Monday, August 10, 2009

Systematic Theology or Theological System?

Should we, in fact must we, seek to organize the results of our Bible study into a form that provides answers for the culture in which we live? Yes!! We should and must systematize our biblical theology. But, should we assume or impose a theological system over our Bible study, which then makes verses read in a particular way that fits the system? No!! We must allow each passage in its context to speak for itself. This must always come first. I hope we can all see and appreciate the difference in these two approaches.

One way some superimpose systems onto our Bibles, on ourselves, and on others, is by turning otherwise helpful tools or observations into "isms". So adherence to biblical fundamentals gets expanded into "fundamentalism" (which historically I thought was a very good thing, but now it is a liable to have the label). Utilization of the observation of historical divine stewardships or dispensations throughout Scripture gets expanded into "dispensationalism" by both friends and foes. This becomes something some feel the need to attack and others feel the need to propagate. The observation that the Bible operates in a covenantal framework gets expanded into "covenantalism", or "covenant theology".

The same can happen with the contributions of individuals, which are then turned into systems or creedal groups. Such is evidenced when a group is named after a person. I appreciate a very significant amount of the work of John Calvin (much celebrated in this memorial year), but far from all (especially considering the implications of his eschatology on his failed Geneva experiment, and the imposition of theocracy even to the point of murder), so I could not be considered a "Calvinist" (even though my "Arminian" friends persist in calling me one anyway). I appreciate Martin Luther's work on justification by faith alone and his theology of the cross (catching up with some of our pre-Reformation primitive Church brethren who believed it all along and were never part of the Catholic system), but certainly disdain Luther's hatred of the Jews, so I could not be a "Lutheran". While I enjoy some of the influence of Menno Simons on the anabaptist development of the believers' church concept, I point out the error in his Christology as it relates to the humanity of Christ, so I could not be a "Mennonite". I am "soteriologically reformed", but not "reformed" in my ecclesiology nor my eschatology, so the "reformed" won't let me use the name "reformed" because I don't believe they "reformed" enough (whew!).

Or, a doctrine can be elevated to an entire system or denomination. I believe in baptism, but I cannot be a "Baptist", elevating that one doctrine into the central one. I believe in the rule of the local church by Elders, but I cannot make that the main identifier of the Church and become a "Presbyterian" or "Episcopalian". Emerging has become "emergent".

The truly sad part of all of this is that it is almost impossible anymore to have a genuinely biblical, spiritual conversation or even do some significant Bible teaching without a high number of people assuming that they already know where you are coming from, because they have already put you into a "system" in their minds.

Let's get back to "living in the world of the Bible" and bringing it to bear on our culture. Brethren, "we have the mind of Christ" (First Corinthians 2:16). Let's keep going back to the Word of God afresh and finding the answers we need to systematize in order to defend the Gospel in our day.