Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology

I am re-reading Vos’s Biblical Theology right now. I came across this great quotation, which ought to give certain modern-day theologians great pause:

The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. The sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theoloy this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either (p. 14).

I was quite struck by the difference in attitude to ST shown by Vos as compared with many practitioners of BT today. I am quite certain that the change has to do with logic itself. That is, that logic is no longer seen as necessary for the proper understanding of theology. Contrary to the claims of some, the Enlightenment is not responsible for the logic of post-Reformation systematics. Rather, the Enlightenment is responsible for the repudiation of such systematic treatment. As soon as reason is ultimate, it quickly loses its ability to synthesize God’s truth, since it is not a sanctified reason. Therefore, Vos would be thrown out by the majority of BT practitioners today.

Calvinistic Bona Fides

As the chapter title suggests, DW is intending to establish Calvinistic good faith with his readers. DW recognizes that there are critics out there who are saying that the objectivity of the covenant (as propounded by Federal Vision authors) constitutes a threat to Reformed thought, especially as regards God’s sovereignty in salvation. The thesis of this chapter is found on p. 24 (emphasis his):

We do not begin understanding the objectivity of the covenant by inching away from black-coffee Calvinism; rather, we begin be asserting it in the strongest possible terms. God is the God of everything.

What follows is a discussion of the sovereignty of God as it intersects with man’s freedom. In general, I think he holds to the traditional Reformed position here. There are one or two omissions which he might have discussed, such as the definition of free will as either compatible (defined by the person’s nature) or absolute (the power of contrary choice, which directly conflicts with the sovereignty of God). However, we will here give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he holds to the compatible definition of free will.

DW affirms that God is in control of the world, including sin (pp. 24-25): “Nothing happens outside the decretive will of God.” However, DW’s position is not without difficulties. On p. 26, for instance, DW asserts that God foreordained a world full of free choices: “God ordains noncoercively” (emphasis his). He seeks to explain his point by adding, “Remember, the point being made here is not that divine sovereignty is merely consistent with secondary freedom but rather is that which establishes it” (p. 26, emphasis his). Now, I am willing to allow that DW may not be making an absolute statement here. Some clarification would be helpful. However, in the case of Paul’s conversion, are we going to say that God did not coerce Paul’s will, changing it utterly so that Paul would take an entirely different direction? Did not God ordain coercively in Paul’s case? At the very least, God ordained that Paul’s conversion would be violent. Surely, God does not always ordain in this coercive way. However, sometimes God does. The reason I make this point is that some conversions to Christianity are indeed violent. Otherwise, what is the point of affirming irresistable grace?

DW’s motivation for writing this chapter is fairly plain on pp. 30-31:

In no way am I backing away from high-octane Calvinism. There will be things written later in this book which may look as though this is happening, but the reader should be assured that it is not. The point of this section has been to establish foundational Calvinistic bona fides. Doctrinal prejudice may still refuse to see how the harmonization works, but the harmonization is still there. So the reason for covering this ground again is that some have assumed (readily and wrongly) that the objectivity of the covenant poses a threat to the Reformed faith. In reality, it is the historic Reformed faith. (emphases all original)

I have a couple of issues with these statements. Of course, more shrill critics would say that this is a cover-up for contradiction being allowed into the book, and that we are simply being asked to take DW’s word for it that the things that look contradictory are in fact not so. I am willing to say something less than this: I am not willing to take DW’s simple word for it without argumentation, although I am willing to listen carefully to the argumentation. But I do not view these words as a proof of the argument. That will await the rest of this review to determine whether or not he has proven his case. However, I do have a problem with his saying that the objectivity of the covenant is the historic Reformed faith. Witsius and a’Brakel believed that the covenant of grace was made only with the elect, hardly an objective definition. Would Wilson agree with Witsius and a’Brakel? I think not. So, at the very least, DW’s statement is an exaggeration. Does this claim for the objectivity of the covenant disenfranchise all those Reformed folk out there who do not believe in the objectivity of the covenant? Again, maybe DW is not being absolute in his claims here. Clarification would again be helpful.