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How Then Shall We Theologize?

A review of Grudem’s Systematic Theology and his doctrine of the Trinity

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.

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.”[1] 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. Theology, at its best, is relentlessly theocentric and leads to worship. Click To Tweet

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.[2]

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 multiformity.”[3]. 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.” 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

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.[4] 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.

This is where the move is made from economy to theology. We must be extremely careful here; it is a terrifying and dangerous thing to speak of the very being and essence of God. As creatures we hardly dare attempt it, yet we must do so lest we be guilty of not being open to all that God has spoken to us in his Word. We dare not ignore the truth God has spoken even if conceptualizing and verbalizing it carries a high risk of falling into error by confusing the Creator-creature distinction and thus erecting an idol instead of worshiping God in Spirit and in truth. So then, prayerfully and humbly, we contemplate the results of exegesis and seek to deduce from it all that we can know about the being of God. What does God intend that we know about him?

All theology, as we have seen, begins with exegesis, that is, with attempting to restate in our own words the meaning of the biblical text. As we do this with many texts, we gradually build up a number of statements on a given topic that gradually coalesce into doctrines. Out of many texts on creation, such as Genesis 1:1; Psalm 33:6, 9; 90:2; John 1:1-3; Acts 14:5; Romans 15:17; Colossians 1:15-17 and Hebrews 11:2, we build up a doctrine of creation. As we contemplate the doctrine of creation, we deduce from what Scripture says the metaphysically pregnant doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. In contemplating that doctrine we arrive at a deeper understanding of Divine transcendence. As we contemplate the transcendence of God in the light of exegetical results dealing with the attributes of God, we discover the truths of Divine eternity, immutability, aseity and simplicity. At some point in the process, we find that we have moved, almost imperceptively, from biblical theology to systematic theology.

Now things really get interesting. Having moved from exegesis to doctrine to metaphysics, we now have the beginning of a framework in place for describing the situation in which our further contemplation of the text of Scripture can take place. We have gained some understanding of who we are, who God is, where we are, and what we are dealing with in the Bible. We can describe this situation in metaphysical terms using the doctrines of God, creation, anthropology and revelation. But when we first started doing exegesis, we may not have had this metaphysical framework in mind. So, what was our starting point in doing exegesis? We picked up this book, read it and attempted to interpret it. But interpretation is never “presuppositionless” – we never start from nowhere. How can we be sure our exegesis was not discolored by false metaphysical presuppositions?

The answer, of course, is that we cannot be sure. So, we need to go back to the same texts of Scripture and contemplate the exegetical results we attained first time around in what I refer to as a “second exegesis.” This time we do so self-consciously and deliberately from within the metaphysical framework derived from the exegetical results we obtained first time around. As we do so, we ask ourselves questions such as, “Given what I have learned so far, was I justified in making the assumptions about this text that I made in my first exegesis?” and “Would the meaning of this text change if I interpreted it from within the metaphysical framework I have learned?”

Here I am ruthlessly murdering one of the sacred cows of the Enlightenment, which insisted that, above all, the cardinal rule of biblical interpretation is that one must never, under any conditions, approach the text from a position in which the creeds and dogmas of the church shape our hermeneutical presuppositions. They command: “Thou must not read churchly dogma into the Bible.” But this is exactly what we do in the “second exegesis.” And we do so because this “churchly dogma” came from the Bible in the first place and this is what it means to affirm that the Bible is “self-interpreting.” We take the second step in systematic theology by studying the Bible from the perspective of the creedal confession of the historic Church. We investigate how the various texts and themes of Scripture cohere and mutually illuminate each other.

The practice of this “second exegesis” is a fundamental component of systematic theology, but it has been arbitrarily separated from Biblical theology in modernity. The Enlightenment was a rejection of all exegesis that is done from within the conceptual framework of the orthodox dogma of the Church. But not only did the Enlightenment reject orthodox dogma as the metaphysical framework for exegesis, it also smuggled a foreign metaphysical framework into theology; that is, one derived from the neo-pagan culture and not from the historic faith of the Church.

