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All Systems Go

Why we shouldn't devalue systematic theology.

This year's Together for the Gospel conference felt markedly more defensive than the inaugural 2006 event. The speakers each zeroed in on the topic of theological error. Mark Dever ranged widely as he argued that evangelicals must not confuse implications of the gospel with its essence, the salvation of souls. Al Mohler capped the second evening with a relentless defense of substitutionary Atonement. The schedule was exhausting, the content hard-hitting.

Ligon Duncan, president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, set the tone with his opening talk on Tuesday night. Speaking on "Sound Doctrine: Essential to Faithful Pastoral Ministry," Duncan bemoaned our anti-theological age. He quoted from an article, "The Dangers of Theology," that ran in his hometown newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. In it, Valerie Cohen, rabbi at a local Reform Judaism congregation, wrote,

Theology. What a tricky thing. A devious thing, sometimes. A dangerous thing, often. Perhaps that is why Jews focus so much on deed and not creed, on doing rather than believing.

Duncan observed that Jews have experienced the deadly consequences of bad theology. So as a defense mechanism, some Reform Jews such as Rabbi Cohen have tempered all theology in order to render it benign. This move creates an environment in which anyone who holds strong beliefs about God's character is suspected of nefarious motives. To meet this challenge, we must remember that the word theology demands a modifier. The Germans who supported the Nazis believed in a racist theology. Christians counter with a biblical theology that rejects such theories of racial superiority.

Sometimes, however, pointing out these differences will not persuade. That's when Christians must demonstrate their theology by their actions. Duncan made this point when he called on Christians to out-live and out-die the critics of their theology. Otherwise, what good are these beliefs? Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church expressed a similar pastoral burden. "I believe that doctrine is not just true; I also believe it's helpful," he told me. "In addition to arguing for the truth of doctrine, we also need to show the helpfulness of doctrine."

Duncan's talk did not just defend theology. It also aimed to defend systematic theology in particular. He praised the work of Bruce Waltke but also criticized the Old Testament scholar's explanation of the differences between biblical and systematic theology.

"Biblical theologians differ from dogmaticians [systematicians] in three ways," Waltke writes in his Old Testament Theology, which Duncan quoted. "First, biblical theologians primarily think as exegetes, not as logicians. Second, they derive their organizational principle from the biblical blocks of writings themselves rather than from factors external to the text. Third, their thinking is diachronic — that is, they track the development of theological themes in various blocks of writings. Systematic theologians think more synchronically — that is, they invest their energies on the church's doctrines, not on the development of religious ideas within the Bible."

Put that way, how can systematic theology compete with biblical theology? After all, as Waltke writes, systematic theologians draw their organizing categories from outside the Bible. Does that make systematic theology less biblical? Duncan countered by showing how the Bible itself displays systematic theology. Jesus taught a systematic lesson on the topic of himself (Luke 24:25-27). Apollos encouraged fellow believers by debating the Jews on the topic of whether Jesus was the Messiah. He systematically taught this topic from the Scriptures (Acts 18:28), Duncan observed.

He also pointed to the critique of systematic theology that comes from Emergent leaders. "The emerging movement tends to be suspicious of systematic theology," Scot McKnight wrote in Christianity Today. "Why? Not because we don't read systematics, but because the diversity of theologies alarms us, no genuine consensus has been achieved, God didn't reveal a systematic theology but a storied narrative, and no language is capable of capturing the Absolute Truth who alone is God. Frankly, the emerging movement loves ideas and theology. It just doesn't have an airtight system or statement of faith. We believe the Great Tradition offers various ways for telling the truth about God's redemption in Christ, but we don't believe any one theology gets it absolutely right."

There is much to chew on in this provocative statement. For a detailed response, listen to Duncan's lecture. McKnight is right: Christians have creatively compiled an alarming array of systematic theologies. Yet each new generation's textbooks still rely on a crucial foundation of systematic theology reached after painful debate, especially in the early church. Chief among these triumphs is the doctrine of the Trinity. The recent Wheaton Theology Conference, "Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry," once again showed how the Trinity is a faithful and fruitful category in systematic theology.

We may rightly wonder about overly philosophical and insufficiently biblical systematic theologies. We may turn a skeptical eye toward any systematic theology that claims to exhaust God's truth. But we must not forget to thank God for giving us minds to systematically comprehend and apply his Word.

Verses for the Fortnight

"And [Jesus] said to them, 'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself."

Luke 4:25-27

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

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