Theology, as defined above, however, has fallen upon hard times. One may recall here Søren Kierkegaard’s lampooning definition of a theologian as “a professor of the fact that Another has suffered,” while Jaroslav J. Pelikan’s reminder that the nearest equivalents to the term “theologian” in the New Testament are “scribes and Pharisees” does not help to make the work of the theologian any more appealing either to the church or to the world at large. Indeed, as the Western world has become increasingly a “secular city,” more and more men and women within as well as without the church argue that it is impossible even to say anything meaningful about God. Accordingly, Gordon H. Clark begins his book In Defense of Theology with the following assessment: “Theology, once acclaimed ‘the Queen of the Sciences,’ today hardly rises to the rank of a scullery maid; it is often held in contempt, regarded with suspicion, or just ignored.”
If Clark’s judgment is correct, the Christian might well conclude that he should be done with theology as an intellectual discipline altogether and devote his time to some mental pursuit holding out promise of higher esteem. The issue can be pointedly framed: How is theology—construed as an intellectual discipline that deserves the church’s highest interest and the lifelong occupation of human minds—to be justified today? Still more pointedly: Why should I, as a Christian, engage myself for a lifetime in scholarly reflection on the message and content of Holy Scripture? And why should I continue to do it in the particular way that the church (in her best moments) has done it in the past? I would offer the following five reasons why we should engage ourselves in the theological enterprise:
1. Christ’s own theological method;
2. Christ’s mandate to his church to disciple and to teach;
3. the apostolic model;
4. the apostolically approved example and activity of the New Testament church;
5. the very nature of Holy Scripture.
Christ’s Own Theological Method
All four Evangelists depict Jesus of Nazareth as entering deeply into the engagement of mind with Scripture and drawing from it fascinating deductions about himself. For example, on numerous occasions, illustrated by the following New Testament passages, he applied the Old Testament to himself: Luke 4:16–21: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
John 5:46: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”
Luke expressly informs us that later, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [the glorified Christ] explained [διερµήνευσεν, diermēneusen] to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; see also 24:44–47).
Such an extensive engagement of his mind in Scripture exposition involved our Lord in theological activity in the highest conceivable sense. It is Christ himself then who established for his church the pattern and end of all theologizing—the pattern: we must make the exposition of Scripture the basis of our theology; the end: we must arrive finally at him in all our theological labors.
The Church’s Mandate to Disciple the Nations
After determining for his church the pattern and end of all theology, the glorified Christ commissioned his church to disciple the nations, baptizing and teaching his followers to obey everything that he had commanded them (Matt. 28:18–20). The Great Commission then places upon the church specific intellectual demands. There is the evangelistic demand to contextualize without compromise the gospel proclamation in order to meet the needs of every generation and culture. There is the didactic demand to correlate the manifold data of Scripture in our minds and to apply this knowledge to all phases of our thinking and conduct. And there is the apologetic demand to justify the existence of Christianity as the revealed religion of God and to protect its message from adulteration and distortion (see Tit. 1:9). Theology has risen in the life of the church in response to these concrete demands of the Great Commission. The theological enterprise serves then the Great Commission as it seeks to explicate in a logical and coherent manner for men everywhere the truth God has revealed in Holy Scripture about himself and the world he has created.
The Apostolic Model
Such activity as eventually led to the church’s engagement in theology is found not only in the example and teaching of Jesus Christ but also in the rest of the New Testament. Paul wasted no time after his baptism in his effort to “prove”(συµβιβάζων, symbibazōn) to his fellow Jews that Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ (Acts 9:20–22). Later, as a seasoned missionary he entered the synagogue in Thessalonica “and on three Sabbath days he reasoned [διελέξατο, dielexato] with them from the Scriptures, explaining [διανοίγων, dianoigōn] and proving [παρατιθέµενος, paratithemenos] that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2–3). The learned Apollos “vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving [ἐπιδεικνὺς, epideiknys] from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
Nor is Paul’s evangelistic “theologizing” limited to the synagogue. While waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, Paul “reasoned” (διελέγετο, dielegeto) not only in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks but also in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there (Acts 17:17). This got him an invitation to address the Areopagus, which he did in terms that could be understood by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers gathered there but without any accommodation of his message to what they were prepared to believe. Then, in addition to that three-month period at Ephesus during which he spoke boldly in the synagogue “arguing persuasively” about the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8), Paul “dialogued” daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus (hardly the name his parents gave him; more likely, the name his students gave him), not hesitating, as he would say later to the Ephesian elders, to preach anything that would be helpful to them and to teach them publicly and from house to house, declaring to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20–21).
