Reading Good Theology

From Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Picador, 2005), page 117:

“Good theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. … Theology is written for the small community of those who would think of reading it. So it need not define freighted words like ‘faith’ or ‘grace’ but may instead reveal what they contain. To the degree that it does them any justice, its community of readers will say yes, enjoying the insight as their own and affirming it in that way.”

A Systematic from J.I. Packer?

“…But one book is missing from the Packer canon: a systematic theology. He has been teaching systematic theology at Regent for years, so he certainly has done heavy lifting for such a book. Will one be forthcoming? ‘I have a plan,’ he said. ‘But I may not have the time. I would like to leave the world theology that was both catechetical and definitive. But we shall have to see what God has in store.’”

—Warren Cole Smith in his feature of 80-year-old J.I. Packer titled “Patriarch” that appeared recently in WORLD Magazine (Dec 5, 2009, Vol. 24, No. 24). Online here. Pray for health and longevity!

Concise Reformed Dogmatics

Concise Reformed Dogmatics

Along with classic oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp” and “pretty ugly” we can add a new phrase—“concise 940-page book.”

The new Concise Reformed Dogmatics from P&R is a contemporary, single-volume systematic theology that collects the best of the rich reformed theology of our Dutch friends.

For a single-volume theology I’ve never seen anything like it.

There is no doubt that authors could have easily fluffed this volume out into a 3 or 4 volume series. But instead they carefully distilled the content into a “concise” and sharpened format. And it doesn’t take long to notice this in the details and in the weightiness of each sentence.

The contemporary Dutch authors (J. van Genderen and W. H. Velema) and the English translators (Gerrit Bilkes and Ed M. van der Maas) have blessed the church with an excellent work of theology that captures the best dogmatic exegesis, the most valuable thoughts of Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, the best of our Dutch homeboys like Herman Bavinck, Wilhelmus à Brakel, and Abraham Kuyper and manage to interact frequently with the notorious Karl Barth.

Typical of Dutch dogmatics, it’s really not exactly what we think of in American when we talk about “systematic theology.” It’s more a combination of a little John Frame ethics and a little J.I. Packer practical theology added to Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology. I mean when is the last time you read a systematic theology with sections covering prayer, mission work, and human sexuality?

For a single-volume dogmatic, this is a precious gift to the church. And despite it’s length (940 pages) and price tag ($40) the addition of this volume to your library is worth consideration.

You can view the table of contents and a sample chapter over here.

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Title: Concise Reformed Dogmatics
Authors: J. van Genderen and W. H. Velema (Dutch)
Translators: Gerrit Bilkes and Ed M. van der Maas (English)
PDFs: Sample chapters available here.
Boards: cloth (as in real cloth)
Pages: 944
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: yes
Binding: sewn
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: P&R
Year: 1992 (Dutch) + 2008 (English)
Price USD: $59.99 / $40.79 at Westminster
ISBN: 9780875525778

The Value of Systematic Theology

“Everything is Spiritual”—that was the name of Rob Bell’s speaking tour gaining a lot of attention and headlines in newspapers and magazines as Bell lumbered across the country speaking in theaters to fairly large crowds in various states. I became aware of the tour and the resulting DVD and, with an interest to learn about the tour and its popularity, I watched the video trailer. This is what I saw and heard:

Now, obviously there is a level of truth to what Bell says. Each of us has been given an eternal soul. But as I began watching the Rob Bell trailer my mind began racing and thinking in biblical categories and asking many questions but especially this one: Is everyone spiritual? Drawing from biblical anthropology 101 I knew the answer was “no.” The Apostle Paul tells us believers in Jesus Christ are genuinely spiritual because we have been given (by grace alone!) the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. Because we have the Spirit, we comprehend and respond to spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:12-13). However there are simultaneously others who are “natural”—that is, they do not respond to the things of God (like the gospel of Jesus Christ) because spiritual truth makes no sense (v. 14).

Contrary to Bell’s assumptions, everyone is not spiritual. Paul makes it very clear there is a spiritual/natural distinction, each distinguished from one another by their responses to the gospel.

