The Unity of Theology

One of the biggest hangovers from the Enlightenment is the fragmentation of knowledge. This is true of all departments of knowledge, not just theology. With the rush to specialization, there comes greater knowledge in specialty departments, but with a corresponding lack of general knowledge. No longer could one acquire a Ph.D. in Physics generally. You can only get a Ph.D. in Physics now if you do it in a sub-department of a sub-department of a sub-department of Physics.

Seminaries today are specialized. Faculties are specialized. This has some advantages. There can be a good division of labor this way. Specialists have a better chance of keeping up in their field. However, there comes a terrible price to pay that goes largely unnoticed by all but a few (usually in church history and systematics, who are more attuned to the unity of theology anyway): departments not only stop talking to each other, but start becoming suspicious of each other. The very worst part of this suspicion certainly surrounds the exegetical departments in their relation to systematics. The fault here is almost entirely on the part of the exegetes. Systematics professors have been warned for so long about the dangers of proof-texting that they are gun shy to a certain extent. But if I had a dollar for every time I read in a commentary “That’s a systematic category, and we can’t talk about that in a commentary,” I would be exceedingly wealthy indeed. Exegete this passage, folks: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” from Deuteronomy 6:4. Does not the Shema tell us that the Lord is one? Then shouldn’t theology also be one in some sense? I do not advocate the elimination of departments in seminaries. But there are some things that seminaries need to do if students are not to leave bewildered by the competing methodologies of the various disciplines.

First, have students read Richard Muller’s book The Study of Theology. And they should read it at the beginning and at the end of their seminary training. Either that, or read Edward Farley’s book Theologia (unfortunately out of print).

Second, the introductory classes to the various disciplines should have sections dealing with how their discipline is dependent on every other discipline.

Third, all throughout the courses, specific application should be made apparent as to how the knowledge they are acquiring is inter-dependent on all other disciplines in theology.    



  1. Todd Gwennap said,

    July 3, 2008 at 9:46 am

    At Covenant Seminary, where I am an MDiv student, there is a two-semester course required in the first year of studies. The course is called “Covenant Theology,” and it is team taught by a professor of systematics (Michael Williams), an Old Testament professor (Jack Collins), a new Testament professor (Greg Perry), and a professor of apologetics (Jerram Barrs). All four professors are in class every day and dialogue with each other during lectures. I think this class has been helpful for me in seeing the unity of theological disciplines.

    Is this the sort of thing you have in mind here or something else?

  2. greenbaggins said,

    July 3, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Todd, that sounds like it is a step in the right direction. However, it seems that what is happening there is more like a discussion of a particular locus, rather than talking about the disciplines as a whole. And, by the way, I am not impressed with Jack Collins’s relation to systematic theology.

  3. July 3, 2008 at 9:53 am

    So, let us play with Deut 6.4 and its implications for how the unity of theology works out in a seminary context, for example. Is Deut 6.4 discussing how God is One with the same categories and concerns of the Ancient Greek metaphysical and neo-Platonic ontic thought in which categories and horizons the various doctrines of God were hammered out by early churches from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards?

    If you say yes, then from my point of you are really advocating a back-door in for Systematic theology and Historical Theology to control Bible profs and “exegesis.”

    If you say no and that the issue is complicated, then there are times when it is improper and unhelpful to “exegete” a passage in the Bible using Systematic and certain Historical Theological categories. To the extent that you realize this, the issue is more nuanced than simply the Bible prof being required to read the Bible passages in line with Reformed Systematic and Historical Theology. In this case it is not correct that “The fault here is almost entirely on the part of the exegetes.”

    It is not that the Bible should not be read theologically, and/or even at times from the perspective of the categories and questions of Reformed Systematic and Historical theology. Rather, there is a recognition of a certain distance between the various horizons and concerns of the writings of our Bible (at times, frequently?) and the categories and questions of our Systematic and Historical Theology. The Bible prof’s complaint that such and such a reading foists theological categories that are in some way foreign to the text has a place in the overall theological-for-the-church project. The desire of the Church Historian, Historical Theologian, and Systematician that the Bible prof be attuned to the history of theology and the Bible’s speaking to it also has a place in said theological project. In certain ways it is necessary to approach the Bible with the categories and questions of Historical and Systematic theology. I would add that the concern of the missionary(ies), counselors, pastors, etc., in the church also should factor into the overall theological project of the Bible, theology, and the church’s mission.