We also see in Paul’s letter to the Romans his theological exposition of the message entrusted to him—both in the broad outline and essential content of the gospel he preached and in the theologizing method which he employed. Note should be taken of the brilliant “theological flow” of the letter: how he moves logically and systematically from the plight of the human condition to God’s provision of salvation in Christ, then, in turn, on to the results of justification, the two great objections to the doctrine (justification by faith alone grants license to sin and nullifies the promises God made to Israel as a nation), and finally on to the Christian ethic that God’s mercies require of us.
It detracts in no way from Paul’s “inspiredness” (see 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Pet. 3:15–16; 2 Tim. 3:16) to acknowledge that he reflected upon and bolstered his theological conclusions by appeals to earlier conclusions, biblical history, and even his own personal relationship to Jesus Christ as he unfolded his doctrinal perception of the gospel of God under the Spirit’s superintendence. One finds these theological reflections and deductions embedded in Romans in the very heart of some of the apostle’s most radical assertions. For example, at least ten times, after stating a specific proposition, Paul asks: “What shall we say then?” and proceeds to “deduce by good and necessary consequence” the conclusion he desired his readers to reach (Rom. 3:5, 9; 4:1; 6:1, 15; 7:7; 8:31; 9:14, 30; 11:7). In the fourth chapter the apostle draws the theological conclusions that circumcision is unnecessary to the blessing of justification and that Abraham is the spiritual father of the uncircumcised Gentile believer from the simple observation based on Old Testament history that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6) some fourteen years before he was circumcised (Gen. 17:24)—striking theological deductions to draw in his particular religious and cultural milieu simply from the “before and after” relationship between two historical events! Then, to prove that “at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5), Paul simply appeals to his own status as a Christian Jew (Rom. 11:1), again a striking theological assertion to derive from the simple fact of his own faith in Jesus.
The apostolic model of exposition of, reflection upon, and deduction from Scripture supports our engagement in the theological enterprise. If we are to help our generation understand the Scriptures, we too must deduce and arrange conclusions from what we have gained from our exegetical labors in Scripture and be ready to “dialogue” with men. Engagement in and the result of this task is theology.
The Activity of the New Testament Church
Engagement of our minds in theology as an intellectual discipline based upon the Holy Scriptures gains additional support from the activity of the New Testament church. The New Testament calls our attention again and again to a body of saving truth, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15—“the traditions,” Romans 6:17—“the pattern of doctrine,” Jude 3—“the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” 1 Timothy 6:20—“the deposit,” and “the faithful sayings” of Paul’s pastoral letters (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:7–9; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; Tit. 3:4–8). These descriptive terms and phrases indicate that already in the days of the apostles the theologizing process of reflecting upon and comparing Scripture with Scripture, collating, deducing, and framing doctrinal statements into creedal formulae approaching the character of church confessions had begun (examples of these creedal formulae may be seen in Rom. 1:3–4; 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; 15:3–4; 1 Tim. 3:16 as well as in the “faithful sayings” of the Pastorals).
Furthermore, all of this was done with the full knowledge and approval of the apostles themselves. Indeed, the apostles themselves were personally involved in this theologizing process. In Acts 15:1–16:5, for example, the apostles labored as elders in the deliberative activity of preparing a conciliar theological response to the issue being considered then for the church’s guidance. Hence, when we today, under the guidance of the Spirit of God and in faith, come to Holy Scripture and with our best intellectual tools make an effort to explicate its propositions and precepts, trace its workings in the world, systematize its teachings and formulate them into creeds, and propagate its message to the world, we are standing squarely in the theologizing process already present in and conducted by the church of the apostolic period.
