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How Then Shall We Theologize?

The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on the trinity. The following is an excerpt from one of the issue’s featured articles with Craig A. Carter. Carter is the author of Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2021). He serves as Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and as Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church.


A revised edition of Wayne Grudem’s, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, has recently been released by Zondervan. First published in 1994, this book has sold over 750,000 copies and has been translated into many languages. Its influence within the Evangelical world can scarcely be overstated. However, it might be more accurate to say that it has not so much influenced Evangelical theology in a certain direction as it has reflected the biblicism and the shallowness of twentieth-century Evangelical theology back to itself.

It is interesting to observe that this book reflects the Evangelicalism of forty years ago more than the Evangelicalism of today because Evangelical theology in recent decades has been shaken up by a movement of Ressourcement. Ressourcement has caused an increasing number of Evangelical theologians to go back to patristic, medieval and post-Reformation scholastic sources in a way that would have been difficult to imagine forty years ago. Grudem’s book is a snapshot of Evangelical theology as it existed in the second half of the twentieth century and the second edition is not fundamentally different than the first in terms of methodology. But this sort of Evangelical theology no longer seems adequate to those who seek a sharper critique of modernity and a deeper engagement with historic orthodoxy

Theology, at its best, is relentlessly theocentric and leads to worship. Click To Tweet Of course, one should not gainsay the obvious strengths of this book, even if one’s final conclusion is that the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The strengths are still formidable. First, it is very readable for a textbook; the prose is clear and uncluttered for the most part and the logic unfolds smoothly. This is not an inconsiderable advantage for beginners seeking to find a way into such a complex and profound subject as theology.

Second, it brings readers – many of whom are novices in Christian theology – face to face with the biblical text over and over again. One certainly goes away from reading this book with the impression that the Bible is decisively important for systematic theology and is in no way to be left behind or transcended in theological reflection. Third, it exudes a confidence that truth about theological topics can be discovered and that theology can be applied to all areas of life. So why not embrace enthusiastically an introductory textbook that is so clearly written, so engaged with Scripture and so relevant and practical?

The answer to this question is not simple; it requires some thought about the nature and purpose of systematic theology and the relationship between biblical and systematic theology. I ask for some patience on the part of the reader as we consider these issues. My conclusion will be as follows: Grudem’s book is not really a systematic theology; despite its title, it is really a biblical theology. I need to explain how I arrived at this conclusion and why it constitutes a criticism and not merely a description. What is wrong, after all, with a systematically arranged biblical theology?

The Nature and Task of Theology

Christian theology can be defined as the study of God and all things in relation to God. The object of theology is, as John Webster puts it, “God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit.” It also consists of the study of all other things in their relation to him, which has the goal of shedding light on God’s own nature. Theology, at its best, is relentlessly theocentric and leads to worship.

I want to focus our attention on the words quoted from Webster in which we see two aspects of the study of God: God in his inner being and God in his outward work in creation and redemption. The former refers to God in his eternal and unchanging being, that which God is, always has been, and always will be in himself. The latter refers to God as he reveals himself in his mighty acts in history. Patristic writers spoke of “theologia” (theology) as the former and “economia” (economy) as the latter. Theology is the proper and ultimate goal of the discipline of systematic theology, but the only way for us to get to theology is by way of the economy. We know the being of God (theology) only through the acts of God (revelation).

From the concepts of theology and economy we get the distinction between the eternal or immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity. This distinction must not be pressed too far lest we fall into the trap of thinking in terms of two Trinities – two Gods – but the distinction nevertheless has its uses. It reminds us that special revelation is not exhaustive of the being of God; revelation is always partial. As finite creatures we are incapable of comprehending God, but God knows himself perfectly. So, God takes part of his own self-knowledge and reveals it to us by acting in time and space, thus enabling us to apprehend part of the truth about who and what he is eternally in himself. In this way, the source of the revealed truth becomes, in Webster’s words, “objects of contemplative and practical attention.” We contemplate what the acts of God reveal to us about the being of God: this is theology.

Systematic theology must take a further step once the task of biblical theology has been done. That further step could be described as “speculation,” but an even better term to describe that next step is “contemplation.” Click To Tweet Evangelical theology has made Biblical theology the center of its focus for the past century. The pioneering work of Geerhardus Vos has been highly influential on Westminster Theological Seminary and through its faculty on Evangelical theology in general. Biblical theology is the study of the ideas and themes of the Bible as they are unfolded historically, as Vos put it: “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformiy.”Biblical theology is rightly concerned with the individual books of the Bible and their human authors and it seeks to show how each one makes its own contribution to the canon as a whole. It is analytic (exegesis) and also synthetic (thematic), but its limit is reached once the message of each human author and each book is elucidated clearly in the context of the Bible as a whole. In other words, biblical theology is attentive to the acts of God – the economy – and its focus is on the content and interpretation of those mighty acts in history. As such, biblical theology is an integral part of systematic theology and absolutely necessary as both a basis for, and a limit on, theological speculation.

However, systematic theology cannot be satisfied with describing the economic activity of God only. Systematic theology must take a further step once the task of biblical theology has been done. That further step could be described as “speculation,” but an even better term to describe that next step is “contemplation.”

Whereas speculation has the connotation of being an activity of the self as agent; contemplation connotes passivity and humility before revelation. In contemplation we open ourselves to the Spirit of God and listen attentively for his voice. We do not take the results of biblical exegesis and integrate them into our own speculative projects of philosophical construction, as liberal theologies often seek to do, and as orthodox theology has often been unjustly accused of doing. Rather, we follow the stricter and narrower path of deduction by which we derive doctrinal and often metaphysical truths from the results of exegesis. We contemplate the biblical theological exegesis in which we have attempted to re-state faithfully and carefully what Scripture says. We contemplate what must be true of God for God to have done what he has done.

 

**Read the remainder of Craig Carter’s column in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the author of Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2021). He is currently writing a third volume in the Great Tradition trilogy on the recovery of Nicene metaphysics. Other upcoming projects include an introduction to Theology in the Great Tradition and a theological commentary on Isaiah. He serves as Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and as Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church. His personal website is craigcarter.ca and you can follow him on Twitter.

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