Systematic theology and future heresy

tss-baseball.jpgI’ve often wondered how the Church can prepare Herself to combat future heresies, those inevitable errors we cannot fully anticipate. Do we wait for the errors to rear their ugly heads and then send in the experts? Or is there a broader, more preventive solution?

According to Wayne Grudem, the study of systematic theology is one way to prepare the Church for future errors. In the introduction to Systematic Theology (Zondervan: 1994) he writes:

“Whatever the new doctrinal controversies are in future years, those who have learned systematic theology well will be much better able to answer the new questions that arise. The reason for this is that everything that the Bible says is somehow related to everything else the Bible says (for it all fits together in a consistent way, at least within God’s own understanding of reality, and in the nature of God and creation as they really are). Thus the new question will be related to much that has already been learned from Scripture. The more thoroughly that earlier material has been learned, the better able we will be able to deal with those new questions” (28).

How true this is.

Pagitt interview

So after listening to this interview with Doug Pagitt, a noted Emergent Church figure, I took note of these principles in action. And we’ll listen to it in a moment. But first let me say this interview is far from ideal and some parts make me cringe for both sides. Yet, at the same time, I think the interview is valuable and instructive.

It’s worth repeating Grudem. A systematic theology, originating from careful biblical exegesis, protects the Church by wrapping its arms around large biblical themes and showing where one particular doctrine impacts other doctrines. The unity of revelation is self-sustained, and the authenticity of a single doctrine is based upon its consistency with the whole. Frequently, error will contradict the biblical conclusions of systematic theology at several points and so error must first shirk an overall unity of systematic theology.

Note Pagitt’s universalism must (at its root) deny a real place called “hell” and a real place called “heaven.” Scripture’s obvious dualism does not fit into his universalism.

But further, note Pagitt’s irritability at stringing together the biblical teachings on one particular topic. The irritability is directed, not on the exegetical authenticity of the string, but simply on the act of stringing. This is a response against systematic theology.

A heavenly place

Pagitt clearly disagrees with the “dualistic-Platonic understanding of the cosmos” and denies heaven as a real place. But pick up any number of systematic works and you will read that Jesus went to, and will return from, a place called heaven (Acts 1:11). And you will be pointed to Jesus’ words of comfort to His disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3).

What ‘place’ is being prepared for Christians if heaven is not a literal place?

Further, a good systematic theology will illuminate this in the Old Testament. When Elijah and Enoch were taken into heaven, their soul and body left the earth (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11). Where did they go, if not to another physical place? And why the importance of a resurrected body if heaven is not a physical place? The afterlife as a physical place is found across Scripture and is well defined in orthodox systematic theology.

My point today is not to highlight one error, but to illustrate a broader theme. Christians with a well-grounded systematic theology will have the tools to see past the argument that heaven — as a physical place — is merely a human philosophical invention. A degree in ancient philosophy is unnecessary because a Christian who has a mature systematic theology does not first ask, “What is dualistic-Platonism?” But rather, “What does Scripture say on this issue?” And on multiple levels, Scripture is very clear that heaven is a place.

And what if Plato agrees with Scripture? Well then, praise God!

Conclusion

Bottom line: Systematic theology properly done (i.e. based upon accurate biblical exegesis) creates a reinforced fiberglass-like mesh of biblical truth that overlaps itself into one cohesive worldview to answer the most pressing questions of our day and to prepare the church to answer emerging errors.

It’s here, behind the fortress of a biblically faithful systematic theology, where the Church finds safety and discernment. And it’s also behind this fortress that the Church will worship God in truth, looking forward to streets of gold, the tree of life, the Throne of God, the precious Lamb, and the saints and angels worshiping forever — a physical place built around God’s glory, giving us hope and joy today and the anticipation of pleasures forever.

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Related: Some favorite systematics:

  1. Systematic Theology by Grudem. See also condensed Bible Doctrine by Grudem.
  2. Institutes by Turretin
  3. Institutes by Calvin (an index to his commentaries)
  4. A New Systematic Theology by Reymond
  5. Great Doctrines of the Bible by Lloyd-Jones
  6. Vol. 2, Collected Writings of John Murray
  7. Reformed Confessions by Beeke and Ferguson
  8. Salvation Belongs to the Lord by Frame (nice intro)

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Related: For those of you interested, here are Spurgeon’s thoughts …

“We are too apt to entertain cloudy ideas of the ultimate inheritance of those who attain unto the resurrection of the dead. ‘Heaven is a state,’ says somebody. Yes, certainly it is a state; but it is a place too, and in the future it will be more distinctly a place. … Our ultimate abode will be a state of blessedness, but it must also be a place suited for our risen bodies. It is not, therefore, a cloudland, an airy something, impalpable and dreamy. Oh, no, it will be as really a place as this earth is a place. Our glorious Lord has gone for the ultimate purpose of preparing a suitable place for his people. There will be a place for their spirits, if spirits want place; but he has gone to prepare a place for them as body, soul, and spirit.”