The Divine Inspiration and Authority of Holy Scripture
As we will argue in part one, the Bible is the revealed Word of God. Christ, the Lord of the church, regarded the Old Testament as such, and he gave the church ample reason to regard the New Testament in the same way. This means that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—indeed, the Triune God—“is really there and he has spoken.” If he is there, then he must be someone people should know. And if he has spoken to us in and by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, then that fact alone is sufficient warrant to study the Scriptures. Stated another way, if God has revealed truth about himself, about us, and about the relationship between himself and us in Holy Scripture, then we should study Holy Scripture. It is as simple as that. Indeed, if we take seriously the biblical truth that only in the light of God’s Word will we understand anything as we should (Ps. 36:9), we must study Holy Scripture, or what amounts to the same thing, we must engage our minds in the pursuit of theological truth. Not to be interested in the study of Holy Scripture, if the one living and true God has revealed himself therein, is the height of spiritual folly.
For these five reasons the church must remain committed to the theological task. And it can do so with the full assurance that its labors will not be a waste of time and energy. For no intellectual pursuit will prove to be more rewarding ultimately than the acquisition of a knowledge of God and of his ways and works. Indeed, so clear is the scriptural mandate for the theological enterprise that the church’s primary question should not be whether it should engage itself in theology or not—the Lord of the church and his apostles leave it no option here. The church must be engaged in theology if it is to be faithful to him. Rather, what should be of greater concern to the church is whether, in its engagement in theology, it is listening as intently and submissively as it should to its Lord’s voice speaking to his church in Holy Scripture. In sum, the church’s primary concern should be, not whether to engage in theology, but is its theology correct? Is it orthodox? Or perhaps better: Is it biblical?
THE THEOLOGICAL TASK
Precisely how the theological task is described will be determined by the Sitz im Leben of the individual theologian, governed as he is by his own intellectual qualifications, socio/historical situation, learning, and theological station.
General Aspects of the Theological Task
With Louis Berkhof, I believe that the theological task in general is both a constructive and a demonstrative one, both a critical and a defensive one—
1. Constructive in that the theologian, dealing primarily with the dogmas embodied in the confession of his church, seeks to combine them into a systematic whole—not always an easy task since the connecting links between many truths that are merely stated in a general way must be discovered, supplied, and formulated in such a way that the organic connection of the several dogmas becomes clear, with new lines of development being suggested which are in harmony with the theological structure of the past;
2. Demonstrative in that the theologian must not by his systematizing of dogmas merely describe what his church urges others to believe but also must demonstrate the truth of it by showing exegetically that every part of it is rooted deeply in the subsoil of Scripture, offering biblical proof for the separate dogmas, for their connecting links, and for any new elements which he may suggest;
3. Critical in that the theologian must allow for the possibility of a departure from the truth at some point or other in his church’s dogmas and in the systematic system which he himself proposes, meaning, first, that if he detects errors anywhere, he must seek to remedy them in the proper way, and second, if he discovers lacunae, he must endeavor to supply what is lacking (for Reformed theologians this aspect of the theological task is captured in the motto ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—“a Reformed church is always reforming”); and
4. Defensive in that the theologian, concerned as he is with the search for absolute truth, must not only take account of previous historical departures from the truth in order to avoid them himself, but he must also ward off all current heretical attacks on the true dogmas embodied in his church’s system.
With regard to the task of systematic theology in particular, I concur with Gabriel Fackre that it should be (1) comprehensive, that is, cover all of the standard teachings of the Scriptures, (2) coherent, that is, demonstrate the interrelationships of the several topics, (3) contextual, that is, interpret, whenever and wherever possible, the sweep of doctrine in terms of current issues and idioms, and (4) conversational, that is, engage historical and contemporary points of view.