This abrupt realization while watching the trailer was prompted—to my best guess—by the excellent anthropological studies in systematic theology I received as a churchgoer in a local church. (Systematic theology is the accumulation of exegetical truth of scripture organized and arranged by theme and topic.) Those years of Wednesday night systematic theology courses have paid off in the past several years, and probably more than I know.

Although I remember begrudgingly at times coming home from work on a Wednesday evening and wanting to stay home and veg rather than attending these courses, I now see the fruit and have come to a deeper appreciation for systematic theology for its value in bringing balance and discernment to my life and thought.

For myself, no authors have better enforced the importance of systematic theology than Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987). In An Introduction to Systematic Theology (P&R, 2007), Van Till reminds us the discipline of systematic theology is important in four areas:

1. For personal spiritual balance:

“The unity and organic character of our personality demands that we have unified knowledge as the basis of our action. If we do not pay attention to the whole of biblical truth as a system, we become doctrinally one-sided, and doctrinal one-sidedness is bound to issue in spiritual one-sidedness. As human beings we are naturally inclined to be one-sided. One tends to be intellectualistic, another tends to be emotional, and still another tends to be activistic. One tends to be only prophetic, another only priest, and a third only king. We should be all these at once and in harmony. A study of systematic theology will help us to keep and develop our spiritual balance. It enables us to avoid paying attention only to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us.” (p. 22)

2. For discernment:

“Moreover, what is beneficial for the individual believer is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But ‘Bible-trained’ instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error. There are many ‘orthodox’ preachers today whose study of Scripture has been so limited to what it says about soteriology that they could not protect the fold of God against heresies on the person of Christ. Oft-times they themselves even entertain definitely heretical notions on the person of Christ, though perfectly unaware of the fact.” (p. 22)

3. For faithful preaching:

“If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the ministry has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually. Then, too, it is well-rounded preaching of this sort that has kept the church from worldliness. On the other hand, it has kept the church from an unhealthy otherworldliness. Well-rounded preaching teaches us to use the things of this world because they are the gifts of God, and it teaches us to possess them as not possessing them, inasmuch as they must be used in subordination to the one supreme purpose of man’s existence, namely the glory of God.” (pp. 22-23)

4. For preparation to engage in a war of worldviews:

“We have already indicated that the best apologetic defense will invariably be made by him who knows the system of truth of Scripture best. The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life-and-death struggle between two mutually opposed life-and-world views.” (p. 23)

Conclusion

My prayer is that we all—Bell included—come to see that any culturally relevant worldview we present and defend must be one build upon a robust systematic theology (not trifles like the absence of a word in the Old Testament!).

For those of you interested in studying systematic theology I highly recommend Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. My friend Jeff has taken this large volume and abridged it for beginner audiences in Bible Doctrine. Both are outstanding. For those familiar with Grudem you should take a look at Herman Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith. It’s another gem!

Introduction to Systematic Theology by Cornelius Van Til

Book announcement

“Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology is one of his two or three most important books, certainly a must-read for anyone who is trying to understand Van Til. And it is important for Christians to understand Van Til today, as never before. He challenges Christians to think in a distinctively biblical way. That biblical way opposes and challenges all religions and secular philosophies, all ideologies that place the ultimate source of truth and value in human beings rather than in God.” – John Frame

Download the table of contents and intro as PDF here.

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Systematic theology and future heresy

tss-baseball.jpgI’ve often wondered how the Church can prepare Herself to combat future heresies, those inevitable errors we cannot fully anticipate. Do we wait for the errors to rear their ugly heads and then send in the experts? Or is there a broader, more preventive solution?

According to Wayne Grudem, the study of systematic theology is one way to prepare the Church for future errors. In the introduction to Systematic Theology (Zondervan: 1994) he writes:

“Whatever the new doctrinal controversies are in future years, those who have learned systematic theology well will be much better able to answer the new questions that arise. The reason for this is that everything that the Bible says is somehow related to everything else the Bible says (for it all fits together in a consistent way, at least within God’s own understanding of reality, and in the nature of God and creation as they really are). Thus the new question will be related to much that has already been learned from Scripture. The more thoroughly that earlier material has been learned, the better able we will be able to deal with those new questions” (28).

How true this is.

