A Gentle Response to Clair Davis

Dr. Clair Davis has written a response to Gaffin’s piece (which I linked in the previous post). As always, Davis is humble and always wanting to learn more, something I have always admired about him. He does not think he has finished learning. And he is more than willing to listen to those who disagree with him. In this post, I do not presume to teach Dr. Davis. As I indicated in my last post, my own thought is also undergoing change. But I do have some thoughts about his response. Writing about them helps me to think through the issues.

The first point I wish to raise has to do with the variety of ways that Jesus can be seen in the Old Testament. As I mentioned in my review of Sidney Greidanus, there are a variety of ways to see Christ in the Old Testament. This does not mean that a given passage, however, has more than one ultimate meaning. Otherwise, we will fall foul of the first chapter of the WCF, which says that the true and full sense of Scripture is not manifold but one (I wonder if the “two readings” view can really agree with WCF 1.9). The two readings view seems to me to say that the OT text has two meanings: the original one and the Christological one, and that they don’t have to match up or even connect (usually taking the historical critical method for granted here). Both camps in this debate would agree that there is progress of understanding the OT text. Otherwise we would have no New Testament. But Jesus says that He IS the meaning of the Old Testament in John 5 and Luke 24. He is not an add-on, or an afterthought. Yes, in some ways, Jesus is a surprise. But not completely. Otherwise, Abraham could not have rejoiced to see His day. The real question is not whether there is more than one way to see Jesus in the Old Testament, but whether He is there in the Old Testament at all! The two readings view seems to suggest that Jesus is not properly there at all, but is read into the Old Testament by means of Second Temple Jewish hermeneutical means (i.e., rabbinical means).

The second issue that I wish to bring up is whether biblical theology is “greatly weakened” at WTS, as Davis says. Yes, Enns and Green are not there anymore. Neither is McCartney. Instead, they have Beale and Duguid. My question is this: how can biblical theology be “greatly weakened” at WTS when two of biblical theology’s greatest practitioners have just joined the faculty? Beale’s greatest strength is in seeing how the New Testament reads the Old Testament. And he has written a mammoth New Testament Biblical Theology that will, I am sure, prove to be a classic. Duguid’s OT commentaries are some of the very finest OT exegesis I have seen, and very much in the Vossian BT tradition.

The third issue is the perennial one of the relationship of biblical theology to systematic theology (BT to ST). Davis believes that the two are yoke-fellows. He looks at the statement of the affirmations and denials and wonders if they haven’t put systematic theology in the untenable position of being unanswerable to Scripture. Having sat under Gaffin for five classes and received about 50% exegesis and 50% systematizing, I can say that, for the Westminster ST faculty, ST is always answerable to Scripture! The WTS faculty would NEVER say that ST equals the Bible. I do not think the affirmations and denials are saying that, either. The affirmations and denials statement was aimed at the unnatural separation of BT and ST that the two readings view advocates. It does not actually address the place of ST in the theological encyclopedia. I have talked rather extensively with the current ST faculty about the questions of encyclopedia, and they are agreed that ALL the theological disciplines are inter-connected and mutually inter-dependent. My question is this: why would we want to set any of the theological disciplines in tension with any of the others? As Davis’s example of a sermon shows, all the disciplines need to come to bear on the application. The analogy I use is that of a very heavy drill. A heavy drill has a lots of different parts to it all aimed at one point: the drill bit going through whatever material is present. That point of the drill is like application: where the rubber hits the road. But the more we have in terms of the other disciplines informing that application, the heavier and deeper the drill will penetrate the human heart. I would argue that it is the two readings view which separates BT from ST. Enns and Green don’t particularly like ST. They are suspicious of something that might put a straight-jacket on exegesis. This is not how ST should be thought of in relation to exegesis or BT. ST provides the safe fence outside of which exegesis and BT will find danger, not creative freedom. The fence can be moved, but Proverbs warns us against moving the landmark. There is a faith once for all given to the saints. There is a pattern of sound teaching. BT draws a line, and ST draws a circle.

