When Humpty Met Alice: Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part Four

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'  

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'  

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'  

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass 



In the first three posts, I highlighted what might be missed or overlooked in contemporary theological education when Systematic Theology is confused with, or even replaced by, Biblical Theology.  In this final part I want to highlight the fact that the issue of the ST-BT relationship is not just theological and pedagogical. For confessional Protestants, it is also ecclesiastical because ministers take vows to uphold the faith as summarized in the great confessions of the Reformation.  Since those confessions were forged through the kind of dialectical doctrinal process which I noted in Part Two, it is highly questionable whether one can subscribe to them wholeheartedly and uphold their teaching without all that such a background involves. 


Before addressing this directly, however, a couple of preliminary observations are in order. 


First, it is important to note the role of seminaries in shaping contemporary expressions of the Reformed faith.  The reason is simple: they train the men who fill the pulpits of Reformed churches; therefore their curricula play a decisive role in how the Reformed faith is understood, yet these are not driven simply by the content and the priorities of their confessional standards.  There are a number of reasons for this. Faculty interests inevitably shape classroom content.  Institutional narratives often ascribe to local heroes a significance in the history of the Christian faith which they may not intrinsically merit.  That too is often reflected in the curriculum.  We also live at time where the market has many seminaries ostensibly committed to the same confessional standards and yet compete for a diminishing pool of students and donor dollars.  In such a context, there can be a real temptation to market marginal local distinctives as if they are vital to the essence of the Reformed faith.  I cannot address these matters here -- I intend to do so in the second of my forthcoming DenDulk Lectures at Westminster Seminary in California.  But in all that follows, it is important to bear in mind that the realities just described also play a significant part in the story of the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. 


Second, we should also note that the Christian faith is a dogmatic faith, a faith of assertions.  And the Reformed branch of Christianity expresses those dogmas and assertions in its confessions.  To be a Reformed Christian is therefore to believe in the dogmas and assertions those confessions contain.  It is doctrine that defines, not commitment to a redemptive-historical approach to exegesis or a particular approach to apologetics.  Those may be important, but they are at best secondary issues in terms of confessional subscription.   


Given this latter point, it should be clear from all that I have said in Parts 1-3 that Systematic Theology must play a central role in the theological curriculum and must never be confused with Biblical Theology. The historical and dialectical nature of the doctrinal formulations contained in the historic confessions which define the Reformed faith makes Systematic Theology and Historical Theology vital to understanding what they actually mean. 


Take the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 2, ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity.’   This chapter has both historical roots – it expresses the classical doctrine of God as found in the Nicene Creed and the tradition of Trinitarianism which flows through the Middle Ages to the Reformation  – and a historical context – it is designed, among other things, to rule completely out of bounds Socinianism, a seventeenth century form of open theism.  As a result, it uses technical vocabulary whose meaning has been defined within that historic tradition.  For example, it states that God is ‘infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense’ and so on.   What is important to note is that these words are carefully chosen because they already have precise, established definitions.  They are not empty placeholders onto which the reader can impose any meaning he chooses.  The rather banal conclusion we can draw is this: if the Confession states that God is without parts, or passions, it cannot therefore be understood as teaching that God does contain parts and is passible.  


This is where the problem of subscription to the Westminster Confession becomes problematic for those who have sloughed off the exegetical and metaphysical contexts which gave rise to its doctrines and language.   If one abstracts the notion of simplicity or impassibility from the metaphysics of pre-modern Christianity, there is a very great danger that one will subsequently use the classical terminology to express theology that is inconsistent with, or even antithetical to, what the Confession was attempting to express and protect.  The moral onus, therefore, is upon those Reformed theologians and institutions who detach themselves from that wider tradition to demonstrate that they still maintain what the Westminster Confession teaches.


My friend and former colleague, Lane Tipton, provides one example.  He is much more passionately committed to Biblical Theology and persuaded by the thought of Cornelius Van Til than I am; he is therefore a good example of the theologian who might well dis-embed the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of God from its original exegetical, metaphysical and polemical matrix and thereby risk losing the meaning of technical terms. But in a recent review of Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics, he asserts (and expresses agreement with) Vos’s commitment to the notion of God’s immutability: 


That there is no change in God as he creates—which is what the language of “no real change” is designed to safeguard—is a deeply creedal and confessional strand of orthodoxy. God freely wills a “new relation” that introduces no change in God as he wills that “new relation.” Hence, while not introducing change in God, either ad intra or ad extra, the absolute God freely wills a bona fide “new relation” in the act of creation, yet undergoes no change himself. Hence, God relates to the world as the absolute, triune Creator.  


It is worth adding that Vos can do what Dr. Tipton describes precisely because he does not allow Biblical Theology to override classical categories.  Rather, he is a creedal and confessional theologian who applies a Reformed doctrine of an absolute God, the God of classical theism, to his understanding of scriptural language which might seem, on a superficial reading, to impute real change to God.  Vos is still connected to, and appreciative of, the older dogmatic work of true Systematic Theologians. 


To repeat: as the terms of the Confession possess specific meaning and connect Presbyterianism to the historic, catholic, biblical doctrine of God, the onus therefore lies on the Biblical Theologians and those who adopt post-confessional theological frameworks to demonstrate that they still maintain the actual teaching of the Confession that God does not change, that the relationship between God and creation is not some kind of mutualism or give-and-take.    


Now, creeds and confessions are, for Protestants at least, subordinate standards.  Scripture is the supreme norming authority, as the WCF itself makes clear.  One may therefore study the theological matrix of the Reformed confessions and come to the conclusion that what the WCF teaches about God is wrong.  In that case, Presbyterianism has a means of addressing the concern: the person concerned should be honest about what he is doing and, if no exception to the Standards is allowed on that point, demit the ministry. That would be a perfectly honorable and legitimate course of action. What is not acceptable, theologically or morally, is the propagation of views which the Confession was designed to exclude as if they are actually what it affirms.  That can only be done on the basis of historicizing what the Confession really means.  And if the conservative Protestant world finds such a move intolerable relative to the doctrine of scripture, as taught for example in WCF 1, it should also find it intolerable relative to WCF 2. God is surely no less important than scripture; and deviations on the orthodox doctrine of God have proved deadly to the faith over the centuries.  Indeed, to make the doctrine of scripture a touchstone of orthodoxy and to wink at deviations on the doctrine of God (which seems the default attitude in much of the evangelical world), is to reveal a debt not so much to the concerns of the Bible and of historic Christianity as to the priorities and tastes of modern American evangelicalism. 


To return to Humpty Dumpty, when it comes to the meaning of the classic vocabulary of Reformed theology, the question is: Which is to be master, that’s all -- in this case, the Confession or the reader?  And in order to ensure that it is the former, not the latter, Systematic Theology must be properly taught and never confused with or replaced by Biblical Theology; and both ST and BT should be positively connected to Historical Theology.   If that does not happen, then sadly, as with Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put the Faith back together again.


Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California.