Everyone has a system

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At the risk of a sledgehammer crushing a nut, my good friend Matthew Roberts who's the minister of Trinity Church, York has written the following regarding the video of Phillip Jensen. See previous posts here and here. I should say despite my criticism of Phillip I do love the man. I particularly love his outspokenness, Jensen is no lilly livered liberal and for that I am very grateful. Anyway here are Matthew's thoughts...

Like many people I was a little bemused by Phillip Jensen's video interview on the St. Helen's 'Preaching Matters' site. If you've not seen the video, Jensen's main point is that we should be like Calvin, who was a Bible man first not a systematic theologian first; rather than like Calvinists, who are systematic theologians first, not Bible men first.

Jensen explains it like this: for those who put system first, 'their knee-jerk reaction to Bible texts is through the system, and they preach the system rather than preaching the passage.' They do not 'do justice to the complexities of the scripture', and impose an unbiblical logic-chopping upon it which refuses to hear what Scripture actually says.

The first problem with this is that it seems to conflate imposing an unbiblical system of thought upon our reading of the Bible (which heretics such as JWs, the church of Rome, and Liberals do all the time) with allowing the Bible itself to shape our system of thought - which is what responsible Christians have always sought to do in their reading of the Bible. Indeed, it is what the Bible itself constantly expects us to do as we read it. Believers are expected to remember all that God has said in the past. It is scripture which interprets scripture. We are to have minds renewed by all that God has revealed of himself in Scripture (Romans 12:2). There is no conflict between scripture and having a system of thought; the conflict is between the Biblical system of thought and unbiblical ones.

What Jensen appears to be advocating is a sort of stoic refusal to allow our minds to hold together the full witness of scripture as we expound it; to forget what we have read in Genesis as we expound Romans, or vice versa, lest it somehow prejudice our reading of the text. Leaving aside the question of how knowledge of God's word could prejudice our reading of God's word, the problem with this is that this is neither what Jensen himself does - including several times in this video - nor is it even achievable. And if we try, what it will lead to is exactly the sort of imposing a non-biblical system on the text which he so fears. Let me explain.

Jensen compares those who believe in a system to Job's comforters, who are theologically correct but are nevertheless wrong. He characterises them by using a bit of theological logic which (on the basis of Deuteronomy 6:4 and 2 Cor 4:4) concludes that the devil is the only God. And he says that their position leads to Unitarianism and Quakerism. The question is, how does he know that each of these is wrong? How does he know that Job's comforters are wrong, if not because they must be read in the light of what the rest of scripture has to say about Job's situation? But that is of course to apply a biblical system - bringing together the witness of the whole of scripture to bear on actual issues and situations. We have to think something about any particular issue, not twelve things based on twelve different texts; and what that thing is needs to be shaped by what the whole of the Bible has to say. That is what Jensen is doing when he (quite rightly) rules Job's comforters out of order; and that is what systematic theology means, neither more nor less. 'Doing justice to the complexity of scripture' is precisely the task of systematic theology; when that is not done, that is not too much system, but simply an unbiblical system! We can say the same about the bit of logic regarding the devil. How does Jensen know that the devil is not God? Because of what he has read in the rest of scripture, of course, and because of his refusal to forget that while reading 2 Corinthians 4:4. Or perhaps we should believe that the devil is God while reading that verse, and believe something else when we read Deuteronomy 6:4, or any other verse in the Bible for that matter? Of course not, and Jensen certainly does not do that or think that we should, but it is where his recommended procedure would lead us.

Most clearly of all, how does he know that it is a bad thing for your children to become Unitarians? Deuteronomy 6:4 seems pretty clear to me that there is only one God. Surely Jensen is not assuming that, when preaching that passage, we should allow the 'system' of the whole of scripture to shape how we preach that passage? But of course he is - because no Christian can escape being a systematician. The doctrine of the Trinity is the clearest example of that. Appealing to the need for Trinitarian orthodoxy as an argument against systematic theology is a very peculiar procedure indeed.

We all have a system of belief. Thankfully, Jensen's system is a highly biblical one which is why he knows that Unitarians are wrong. The problem with being suspicious of systematics is that it doesn't lead to you having no system of belief, it leads to you never examining the system of belief you do have. And if you don't examine your system, you will most likely allow all sorts of unbiblical ideas and convictions to lie there undetected. And that is the reason why if anyone truly tries to follow Jensen's advice they will end up doing exactly what he fears: unwittingly imposing upon Scripture an unbiblical system of belief.

Indeed, this applies particularly with reference to ideas about logic. Is it possible to have an excessive devotion to logic in our system of theology? Certainly - that is what lies behind almost every heresy which has blighted the church, as men have sought to bring God down to our level. Does that mean that the Bible itself has no system of thought to teach us? That we should refuse to use our memories and logical capacities as we read scripture? Certainly not - and teaching us to use our minds properly, as creatures, not deities, and as God's covenant people, not ignorant pagans, goes right to the heart of the blessings that God gives to his people in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Jensen's own arguments show that, despite what he says, he knows that.

Posted March 18, 2015 @ 5:09 AM by Paul Levy

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