Fourthly, that Vos says what he says does not prove that the main hermeneutical method that the apostles and Jesus used was a Second Temple Jewish rabbinical method. Nor does it prove that Jesus was an imposition on the OT text. That Vos says what he says in the quotation, therefore, does not disprove WTS’s point, as it is not directly relevant to whether Jesus is natively present in the Old Testament or not, which is the issue under consideration. After all, Paul quoted from heathen poets and philosophers in the New Testament as well. Does that prove that his hermeneutic is pagan? Using the language and concepts of the day does not equal a hermeneutical method.

Fifthly, what is it about Green’s method that is contrary to the Westminster Standards? I have brought up one point (the true and full meaning of Scripture being not manifold but one). Another point that we must bear in mind here is the unity of the covenant of grace, as WCF 7 puts it so well. Were the types of the Old Testament intended to prefigure Christ? The WCF says that they DO prefigure Christ. Period. They do not prefigure Christ only in hindsight, only on a second reading. Davis actually grants this point in the movie illustration, when he agrees with Gaffin. The problem for Davis here is that Gaffin and Green cannot both be correct on this point. Davis tries valiantly to reconcile the two, but I believe he cannot do so.

What’s Your Point?

I am re-reading T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. It is a delightfully instructive and entertaining read. Our session is going to be going through it with the idea of studying how communication works, such that we can improve our teaching. The thesis of the book is relatively modest in scope. It does not claim to identify and solve all the problems with preaching today. Rather, Gordon claims to be identifying one major problem, and maybe the foremost problem. This problem has to do with the way in which the media, a primarily visual means of communication, has interfered with our ability to read texts well. He would go farther than that by saying that it has almost eradicated our ability to read texts well.

I agree completely with his thesis. However, I would like to point out something else, something less obvious, something deeper and less traceable, albeit still connected with Gordon’s analysis. I would argue that the almost complete division and separation among the disciplines of learning has resulted in ministerial candidates who do not offer the kind of well-rounded sermon that Gordon is promoting. What I typically find is that sermons these days are exegetical or systematic-theological or practical or historical or apologetic. This problem is not merely due to the fragmented way in which many seminaries teach the theological disciplines (though that may well be the main factor). It is also due to the colleges and high schools, which are usually oblivious to the problems that this Enlightenment-created phenomenon has produced. I realize that I am speaking somewhat generally, and that there are exceptions (specifically, most instructors and congregants desire the sermon to be practical, and so the practical aspect is often there alongside one of the other aspects; although, even here, the “practical” is usually truncated to mean “what is helpful to me at 9 AM on Monday”).

The effect this division among the disciplines has on preaching is profound, especially when aggravated by the factors that Gordon mentions. In the modern sermon, not only is there lack of unity in subject matter (“Point? What point?”), but there is also lack of unity in theological discipline (which is, ultimately, the viewpoint of the sermon). Most of the time, it seems that preachers will take one of the disciplines (their favorite) and preach from that viewpoint. As a result, their sermons are greatly truncated. What unites the theological disciplines, after all, is Scripture itself, as Abraham Kuyper so admirably says in his Principles of Sacred Theology (which ought to be required reading at every seminary in the last semester of study). It is like trying to pull a rope while grabbing only one of the strands: eventually the rope unravels.

Building Your Theology

I have been very distressed by a disturbing trend in the Christian world, and in the Reformed world, it has been no better. The trend is this: to build one’s theology entirely on the basis of the modern authors. Now, I’m not talking about introductory books on the Reformed faith in general, of which I would say that the modern ones can be extremely helpful in giving to a new believer. I’m talking about how we build our understanding of a particular topic in theology.

