Can Systematic Theology be Truly Biblical?
In this essay I shall defend not only the possibility but also the necessity of a truly biblical Systematic Theology. I shall then outline some guidelines that will be necessary to formulate such a theology.
The need for Systematics.
Systematic Theology is not a popular discipline for many conflicting reasons. Some would dismiss it on what they claim to be biblical grounds, others for the opposite reason, believing the bible to be self-contradictory. In such a short space it is not possible to deal with all possible objections adequately. In dealing with a few at least it will become clear what would be lost if we abandoned Systematics.
Scripture’s diversity makes systematisation impossible.
‘The fashion today is to emphasise the diversity of Scripture at the expense of its unity and to declare that there is no such thing as "biblical theology," if only a number of mutually incompatible "biblical theologies."’
The same comment could be made even more strongly about Systematic Theology. One must note that the person who states that Scripture is incompatible with Scripture is making a theological statement within their doctrine of Scripture. They are not denying the possibility of Systematics, merely the possibility of consistent biblical Systematics.
Is important to recognise that virtually every person not an atheist adopts some kind of systematic theology. This is not to say that every systematic theology is good, useful, balanced, wise, or biblical; it is to say nothing more than that most people adopt some kind of systematic theology.
Consider, for example, the person who says that he doesn’t believe the Bible is the word of God, that it is full of errors and contradictions, and that many of its teachings are at best obsolete. If he is not an atheist, he nevertheless believes something about God. In his own mind he adopts a number of beliefs that he holds to be consistent.
Since the publication of Bauer’s Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity it has been common within New Testament studies to propose the existence of mutually exclusive beliefs within the early church which lead to contradictions even within canonical books, let alone within the whole bible. Orthodoxy and heresy become only categories defined by the group that ‘won out’ as opposed to relating to any objective ground for ‘truth’.
Such a belief is still very much alive: J.D.G. Dunn concludes "There was no single normative form of Christianity in the first century."
Whilst affirming that the New Testament, and the bible as a whole, is full of literary and thematic diversity I maintain that this in no way detracts from its total unity and consistency. There is not space enough here to do more than briefly outline a defence of the consistency of Scripture.
Firstly, Scripture consistently assumes and affirms its own consistency, and therefore that doctrine can be deduced from it. Jesus affirms that it speaks consistently about its one central subject, himself (John 5:39). He affirms that error is equivalent to a wrong understanding of the Scriptures (Mark 12:24). Paul affirms that Scripture’s usefulness is a function of its inspiration (2 Tim 3:16), notably in the area of teaching and correction (presumably as to what is and what is not truth). Note also how the writers of the New Testament are unembarrassed about bringing together quotations from many different parts of Scripture, applying and linking them to their own writings.
At this point it becomes difficult to defend Dunn’s approach in forming his theology. He self-consciously searches for the ‘the common core of the New Testament’ as some sort of cannon within a cannon by which he can build a theology. Surely any common core of the New Testament would affirm at least the utter truthfulness of all Scripture.
Secondly, the nature of the diversity in Scripture, is not diversity of belief, but of pastoral concerns (e.g. the dangers of long prayers highlighted by Matthew 6:7 compared with the need for persistent prayer in Luke 18:1), personal literary style (e.g. the use of the word p° stiv in James 2:24 compared with Romans 3:28), eschatological standpoint or historical concern.
When a great deal of biblical scholarship is written by people who, in order to publish, must say something novel, there will be a constant temptation to search for diversity and inconsistency with little attempt to discover unity. This is in itself novel, for until the last two centuries few people who had ever read the whole bible would have thought it more than a truism to suggest that Scripture is consistent. When there are difficulties in reconciling two parts of Scripture, Christians have rightly seen fit to be ready to question their understanding before questioning the consistency of the texts. Much biblical scholarship is too quick to do precisely the opposite.
Scripture’s uniqueness makes systematisation unnecessary and illegitimate.
Systematics are under attack not only by those who wish to question the truthfulness and consistency of the bible, but by those who wish to affirm the bible in the strongest possible terms.
It is suggested that the problem with Systematics is an unstated assumption that the bible is not enough. Systematicians are accused of undermining the necessity and the sufficiency of Scripture.
