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.


  1. "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."

    Dr. Shearer,

    I share a concern about the proliferation of denominations all holding tenaciously to differing systems of theology. This ought not to be. We are to be like minded, we are to speak the same thing. Despite our apparent agreement in this, I must confess that I am confused at what you might be trying to say here. As I understand it, you are 1). Affirming the need to systematize the doctrines of Scripture into a coherent theology, yet at the same time you seem to be 2). Denying that
    our systematized theology should guide us how we interpret the Bible. I find this confusing on a few levels.

    First, the statement that "We should not assume or impose a theological system over our Bible study, which then makes verses read in a
    particular way that fits the system" is itself an imposed rule arrived at from systematic study which you would have guide us as we approach our Bible study, is it not? So, you are using a hermeneutic to aid you in interpreting Scripture. The question then is not whether or not to work within a certain hermeneutical framework when reading the Scripture, rather the question is which hermeneutic are we to use? Are we to disregard a "Reformed" hermeneutic (for example) in favor of your hermeneutic? Or perhaps you are suggesting that something like a "Reformed" hermenuetic (again, for example) does not allow a Scripture passage to speak for itself, while your hermeneutic does? If so, it might be helpful to provide an example of a particular creed which denies that the Scripture ought to be allowed to speak for itself.

    Second, I'm not sure I understand the purpose of systematizing the doctrines of Scripture if it is not to set up guidelines that hedge our
    interpretation of Scripture within the confines of "orthodoxy." For example, your very own "Statement of Faith" (historically these have
    been called creeds) says that the One True God exists eternally in Three Persons. Now, this doctrine being established systematically, being
    agreeable to and founded upon the Word of God, are we allowed to interpret ANY Scripture passage in a way that flatly denies that God
    exists eternally in Three Persons? Again, having established from Scripture the doctrine of the pre-existent deity of Christ, are we EVER
    allowed to interpret a passage of Scripture in a way that denies that Christ is truly God, pre-existing prior to his incarnation, even upon
    the insistence that we're just allowing each passage in its context to speak for itself? What use is your Statement of Faith if someone is allowed to come to your Church and believe, profess, or even teach doctrines that flatly deny that Statement of Faith?

  2. Third, is it not logically necessary, and therefore inevitable, that creeds be used not only hedge us within orthodox interpretations of
    Scripture, but also to distinguish one group from another? It's easy enough to say "Our church believes only the Bible!" But saying this
    distinguishes our church from exactly no church. If we put in a room a Roman Catholic, an Episcopalian, an Independent Baptist, a Mennonite, an Arian, a Socinian, an Arminian, an Antinomian, a Lutheran, a Scottish Presbyterian, a Dortian Calvinist, and a member of New Beginnings Grace Brethren, and if we ask them if they are willing to receive the Bible as
    the rule of faith and conduct, we will likely find that (despite possible caveats by the Roman Catholic), everyone in the room would equally affirm their belief in the Bible as their ultimate standard of faith and practice. But in doing so, we have not accomplished much
    towards unity of the faith, have we? What heretic has ever denied that they base their teaching on Scripture? Of necessity, inevitably, we must begin to interpret what it is the Scriptures are teaching -- we must systematize doctrine, and if we truly systematize, if we truly compare doctrine with doctrine, and come up with a coherent system that fits together and makes sense, that is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, then we MUST use it to distinguish ourselves from those who hold to contrary opinions. It is in this way that I can say not only "I am not a Mennonite" and "I am not a Lutheran" but also describe what I mean when I say "I am a Christian." This is necessary and inevitable, it
    has been done since the beginning of the Christian church, and you do it on your very own website. Consider also,

    Fourth, the idea of a pre-tribulational rapture as advocated in your Statement of Faith appears to me to be an amazing example of what you are in this blog post attempting to repudiate. Without a system of doctrine dictating our reading of Scripture, we would never find
    Scripture texts such as 1 Thess. 1:10 and Rev. 3:10 to hold forth a doctrine of a pre-tribulational rapture of the church. Indeed, if we "allow each passage in its context to speak for itself" we would not find a pre-tribulational rapture of the church anywhere in the entire Bible, much less would we find anything of the kind of detail contained
    in the elaborate charts seen at prophecy conferences, or the fiction books and Hollywood movies depicting this strange and novel doctrine. Such a thing is (and historically was) only "found in Scripture" when a
    system of theology was already developed to establish "the context" of the Scriptures for us. Is it any wonder that no one in the history of the church ever advocated a pre-tribulational rapture of the church as it is taught today, until the rise of the dispensational system of theology in the late 19th century?