Philosophical naturalism replaced the creedal tradition of historic orthodoxy in modern theology and the whole idea of a “second exegesis” was dropped. Increasingly, the work of systematic theology was separated from biblical studies. The biblical text was approached using the historical critical method, which means the interpretation of the text from within the constraints of modern philosophical assumptions about history and nature. Instead of seeking to correct the metaphysical framework by exegesis, the goal was to take the metaphysical framework for granted and never allow it to be questioned. Theology, in this situation, became increasingly revisionist and increasingly detached from the historic faith of the Church.

This “second exegesis” is a specifically Christian way of reading the text of Scripture and it operates from within the framework of faith in the Word of God as it comes to us through Scripture. The problem of the starting point of hermeneutics is, in a sense, insoluble. We all have to begin, as finite human beings, from a less than perfect starting point. Yet, by the help of the Holy Spirit, we can make progress providing we are willing to be diligent, humble and patient. Systematic theology assumes that the Bible is a unity centered on Jesus Christ and so contemplating its meaning requires one to revisit it over and over again for deeper insight. Systematic theology therefore never leaves the Bible behind. The way that systematic theology builds on biblical theology is more like a spiral than a linear progression. We do not simply read the Bible once and then go from there; we have to read it again and again as our minds are gradually purified by the truth and our systematic theology is improved as we do so.

What Kind of Theology is Grudem Doing?

We are now in a position to evaluate Grudem’s work specifically. Fred Sanders has a very helpful summary of the changes between the first and second editions of Grudem’s book and I suggest you read it for yourself.[5] Sanders notes that Grudem has now accepted the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, which he had rejected as unbiblical in the first edition. Sanders is of the opinion that this change is of major significance to Grudem’s doctrine of the Trinity and overshadows his continuing insistence on the eternal functional subordination of the Son.

I agree with Sanders that this change is significant, but I am not as optimistic that it signals a major improvement to Grudem’s theology. The reasons Grudem gives for accepting the doctrine of eternal generation do not affect the essentially modern nature of his theological method. He may accept the doctrine of eternal generation, but his method is still biblicist rather than contemplative. Overshadowing his acceptance of eternal generation is his continuing emphasis on the eternal functional subordination of the Son, expressed through his doctrine of the one will of God being divided into “three distinctive expressions.”[6] I still find Grudem’s account of the eternal, functional subordination of the Son very problematic and I want to explain why by analyzing his theological method.

In order to explain what is wrong about the way Grudem discusses the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, I want to suggest that his method is biblicist, as opposed to contemplative, insofar as he confuses the economy with theology in such a way as to read creatureliness back into God’s eternal being. Historically, orthodox theology struggled to avoid this kind of mistake by means of carefully contemplating what we learn about the being of God from the study of his economic actions before deciding what can legitimately be said about the being of God based on the contemplation of God’s actions in history. It did so by what I have described above as a “second exegesis” in which the results of the first exegesis were contemplated and deeper truth perceived in the text.

There are many definitions of “biblicism,” and some are benign. For example, by “biblicism” some people simply mean “grounded in Scripture” and we all want to be biblicist in that general sense. But we already have a word for that aspiration: biblical. Another way to define “biblicism” would be to say that it is exegesis without dogmatics. It is obedience to the Enlightenment dictum that we must never read dogma into the Bible. It assumes that we can start the exegetical process with no theological presuppositions whatsoever. This is the pejorative sense of biblicism that I have in mind when I use it instead of “biblical.”