The argument they use quickly displays its own inconsistency, for the necessity and sufficiency of Scripture are, of course, systematic statements of theology. There is no way round this for the person who wants to answer the question we are faced with.
If one wants to answer the question biblically, it is impossible to say that Systematic Theology is an unbiblical discipline. To say that Scripture itself forbids systematising is to give a systematic answer to a systematic question, and thus to affirm that questions of Systematic Theology can be answered biblically. One can deny the possibility of a biblical Systematic Theology only if one denies that the bible has any real consistency, but this is precisely what they do not want to do.
Yes, they might reply, but the argument used above is a philosophical argument, not a biblical one. The problem with Systematics is that the methodology is rationalistic rather than biblical.
Scripture is often used in Scripture in a systematic manner, making logical deductions in order to observe the full implications of what the bible teaches elsewhere.
Look again at Mark 12:24-27. Jesus rebukes the Saducees for not knowing the Scriptures, yet what he criticises is a part of their Systematic Theology: they wrongly deny the resurrection. He then reads Exodus 3:6 in the light of the systematic belief that God is the God of the living, to reach the conclusion that the Pentateuch affirms the resurrection.
The statement ‘He is not the God of the dead but the God of the living’, is particularly pertinent to our discussion. Not a single verse in the Old Testament makes this assertion explicitly, yet when we read of God’s action in the Old Testament as a whole, that he is the God of the living is clear. Jesus is not giving new revelation when he says this. He is deducing it from a systematic reading of the Old Testament. Neither is Jesus alone a legitimate Systematician, for if he were, he would not rebuke the Saducees for wrong Systematics. They too were expected to make such logical connections from Scripture. If Jesus expected it of the Saducees, then how much more will he expect it of his redeemed people?
Similarly the New Testament writers have a systematic framework:
It is clear in the New Testament itself that the apostles recognised the existence of a body of doctrine which they variously called "the truth," "the faith," "the tradition," "the teaching" or "the deposit," and which had to be guarded and passed on
So we must have a Systematic Theology of sorts; the question is whether our system is a biblical one.
One can, however, understand the concerns of such people, especially when one reads some definitions of Systematic Theology.
As the facts of astronomy arrange themselves in a certain order, and will admit no other, so it is with the facts of theology. Theology, therefore, is the exhibition of the facts in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonise the whole.
There is something close to the suggestion that the bible could have been put together in a better order. (If one reads more of Hodge it is clear that this is not his implication.) Perhaps a closer look at the purpose of Systematics would help to resolve this.
The job of [systematic] theology is to help people understand the Bible better, not to give it some sort of abstractly perfect account of the truth as such, regardless of whether anyone understands it or not. Rather, the job of theology is to teach people the truth of God. Although Scripture is clear, for various reasons people fail to understand and use it properly.
That is, without a Systematic Theology there is no criterion for telling whether one has understood a text of Scripture biblically. This is because only Systematic Theology can enable us to read a part of the bible in the context of the whole bible.
Systematic Theology seeks to apply Scripture as a whole. While exegetical theology focuses on specific passages and biblical theology focuses on of the historical features of Scripture, Systematic Theology seeks to bring all the aspects of Scripture together, to synthesise them. Systematics ask, what does it all add up to?
The accusation is that Systematic Theology does not take seriously how God has spoken. No! Only when we have a Systematic Theology do we take seriously two important attributes of Scripture: (1) that it is consistent (as we have seen above);
(2) that it is complete. It is a finished work. We must read the parts of the bible, in the context of the complete(d) work. Without it we will never make explicit what the bible clearly teaches implicitly. Without it we will not know how to begin to understand any given text. Without it we will miss the tensions and nuances in God’s self-revelation.
Systematic Theology at its best is "Not the imposition of a structure [onto the bible], but the discovery of a hitherto hidden and beautiful coherence."
Scripture’s God makes Systematisation irrelevant.
"I began to conclude that one of the greatest causes of deadness in the church was the heavy emphasis in many conservative circles on doctrine. What I wanted was life, vitality, experience, reality." Though these are the words of a fictional character, they portray perhaps the most common objection to Systematic Theology: it is boring and irrelevant.
