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.

Two Kinds of Creativity in Theology

I see a war going on right now between two different views of creativity in theology. Quite a bit is at stake in this battle. In fact, nothing less than the confessions are at stake.

The first view is that creativity should not be limited by the confession. Creativity spills over the boundaries of the confession. Thus the confession becomes more and more obsolete as time progresses. It is not merely small points that become clarified. Rather, it is fundamental points of doctrine that must constantly be recreated, maybe in a very different way from the way they have been formulated before. The appeal is obvious. To the person who can “successfully” recreate theology in this manner, an entire school might be named after him. Or, he might be remembered for being edgy, suave, sophisticated, and, worst of all, that tired and stupid cliche, “thinking outside the box.” I’ve always wondered about what people mean by “the box” when they say something like that. It is supposed to be a virtue to “think outside the box.” I have found such people more often than not to be plain and simply confusing.

To be quite frank, this approach does not match church history. The church did not keep on revisiting Christology after the early heresies had been refuted and carefully excluded by the wording of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the formula of Chalcedon. Neither did they keep on revisiting the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, they progressed in “increasing limitation” (a wonderfully evocative phrase originating with Warfield) to nail down the doctrine of man in the Pelagian heresy controversy, the doctrine of justification in the Reformation, the doctrine of Scripture in the modernist controversy, and so on. This does not mean that fundamental doctrines are never questioned by heretics, and that we may have to clarify further some fundamental doctrine (witness the recent attacks on justification, for instance). However, neither do we have to reinvent the wheel every time. This leads us to the second view of creativity in theology.

The second view of creativity in theology is in a progressive rigidity within the confessional boundaries. Noe one likes the sound of the word “rigid.” However, it is a necessary word to describe this second view. As the church progressively nails down doctrines that are further and further away from the core salvific doctrines, more creativity in relating these nailed-down doctrines is possible. Forever looking at a particular doctrine from the standpoint of unsettled provisionality is debilitating to the theologian. If, however, the church has received a doctrine as what Scripture says, the theologian can then relate doctrines to other doctrines in an ever fresh, illuminating fashion.

I have used this illustration before, but it is certainly appropriate to bring it up again. My music composition teacher in college taught me the most useful lesson about creativity ever. Boundaries are essential to creativity, even tight boundaries. Severe limitations are the greatest spur to creativity that exist. If I set out to write a piece of music, and have no idea what limitations this piece of music will have, I cannot write anything. If, however (as I did in college), I chose to write a piece of music that is solely for organ pedals, the severe limitations of the feet on organ pedals was a tremendous stimulus to creativity. Then I rubbed up against those comfortable boundaries, seeing what I could do with such severe limitations, and the creative sparks flew incessantly. I wrote that piece in a hurry, as fast as I have ever written any piece of music. I would argue that the confessions function like such severe limitations. Within these boundaries creative theologizing has a chance. Stray outside, and you have heresy, not creativity.

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