  4. greenbaggins said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Stephen, you make the same mistake that Bruce Waltke made in saying that the systematic categories are manufactured out of philosophy rather than from the Bible. Let’s see now, God, man, sin, Christ, creation, providence, covenant, atonement, regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, law, baptism, Lord’s Supper, prayer, and last things. These are standard loci in systematic textbooks, and let’s see…WAIT! NONE of them come from philosophy! They all came from the Bible. Fancy that.

  5. July 3, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Interesting post, as always Lane. Well timed. I just read an essay in JETS arguing, ironically, that the Shema doesn’t really mean what we’ve confessed it to mean. Never mind the NT use of the Shema or the historic Christian reading of it.

    What you say is generally true in the academy but for what it’s worth, we do work hard at WSC to talk with one another, precisely because we’re conscious of the modern academic tendency to become isolated. Our faculty meets for lunch every week during the semester and we talk about our work or a common topic. That gives us an opportunity to learn from each other and to apply each other’s work to our own departments. I’m particularly thankful to work with bib studies colleagues who value systematics, who believe that it’s indispensable for their own work and I’m thankful for systematic and dogmatic theologians who value and practice bib studies in their own work. Of course the historians are the only one’s who really know what’s going on, but I digress.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Furthermore, the issue is not whether systematic concerns sometimes illegitimately “foist” themselves onto exegesis. Everyone would admit that that has happened. The point is whether systematic theology has ANY say in exegesis at all. See Vern Poythress’s recent stellar article in the WTJ Spring 2008.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Thanks, Scott. Of course, I should mention that some seminaries do better at the unity of theology than others. Right now, WTS is terrible at it, while WSC does seem more unified. MARS does a great job, in my opinion, and I would be willing to wager that Greenville does fine with this, as well.

  8. July 3, 2008 at 10:06 am

    I agree with Lane that some bib studies folk just don’t understand whence ST or how it works. Most ST exists as a result, as Dorothy Sayers noted years ago, of some pastor or teacher trying to answer a question. Most of our theologians have been pastors. I’ve read some of Turretin’s sermons. They were textual, biblical-theological, and they were pastoral. Hodge and Berkhof were bib studies profs before they taught systematics. Warfield and Murray and Vos (who taught ST) argued for a integral, organic relations between ST and BT. There’s no need to set the disciplines against each other. There’s also a need for the bib studies fellow to admit that he’s reading his bible in a time and place, i.e. in a theological tradition. So that he can’t hide behind the curtain and pretend to be an exegetical wizard without any humanity.

  9. ReformedSinner(DC) said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Unity in theology. Funny I realized theology is a coherent whole at WTS when I thought it’s fragmented like Enlightenment. The first course that steer me to that direction is Hermeneutics. When Poythress reminded us that it’s a circle: exegesis-hermeneutics-theology. Nobody can claim any neutrality. That’s when I first realized all of theological disciplines have a relationship.

    Then I read Vos and his “organic nature of Scripture” which further imprinted a since of unity in all of discipline in my mind. Finally I read CVT vis-a-vis Murray and realized at the end both of them as saying the same things fundamentally, but obviously with different emphasis and expressions.

    Alas, Gaffin’s classes shown me the ideal of how BT-ST can inform and enrich one another.

    Does WTS have any areas of improvement? For one I had to figured this out all by myself. I do not claim to be smarter, but just more indebted to God’s grace. Like Greenbaggins asked: can we do better? Because I am shocked that most of my friends and the current students that I shepherd seems to think that I AM WRONG and WTS teaches competing methodologies. Or to put it this way: they get the impression there are different distinct ways to truth: the ST way (categorical), the BT way (exegesis), the HT way (historical reflection), the AP way (philosophical arguments with Christian basis) and the, get this, Counseling way (I never understood this part.) One simply has to pick a route that best suits them.

