Remember, this is a retooling of a class I took in Seminary under Dr. Gaffin. I am not careful in it to distinguish his work or wording from my own.
As we set out on our journey through the “Doctrine of Christ”, we thought it best to discover what we mean by “doctrine”. Broadly, when we are talking about “doctrine”, we are doing theology … a combination of theos (God) and logos (word or speech or knowledge). We are … “speaking about God”, “telling what we know about God”.
But there are a number of approaches to God-speak … or theology. In the theological enterprise, you’ll traditionally find four basic “branches” of theology. The differences between them, among other things, is a difference of perspective: Where are you standing as you make your observations about God?
In Exegetical Theology, you are appreciating the unfolding nature of redemptive history. You are interested in the development and sequence of redemptive history. Your perspective is a given textual block. Your perspective is the immediate and historically previous contexts.
In Historical Theology, as you might imagine, you are taking the perspective of a present- day Christian, looking back on the developing understanding of the Bible in the church over time.
In Systematic theology you approach God’s revelation topically. “What does the Bible say about x?”
You also have practical theology, where you take your own personal perspective of a loving Christian brother, and you are looking for the practical application of all the other branches of theology … what does it mean in my context?
But as we turn to the doctrine of Christ, we are engaging in Systematic theology. Systematic Theology is a topical approach to God’s self-revelation in Scripture, particularly scripture as a whole. Topical and Bible as a whole are the key terms here. What does the (whole) Bible teach about a given topic?
In this respect, Systematic Theology has a pivotal role among the various fields of theology. Systematic Theology lies between exegetical and historical theology on the one hand, and practical theology on the other.
Systematic Theology is characterized by the fact that it brings together … or funnels … the results of … e.g., New Testament studies, church history, history of doctrine, etc., with a view towards the ministerial task of the church in the world. Systematic Theology is fairly seen as a theological clearing house; the processing center for the theological enterprise.
Now Let’s do a bit of reflecting, focusing in on the use of the distinguishing adjective — systematic.
We don’t call it topical theology, but systematic theology. But that choice of this word is not without its problems.
In saying that we are doing Systematic Theology here, this does not mean that the other theological disciplines are unsystematic, lacking in orderliness or methodological procedure.
Nor does it mean that we think of the Bible as a disorganized sourcebook for abstract doctrine, as if Systematic Theology is concerned with establishing order out of biblical material that is lacking in order.
In this view, the task of Systematic Theology becomes something like doing a jigsaw puzzle, arranging the disorderly into an orderly whole as if the Bible does not become coherent until Systematic Theology has done its thing.
When theology is done this way, the system comes to stand above scripture. The humanly crafted system becomes an ultimate end in itself. That often happens in sophisticated and refined ways that are not at all evident, but it happens in order to provide consistency and a systematic comprehensiveness at all costs. If the system is to be valid, it must cover everything; so a difficult or non-conforming Scripture is pushed aside or ignored.
Also, questions can be raised and then answered in terms of the system (in terms of the human speculative-philosophical foundations of the system) that are simply foreign to Scripture — that Scripture does not and is not concerned to address.
This is a “proof-texting” approach in the bad sense, stripping the text from its context to make a point foreign to Scripture.
A Creed or Catechism can be used this way. Though we would never say it in these words, there can be the subtle view that the Confession says it better than the Bible. We are properly committed to creeds and standards — but committed to them as subordinate standards. Below, and not above, the Word of God.
Because of these tendencies and erroneous implications, some prefer the term Dogmatics to Systematic Theology. In general, however, English speakers tend to hold to and prefer the term, “Systematic Theology.” So we’re stuck with it … that’s what we’re doing.
Now, in defense of the term:
Given the widespread rejection of the Bible’s unity, our terminology emphasizes that unity. For critics, the Bible as a literary whole is seen as a composite of conflicting theologies; characterized by teaching that is unharmonious and even mutually conflicting. Over against that, the adjective Systematic serves to underline the concord and harmony of the teaching of Scripture as a whole.
What is at stake is “the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture.” That notion of “the system of doctrine” simply echoes the expression found in 2 Tim. 1:13 — “the pattern of sound words” as Paul puts it. “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 1:13 ESV) He commands Timothy to hold fast to it.
Similarly, in Romans 6:17, Paul reminds his readers of the ‘form’ or ‘pattern’ (τύπος) of teaching that they have received. “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,” (Romans 6:17 ESV)
There is a wholeness, an integrity, to the teaching of Scripture. It has coherence, harmony, unity at the level of the whole. To elucidate that unity, to bring that unity and coherence to bear on the life of the church, is the task of Systematic Theology. So the unity of the Bible is a controlling concern for Systematic Theology.
To understand the task and method of Systematic Theology, we must reflect on the unity of Scripture, which is that controlling concern. The unity of the Bible is linguistic, or verbal. It is at the level of the text. The unity is not something hovering beyond the text; we are not talking about some unifying action of the Spirit that takes place as one reads an ultimately discordant text. No, the unity is at the level of the text — it is a verbal, or linguistic unity, a set of self-consistent, non-contradictory propositions.