In his famous 1787 inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, J. P. Gabler laid out a program for biblical theology, which was to replace dogmatic theology at the core of the modern faculty of theology. He claimed that theology needs to use in its constructive work only those biblical concepts that express what he terms “universal ideas.” For him, “universal ideas” turn out to be “principles of human reason” as understood in an enlightened age.[7] Biblicism is exegesis within the philosophical framework of modernity, which functions as a replacement for the dogmatic framework expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the early church and the confessions of the Reformation. It styles itself as “objective” and “neutral,” but this is just deceptive rhetoric designed to disguise what is really going on. What is actually happening is that a program is being laid out for the revision of doctrines to make them fit within the philosophical naturalist framework of modern metaphysics.

Too many Evangelicals have allowed themselves to be deceived by this rhetoric and have bought into this project without understanding the full implications of what they were doing. Modern biblicism restricts biblical theology to a discussion of the economy and, insofar as statements about the being of God are made at all, they tend to consist of economic activities being read back into theology unreflectively. This has two opposite effects, both of which are negative. On the one hand, we sometimes focus only on economy and rest content with agnosticism about the being of God, which means we are not even really doing systematic theology. On the other hand, we sometimes read economic activity back into the being of God, which has the effect of blurring the Creator-creature distinction. The first problem is bad enough, but the second effect is devasting for orthodoxy. And it is the latter problem which manifests itself in Grudem’s account of the eternal functional subordination of the Son.

It is crucial that we note the way in which Grudem reasons with regard to the Greek word monogenes and the doctrine of eternal generation. It is instructive to observe that the methodology employed in making this change is still biblicist and we need to think about how his biblicism differs from the contemplative method by which fourth-century, pro-Nicene theologians went about doing theology. Grudem has been under great pressure over the past decade to accept eternal generation, which is central to historic Nicene orthodoxy, but he has found a way to do it while retaining his biblicist method. But it is his method, not his conclusion, that is still problematic. Grudem has been under great pressure over the past decade to accept eternal generation, which is central to historic Nicene orthodoxy, but he has found a way to do it while retaining his biblicist method. Click To Tweet

In 2016 Grudem indicated publicly at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting that he had come to accept the doctrine of eternal generation. And, in the second edition of his Systematic Theology, he has removed the appendix in which he had rejected the doctrine and he has included two sections on the meaning of the term monogenes and the meaning of eternal generation in between a section on how the persons of the Trinity have different primary functions in relating to the world and another section on how the different roles of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are appropriate to their distinct identities.[8] The first point that stands out when we consider the order and arrangement of the material is that, whereas for the fourth-century fathers, the doctrine of eternal generation functions to emphasize the mutuality and equality of the Father and the Son, (contra the Arians), for Grudem the doctrine of eternal generation functions as part of the explanation of how the differences between the three persons undergird their different roles or functions. This is a rather startling inversion of the use made of this doctrine by the fathers and raises a red flag about how significant the change Grudem has made actually is for his doctrine of the Trinity.

Grudem’s discussion of the meaning of the word monogenes is also interesting. He notes that the word is made up of two Greek words “mono” meaning “only” and genes, which is an adjective related to the verb gennao (to beget, to bear), which is commonly used to describe the father’s role in the birth of a child. Beginning in 1886, scholars challenged the meaning of genes and argued that it was not from the verb gennao (beget) but rather from the term genos (class, kind). Grudem tells us that he accepted this argument on the authority of the Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon. But now Charles Lee Irons has presented new evidence for interpreting genes in the traditional manner as meaning only begotten.[9] What philology takes away; philology apparently sometimes gives back!

It is fascinating to note that Grudem argues that John 1:14 does not make sense if we translate monogenes as “only” (i. e. “glory as of the only from the Father”). So, translations such as the ESV and NIV supply the word “Son” to make it: “glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Grudem cites this need to supply the word “Son” to make sense of the sentence here as evidence for the correctness of the traditional translation of monogenes as “only-begotten.” Yet, this was as true when Grudem wrote the first edition of his work as it was when he wrote his second edition. So, it would appear that the lexical argument was decisive for him.  For him, the translation of the term monogenes was and is determined by considering the term in isolation from the canonical context of the doctrine of the Trinity and the meaning of the term is decisive for the question of whether the doctrine of eternal generation is acceptable or not for him.

