Earlier this week I posted about the danger of abdicating our responsibility to speak clearly to our world about God. The call there was to recognise the reality that we sometimes speak in muffled tones, that our meaning can be lost and our edge can be dulled. The motives for this inclination in our hearts are undoubtedly complex, but I offered a couple of reasons, cultural and exegetical, as to why we sometimes assume an air of sophistication without substance, or demonstrate sensitivity to our hearers without strict fidelity to the truth.
In the next two posts I want to probe two possible remedies for the uncertainty of our answers to the questions the world is asking. Today I will suggest our need for a better theology, for a more certain understanding of our God, and in my next post examine what the proclamation of truth looks like when it is well understood.
One of the obvious reasons why the contemporary church does not offer ready answers to the world around her, is that we simply don’t have them. This is a deflating and depressing reality to dwell on, but acknowledging it might just be the first step to correcting it. Ours is a superficial age, many of our decisions are made in sensory terms, and our attention spans are horribly weakened by the hummingbird intellect that media and entertainment have conditioned in us.
When questions are asked we may have answers for the perspective we have assumed, but that is a world away from having reasons for the hope that is in us. The Christian faith does (and must) reach us at the level of our affections, but it is also a coherent body of truth, a view of God, man, sin, salvation, and glory which is intellectually satisfying and internally logical. When we take refuge in deconstructing questions rather than demonstrating truth our reasoning might be cultural, but it is undoubtedly personal as well – perhaps manifesting a sense of insecurity in our own knowledge, or a fear of insufficiency in what the gospel can say.
This is where certain theology can be a good friend to us in our calling to tell the truth and speak with clarity. By certain theology I am not advocating for the presumptuous stance which claims that everything in a single system accounts for all that is in the character and counsels of God, that he is entirely comprehensible by our best thinking and reading. There is, of course, something that always escapes us, a region where the powers of logic lose their force, where human thought reaches the borders of its home country and has to turn back.
Such limits on our intellect, however, are not an excuse for laxity or laziness in the pursuit of knowing God, but a corrective to the pride and arrogance which might once again build Babel from our books. God has revealed himself to us, and he has equipped us with Spirit-enlightened mental faculties which can swim with joy in waters whose depths we will never fathom. God is not a postmodernist, he is not interested in giving us the thought experiments of philosophy, but calls us to think his thoughts after him in theology. We know our God as we kneel before him, as we listen to him, and as we gratefully receive from his mouth what he has spoken of himself.
There is a case to be made here, also, for the unique benefit that Systematic Theology can yield as we seek to speak to our world. Biblical Theology is a wonderful framework by which to grasp the beauty of redemptive history, a vantage point from which to see God’s covenantal dealings with his people, and to trace the overarching purpose and message of God across the genres and generations of the Scriptures. Biblical Theology equips us to listen with sensitivity to the individual books of the Bible, to credit units of communication, and to show due regard to when and how the truth is spoken as much as to what is stated.
With all of those benefits, a Biblical Theology without Systematic underpinnings runs the risk of playing into the hands of a world which delights in the idea of fragmentary snatches of truth, rather than deductive conclusions. In its worst and most naive applications, Biblical Theology can allow meaning to hover over the text of Scripture, it can make truth statements which are local but stop short of rounding them into the universal. This is not the design, desire or outcome of good Biblical Theology, but in the wrong hands it can give us the sense of voices rather than a voice in Scripture, and encourage us to draw up short from giving answers which speak God with certainty.
A certain theology will want to be able to say definite things about God and his works, it will strive to address itself to his character and his covenant in a manner which is intelligible and translatable to the experiences of all men and women in all of history. If we begin to speak only about what a text says in context, without extrapolating solid conclusions from that position, if we remain always at the general and never at the specific, then such a theology will render us mealy mouthed before those who need to know what God is saying through what God has said.
In a world which loves to empty out the jigsaw puzzle box, but cares little for seeing the whole picture by which it might put things back together, this kind of certain theology allows us to be clear thinkers and speakers: it encourages us to see a unified picture of God, and enables to preach a specified message about God which is compelling in its handling of the text of Scripture, and comprehensive in its heralding of the truth of Scripture. When we are asked about God’s goodness, his wrath, his providence, his promises, it is not enough to dissimulate meaning into an ever receding horizon of original context, but we must be willing to say ‘God is’, ‘God has’, ‘God does’, and in the light of that to issue the call, ‘you must’.
There are certain tangible means by which we can begin to think in this way. One is to connect with books and preaching of men who embody this approach, to find fresh joy in clear and candid statements of truth, and to think through what grand scheme thinking about God informs their biblical conclusions. Another step is to engage with the historic statements of well rounded theology which are available to us. Depending on your church background this might take you to Westminster, to Savoy, or to London, but there is no doubt that the Reformed Confessions provide a biblical and primary foundation upon which to construct one’s basic categories and conclusions theologically. These documents were designed to meditate on Scripture and to elucidate its meaning, and we deprive ourselves and those who seek truth from our lips if we pay them scant regard or attention.
In my next post on this theme, I want to think about what ‘Certain Preaching’ built on these foundations looks like. I will use the example of Martyn Lloyd-Jones as a way in to seeing how a serious and systematic theology can issue in a call from God which is contemporary in its expression, and is compelling in its declaration of his whole counsel.