    It saddens me when I gather them together for friendly theological reflections most of the time it ends up as ST vs. BT arguments, which is better, which is more “Biblical”, etc.

    There’s got to be a better way.

  10. ReformedSinner(DC) said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Maybe one way to help steer it in the right direction is that Vos and his concept of “BT” needs to be taught not in passing, but as a full course. A course named “BT” that foundations in Vos’ work. A true BT that bridges the gap between exegesis and ST.

    I never understood for all the appreciation on Vos at WTS but all of his work are being learn in fragments here and there. There’s one course that actually taught Vos for the first 5 weeks when I took it, but the professor actually critique him at the end and claim that some of his main points are wrong! I heard that course no longer teaches Vos now because students complaint it deviates from the implied course content of the name of the course.

  11. greenbaggins said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:27 am

    By the way, this post is intended as a seed thought for an article I intend to write to submit to the WTJ.

  12. David said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for this post.

  13. July 3, 2008 at 10:42 am

    […] Unity of Theology I intend for this post to be a seed for a future journal article. What do ya’ll think? __________________ Rev. Lane […]

  14. July 3, 2008 at 10:59 am


    Humorously you did not speak to my actual points. I did not claim that such basic categories (in name) do not come from the Bible. Rather, I asked if the questions, issues, and ways of viewing reality associated with how we approach those categories in much of historical theology are properly Biblical.

    Again, for example, our doctrines of God and Christ. I did not claim the “category” of God does not come from Scripture and/or Deut 6.4. Rather, I suggested that the neo-Platonic questions and more Greek-philosophical version of ontic questions and concerns are foreign to the horizon of Deut 6.4. While Deut 6.4 certainly has something to say about God, I suggest it is not speaking in the categories and questions (again, more Greek-philosophical versions of ontic questions and neo-Platonic ontic/metaphysical concerns) of the horizons of the 4th and 5th century versions of Christianity that hammered out our doctrines of God.

    Would you care to address the points I actually make? If your article misreads others as badly as you have misread me here, I hope the WTJ will not accept it. If it does, then that will be a tribute to the type of (pseudo) scholarship-for-the-church WTS is coming to represent.

  15. greenbaggins said,

    July 3, 2008 at 11:04 am

    I would suggest that the problem is in the ambiguity of your own post. You did not mention “basic categories” in your comment, but just said “categories.” In fact, you said “same categories and concerns.” The context of that quotation indicates that you were thinking about how the doctrine of God is described. So, even if we could exclude the basic category from Greek philosophy (which you didn’t do), the sub-categories of the doctrine of God (such as his attributes, say) are certainly not excluded from your category of foreign-philosophy-derived. I would dispute that claim as well. Exodus 3 establishes a firmly ontological doctrine of God, connecting being with eternity in the being of God, so that argument is also debunked. I read you a good bit more carefully than you thought I did.

  16. July 3, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Dr. Clark:
    On your post #8 above, you wrote “Murray and Vos (who taught ST) argued for a integral, organic relations between ST and BT.”

    Illustrating how that cross-discipline approach worked out in practical application, Dr. Gerard Von Groningen tells how Murray once gave him a “B” on what was an otherwise sterling paper, because he “did not write with Calvin’s pastoral heart.”

  17. ReformedSinner(DC) said,

    July 3, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Perhaps we should take Gaffin’s challenge seriously. Can ST and BT be so organic to a point that ST categories be “re-done” that better reflect the organic relationship with BT? We know the current ST category that we inherited are mainly a result of Reformation, and specifically categories are based on Melanthon’s work on the Book of Romans. Calvin followed Melanthon in this regard in his own categories of theology. Bavinck also pointed this out in his Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1, and Trueman reiterated this point in his Reformation class.

    Maybe it’s not even possible as Poythress pointed out in his recent article that Gaffin set out a charge, but himself has not provided an answer on how to carry out that charge. Maybe this is an area that requires some brain-storming.

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