From Interpretation to Systematization: Some Basic Thoughts on Building a Systematic Theology (2)

This follows on directly from the previous post.


The Demonstrative and Apologetic[1] Task

Every theologian must strive for absolute truth as much as he possibly can.  This is not mainly because from his position of finitude, ignorance and contingency he cannot speak without it, but because he is a Theo-logian and speaks about an infinite God.  Theological truth is the aim of meaningful theology.  Without it, doing theology is an exercise in wishful thinking.  Moreover, as theology deals with what God has revealed, it transgresses if it becomes so obtuse as to be illegible to those to whom it speaks.  Therefore, theology must, as far as possible, be presented in clear terms.  As Erickson says, “The aim, then, is not to make the message acceptable, but to make sure, as far as possible, that the message is at least understood.”[2]

Although there are certain theological terms which must be learned by any student of theology, it should not be forgotten that God has given His truth to be communicated.[3] In modern parlance, this involves what is usually referred to as the problem of “Contextualization.”

Basically, this attitude looks at, “the manner in which the expression of the biblical message is shaped in and by the native conceptuality of a given culture.”[4] There can be no doubt that this is continually needed, as we are all impacted by our respective cultures, and we in turn influence those cultures.[5] A difficulty arises, though, when the demands of a culture threaten to overrun, or even just interfere with what the text of Scripture is saying.  That this has been (and continues to be) a very evident danger  can be easily proved by a sample reading of a cross-section of Missions books from the last twenty-five years.  As an example of this, one only has to read such works as Charles Kraft’s popular textbook, Christianity in Culture.[6] In that book the author makes the claim that “supracultural truth exists (with God) above and beyond any cultural perception or expressions of it.”[7] Kraft’s whole outlook has been altered by his study of anthropology adrift from biblical mores.  Such excesses in contextualizing the Bible must be strenuously resisted by evangelicals.[8]

A more biblical approach to culture is reflected better in this comment from David K. Clark:

I hold that the church in different cultures can enrich our theological work in the West.  But let me emphasize: the Bible itself (as best we can understand it) must finally judge any insight that arises from any cultural frame of reference.  We must allow our best grasp of Scripture to function as a kind of trump card as we sort out our reflections.  Evangelical dialogical theology gives priority to Scripture due to its authority.[9]

Contextualization, then, with all the suspicion that it inevitably brings with it, is a necessary corollary to the era of global communication in which we live.  We must be culture-sensitive, so far as our theology will tolerate.  But we must be on the alert for apparently even small deviations from the God-intended purpose of revealed truth which theology is supposed to manage.  One recent writer in this area declares:

Contextual theology is never a finished product.  We may attain clear theological understandings for a particular time and place as a result of critically reflecting on the gospel.  But cultures and societies change.  New questions arise.  We must remain open to the need to reevaluate and reformulate our theology in light of fresh insights into Scripture and altered external circumstances.  Like the book of Acts, contextualizing the gospel is an open-ended story.[10] (Emphasis added).

Notice that the author conflates Scripture and culture and, as always happens when this is done, Scripture’s authoritative voice is decreased and attention is turned to “external circumstances” which, being “altered” may demand new theological formulations.  Such an approach will never take theology seriously as an attempt to faithfully convey the “external” Word to the world.   The “Word from outside,” which is what biblical revelation is, becomes “immanentized” by such associations.

As far as the apologetic side of truth-communication is concerned, when it is presented, systematic theology ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.  It should be capable of explaining itself, and of defending its proposals.  Observes Smith: “It is here…that the locus called apologetics fits in with Systematic Theology.”[11] Unlike some of the evidentialist/classical schools, we believe that apologetics is an ardently theological discipline.  It must play by theology’s rules.  We also demur from the opinion of Abraham Kuyper, who held that there was an absolute antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought, and that, therefore, apologetics was left with no purposive charter.[12] By contrast, the pioneering work of Van Til  made “presuppositional” or better, “transcendental” apologetics a major force for good in the proclamation of sound theology.[13] This not only includes defensive strategies, but also offensive (“front-foot”) strategies.[14]

The Critical Task

As the student of theology comes to the field preceded by a host of luminaries from the past, he should humbly seek to learn all he can from these “elders and betters.”  Yet his allegiance is not finally to them, but to the text of Scripture.  The Scriptures alone are God-breathed and superintended, not the classic works of men.  “Unless the inspired words of the Bible convey transcendent revelation – and they do – the words of post-biblical writers soon assume the authority and normativity of gospel truth.”[15] Every Christian must submit all he discovers to the bar of Holy Writ, developing, improving, and sometimes even rejecting certain formulations as he is persuaded by his investigation of the text.  Still, those investigations must never be isolated from the voices of the past.  There must be an ongoing conversation between the theologian and other thinkers.  He may, for example, see the need to cover a subject more fully than had been done before.  He may see the need to correct what might appear to him to be dubious formulations etc.[16] But in the midst of it all he must own himself a fallible man, and thus, a man who can always be corrected, either by a theologian of the past; whether it be Augustine, or Calvin, or Bavinck, or Warfield, or by his contemporaries.