Grudem’s acceptance of the doctrine of eternal generation notwithstanding, his commitment to the idea of the eternal functional subordination of the Son continues to be central to his understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. He is more careful in this second edition to affirm that he understands God to have only one will, but he insists repeatedly that there are three expressions of this one will. He writes:

. . . in speaking about the will of God as an attribute of his nature, there is one will. In addition, we must insist, of course, that there has never been a disagreement between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. . .  On the other hand, within the one unified will of God, we must say that there have been three distinctive expressions of that will by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how we can do justice to statements such as John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”[10]

What this quotation demonstrates is that when Grudem uses the term “distinctive expressions” of the one unified will of God he really means “distinctive wills.” The problem here is that John 6:38 proves too much. It is not speaking of two expressions of one unified Divine will, but rather of two wills, namely, the human will of Christ and the Divine will of the Father, (which is unified with the Divine will of Christ). The incarnate Jesus Christ has two wills, one human and one divine, not two expressions of the one, unified Divine will. Grudem’s examples of what he means by “distinctive expressions” of the one will of God are drawn from the economy, that is, from the two wills of the incarnate Jesus Christ. He thus reads economic relations back into the eternal Trinity.

Fourth-century pro-Nicene theologians like Athanasius distinguished between passages of Scripture that speak about the human nature of Christ and those that speak about the divine nature of Christ. Either nature (and either will) can be in view when the one person, Jesus Christ, is speaking. Assuming the internal consistency of Scripture as the one Word of God, Athanasius argues that whenever we read of the Son as created or as limited or as subordinate, the passage must be referring to the human nature of Jesus Christ. But when we read of the Son as equal and eternal the passage must be referring to the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Grudem does not make use of this hermeneutical rule in his treatment of the persons of the Trinity. Instead, he reads the human will of the human nature of Jesus Christ back into the eternal Trinity.

Critics of Grudem and EFS often ask how authority and submission within the immanent Trinity do not require multiple volitional faculties. If authority and submission that are person defining, distinguishing Father from Son and Spirit, how can there not be three wills in the Trinity? Surely this would be incompatible with the historic doctrine of the Trinity in which the three persons have one nature and one will. Grudem’s response to critics is very telling. Such an objection, says Grudem, “is not that Scripture denies that the Son is eternally subject to the Father, but that the pro-Nicene theologians consistently affirmed that there is in God one will, one will, one wisdom, one power, and one authority.”[11]

Grudem claims that he agrees that there is one will in God, but then he immediately goes on to assert: “Surely there must be some kinds of distinction in the one will of God because there is a difference between the Father’s willing to send and the Son’s willing to be sent.”[12] But the sort of difference between the Father’s willing to send and the Son’s willing to be sent is not a subordination of one will to the other, but rather it is just the opposite. It is actually two ways of willing the same outcome. To find an example of actual subordination Grudem is forced to cite the incarnate Son who needs to bring his human will into alignment with his divine will (which is one with the Father’s will) as, for example, in the prayer in Gethsemane. So Grudem quotes John 6:38.

Grudem claims that the fathers believed that the will of the Son is subordinate to the will of the Father. He claims that Augustine and Chrysostom are examples of fathers who argued against the Arians that the obedience of the Son is no proof of his ontological inferiority to the Father. But all the fathers believed that the human Jesus subordinates his human will to that of the Father. This happens in the economy as Jesus lives a life of total obedience to the Divine will. But Augustine, Chrysostom and the rest of the fathers would be horrified to hear Grudem reading that kind of subordination of will back into the eternal Trinity. Augustine, Chrysostom and the rest of the fathers would be horrified to hear Grudem reading that kind of subordination of will back into the eternal Trinity. Click To Tweet

It is worth noting that Grudem uses Michael Ovey as his primary authority on what the fourth-century fathers meant and he does not cite mainstream patristic scholars such as Anatolios, Ayres, Behr, Barnes, Young, etc. This weakens his oft-repeated assertions that the fathers’ statements that the Son obeys the Father were intended to describe the eternal relations between the Father and Son in the Trinity rather than the relation between the Father and the human will of Christ on earth. In fact, these fathers were referring to the incarnate Christ being obedient to the Father in his humanity, and they held that this did not prevent us from affirming the full ontological deity of the eternal Son and his equality with the Father. They believed that the Son could remain one in being (homoousios) and will with the Father even while becoming incarnate and assuming a human nature, including a human will, into union with himself.