Remembering some of the doctrinal sermons I have heard quickly leads to a deep sympathy with such an objection. People who experience genuine conversion and Christian joy can become disillusioned with preachers who, at great length, use confusing theological language to describe seemingly alien concepts. Their experience of God is awesome; their experience of doctrine is awful. The combination of a culture that puts so great an emphasis on experience and theological colleges that put so little emphasis on engaging preaching, leaves little wonder that doctrine and reality seem to many to be irreconcilable.
Yet this is not how things need to be. Rather than doctrine being irrelevant, it is in fact indispensable for authentic and practical Christian life. "Doctrine stands on the border between the bible and the world." Without it we cannot ask what the bible has to say on issues that we know to be relevant to us. What does the bible say to the woman whose has lost her child? If there are no Systematics then there is silence, for without Systematics the bible does not speak as a whole. For whenever one is bringing different parts of Scripture together to answer a question, one is doing Systematics. Having Systematics enables us to know where in the bible to look for genuine words of comfort. All such pastoral questions require Systematics to answer them: How can I be sure of my salvation? How should I pray for my missionary friend? How should I act when my spouse neglects me? How should I seek God’s guidance?
Yet the relevance is more than answering immediate pastoral questions. The bible repeatedly teaches of the dangers of false teaching, which offers much but undermines salvation. Thus there can be eternal consequences to getting doctrine wrong. If the difference between an eternity in heaven and an eternity in hell is not relevant, then I don’t know what is.
Sadly, many of the doctrinal preachers we referred to earlier seem to have forgotten that doctrine is relevant, else they would spend a greater amount of their time applying it to their congregations. Yet this is because they are seeing Systematic Theology as an end in itself. It must function as the bridge between the bible and the world. There is some value in admiring the view from a bridge, but that is not its purpose. It is to be crossed. A bridge that is never crossed will always be irrelevant.
The New Hermeneutic has brought it’s own critique of Systematics. When it is suggested that it is impossible to access authorial intent, then systematising the intent of 66 books written over centuries would seem farcical. This is a complicated hermeneutical question, which has more links than is immediately apparent to the ‘relevance’ question above. Perhaps the place to start would be to ask whether the God who sustains us is incapable of communicating anything to us.
There has always been a movement stressing God’s utter transcendence that has refused to allow God and his actions to be the proper object of study. Yet this is not so much a question of whether the bible can be systematised. It is more a question as to whether God is able to reveal himself at all. Note however, that revelation is the foundation of theology, making God the subject rather than merely an object under the microscope.
Dangers and safeguards.
Though we have sought to establish the possibility and necessity of Systematic Theology, this does not mean that every Systematic Theology will be biblical. It is not sufficient to be assured that we can be biblical. Methodological guidelines must be in place to ensure that we will be biblical, or our findings will be of no use to us. My guidelines will be brief as they are not strictly within the bounds of the question, but I hope pertinent, for the ‘how can I?’ question follows so closely behind the ‘can I?" question.
Our system must be informed by and subject to Scripture
There is a strong temptation to "trim the truth to fit the system instead of adapting the system to absorb the truth." The bible is complete and inspired. No Systematic Theology is. Therefore a system must be provisional, able to be questioned by Scripture. This will be a particular danger for the student with a greater grasp of historical theology than biblical theology. Though historical theology is of great value in helping us to think through systematic questions, when greater thinkers than us have done Systematic Theology, there will be a great danger of accepting their findings on their authority, not the authority of the bible.
Related to this is the danger of thinking that a biblical Systematic Theology can do everything that the bible does. This must never be a system’s intention. Systematics systematise the facts in the bible. Yet the literary diversity of Scripture quickly reveals that the bible, though it contains facts, is much more than facts. This diversity combined with its inspiration gives Scripture an impact that Systematics inevitably looses.
Our system must recognise that knowledge of God is relational.
