian in terms of professional training and specialization.

Nevertheless, we all need systematic theology. A month of inductive Bible studies is unlikely to lead a person to the doctrine of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ. It may raise questions that that doctrine answers, but there is no verse that says, “The same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body.” The rest of the brief Creed of Chalcedon (451 a.d.) reads:

Consubstantial with the Father [homoousion to patri] according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [homoousion ton auton hemin] according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God [theotokou], according to the Manhood [anthropoteta]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures [duo physesin], inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person [prosopon] and one Subsistence [hypostasis], not parted or divided into two persons [prosopa], but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.Every believer needs at least some “big picture” grasp of the doctrinal teaching of Scripture. While most readers would not come away from a Bible study with the sort of refinement exhibited in the Creed of Chalcedon, at least those trained through the teaching, the liturgical ascriptions of praise, the hymns, Sunday school, and catechism classes and sermons can get the most out of their inductive reading of Scripture precisely because they are already engaged in making deductions based on the whole system of Christian theology as they know it.

A well-trained believer will come to particular passages that stress the humanity of Christ and yet recall the conclusion that our forefathers have reached by examining all of the relevant biblical data and, thus, interpret those passages in the light of the hypostatic union. This does not impose a system on the Bible but, rather, interprets particular passages in the light of the whole teaching of Scripture.

In the end, all Christians engage in systematic theology-not at the professional level, necessarily, as those who study full-time to serve the ministers of the Word in their preaching-but as “the faithful.” The question is never whether we will have a systematic theology but what kind of systematic theology we will have. Will it be a tangled ball of yarn? Will we merely inherit it without much questioning or investigation on our part? Will it be based on Scripture as its normative authority or will it rely more on reason, experience, and tradition than on solid exegesis?

Many of those who most vociferously denounce “systematic theology” as obscuring the plain reading of Scripture end up being among the most guilty of imposing their own system on the Bible precisely because they do not realize that this is what they are doing. Their unawareness that they have, in various ways, inherited a tradition and been formed by certain communal readings of Scripture keeps them unconscious of their own “big picture” ways of organizing the Scriptures into a systematic whole.

All Christians, therefore, are obliged to recognize that they read the Scriptures both inductively (or exegetically) and deductively (or systematically). It is only when we are aware that this is what we inevitably do-and, thus, strive to subject our presuppositions and interpretive frameworks to the light of Scripture-that we can truly begin to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

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