When it comes down to it, the theologian is just one interpreter of God’s revelation in the world.  But he is in a privileged and so a responsible position, for he deals more directly with the whole body of God’s truth than does anybody else.  Van Til put it accurately when he said, “The difference between theology and other science does not lie in the fact that God is any less necessary for the one than for the other, but that the difference lies only in the degree of directness with which God is brought into the knowledge situation.”[17]

All theologians who would be accurate purveyors of God’s Self-revelation must be dedicated to that revelation, and still more to the Revealer Himself.  To quote one fine theologian of the Dutch Reformed school: “Understanding is really a matter of the heart; it affects the whole person, intellect, will, and emotions.  Heart-understanding concerns life and faith: believing God and doing what He requires.”[18]


[1] We have inserted the term “Apologetic” here where Smith refers to the “Defensive” task. – Morton H. Smith, Systematic Theology, 1.23.

[2] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 75.

[3] We take note here that in line with what we are saying about the universal province of theology, there is a theology of language which must be kept in mind.

[4] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, 101 n.19.

[5] Cf. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 3.

[6] Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, NJ: Orbis Books, 1979).

[7] Ibid, 129.

[8] See, e.g., Carl F. H. Henry, “The Cultural Relativizing of Revelation,” reprinted in Douglas Moo, ed., Biblical Authority and Conservative Perspectives, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997).

[9] David K. Clark, To Know and Love God, 119. We should say that we do not always agree with Clark’s assessment of how evangelical contextualization should be done.

[10] Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 322.  We do not endorse this book.

[11] Smith, Ibid, 23.

[12] Kuyper says this in a few places.  See, for example, his negative comments on apologetics in his Principles of Sacred Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 160.

[13] Along with Van Til’s own works, we highly recommend Greg L. Bahnsen’s magisterial, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1998).

[14] This is nowhere better exemplified than in the apologetic work of the late Greg Bahnsen.

[15] Carl F. H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, 4.275.

[16] Smith, 1.24.

[17] Van Til, 14.

[18] Fred H. Klooster, “How Reformed Theologians ‘Do Theology’ in Today’s World,” in Woodbridge and McComiskey, Doing Theology in Today’s World, 247.

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2 comments

  1. Contextualization of Scripture to a target culture may have some place in theology, but more important is the contextualization of any and every culture to truth revealed in Scripture. Scripture’s historical record asserts that every people group is descended from Noah and one of his three sons who experienced the global Flood and brought with them into the new world a knowledge of God and a remembrance of primeval history (albeit one that has been progressively corrupted with time). Isn’t this the context in which we do Systematic Theology relative to particular settings and cultures?

    As for the theological works of previous men… There is a dangerous trend in our liberal (and even some more conservative) seminaries away from the text of the Word of God as the source of authority. Rather than, “Thus saith the LORD”, the theological enterprise has become “Dr. So-and-so viewed this as…” This happened 2,500 years ago in Judaism, and its been happening in American jurisprudence for the past 150 years (where the text of the constitution is no longer the authoritative standard, but rather an immense amount of case law, analogous to Biblical commentaries/theologies, which preserve the opinions of what men have thought about the constitution). I’m certainly not against the sanctified study of what men gifted by God have taught down through the centuries, but if we spend more time studying the writings of men than we do the text of Scripture, we know where that slippery slope will eventually deposit us.

  2. Dear P-F,

    I like the thinking in the first paragraph and I agree that Systematic Theology ought to provide its own paradigms for contextualization based upon the respective divergences from its central tenets within each culture. This, of course, supposes there is a normative understanding of those tenets (which I think there can be).

    Your second point is also well taken, although the slippage you speak of came about by following men who diverged from Scripture (e.g. the Jews’ belief that they were justified through their covenant relation with God).

    But you are right to say that there is far too much deference to scholarly opinion within the evangelical church today.

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