Take justification, for instance. Instead of building ont the foundation of Calvin, a’Brakel, Owen, and Buchanan, like they should, people are building their doctrine of justification on N.T. Wright and Norman Shepherd. The problem that then arises is that they judge the older by the newer instead of the other way around. The assumption is generally that the newer is better, since we have more information. Granted we have access to far more information than the Reformers did. That does not mean that we have progressed. Is it impossible that we should have regressed in our understanding of theology? All one has to do is read Turretin to be disabused of the idea that newer is necessarily better and more precise. Yes, we have more information available. That doesn’t mean that we have mastered all the newer information. In fact, it is becoming quite impossible to master any field these days. The Reformers could at least master what was known in their time. Hence, their works tend to be more cohesive, more encyclopaedically sound, than modern works, which tend to be more fragmented.

We should judge the new by the old, if we are to have any success in being Reformed. The adjective “Reformed” depends for its content on what is old. This is simply the way it is. I am not saying that the newer authors are useless. Nor am I saying that nothing can be modified from the older authors, and that we are “stuck” reading the older sources only. But we should build our understanding of a particular doctrine on the older authors, and then judge the newer authors by the old, while still allowing the newer authors to modify our understanding. At some point, I wish to create a series of posts on what the best sources are for building one’s doctrine from what is old (it would be organized according to theological topic).

Incidentally, this is still true even of those folks who wish to abandon the old Reformed ways. How do you know you have left the old ways unless you have studied them? Isn’t the definition of “Reformed” defined by the older theologians, not the newer ones?

Collegiality

I’m going to have to ask Scott Clark’s forgiveness here for not blogging about my recent trip to Westminster California. All I can say is, here is my attempt to rectify the situation. To put it simply, I had a great time.

I got to go out for lunch with 3 faculty members (Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and historical theology, Joel Kim, Assistant Professor of New Testament, and John Fesko, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology). Now, I’m sure that such ribbing and teasing goes on among many faculties of many seminaries, but I haven’t seen too many professors have such fun together. The fellowship was sweet. I included their respective fields for a very specific reason: these professors weren’t competing against each other, nor did they view their respective fields as competing fields. The collegiality was most refreshing. With the recent faculty problems at WTS Philly, which have been going on for a while now, I did not witness the same across-the-board collegiality. There is certainly some there, but the tension between the “biblical” guys and the “sytematic” guys was palpable when I was there. I hope things are improving at WTS in this regard. I have every reason to believe that it is so.

Of course, what is a seminary visit without books? Scott loaded me down with about 8 or 9 of them (many thanks, Scott! I am especially enjoying Van Drunen’s book on Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms).

One other thing I noticed was that all the faculty offices were on one corridor. I imagine this was intentional, but I still think it is a wonderful thing: collegiality among faculty is greatly increased when it is that easy to duck into another professor’s office. I think every seminary ought to consider this kind of a move.

Upcoming Debate on the Relationship of Exegesis to Systematics

This book looks to be a very interesting contribution to the discussion on how we move from exegesis to systematic theology, practical theology, etc. Obviously, a book closely related to my thesis topic.

A Preliminary Report

I have not yet finished this book. Yet I wanted to give readers some idea of what the book is like, as it is one of the more important books to be published this year.

Especially important is his discussion of theological encyclopedia. Again, for those unfamiliar with the expression, theological encyclopedia is the discussion of the inter-relationship and inter-dependence of the various theological disciplines on each other. So, the relationship of biblical theology and systematic theology, for instance (a really hot issue in the secondary lit these days), is an issue of theological encyclopedia. The last important full-scale treatment of the subject was Richard Muller’s The Study of Theology, found in this volume. My overall reaction to Gamble’s treatment is that his practice works out better than the theory. In practice, Gamble is outstanding at allowing all the disciplines to impact one another. He will quote Turretin right next to modern commentaries. In practice, I think Gamble succeeds admirably in being a generalist theologian. His systemati categories are informed by biblical theology, and yet are not inimical to traditional systematic categories.

