The Value of Systematic Theology to Pastors

Pastors are busy. I know; I was one. They hardly have time to prepare their sermons every week while at the same time visiting, counseling, planning, fixing, etc. Ask most pastors what good theology books they’ve read recently and you’ll be greeted by blank stares. Been there, done that. I often felt that I hardly had time to read my Bible most days, let alone anything else.

Yet, looking back now, I realize I was a bit short-sighted. Most of my agony over the text I was going to preach each week came from a lack of input from great minds of the past and present. I was trying to reinvent the wheel with every sermon. Sure, I was reading commentaries, but I wasn’t reading much theology that would provide the substance and nourishment of better preaching. By not reading theology, I was making my sermon prep more difficult.

I am not advocating the reading of just any theology to nourish spiritual life and preaching. There is no virtue in reading dull or poorly-written theologies. Rather, directed reading of good theologies will provide fodder for thought, clarify difficulties in the text, and sometimes even offer a pertinent illustration of the truth the preacher is trying to communicate.

Cornelius Van Til recognized the value of a pastor reading theology:

What is beneficial for the individual believer [studying systematic theology] is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But “Bible-trained” instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error…

If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the minister has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22-23.

Pastors who study theology do their congregation a great service. Generally their preaching has more substance, and their ideas are drawn from a larger pool of knowledge and exposure than one who does not read. Pastors who do not study theology tend to preach atheological sermons. They may be able to atomistically expound a text, but they will have difficulty connecting the text to the grand redemptive truths that give the texts weighty significance.

Van Til saw a definite connection between the study of systematic theology and the ability to preach the whole counsel of God. If a pastor is not well-versed in theology, he may shy away from Scriptures that his flock needs for growth in grace. Or worse, he may shy away from Scriptures his flock needs for spiritual and doctrinal protection. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

The Value of Systematic Theology for Defending the Faith

Many people believe that the basis and source of defending the faith is different than that of knowing the faith. That is, they believe that we do systematic theology by appealing to the Scriptures, and we defend our faith by appealing to reason or philosophy (since unbelievers don’t accept the Bible as the Word of God).

The distinctive of the presuppositional (or transcendental) approach to apologetics developed most extensively by Cornelius Van Til is its demand that Scripture be the starting point for all human knowledge, and that it be maintained as such in a believer’s defense of the faith against attacks by unbelievers.

The best apologetic defense will invariably be made by him who knows the system of truth of Scripture best. The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life-and-death struggle between two mutually opposed life-and-world views…He who has not been trained in systematic theology will often be at a loss as to how to meet these attacks. He may be quite proficient in warding off the attack as far as details are concerned, but he will forever have to be afraid of new attacks as long as he has never removed the foundation from the enemy’s position.

It should not be forgotten in this connection that the minister’s duty is increasingly that of an apologist for Christianity. The general level of education is higher than it has ever been…If the minister would be able to help his young people, he must be a good apologete, and he cannot be a good apologete unless he is a good systematic theologian.

In conclusion, we should observe that just as a thorough knowledge of the system of truth in the Scripture is the best defense against heresy, so it is also the best help for the propagation of the truth…

And then Van Til starts stepping on toes:

The church will have to return to its erstwhile emphasis upon its teaching function if it is to fulfill its God-given task of bringing the gospel to all men. Its present recourse to jerky evangelism as almost the only method of propaganda is itself an admission of paupery…Revivalists ought to make themselves unnecessary as quickly as possible.

On this last point, Van Til is contrasting the modern evangelical and fundamental church’s tendency to reduce its purpose simply to training for evangelism, and jerky evangelism at that. I believe what he meant by “jerky evangelism” is an approach to evangelism where the message is divorced entirely from the rest of Christian doctrine and is reduced to a “get saved” message, followed by a “here’s how to get people saved” view of the Christian life. He was pleading for a return to a comprehensive instruction in sound doctrine that would provide the foundation for both a deep and strong faith, and a solid foundation for a robust defense of the faith against attacks. As a result, he calls for the swift elimination of revivalists who preach a denuded gospel that is insufficient for apologetics.

