Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pulling down strong holds: Systematic theology

(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) – II Corinthians 10:4

One strong hold that must constantly be pulled down is doctrinal error. Sadly, sometimes our own doctrinal error becomes our own strong hold! A strong hold is a fortress or strong fortification. (Un)Spiritual strong holds are strong fortifications which oppose and exalt themselves against the truth of the cause of Christ. A strong hold that is both a creeping error and insidious enemy is “theological systems”. What appears to be our friend often becomes our foe.

Every time I warn against the errors of systematic theology I receive a strong push-back against that warning. Please hang to your hats until I have my say! Let me first define what I mean by “systematic theology” and then address the problem itself. Systematic theology as a discipline formulates or arranges a rational account of the parts of biblical teaching into an orderly whole. Systematic theology as study takes all the information about a subject and organizes it into a system. For example, the entire Bible's teaching about the church forms a system of doctrine or teaching called ecclesiology. The entire Bible's teaching about angels forms a system of doctrine or teaching called angelology. And so on. Now what could be wrong with that? Surely the Bible is not a contradictory mass of random texts, but a congruent whole of consistent thought.

First, notice that systematic theology is a work of man rather than a work of God. A cursory comparison of Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem or Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof quickly reveals they do not look anything like the Bible! The Bible is God revealing to man; systematic theology is man trying to understand what God wrote. So far, so good. The difficulty lies ahead. Often the Bible student falls for the error that systematic theology is some kind of body of revealed truth. Nay! God forbid! The Bible is the body of revealed truth. We begin to understand that the underlying problem is not systematic theology in and of itself, but man and his use of it.

Second, learn that systematic theology is not some body of truth but a task performed by the Bible student in developing an understanding of God’s revealed truth. It is a task that is never finished! This task is ongoing; our views must constantly be updated by the word of God. We do not know it all, so we are continually learning. Just when we think we have it all figured out, something in the Bible twists out of shape the nice neat organization we had formulated to keep all things in order. Let the Bible do the twisting. Don’t fight for your system; believe the Bible. May our walls of error fall down flat.

Third, know that the task is your task. The goal of Bible study is to find the intended meaning of the author and take it at face value -- not wrest it to fit our theological systems or some present-day standard. Upon professing faith, most of us were handed a theological system within which to work. First joined a Reformed Church? You start with Calvinism as your system. Saved and baptized at a Free Will Baptist Church? You begin with Arminian undergirding. These variants are kinds of “systems within systems”. Within the overall category of soteriology (systematic theology regarding salvation) one may fall in these major camps or in between or outside of them. Regardless of background, the new believer usually begins Bible study by trying to interpret within and fit everything into the theological system he or she inherited. But our beliefs must be our beliefs and not those handed to us. One of the greatest deficiencies of systematic theology is that one borrows and holds it rather than owns it.

Fourth, be warned that our systems are often our undoing in understanding or not understanding the Bible. We must learn to come to the Bible text for that text to speak to us, rather than conforming the text to fit our presuppositional system. Many “systems within systems” become our strong holds of defense of what we believe. Everything in the Bible must fit neatly in its place within the system. Something else cannot be true, because it does not fit the system. Well that sounds right, because the Bible does not contradict itself! Yes, we can rightly believe that the Bible does not contradict itself. That does not mean the Bible cannot contradict our system. Remember, God wrote the Bible. You developed your system (or had it handed to you). Only one is inspired and without error.

There are many strong holds, theological systems developed as logical systems for the depository of truth. Calvinism, Arminianism, Dispensationalism, Amillennialism, Landmarkism, Universalism. One of the most brazen systems I have ever seen is that of "Conditional Time Salvation". It is a subset of Calvinism under the broader system of soteriology. It posits two salvations, one eternal and one in time. Eternal salvation is unconditional and without reference to man, carried out by God unknowingly. Time Salvation is conditional and entered in to by man of his own will, and includes all passages of scripture associating repentance and belief with salvation. Under this system, all sorts of Christ-rejecting unbelievers can unknowingly have eternal salvation and enjoy the felicity of glory in heaven. To the “true believer” (in it), it becomes almost unassailable in its strength against all texts of scripture to the contrary. We proudly lean back and puff out our chests. We could believe no such thing. But this is just one example. The "two wine theory" is another such system. Start with belief that there are two wines and good is always grape juice and bad is always fermented -- and you'll always see that everywhere you look. Start with the Bible and you just might be surprised. One’s own system never looks as unscriptural as the systems of others, but it just may be.

Finally, know that we don't know everything and don't have to know everything. If we don't know what a particular book or text or  verse or word means, there is no ultimatum to make it mean something that fits neatly into our system. It is OK to say, "I don't know what this means, or how it fits in with the rest of what I believe." Just leave it alone until you receive more light. We're not trying to win a debate, but trying to understand and believe the Word of God! One may like for everything to come in nice neat packages, but God is His wisdom and sovereignty did not package the Bible that way. Perhaps there is a reason.


RCope said...

Bro., I appreciate your post. When we adopt a "system" we tend to read and study the Bible through the prism of that particular system. I agree that the problem is not with systematic theology per se, but with the individual. Keep up the good work. Yours, Roger Copeland

R. L. Vaughn said...

Amen, Brother Copeland. I think the expression "getting the cart before the horse" describes how we sometimes get systematic theology and the Bible.