In his theory, I would agree with a lot of what he says. For instance, he is very clear that all the disciplines are dependent on Scripture. To my mind, no one said this better than Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper argued that all the disciplines are united by their common tie to Scripture: Exegesis explains the meaning of Scripture in individual passages, and starts to tie these threads together; Systematic Theology speaks of the meaning of Scripture as a whole; Apologetics propounds the truths of the aforementioned disciplines to the unbeliever, seeking to undermine the presuppositions of unbelief and show the consistency of Christian presuppositions to the Christian worldview; Church History examines the impact of Scripture through the ages; and Practical Theology examines the outworking of Scripture in people’s lives. The principle of inter-dependence is itself dependent on the one uniting fact of Scripture. Gamble would definitely agree with this.

I would differ with Gamble on some of the details of how this works out in the specific inter-relationships of disciplines. For instance, Gamble wants to restructure Systematic Theology so that the loci are more closely based on biblical theology. He seems to imply that traditional systematic theology’s categories are not categories derived from the biblical text itself, although he usually stops short of saying this. Nevertheless, Gamble is careful to distance himself from an attempt to swallow up ST in BT. I have zero objection to letting BT influence ST. However, I see no particular problem with ST as it has traditionally been formulated. I hold that ST, in turn, has to be allowed a place at the table in exegesis and in BT. We do not come to exegesis or BT in a presuppositionless way. Furthermore, those presuppositions are systematic theological in character. In the forthcoming Festschrift for David Wells, I will be arguing that Vos himself struck just this happy balance (Vern Poythress has also argued this in a recent WTJ article).

I have so far read through chapter 14 (through page 276). I have certainly enjoyed it greatly, and have found his discussion stimulating. It will not be possible to discuss issues of theological encyclopedia without consulting Gamble’s highly nuanced positions.

Should Systematic Theology Influence Biblical Theology?

This subject is much vexed in the scholarly world today. There is practical unanimity on the question of whether biblical theology (and I include in this exegesis) should have an influence on our systematic theology. But whether the road is two-way is a very controversial question. I believe that it is. And I believe that there is biblical support for this assertion. 2 Timothy 1:13 is an indication. Here it is in Greek and then in English.

ὑποτύπωσιν ἔχε ὑγιαινόντων λόγων ὧν παρ’ ἐμοῦ ἤκουσας ἐν πίστει καὶ ἀγάπῃ τῇ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ:

In English translation: Hold to the pattern of healthy words which you have heard from me in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

The operative word here is ὑποτύπωσιν. Thayer’s lexicon defines it as “the pattern placed before one to be held fast and copied, model.” EDNT simply translates it “the pattern of sound words.” Moulton and Milligan say “sketch in outline,” “the outline without the substance.” It seems clear that there is a pattern of words to follow. Especially if MM are correct in the lack of full content, it seems that there is here the beginning of systematic theology right in the Bible itself. The context confirms this with the “good thing” (τὴν καλὴν παραθήκην) that was committed to Timothy is certainly the same thing as the testimony in verse 8 about Christ Jesus.

Jude 3 is also important in this regard. There is a faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is not continually being delivered. It was once for all (ἅπαξ) delivered. The nature of the heresy described in verse 4 is that of someone coming in to change the message into something else. There is a stability to the faith once for all delivered. It does not change, however freshly new generations might be able to articulate it. There is a difference, however, between new articulation, and new content. We must learn to distinguish the two. If it is once for all delivered, then it is able to be analyzed as to its content. Something that is continually changing is not able to be analyzed. This probably explains why those who prefer the content of ST always to be changing are less than generous with the claims of systematic theology. Especially in Jude, we see the principle that anything new must be compared with what has been once for all delivered. In other words, how do we know whether something is heretical or not? We compare it to what we have received. Since systematic theology can be described quite fairly as a summary of exegetical findings on various topics, it is quite legitimate, then, to say that exegesis must be compared to what we have received once for all.