Thank You for Telling Me About God. Now Leave Me Alone To Worship My Idols.

I was reading in Daniel this morning when I saw something I had never seen before (don’t you love how the Holy Spirit does that!), and I couldn’t read any further. After Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2), in which a rock (Christ) destroys the Babylonian empire and all empires that followed, an amazing thing happens. In the very next verse (3:1), Nebuchadnezzar crafts a golden idol of himself for all to worship. The very next verse! In other words, immediately after declaring to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery” (2:47), Nebuchadnezzar rushes out to fashion an idol of himself.

This becomes a pattern in Nebuchadnezzar’s life. After being warned of impending judgment by Daniel in chapter 4 for his pride and self-sufficiency, Nebuchadnezzar has the gall to look over Babylon and praise himself for what he had “built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty” (4:30).

How like Nebuchadnezzar I am! In the same day that I am overwhelmed by the greatness and worthiness of God, I can turn and pride myself in some achievement, glory in my own greatness, or bow before the idol of my desires. I am really no better then Nebuchadnezzar, because like him, I am human and depraved. Like him I can hear the truth, stand in awe of it, praise God for it, and walk away and seek my own glory.

This is nothing more than my proclivity for making myself and my desires idols to be worshipped. Thank you very much for the truth, God, now leave me alone so I can worship myself. More and more I see this tendency as the foundational problem in my struggle with sin. And discovering this has been the path to freedom, for if I can identify the root of my sin, I can kill the fruit by hacking at the root. The grace of God in forgiveness and empowerment means that I CAN see this idolatry dislodged from my heart.

Let’s keep hacking at the root idolatries in our lives until Jesus comes!

The Mystery of the Essence of God Contemplated

Reference to God’s incomprehensible essence also warns us against imagining what God is like, which would lead us inexorably down the road to idolatry. Recognizing God’s infinite and spiritual essence keeps us from thinking that God can be represented in imagery.

Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford, 2004), 20.

Here Paul Helm touches on Calvin’s view that the essence of God cannot be understood by the human mind. We can know about God all that he reveals about himself in his Word, but we can’t know more than that. As Helm notes later, the activities of God, which can be known, should not be confused with the essence of God, which cannot be known by the human mind. I often use the illustration (flawed, I know) that God is like Windows 7 and the human mind is like a calculator. A calculator simply does not have the capacity to run Windows 7. Likewise, we do not have the cognitive faculties to comprehend the essence of God, no matter how hard we try.

Calvin warned against philosophical speculation about the essence of God that goes beyond what Scripture has revealed:

Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. For, as Hilary says, he is the one fit witness to himself, and is not known except through himself. But we shall be “leaving it to him” if we conceive him to be as he reveals himself to us (Institutes 1.13.21).

What does this mean for us? We should worship God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, and not try to understand things for which we were never made (Deut. 29:29)!

Your Character Is Just As Important to Your Apologetics As Your Logic

Christians who develop an interest in apologetics often begin to believe that the most important things to learn are logic, rational arguments, and evidential proofs. They can become very focused on making sure their logic is airtight, while completely ignoring the importance of the moral quality of their life.  Historically, however, Christian apologists never separated rational arguments from their moral and ethical lives.

The 2nd century apologist, Athenagoras, challenged those who put too much stock in philosophy and logic, while ignoring their character. He noted that among the pagans were many who were skilled in logic, grammar and rhetoric, but whose character was unchanged by the truth they claimed to know.

For who of those that reduce syllogisms, and clear up ambiguities, and explain etymologies, or of those who teach homonyms and synonyms, and predicaments and axioms, and what is the subject and what is the predicate, and who promise their disciples by these and such instructions to make them happy; who of them have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them…to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives? On the contrary, they never cease with evil intent to search out skillfully the secrets of their art, and are ever bent on working some ill, making the art of words and not the exhibition of deeds their business and profession.