Related to the relevance question above, we must never forget that Systematic Theology is not the study of an object, but of a person. He is our creator and redeemer and Lord. We are his subjects, he is not ours. Study of him must be approached with humility and prayer. It must not be done in isolation, but in recognition of the redeemed people of God to whom we belong. It must lead not merely to head knowledge, but to repentance, worship and adoration.
Our system must remain silent where Scripture is genuinely silent.
There is a temptation in Systematics to want every question answered. We must resist speaking where God has remained silent just as persistently as we must speak where he has spoken. One example will serve to illustrate this: When the author of 87 Reasons why Christ will return in 1987 was asked what he thought of Jesus’ statement that we will not know the day and the hour, he replied, "Exactly! By this he means that we can know only the month and the year!"
Our system must give an appropriate weight to different doctrines.
It is possible for a Systematic Theology to be biblical in the sense that every doctrine within it has biblical foundations, yet to have an entirely unbiblical emphasis and structure. Though, due to the importance of relevance, a system might give extra time to defending those doctrines that are particularly at stake in the pervading culture, it must balance this by treating as central those doctrines to which the bible gives greatest weight.
"You can study theological textbooks of the most orthodox stamp which never discuss the basic question of what the gospel is or show by their structure or method of approach that they think that the gospel matters as such. Their interests are not really the interests of the Bible"
An appropriate way to finish this essay is a meditation on the following verse’s pertinence to our question.
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 11:23, my emphasis.)
John Stott, "Theology: A Multidimensional Discipline" in Doing theology for the People of God (Leicester: IVP, 1996) p. 4
In this essay I will use the word ‘doctrine’ loosely, as equivalent to a particular section of a ‘Systematic Theology’, noting that others have more precise definitions, see A. E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) pp. 35-80.
D. A. Carson, "Unity and Diversity in the new Testament" in Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) p.77
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971)
J. Dunn, Unity and diversity in the New Testament: an inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM, 1997) p.373.
Look for example at the Old Testament quotations within Matthew or Hebrews.
Cf. Carson, "Unity and Diversity" p.78 for an excellent critique.
Cf. Carson, "Unity and Diversity" pp. 82-90
Cf. Mike Ovey C.D. 1.1 lecture 1, p.2 (As yet unpublished)
Cf. Mark 12:17, 29-31, Matt 19:1-9, Luke 20:41-44, John 5:39-40, 10:34-37 for other systematic arguments from Jesus.
John Stott, "Theology" p.9
C. Hodge, Systematics theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1995) p.19, my emphasis.
See C. Hodge, Systematics theology i: 182-183.
Frame, The Doctrine of the knowledge of God (New Jersey: P&R, 1987) p.79.
Frame, The Knowledge of God p.212.
See the discussion above on the implicit teaching on resurrection in Mark 12.
Stott, Theology p.10.
Timothy Journeyman in D.A. Carson & J.D. Woodbridge, Letters along the Way, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993)
P. Jensen, "Teaching Doctrine as part of the Pastor’s Role" in Interpreting God’s Plan (Carlisle: Pasternoster, 1997) p.88
See W.A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: an introduction to Christian Doctrine (Leicester: IVP, 1994) p.27 for an amusing paragraph on what would happen if we had to read the whole bible cover to cover every time we wanted to work out what the bible has to say on an issue!
E.g. Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 2 Timothy 3:7-9, 4:3-5, 1 Peter 2:1-3.
See below in the section "Our system must recognise that knowledge of God is relational"
For a more adequate interaction with this objection see D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Leicester: IVP, 1996) esp. 57-137.
See, for example the discussion on Kierkegaard in C. Gunton, "Historical and Systematic Theology" in The Cambridge companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) p. 12
John Stott, "Theology" p.9
Note therefore the danger of using a book such as A. E. McGrath Christian Theology, An Introduction (Oxford, Blackwell 1997) to "teach yourself theology" (p. xix) when it deliberately makes little attempt to assess biblically much of the theology surveyed. (p. xvi)
See Grudem, Systematic Theology 32-37. Note also the appropriateness of his inclusion of devotional sections at the end of each chapter.
This story is possibly apocryphal – I heard it (or something like it) in a sermon once.
See Grudem, Systematic Theology p.31
Jensen, "Teaching Doctrine" p.81.