We love our systematic theology and our interpretational guidelines.
- Calvinist (or non-Calvinist).
- Deeper life.
- Baptist Identity
- Gospel-centered or Christ-centered.
There is a lot to be gained from theological systems. They help us unify and organize our thoughts and see consistent themes in the study of Scripture. They help us link Genesis to Leviticus to Matthew to Romans to Revelation. It is great to have an organizing hermeneutical principle when we are studying scripture.
But these controlling hermeneutical principles have some inherent dangers. I would mention some of them here.
1) The Bible is NOT a systematic theology.
If God wanted us to approach theology with radically organized theological systems, then he ought to have given us a Bible that is more systematic. It just isn’t.
Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier if Paul had given us a detailed order of end-times events? I am convinced, after many hours of study, of the eschatological system I profess. But I am amused when anyone speaks of eschatology and says, “The Bible clearly says.” Sorting out the end times is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when all the pieces do not seem to fit together. You do the best you can under the power of the Spirit to put all the pieces together and you humbly accept that others may put them together a little differently.
The Bible is a messy book. For every doctrine we hold dear there are always five verses that don’t seem to fit our system. I am not saying the Bible doesn’t lead us to truth, but it is not nearly as systematic and organized as our PowerPoint presentations which explain it. The Bible grew over 1500 to 2000 years in different places through different authors. It is inerrant and perfect, but it is anything but systematic.
Theological systems are imperfect human attempts to categorize scripture. They are helpful. Some are closer to the biblical truth than others. But none of them is perfect and it becomes dangerous when we begin to treat our theological systems as if they
2) We can do exegetical violence to individual passages to make them fit our systems.
In seminary, I began a lifelong study of the book of Proverbs, especially the first nine chapters. It is a book, now, in the final stages of editing. I preached it recently as a Sunday morning series at my church.
I am a fan (to a certain point) of the so-called Christ-centered or gospel-centered hermeneutical system. One of the truisms in that system is that we must avoid “moralism” – the idea that the Bible is a series of moral teachings. We need to preach dependence on Christ, not legalistic self-righteousness. Amen!
But there is a problem with that. Proverbs is pretty much a conglomeration of moral teachings. The key principle is “you reap what you sow.” I can summarize the book in one short sentence. “Life is choices and choices have consequences.” It is all about the moral choices you make which determine what kind of life you are going to have on this earth.
I made an effort to tie the book into biblical truths about Jesus and Gospel, but it isn’t all that easy to do. Proverbs is not so much about grace and salvation as it is about wisdom and folly, choices and consequences. In reality, it’s kind of a moralistic book, written by Solomon to his sons to teach them life principles.
It is helpful to have an interpretational principle, but it is dangerous when we allow our interpretational principles to cause us to lose sight of author’s intent and away from exegetical accuracy. My system can never trump the plain sense of God’s Word.
3) We can fall prey to “accidental Papalism.”
High among the reasons we reject the Catholic system is its unhealthy tendency to value church tradition and official interpretation above biblical truth. But when we give ourselves over theological systems, we are in danger of mimicking that mistake.
When we allow our systems an unhealthy place, we also tend to give too much authority to the interpretations and opinions of those who have developed the system we honor. I had some friends years ago who essentially viewed the writings of RC Sproul as if they were endowed with biblical authority. “RC said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
That is a danger in all of these systems, one that must be avoided. There is a fine line between learning from a hero in the faith and engaging in hero worship. It is a line we must never allow to be crossed.
4) We can become arrogant and divisive.
I read a blogpost this morning that spurred me to write this post, which I’ve been rolling around in my mind for some time. In the post, a prominent (non-SB) blogger discussed the writings of some other who did not agree with his particular system. I think I agreed, at least in the main, with what the blogger said. But I was provoked by the arrogance and condescension in the tone of the post. It was as if you could judge the value of any writing by the degree to which it fit his system.
Of course, we all think that to some degree. I have seen people express admiration for poorly written and poorly argued points (obviously, that is my opinion) simply because it agreed with what the commenter believed. “Brilliant and powerful” can be interpreted as “you agree with me” all too often.
There is nothing wrong with using an interpretational principle we believe in to help us understand scripture better. But when that principle becomes an excuse for arrogance and condescension, for dismissive and divisive treatment of others, it becomes a problem.
This is not a problem with an easy solution. I would make the following brief suggestions.
1) Submit your system to your exegesis.
Biblical theology is primary over systematic theology. As you study scripture, do not let your systematic principles overwhelm your exegesis, but let your exegesis inform your system, even if that system has to be adjusted.
I know, we all think we do this and the other systems don’t, but it is important that each of us consciously and conscientiously do this regularly.
2) Focus on book by book, verse by verse exposition.
Andy Stanley once called this “lazy.” I disagree with that characterization more every day. It is a necessary corrective to both hobby-horse obsession and to unhealthy reliance on an imperfect (and they all are) theological system.
When you exposit, verse by verse, you have a better chance of letting the truth grow from the text rather than imposing your truth on the text. Of course, that is not perfect. We’ve all probably known verse by verse expositors who seem to find their hobby horse or theological system in the most unlikely verses.
But it is an important starting place anyway.
3) Hold your system with humility.
No matter how much you’d like it to be, no system is perfect. If you can’t enumerate the problems with your system, deal honestly with the verses that are troubling to your side, and admit that the other side makes some good points, you are probably in danger of being seduced by your system.
I’ve got to go, so I’ll post this, though it could use some fine-tuning. Let’s talk about these questions:
- Is there a “perfect system?”
- What are the dangers of dogmatic theological systems?
- Can you add to the solution section? (or quarrel with it).
Long day today. It may be tonight before I respond much. We’ll see.