    Therefore, when you say "I hope we can all see and appreciate the difference in these two approaches," I must answer that though certainly
    I see and appreciate the importance of founding our creed upon Scripture(and not the other way around), yet I find a position that suggests that we are to systematize our doctrine, but not then operate within that system, to be confusing and ultimately untenable, and I hope this is not what you are advocating.

    Lebanon, PA.

  3. Thanks Jerry,

    You seem to have gotten a lot more out of my article than I put into it. This certainly shows that you are thinking, and I appreciate that.

    To put your fears to rest, I was talking more about starting points and communication than things like church discipline or standards within the church.

    Yes, a hermeneutic should emerge from the text itself and then the results of its utilization will inform future interpretation. So, I agree with you there.

    Historically, our Grace Brethren movement is anti-creedal. We do not view our Statement of Faith as a creed. Of course, you may still say we do anyway. I understand that to deny the authority of creeds is a bit of an impossibility, because as soon as one says, "I have no creed but the Bible", someone else can say that is a creed in itself. The real point is that we believe and behave in non-creedal but thoroughly biblical ways. We do not recite creeds, including our Statement of Faith, nor do we give them authority.

    Now, I must disagree with you concerning your comments on the "Pre-tribulational Rapture" (your words). While "Darbyism" did not exist until the late 19th century (what you call "the dispensational system of theology"), church history shows many comments regarding what I call the "pre-70th Week of Daniel-rapture" or a "two-stage-Second coming" far before Darby (looks like this may have to be a future article). It is simply not true to continue the false rumor that there was no "pre-trib" view before the late 19th century. Your criticism has in fact proven the point of my article. You merely assumed that I had to be a product of the "dispensational system". If you would check, you would find that I and many other Grace Brethren have issued warnings concerning some of the assumptions of the novels and movies you have referred to. It would seem that you want to keep people like me inside of the "dispensationalism" box so that you can participate in the currently popular "dispy-bashing" going on. This is exactly one of the reasons I wrote the article.

    I would have to take issue with your comments on First Thessalonians 1:10 and Revelation 3:10 as well. While I would actually prefer that some additional verses be cited in the Grace Brethren Statement of Faith on this point, these are not misused (maybe that is another article!).

  4. could this possibly be an issue of generations as well?

    labels can help us in a conversation as a form of "shorthand," but i'm finding increasingly less and less expectancy to hold to all of the particulars of a specific label.

    do you see this as being the case? that people are allowing for more and more "exceptions" within a label?

  5. Dr. Shearer,

    Thank you for your gracious and thoughtful reply. Please know that I did not assume that you were a product of the dispensational system, but rather that the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture of the church is a product of such a system. I would very much like to see an attempt to show that a pre-tribulational rapture is reached simply by letting a passage speak for itself, rather than establishing a theological framework first, and then interpreting those verses from within that framework. I have my doubts that it can be done.

    Touching upon my original point: We agree about the starting point -- the Word of God. There is no other Ultimate Standard. However, historically, practically, and actually, we should, must, and do systematize the truths of Scripture into coherent doctrines (such as the doctrine of the Trinity). These doctrines having been established, being founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, have inherent authority within the church that professes them -- it is unavoidable if you wish to remain a church. Will you serve the Lord's Supper to someone who denies the Trinity? Will you baptize someone who does not profess Trinitarian doctrine? I would hope not. The doctrine of the Trinity is authoritative because it is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, and faithfully holds forth the teachings of Scripture, and not because Athanasius or the Council of Nicea taught it, nor because Grace Brethren Church teaches it. However, the authority of systematized doctrine ought not to be denied altogether -- It ought rather to be rightly established.

    Lebanon, PA.

  6. Danny - I think you're probably right. I haven't figured out yet whether that is good thing or a bad thing. It could represent the loss of all theology.

    Jerry - agreed!