William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past & Present, vol.1 (Crossway: 2009), 77-78.

Athenagoras proceeded to contrast this way of apologetics with the Christian manner, which was a combination of sound argument and pious living:

But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras was highlighting a very important truth: apologetics is not all about rational argumentation. It is also about a Christ-like life that stands just as much in contrast to the lives of the heathen as a sound argument. He also encourages us that even if we don’t know the answer to every challenge brought against the Christian faith, the best response is not always an argument to begin with. Sometimes the best response is Christ-like love, forgiveness, compassion and good works. This should hearten every believer that doesn’t feel that he can always give an answer to those who question his faith. We can all live godly lives of character and good works. That will go a long way toward giving an apologetic that will add much power to our logical arguments.

The Self-Attesting Authority of Scripture

How do we argue for the authority of Scripture? If we resort to evidences and proofs for the reliability or authority of Scripture, we fall into the trap of placing reason in the seat of judgment over Scripture. So how do we establish the authority of the Bible?

John Calvin understood this more clearly than anyone before him. He knew that Scripture attests to itself in a way that no other religious authority did or could. Once Scripture’s authority was established by its own testimony about itself, then and only then, would evidences and proofs become useful, since now they became supporting testimony to Scripture’s supreme authority.

Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church, or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, these arguments—not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds—become very useful aids. (Institutes, 1.8.1)

The Bible is Authoritative on Everything of Which It Speaks

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work, but also of who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.

Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed. Edited by K. Scott Oliphint (P&R, 2008), 29.

Understanding the Differences Between the Expansion of Christianity and Islam

Nineteenth-century Christian missions exploded across the globe with the general expectation that the gospel would penetrate the whole world, and that the evangelism of the world would conceivably be completed within a century or so. That sense of optimism is not so prevalent today, probably in part because of the decline of Christianity in parts of the world that were at one time the fountainhead of Christian faith. A review of the past century reveals that regions in which Christianity had at one time taken root have not always remained Christian for long (think Europe). In contrast, Islam’s progress has tended to be more stable, rarely giving up territory once it has been claimed.

In his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (T&T Clark, 2002), Scottish historian Andrew Walls explains the difference between the expansions of the two major religions:

Islam can point to a steady geographical progression from its birthplace and from its earliest years. And over all these years it has hitherto not had many territorial losses to record. Whereas the Jerusalem of the apostles has fallen, the Mecca of the prophet remains inviolate. When it comes to sustaining congregations of the faithful, Christianity does not appear to possess the same resilience as Islam. It decays and withers in its very heartlands, in the areas where it appears to have had the profoundest cultural effects. Crossing cultural boundaries, it then takes root anew on the margins of those areas, and beyond. Islamic expansion is progressive; Christian expansion is serial (p. 13).

If Walls is correct, this raises some troubling questions. Why does Christianity wax and wane so consistently, while Islam rarely experiences the same fluctuations? Why do the faithful of Christianity possess what seems to be a more tenuous faith?

Walls asks and answers some of his own questions to provide some answers:

Do the resiliency of Islam and the vulnerability of Christianity reflect something of the inherent nature of the two faiths? Does the very freedom of response inherent in the Christian gospel leave it open to ultimate rejection? Is the Christian impact durable only when there is sustained, unceasing penetration of the host culture? Christianity has no culturally fixed element, as is provided by the Qur’an fixed in heaven, closed traditions on earth, perfection in law in shari’a, single shrine in Mecca, and true word every where in Arabic. If the acts of cultural translation by which the Christians of any community make their faith substantial within that community cease—if (if one may use such language) the Word ceases to be made flesh within that community—the Christian group within that community is likely to lose, not just its effectiveness, but its powers of resistance. Most cultures are in frequent change or encounter with others, so the process of translation is endless (p. 13).