Of course there are dangers. Of course systematicians can abuse their position of power (whatever that means) and twist the text to fit their own theories (the figure that is always used is the by-now-clicheish Procrustean bed metaphor). Equally problematic, and in my opinion yet more sinister since it is all in the dark, is the equal twisting that happens when an unidentified systematic theology (which everyone has, despite his own naysaying) twists the text under the guise of saying that he is “just letting the text speak for itself.” People love to claim this position, as if it were inherently possible. It isn’t. The old Dutch proverb is quite true and ought to be resurrected (just found this in Carl Trueman’s essay in this Barth volume, p. 7): “Every heretic has his text.” Indeed. Throughout history, every heretic has claimed to “just read the text,” “just let the text speak for itself.” Without the analogy of faith (which is another way of saying systematic theology), there is no way to counter heretics. One could wish that modern day naysayers of systematic theology would remember this before bashing systematic theology.

A Disturbing Trend in Evangelicalism

I am by no means new in noticing this trend. It has been noticed by many before me. However, I thought I’d just mention it, because it explains quite a lot of what is happening today in what I am loosely calling evangelicalism. The term “evangelicalism,” by the way, is rapidly losing its meaning, if it hasn’t already. If Mormons can be called evangelical, then the term has lost its meaning.

The trend I see is in a particularly narrow definition of what is practical. Modern-day evangelicals have defined practicality as something that helps them at 10:15 AM to do a particular action. If what they hear on Sunday does not help them at 10:15 AM on Monday morning, then it is impractical, in the clouds, esoteric, useless doctrine. I would suggest that this is not a particularly helpful definition of what is practical.

On the one hand, all doctrine must be practical. However, in saying this, I want it clearly understood that my position is that all true doctrine is by definition practical. Doctrine that is impractical is therefore not true doctrine. What I am getting at is the artificial rift between doctrine and practice that is so rampant in churches these days.

I well remember an incident when I was about fifteen years of age. For some inexplicable reason, someone had actually allowed me to teach a Bible study at this ridiculous age. We were going through 1 Corinthians at the time, and I was set for chapter 14. So, I prepared by reading all the commentaries I had access to at the time. The time came to teach this Bible study. For the most part, it passed off without a comment. However, at one point, one of the members of the Bible study asked a question that implied that we were not really dealing with the application of the text, and that we needed to focus more on that. I replied that we had not really gotten to the stage of understanding the text. This is not an extreme example, of course. And I am not advocating a lack of application in sermons or Bible studies. What I am pointing to is a rush to practicality that seems to want to bypass understanding the meaning of the text. This sort of “practicality” isn’t practical, because how does one know that one is applying the text correctly? Applications from texts are not always right.

What I am advocating is a practicality that knows it must be based on doctrine. It is a practicality that is never severed from doctrine. It is a practicality that realizes that there are many kinds of practicality, ranging from what we believe about God (which will change the way we worship and pray) to the nitty-gritty of the everyday. There is long-term practicality and short-term practicality. There is practicality regarding how I treat my neighbor, and there is practicality in how I treat my God. There is practicality in how I view the world as a whole, and a practicality in how I view one small part of that world. One particular practicality that gets overlooked is the practicality of what one believes. We are naive in the extreme if we think that what we think doesn’t affect our behavior, sometimes in very subtle ways. Even that erroneous belief has a strong impact on our behavior! Belief and behavior can never be separated. All these practicalities are to be based on solid, Christian doctrine found in the Bible. We need to resist rushing to application and practicality without first establishing the proper basis of said practicality. There is an order to these things that we must follow.

Kuyper Could Have Been Writing Today

I just finished reading Kuyper’s masterpiece, Principles of Sacred Theology. Of all the theological encyclopedias that I own, this one is by far the best, for Kuyper recognizes the fact that theology is truly an organism, not a compartmentalized series of specializations. Kuyper also recognized the importance of doing theology in the context of the church and in service to the church. Look at some of these quotations, which desperately need to be heeded today.

Without this sense of service (to the church and to the Holy Spirit, LK) all study becomes subjectivistic, unhistorical, and arrogant, while, on the contrary, the placing of oneself at the service of the truth, i.e. in this instance of the Holy Ghost, banishes all pride, curbs the desire to be interesting by exhibiting new discoveries, feeds the desire of theological fellowship, and thereby sharpens that historic sense which impels the theologian to join himself to that great work of the Holy Spirit effected in past ages, which at most he may help advance a few paces (p. 586).

