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Thoughts on Systematic Theology vs Biblical Theology, the Doctrine of God, and the Trinitarian Debate

April 26, 2019

Lately I’ve been considering the issues of systematic theology, confessionalism, and the Doctrine of God and the Trinitarian Debate.  Over at the Mortification of Spin podcast, Carl Trueman has several recent posts in a series, Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

This is a recurring topic in recent years, one I often come back to, from frequent interacting with the errors from non-confessional Calvinist Baptists: minimalist doctrinal approach, overemphasis on biblical theology (and absence of any type of systematic theology) and the related anti-confessional New Covenant Theology.  For reference, see these previous posts such as these about Confessionalism (article 1, also this article, and this one).

In the above posts, Trueman is coming from the opposite perspective, of confessionally Reformed churches where people are redefining the words of the confessions to mean different things today than the 17th century Reformers understanding.  His points, though, are just as applicable to the anti-confessional group, as the basic issue of present-day evangelicalism (after pointing out the merits of biblical theology):

even with all of these important contributions, we need to remember that a narrow focus on the storyline of scripture has its limits.  If the danger with Systematic Theology is that it can so emphasize conceptual unities that it misses the particularities of the biblical text, then the danger with Biblical Theology is that it so emphasizes the particularities that it misses those underlying unities. The answer to missing the trees for the wood is not to miss the wood for the trees.

The importance of systematic theology relates to the more specific issue of the doctrine of God, including the controversies of recent years – the impassibility of God, and the “Trinity Debate” (Eternal Submission of the Son error) of 2016.  For further reading on the 2016 Trinity Debate, see this web page from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, with links to the many blog posts back and forth during summer 2016.

From browsing the Alliance’s collection here are some helpful sermon series from Liam Golligher (the current Senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) —  three sets of messages (the “Trinity” set in response to the 2016 Trinity Debate) from the early chapters of the book of Hebrews:  Trinity: The Eternally Divine Son (8 messages), Trinity: The Two Natures of Christ (8 messages), and Trinity: Christ the Mediator (6 messages).  I’m in the second half of the second set now, so more to report later.

From the content I’ve listened to so far, these messages emphasize the transcendence of God, the reality of a God that is different from and above us, the eternal God who does not change, the Creator/Creature distinction, and the big picture view of God’s dealings with His people throughout history.  The doctrine of God, and the Trinity, are things that our finite minds will never completely grasp, yet the Christian creeds and confessions set forth the truths that we affirm.

From the first set, one message specifically addresses the Old Testament theophanies as part of God’s plan to familiarize His people with their God.  Another message, ‘Mary, did you know?’ references the words in the Mark Lowry song along with many scripture references.  A later message in the first series mentions a not-so-well-known history fact:  hymn writer Isaac Watts’ later writings indicate that he was a Unitarian and viewed Jesus as a created being, as the archangel Michael.  Googling on the topic indicates that a lot of people question this (is it really so?), and provides further historical details regarding Watts and the New England slide from Puritanism to Unitarianism.  Certainly Watts, who disliked creeds, did not articulate Trinitarianism and left himself open to the charge of Unitarianism, leaving us the question ‘will we see Isaac Watts in heaven?’  For further reference, here are a few interesting articles about Isaac Watts’ Unitarianism:

The above posts and sermon series are very helpful for a good overview of the whole issue of the doctrine of God and proper, orthodox understanding of the Trinity.  The link between the historic creeds and confessions, and orthodox Christian belief, especially comes out when studying the doctrine of God, a topic/study that is not as easy from the human viewpoint.  It is all too easy for us finite humans, as creatures, to think of God as somehow an extension of ourselves, someone greater than us but like us (in ways beyond the “communicable attributes”).  In this modern anti-creedal age, a time of “no creed but the Bible,” some doctrines are still easier to ‘get’, such as the doctrine of scripture, of the authority and importance of God’s word; but taking the same anti-confessional approach to the doctrine of God, more often than not, leads to error and even heresy.  As stated in the above article (Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy):

Furthermore, claiming to have no creed but the Bible may sound noble and pious, but it is a fact of history that when individuals or groups completely reject confessional language, even with noble desires for Christian unity or biblical authority, they almost always end up with significant theological problems. And this is exactly the case with the Nonconformists in England following Watts: those who, like Watts, claimed to accept no human creed ended up fully denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and even the sufficient atonement of Christ.

  1. April 26, 2019 at 7:41 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. April 26, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    It seems there’s importance of historical theology and not just systematic theology per se

    • April 27, 2019 at 7:38 am

      Yes, a good observation, and the two (historical theology, and systematic theology) go together. In historical theology we find the development of systematic theology.

      • April 27, 2019 at 3:06 pm


    • alf cengia
      April 27, 2019 at 11:05 am

      It would be interesting to know what some of your favorite books on ST and theology are.

      Jim, I know you’d have John Frame there. I only have one of his books so far (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). Picked it up at Half Price Books but haven’t been able to read it yet. Are there others?

      What about you, Lynda?

      • April 27, 2019 at 3:18 pm

        I have (but not read yet) R.C. Sproul’s “Everyone’s a Theologian,” which I’ve heard is a good introduction to Systematic Theology. So far my study on ST / theology has mainly been focused on the confessions and catechisms — reading through the 1689 Baptist Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, plus a sermon series on the 1689 Confession and various articles.

      • April 27, 2019 at 3:30 pm

        I like all four of Frame’s Theology of Lordship series though the most important of those works to me is the one you which is more a Christian theology of knowledge and really theological method than systematic theology per se. I am also planning on reading Bavinck for myself one of these days…how about you Alf?

      • April 27, 2019 at 3:42 pm

        I also have, on Kindle, Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. I’ve heard good things about it. Thoughts?

      • April 27, 2019 at 4:05 pm

        Personally I think its good but if my memory is correct its older in terms of its theological terminology and use of Latin phrases for theological points.

      • alf cengia
        April 27, 2019 at 7:14 pm

        Thanks for the replies.

        I’ve collected a few sets of ST. But the ones I most often go to are Biblical Doctrine (edited by MacArthur-Mayhue), Douglas F Kelly’s two volumes and A Puritan Theology (Beeke-Jones).

        I’m considering getting Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1: Revelation and God (Beeke & Smalley). Our church book store has it and it looks very good.

        BTW Reformed Heritage Books have really good prices. Dr Beeke tries to keep the books as cheap as possible


      • April 27, 2019 at 8:04 pm

        This product, from Reformation Heritage Books, is currently $2.99 on kindle, Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00C3N7FZA — I just bought it, looking forward to reading it. It has 2 chapters from Beeke.

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