In other words, Islam survives in a given culture because it remains unchanged and sees itself as embattled against cultural difference or change. As a result it can remain monolithic and isolated from the culture. In a world distressed by the culture-destroying power of technology, secularization, urbanization, and other such forces, the unchanging nature of Islam provides a rare sense of security and stability. There is no need to contextualize or adapt. Americans, who have grown up in a constantly changing culture, often forget that not everyone in the world embraces cultural change or the overturning of traditional practices to the same extent that they do.

On the positive side, Christianity has thrived in many parts of the world precisely because the gospel is a message to every tribe and tongue, and while the message must remain the same, the medium and the method are readily adaptable to other cultures.

Walls explains further:

This vulnerability [of Christianity] is also linked with the essentially vernacular nature of the Christian faith, which rests on a massive act of translation, the Word made flesh…Christian faith must go on being translated, must continuously enter into vernacular culture and interact with it, or it withers and fades. Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language, and in the conditions of a particular period of human history. The divine Word is the Qur’an, fixed in heaven forever in Arabic, the language of original revelation.

For Christians, however, the divine Word is translatable, infinitely translatable. The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have, a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ, God’s own self was translated into human form (p. 29).

A charitable reading of Walls reminds us that the success of Christianity throughout history in so many cultures has been the gospel’s ability to reach people in any culture while maintaining the positive aspects of common grace in that culture. The vernacular nature of the Christian faith presents a temptation and an opportunity. The temptation is to contextualize the message of the gospel, and thereby to lose it. For this, Christians are rightly criticized by Muslims. The diluted gospel of much of

Steel girder cross at Ground Zero

evangelicalism and fundamentalism under the guise of being relevant or old-fashioned, respectively, bears constant witness to this tragedy. The temptation, however, is not necessary, and Christianity can be adapted to various cultures successfully, without compromising the message. Walls concurs:

Christian faith is repeatedly coming into creative interaction with new cultures, with different systems of thought and different patterns of tradition; that (again in contrast to Islam, whose Arabic absolutes provide cultural norms applying throughout the Islamic world) its profoundest expressions are often local and vernacular. It also means that the demographic and geographical centre of gravity of Christianity is subject to periodic shifts. Christians have no abiding city, no permanent sacred sites, no earthly Mecca; their new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven at the last day (p. 30).

At least two implications arise from these distinctions between Christianity and Islam. First, all of us, not just missionaries, need to translate the faith into the local vernacular in which we find ourselves without compromising the gospel. Christianity is not Islam, and so is not culturally monolithic. Second, rather than seeing the expansion of Christianity as a necessarily universal progressive missionary certainty, perhaps we ought to realize that the spread of the faith will probably always be influenced by the currents of culture and the degree to which Christians in a particular location remain faithful. The survival of the gospel in a particular area is not assured apart from the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word. This is an especially poignant reality for the church in America where attention and commitment to sound doctrine has fallen precipitously, and simultaneously, Islam has expanded exponentially. If Islam is hardly ever dislodged once it is established in a region, the only hope for the spread of Christianity is the wholesale commitment of the church to the centrality of the gospel.

Why is the Trinity Important to Apologetics?

Why is the Trinity important to apologetics? Well, what happens when unitarianism (the view that God is merely one) is substituted for Trinitarianism? One result is that the God so defined tends to lose definition and the marks of personality. In the early centuries of the Christian era, the Gnostics, the Arians, and the Neoplatonists worshipped a non-Trinitarian God. That God was a pure oneness, with no plurality of any kind. But one what? A unity of what?…

Anti-Trinitarianism always has that effect. It leads to a “wholly other” God, rather than a God who is transcendent in the biblical sense. Paradoxically, at the same time, it leads to a God who is relative to the world, rather than the sovereign Lord of Scripture. It leads to a blank “One” rather than the absolute personality of the Bible. It makes the Creator-creature distinction a difference in degree rather than a difference of being.

John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R, 1994), 47-48.

True Christianity and Liberalism Are Two Different Religions

J. Gresham Machen states it as clearly as it can be said:

It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men (Christianity and Liberalism, new edition, Eerdmans, 2009, xv).