Pagitt interview

So after listening to this interview with Doug Pagitt, a noted Emergent Church figure, I took note of these principles in action. And we’ll listen to it in a moment. But first let me say this interview is far from ideal and some parts make me cringe for both sides. Yet, at the same time, I think the interview is valuable and instructive.

It’s worth repeating Grudem. A systematic theology, originating from careful biblical exegesis, protects the Church by wrapping its arms around large biblical themes and showing where one particular doctrine impacts other doctrines. The unity of revelation is self-sustained, and the authenticity of a single doctrine is based upon its consistency with the whole. Frequently, error will contradict the biblical conclusions of systematic theology at several points and so error must first shirk an overall unity of systematic theology.

Note Pagitt’s universalism must (at its root) deny a real place called “hell” and a real place called “heaven.” Scripture’s obvious dualism does not fit into his universalism.

But further, note Pagitt’s irritability at stringing together the biblical teachings on one particular topic. The irritability is directed, not on the exegetical authenticity of the string, but simply on the act of stringing. This is a response against systematic theology.

A heavenly place

Pagitt clearly disagrees with the “dualistic-Platonic understanding of the cosmos” and denies heaven as a real place. But pick up any number of systematic works and you will read that Jesus went to, and will return from, a place called heaven (Acts 1:11). And you will be pointed to Jesus’ words of comfort to His disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3).

What ‘place’ is being prepared for Christians if heaven is not a literal place?

Further, a good systematic theology will illuminate this in the Old Testament. When Elijah and Enoch were taken into heaven, their soul and body left the earth (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11). Where did they go, if not to another physical place? And why the importance of a resurrected body if heaven is not a physical place? The afterlife as a physical place is found across Scripture and is well defined in orthodox systematic theology.

My point today is not to highlight one error, but to illustrate a broader theme. Christians with a well-grounded systematic theology will have the tools to see past the argument that heaven — as a physical place — is merely a human philosophical invention. A degree in ancient philosophy is unnecessary because a Christian who has a mature systematic theology does not first ask, “What is dualistic-Platonism?” But rather, “What does Scripture say on this issue?” And on multiple levels, Scripture is very clear that heaven is a place.

And what if Plato agrees with Scripture? Well then, praise God!

Conclusion

Bottom line: Systematic theology properly done (i.e. based upon accurate biblical exegesis) creates a reinforced fiberglass-like mesh of biblical truth that overlaps itself into one cohesive worldview to answer the most pressing questions of our day and to prepare the church to answer emerging errors.

It’s here, behind the fortress of a biblically faithful systematic theology, where the Church finds safety and discernment. And it’s also behind this fortress that the Church will worship God in truth, looking forward to streets of gold, the tree of life, the Throne of God, the precious Lamb, and the saints and angels worshiping forever — a physical place built around God’s glory, giving us hope and joy today and the anticipation of pleasures forever.

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Related: Some favorite systematics:

  1. Systematic Theology by Grudem. See also condensed Bible Doctrine by Grudem.
  2. Institutes by Turretin
  3. Institutes by Calvin (an index to his commentaries)
  4. A New Systematic Theology by Reymond
  5. Great Doctrines of the Bible by Lloyd-Jones
  6. Vol. 2, Collected Writings of John Murray
  7. Reformed Confessions by Beeke and Ferguson
  8. Salvation Belongs to the Lord by Frame (nice intro)

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Related: For those of you interested, here are Spurgeon’s thoughts …

“We are too apt to entertain cloudy ideas of the ultimate inheritance of those who attain unto the resurrection of the dead. ‘Heaven is a state,’ says somebody. Yes, certainly it is a state; but it is a place too, and in the future it will be more distinctly a place. … Our ultimate abode will be a state of blessedness, but it must also be a place suited for our risen bodies. It is not, therefore, a cloudland, an airy something, impalpable and dreamy. Oh, no, it will be as really a place as this earth is a place. Our glorious Lord has gone for the ultimate purpose of preparing a suitable place for his people. There will be a place for their spirits, if spirits want place; but he has gone to prepare a place for them as body, soul, and spirit.”

– C.H. Spurgeon, sermon on 9/23/1883 (no. 1741), 29:672-673.