I’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.
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!
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.
Related: Some favorite systematics:
- Systematic Theology by Grudem. See also condensed Bible Doctrine by Grudem.
- Institutes by Turretin
- Institutes by Calvin (an index to his commentaries)
- A New Systematic Theology by Reymond
- Great Doctrines of the Bible by Lloyd-Jones
- Vol. 2, Collected Writings of John Murray
- Reformed Confessions by Beeke and Ferguson
- Salvation Belongs to the Lord by Frame (nice intro)
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.