– C.H. Spurgeon, sermon on 9/23/1883 (no. 1741), 29:672-673.

Announcement: A Theology for the Church

Book announcement
A Theology for the Church edited by Daniel L. Aiken

Those who enjoy systematic theology will want to note the fruit of our Southern Baptists friends in their newly-released A Theology for the Church (B&H Academic). The one-volume systematic is written by a host of contributors including Russell D. Moore on natural revelation, Daniel L. Aiken on the person of Christ, Paige Patterson on the work of Christ, Mark Dever on the nature of the church and a concluding essay by Albert Mohler on “The Pastor as Theologian.”

[Side note: Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, will always remain dear to my family. On a Sunday morning in September, 1999 God was gracious to save both my wife and I at the same time through Dr. Patterson’s sermon on Luke 18:9-14 in Lincoln, NE. He is a fitting writer to describe the work of Christ on the Cross.]

A Theology for the Church is just that, written to be useful for laypersons and for preachers in sermon preparations. The book’s content is developed around four questions:

(1) What does the bible say?

(2) How has the church developed this theology historically?

(3) How does the systematic category fit in the broader canon of Scripture?

(4) What is the significance of the doctrine for the church today?

Increasingly over the past few years systematic theologies have displayed a greater awareness to historical theology and especially the work of the early church. Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical by Robert Duncan Culver (Mentor: 2005) was a good example.

A Theology of the Church was wisely developed around historical theology and makes good use of Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, Irenaeus, John of Damascus, Origen and Plato into the theological discussions. To me, the most impressive use of this historical approach was the chapter on eschatology by Russell D. Moore (see pages 873-892). Moore traces out the eschatological convictions of the Patristic authors (Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, Origen and Augustine), then moves into the eschatology of the Medieval writers, then on to Reformed and Post-Reformed writers and finishes in the contemporary theological positions where he explains Protestant Liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, Revisionist Theologies, the range of views in current Evangelicalism, the significance of Progressive Dispensationalism and concludes with the historically important movements particular to Baptist eschatology.

Overall, A Theology for the Church is a very nice work. Baptists and non-Baptists will find it pastorally sensitive and very useful.

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Title: A Theology for the Church
Editor: Daniel L. Aiken
Authors: Gregory Alan Thornbury, Russell D. Moore, David S. Dockery, David P. Nelson, Timothy George, Peter R. Schemm, Jr., John S. Hammett, R. Stanton Norman, Daniel L. Aiken, Paige Patterson, Malcom B. Yarnell III, Kenneth Keathley, Mark E. Dever, R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderate but not difficult
Boards: hardcover
Pages: 1,000
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Broadman & Holman Academic
Year: 2007
Price USD: $49.99 from B&H; $36.99 from CBD
ISBNs: 080542640X, 9780805426403

Book review: Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical by Robert Duncan Culver

Book review:

Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical by Robert Duncan Culver

One bookshelf groans and creaks under the weight of my treasured systematic theologies. And so I thought the shelf would completely crack apart when I added the newest (and biggest) addition to my family of contemporary systematic theologies.

Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical
by Dr. Robert Duncan Culver was published in 2005 by Mentor (Christian Focus) as one massive book easily surpassing the size and weight of Erickson’s Christian Theology. But it’s impressive for more than its weight.

Culver’s volume adds two dimensions that I have come to love. I’m grateful for Robert Reymond’s ability to clearly set forth a clear Reformed theology systematically based upon an explicitly biblical foundation. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith is one of the first volumes I reach for when I need specific biblical discussion. But I’ve also grown to love the historical theology of Alister McGrath. McGrath’s Historical Theology is a fabulous look at the historical development of the various components of theology over the centuries. Culver brings both the explicitly biblical framework of Reymond and the historical-mindedness of McGrath together in one massive volume!

But because of its readability and because I most agree with his understanding of the charismatic elements of Christianity, I still prefer Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. It’s very good although it’s one of the oldest of my contemporary systematics (and in need of an overall revision and update). But for my money, Culver sits behind Grudem in the No. 2 position.

A note to expositors is necessary. I am a preacher not a systematician, so systematic theologies are more fun to collect than commentaries (which I must collect). But there is one excellent expositional advantage to a small library of systematic works. When preaching through, say Acts 6, you can see where the doctrine of the passage fits within the larger context. If I browse the Scriptural index in the back of Culver I come to see that Acts 6 is an important chapter because verses 1-5 define some rare but clear proofs that the early church held some form of ‘church membership.’ I may have breezed right past this in my commentaries and expositional studies.

Expositors are good at narrowing their laser-beam attention on 4-8 verses of God’s Word and the systematicians are good at shining a wide-angle beam of light on all Scriptural doctrine. It’s very helpful for preachers like myself to understand where my sermon text fits into the larger systematic structure.

Building a small family of systematic theologies is important (and a fun hobby). So get Grudem and Culver. If you have a strong enough bookshelf (and budget) consider McGrath, Reymond and then Erickson.

Photos (c) 2007, Tony S. Reinke

ISBN: 1845500490