Friday, March 18, 2011

Systematics and Doctrine Matter

In this brief series on what theology is all about, we've defined the task of doing theology as "the comprehensive, holistic interpretation of Scripture for the purpose of intimately knowing and rightly worshiping God." That is, the reason for all our intellectual strain and diligent study is that we would thereby know and rightly worship God, in accordance with His ultimate purpose for all of life.

After that introductory post, we focused on the part of the definition that centers on Scripture. Our definition of theology has Scripture, the Word of God, at its center. This is so because it is in the pages of Scripture -- the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments -- that God has chosen to reveal Himself to His people.

Today, we hone in on the part of the definition of theology that emphasizes the interpretation of Scripture. That is to say, doing theology involves the interpretation of Scripture for the subordinate goal of understanding and stating what the whole of Scripture has to say about a given topic (cf. Grudem, ST, 21). The product of that process is doctrine. For example, if we examine and interpret all that the Bible has to say about the topic salvation, the end goal and product of that process will be our soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. So, theology is the process of correct, comprehensive, and holistic interpretation of Scripture, and doctrine is the result of that process: the summation of a biblical theme that states a truth and calls for a response.

Of course, we immediately face objections here as well. In His gracious revelation to His people, God did not give us a theology textbook. He gave us a library of history books, stories, poetry, songs, proverbial and wisdom sayings, prophecies of judgment and blessing, chronicles of lives and teachings, and didactic letters. Because of this, many have been critical of those who seek to do theology in any systematic fashion. They argue, "If God had intended that we study, codify, and appropriate truth like that, well then He would have given us the Bible in that form." They also are wary that one’s theological confession will eventually replace one’s dependence on the Bible itself. We're too concerned, so the argument goes, with "'epistemological certainty' and 'theological systems.'"

However, the Lord’s Great Commission to the Church is to make disciples of Him by teaching persons all that He has commanded us. If followers of Jesus Christ are to be obedient to the great charge He has given us, we must teach the doctrines of the Word of God. In order to accomplish that task, “it is necessary,” as Grudem says, “to collect and summarize all the Scripture passages on a particular subject” (27).

While it's true that we could simply direct a new Christian to read from Genesis through Revelation every time he has a doctrinal question, such a practice would not be the most beneficial for him. Instead, we must apply ourselves to the task of engaging and interacting with the whole of God's revelation in order to understand what it teaches. And we must do so both comprehensively -- taking into account the entirety of the Biblical witness -- as well as holisically -- taking into account the interrelatedness and unity of Scripture, and ensuring that the Scripture itself be its own primary interpreter.

If "teaching to obey" is part of the Church's Great Commission, then no matter how you slice the pie, doctrine matters.

Series Outline

Light and Heat: Introduction

1.1 - In Pursuit of Light: We Worship What We Know
1.2 - Systematics and Doctrine Matter
1.3 - Loving God with All Your Mind

2. In Pursuit of Heat: We Worship What We Know

3. Conclusion: Light and Heat, Spirit and Truth


tftorrance said...

Hey Mike,

Do you see a difference between biblical theology and systematic theology? And if you do, how would you distinguish the two?

I'm pretty sure that you follow the LGH, and I do too (in a qualified way, maybe more "GH"); and I'm more prone to theological exegesis (as I'm sure would make sense to you, with me ;-). Anyway, it just seems to me that your understanding of systematic theology (and I read all your preceding posts to this one) actually collapses into biblical theology. In other words, I'm not sure what serves as the 'inner-logic' (in principle) to your systemization of the Scriptures. Is it philosophical, dogmatical, or maybe you're just more confessional (like Calvin's mode in the Institutes). I find myself to be a mix of dogmatic/confessional in theological style.

Anyway, it's good to see that you're still going strong! I haven't visited in at least a year.

~Bobby Grow

Mike Riccardi said...

Hi Bobby,

I guess I would distinguish between systematic and biblical theology, but I think each informs the other and neither is possible without the other.

Anyway, it just seems to me that your understanding of systematic theology (and I read all your preceding posts to this one) actually collapses into biblical theology.

That might be, but I'm not sure. You're welcome to try to unfold more what you mean.

In other words, I'm not sure what serves as the 'inner-logic' (in principle) to your systemization of the Scriptures.

I'm also not sure of what you mean here. Maybe you could give an example of philosophical, dogmatic, and confessional.

Bobby Grow said...

Hey Mike,

In principle, I agree with the idea that biblical theology absolutely should precede dogmatic/systematic theology (but in some ways it should be realized that these are in dialectic tension with each other too --- meaning that the WORD, Jesus, that the Word bears witness to, stands over and against, often, our theologizing, whether that be biblical or dogmatic/systematic).

I think, and I don't think we would disagree on this either (in principle), that the "inner-logic" that should stay in the forefront of our theologizing is that Scripture is all about Jesus (Jn 5.39) --- in fact Spurgeon would even agree with that. How that is applied to interpretation and biblical studies is probably where folks part ways.

I do think we all bring certain theological assumptions to the Text, and that we should be aware of those (preunderstandings).

With dogmatic, I mean the Tradition of the Church (like what we take as "orthodox" like Chalcedon, Nicaea-Constantinopliaton --- and how we work within and from the categories and grammar that that has provided the Church for centuries). Here's a couple of definitions of this provided by TF Torrance:

i.) Christian Dogmatics — the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.

ii.) Dogma — the church’s authoritative formulation of doctrine in accordance with apostolic teaching.

With confessional, I mean the confession making of the Reformed church. So basically "confessing" what we believe about God salvation etc, w/o providing the apparatus or critical terms upon which we have come to our conclusions that we might be "confessing" (Calvin's Institutes are probably the best example of this style in theological form). Here's something from Charles Partee on Calvin's confessionalism:

Calvin’s theology is properly concerned for right answers, but his right answers should be understood not as a logically unassailable system of ideas but in terms of their adequacy as a heartfelt confession of faith attempting to protect the mystery of God’s revelation. This confessional nature of theology takes precedence over all its rational truth, not even a system rationally explicating revealed truth. Calvin’s theology is a systematic offering of faithful witness to the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ. (Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 31).

With philosophical, I mean what philosophical categories are we engaging in order to articulate and "string" together Scripture's assertions about God salvation etc. Does it serve or sever our communication of God's Word and His Christ?

Just some brief definitions, and off the top :-).