But to say that the unity of Scripture is linguistic or textual does not yet tell us anything about the unity of Scripture in terms of content or subject matter. When we pose that question — the unity of the Bible materially considered, in terms of content is best or most helpfully described as a Redemptive Historical, or Covenant-Historical unity. And that’s because the Bible, as it is, itself, revelation possesses its unity as it is a record of the revelatory activity of God … of God’s revealing activity as focused on His redemptive activity. There is a correlation between redemptive deed and revelatory word. The focus of the Word is on the Deed. The unity of the Bible arises out of the redemptive revelatory activity that as a whole constitutes a history. The Bible is a record of God’s redemptive and revelatory activity. Altogether it makes up a history, one that begins in the Garden and the fall, but comes to its consummation in the Person and Work of Christ … In the Incarnate Christ.
So in this sense (and only in this sense), the unity of the Bible as a collection of texts, as written documents, does derive from a unity that lies behind the text. It derives from the unity that is inherent in the redemptive acts of God.
There is an organic connection between God’s redemptive activity in history and the scriptures account and explanation of that activity. This understanding of things best explains the diversity in God’s unified plan of redemption.
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV)
This is an umbrella declaration that the writer writes to stand over all that he is going to go on to say in the rest of the document. Notice how three inter-related factors come to expression here.
- The notion of revelation as a historical process: the idea of the history of revelation – “Long ago … at many times … but in these last days”
- The diversity in that process: It includes different modes of revelation and various literary genre. But the literary serves the redemptive historical. It is in one way or another a record of that redemptive process.
- Christ is the end-point of the process, as the eschatological end-point. “In these last days…” This is why in Luke 24.44ff, Jesus explains to his disciples … like he had with the two on the road to Emmaus … that the whole Bible is all about Him.
Now … Given the topical approach of Systematic Theology to the unity of the Bible, it is plain that the method of Systematic Theology is fundamentally exegetical.
That is, because of its interest in the unity of the Bible, Systematic Theology must be radically non-speculative, but rather exegetical. So Systematic Theology is interested in hermeneutics. It is concerned to control its topically oriented formulations by what the Bible actually teaches.
But what is determinative of sound exegesis? Obviously there are number of things we might say. But we must say this: Context is King. This is essential to all proper exegesis. Nothing is more important than that the text be understood in its context. And, since the scriptures are a record of redemptive history, the redemptive historical context is critical.
But attention to this context, to the Redemptive Historical ebb and flow, is the distinguishing concern of Exegetical or Biblical Theology. Biblical Theology regulates the exegesis on which Systematic Theology is dependent. Biblical Theology is the indispensable servant of Systematic Theology. Central to both exegesis and Systematic Theology is the unity of the Bible; that unity, particularly in terms of the content of the Bible, is essentially a Redemptive Historical unity, a unity that exists in an unfolding historical diversity. So the concern of Systematic Theology is that all exegesis do justice to the Redemptive Historical context. If Systematic Theology is to be based on exegesis, then Systematic Theology demands an exegesis controlled by Biblical Theology.
A literary analogy may help.
The teaching of Scripture, taken as a whole, may be compared to a great epic drama, a meta-narrative. Its basic line is the move from Creation through fall to redemption and consummation in Christ. Systematic Theology may then be seen as a kind of single, large-scale plot analysis. Reflection of the various actions in the drama.
- Who is God?
- What is sin?
- What will happen?
- What is man?
- and so forth.
So … That’s the nature and method of ST …
What implications should we draw from this introduction?
Biblical Theology … carefully considering the redemptive historical context of any given scriptural text … protects Systematic Theology from the ever-present tendency to abstraction, to de-historicizing, to losing sight of the historical dimension, the essential Redemptive Historical quality of biblical truth.
That is, the topical method disposes us towards timeless formulations about who God is, who man is, what the world is … timeless in the sense that these formulations minimize and perhaps obscure the covenant-historical dynamic by which God relates to the Creation, particularly its image-bearing creature.
An example is WSC Q4: What is God?
“God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
But these statements about God are not self-evident simply in terms of our speculative capacities or our intuition or our experience. We see these wonderful truths only as we appreciate how these God has shown us these qualities in the history of redemption.
What does it mean that God is love? that God is powerful? Those adjectives of our God only have their true substance as we see them revealed in the moving and unfolding of the history of redemption, and then climactically as they come to expression in the Person and Work of Christ. The attributes of God are always expressed in terms of who God is in what He is doing as Creator and Redeemer.
Doing theology otherwise leads to it becoming a rote formula; a string of words that have no meaning. But even the demons’ have accurate theology. They believe … and shudder. Theology is always relational … and always relevant
WSC Q3: What do the Scriptures principally teach? “What man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.”
The scriptures give us the credenda and the agenda. What is to be believed and what is to be done. But the Bible does that only as it is a covenant-historical record, only as it interprets to us what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do in order to accomplish the redemption of His people in the context of His creation.
Biblical theology also challenges systematic theology not to draw topical compartments too tightly … not to fall into a compartmentalizing mindset, but to see how the various topics interpenetrate each other.
It helps us to see eschatology as more than a sequence of events at the ‘end times’, not simply the last chapter in the Systematic Theology textbook, but as permeating the whole enterprise, cutting across the other topics in a very decisive way, just as Christology does.
So … I know it’s a bit of a slow start, but we need to lay down some foundational principles first. It makes sense to know what we are doing before we start doing it, right?
This time, we considered the nature, the method and the task of systematic theology: To elucidate, through careful exegesis, the redemptive historical unity of the scriptures, bringing it to bear on the life of the church. This is the task and method of Systematic Theology.
Next time, we’ll place Christology as a subdivision within systematic theology.
Stick with us, though, because this is just the beginning of a truly amazing journey …
Working through Who Jesus is and What He has done and what that means for us.