And with Klaus Bockmuehl, I believe that the systematic theologian himself (1) “must encourage . . . and exercise the ministry of teaching in the church” and “reactivate [the] catechetical function in order to confirm both churches and individual believers so that they are not being driven around by alien doctrines and finally destroyed”; (2) must alter his form of expression, whenever and wherever possible, away from that of Greek metaphysical concepts of thought and language to that of the biblical dynamism that was concerned with the history of God’s deeds of mercy; and (3) against the philosophy of the lordship of man, “must call for the reversal of [modern society’s] decision of secularism [i.e., godlessness]” and again “publicly assert and encourage to assert the lordship of God . . . [and] announce God truly as God to a generation forgetful of this fundamental fact.”
Specific Aspects of the Reformed Theological Task
With these general aspects of the theological task guiding him, the Reformed systematic theologian is specifically responsible to provide his readers with (1) organized cognitive information that is radically biblical (this is simply what it means to be “Reformed”) and (2) to do so in such a way that such information will encourage growth both in ministerial skills and in specific heart attitudes toward the things of the Spirit.
The Reformed systematician should provide his readers with cognitive information concerning
1. the major loci and cardinal doctrines of Christian theology as set forth in Holy Scripture (what he gives his readers should be, with no change in basic content, preachable and teachable material);
2. the historic faith of the early church and the manner in which the church articulated and expressed its faith in such creeds and symbols as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the so-called Athanasian Creed;
3. the distinctive nature, richness, and beauty of the Reformed faith as the teaching of Holy Scripture, and as interpreted, expounded, and exhibited in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and the great national Reformed confessions, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Assembly’s Catechisms, Larger and Shorter;
4. Reformed orthodoxy and its validity as the most viable contemporary expression of scriptural orthodoxy;
5. dominant motifs of contemporary theology from the posture of Reformed biblicism and confessionalism;
6. philosophical, ideological, and religious themes of contemporary thought where they affect the content of the Christian gospel construed as including both Christian proclamation and Christian teaching.
The Reformed systematician is also responsible to impart this cognitive information in a way that will encourage his readers to grow in certain specific religious affections, specifically in their
1. reverence for the Holy Scriptures as God’s Word to us and as the final instructional source and norm for faith and life;
2. constant readiness to see God’s kingdom and the unity of the biblical covenants as the hermeneutical key to the understanding of Holy Scripture;
3. appreciation for the Reformed theological heritage;
4. perseverance in their effort to grow as systematic theologians;
5. respect for the work of others who have addressed themselves to the systematic task, e.g., Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, William Ames, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, Heinrich Heppe, Charles and A. A. Hodge, William G. T. Shedd, James Henley Thornwell, Robert Lewis Dabney, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Augustus Hopkins Strong, Benjamin B. Warfield, Francis Pieper, Louis Berkhof, J. Oliver Buswell Jr., Gerrit C. Berkouwer, John Murray, John H. Gerstner, and Wayne Grudem;
6. awe as those who have been granted the great privilege to study the “mind of Christ” as revealed in Holy Scripture;
7. soberness as those who have been called to spread God’s word of judgment to the peoples of the world;
8. joy as those who have been called to proclaim God’s word of grace to the same people;
9. meekness as those who recognize that they too must live by and under that same Word which they study and apply to the lives of others;
10. boldness to apply the doctrinal insights they gain winsomely and practically to Christian living and to a world in great need;
11. sincere concern for a biblically faithful evangelization of a lost world and for the juridical subjugation of the nations under the “general equity” of Christ’s current messianic rule (Westminster Confession of Faith, XIX/iv); and
12. humble, prayerful reliance upon God for all of these things, with the perpetual prayer that the “favor of the Lord will rest upon them and establish the work of their hands” (Ps. 90:17).
With this perception of the task of theology—and of a Reformed systematic theology in particular—governing our thinking, we will now begin our journey into the fascinating and dazzlingly rich world of theology as an intellectual discipline. Since all true theology must have an appropriate ground, we will begin with a propaedeutic treatment of Holy Scripture as the only legitimate ground for authoritative theological predications. Then we will address in turn the classical
theological loci, namely, the doctrines of God (or theology proper), man as covenant creature and covenant breaker, the nature of Christ’s incarnation, his salvation in both its accomplished and applied aspects, the church and its attributes and marks, its authority and duties, its government, and its sacraments, and finally, the marvelous but perplexing intricacies of “last things.”
Excerpt from A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Robert Reymond