No man is a theologian in a scientific sense unless he is also a partaker of personal enlightenment (Kuyper means regeneration here, LK) and spiritual experience. For, unless this is the case, his starting-point is wanting, and he has no contact with the principium of theology (Kuyper means Scripture as principium, LK). Neither can the theologian stand outside the church relation, and thus outside of personal union with the churchly confession, for then he finds himself outside the historic process (p. 590).

The theologian should not undervalue the confession of his Church, as if in it a mere opinion presented itself to him over against which, with equal if not with better right, he might place his opinion (emphasis original, p. 591).

A company charged with the public water-works may change the direction of some part of a river-bed by cutting off some needless bend or obstructive turn, but this does not render the company the original creator of the river who causes its waters to flow. In the same way, the scientific theologian may exert a corrective power here and there upon the confessional life of the Church, but this does not constitute him the man who sets this life in motion (p. 591).

It is not lawful, therefore, for him simply to slight this confessional life of the Church in order, while drifting on his own oars, to construct in his own way a new system of knowledge of God. He who undertakes to do this is bound in the end to see his labor stricken with unfruitfulness, or he destroys the churchly life, whose welfare his study ought to further (p. 592).

To be able, however, to accomplish this task, scientific theology must be entirely free in her movement. This, of course, does not imply license. Every study is bound by the nature of its object, and subjected to the laws that govern the activity of our consciousness. But this is so far from a limitation of its liberty, that its very liberty consists in being bound to these laws. The railway train is free, so long as the rails hold its wheels in their embrace. But it becomes unfree, works itself in the ground, and cannot go on as soon as the wheels jump the track (pp. 593-594).

Here is a parting question for my readers: how many theologians do you know that need to heed Kuyper’s words? I can think of dozens without even half trying.

The Enlightenment and the Fragmentation of Theology

The Enlightenment is responsible, I believe, for the fragmentation of theology into the various disciplines that now view each other with suspicion. I have never seen a good systematics professor feel threatened by exegesis or biblical theology. Quite to the contrary, the professors I had in seminary spent half to two-thirds of their time in exegesis. On the other hand, I wish I had a dollar for every single time I’ve seen in a commentary, “That’s a systematic category, and we can’t talk about that.” If you believed most exegetes today, systematic theology has no place at all in the theological curriculum. Richard Gaffin, however, said it best: “Biblical theology follows the plot line of the Bible, whereas systematic theology is a plot analysis.” But this wedge between biblical theology and systematic theology (of which exegetes seem to me to be utterly unaware: witness the blatant open theism of John Goldingay in his OT theology and in his commentaries, about which no one seems to be commenting) is part of a far larger fragmentation of theology that started with Schleiermacher’s Enlightenment-influenced Kurze Darstellung (translated here), wherein he parceled out theology into various disciplines. Schleiermacher’s work precipitated the great German theological encyclopedias of such men as Hagenbach, Rosenkranz, Rothe, von Hoffmann, Heinrici, Räbiger, as well as the English works of Schaff and Cave.

The problem with this whole system (Hagenbach’s system of division into exegetical, systematic, historical, and practical was much more influential than Schleiermacher’s own of philosophical, historical, and practical, and wound up being decisive in the formation of university faculties, and, later, when the universities banned objective theology in favor of religion, seminaries) is that increasingly different methodologies start competing instead of complementing each other.

What is vitally important for theologians today to recover is the generalist theologian. This was a comment made by Carl Trueman at a talk he gave a year and a half ago at the PCA General Assembly. That is what sparked me to do research into this fascinating area (the interdependence of the various disciplines) that is practically abandoned. The only modern works are by Ebeling, Pannenburg, Farley, and Muller, and the most recent one (Muller) is now showing some signs of age. It is past time for a more recent treatment. There is an historical treatment now of the German university system that has a fairly decent discussion of the theological encyclopedia. However, there is nothing modern in the way of a complete systematic treatment of the subject.

My post here is an expansion of a comment I made over on Biblical Theology.

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