When Grudem says that ontological equality is compatible with subordination of wills, he is correct because orthodox Christology asserts that despite the fact that the will of the human nature of Jesus Christ was subordinated to the Divine will of the Father, the hypostatic union is nonetheless real and complete. So, reading the subordination of the will of the Son back into the eternal Trinity is not necessary to secure this point. Grudem’s failure to bear in mind the distinction between the economy and theology results in a substantial misinterpretation of the pro-Nicene Fathers.

Some of today’s best research by patristic scholars, like those already mentioned, compares premodern and modern interpretations of trinitarian texts (e.g., Proverbs 8), and demonstrates that methods of biblical interpretation like Grudem’s are deficient compared to that of the fourth-century, pro-Nicene theologians and that they are deficient precisely because they are too modern.  Modern theology either ignores the being of God or else it reads economic activities back into the eternal Trinity in the wrong way. This is a problem that we see all over twentieth century theology both liberal and conservative. In the fourth century, the Arians used Proverbs 8 to argue that Christ is a subordinate being to the Father but Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes argued instead that they were taking statements about economy and applying them to theology. Arianism made a big comeback in the Enlightenment period and its influence has been widespread in modernity, although its influence has been confined primarily to methodology in the more conservative wing of modern theology, namely, Evangelicalism.

The Great tradition has understood the doctrine of eternal generation to be based not simply one Greek word (monogenes) used five times by one New Testament writer, but on a contemplative consideration of the meaning of the Bible’s extensive use of the terms “Father” and “Son” of the first two members of the Trinity. The idea of “begetting” is intrinsic to the idea of Fatherhood. The doctrine of eternal generation can be deduced “by good and necessary consequence”[13] from the concept of Fatherhood and Sonship and that is why the doctrine of eternal generation is part of classical orthodoxy. It is not based narrowly on prooftexts containing the term monogenes, but on a contemplative reading of the Father-Son texts generally. Some of today’s best exegetical and theological works—see Scott Swain and Fred Sanders’ book Retrieving Eternal Generation for example—demonstrate that eternal Sonship is defined by eternal generation alone, an exegetical insight the church has made since its inception.

Of course, it is necessary that our contemplation of the “Father” be governed by the canonical context. It is crucial that our minds be purified by the Scriptures as we seek to separate out which aspects of the analogy of “Father” should be applied to the holy Trinity and which should not. This is part of the work of systematic theology, but it is work that Grudem does not do carefully enough. He reads too much of the economy into theology without even pausing to consider the propriety of doing so. He shows insufficient self-awareness of how perilous a task it is to attempt to read a subordination of wills into the Father-Son relationship in the eternal Trinity. He blithely moves from the economy to theology without any consideration of what criteria might be relevant to the question of what he reads in and why. The Fathers were extremely reticent to speak of the nature of the Father-Son relationship in the eternal Trinity; all they thought appropriate to say is that the persons of the Trinity are distinguished by the relations of origin and nothing else. Their wisdom should instruct us today.


By rushing in where the fathers feared to tread, Grudem unwittingly attributes creatureliness to God and thus risks lowering God to our level. His biblicism leads him to confuse the economy with theology and so, in a sense, he thus never really gets beyond biblical theology even though his book purports to be a systematic theology. By drawing systematic theological conclusions such as the eternal, functional subordination of the Son, he ends up advocating a doctrine which is confusing at best and bordering on a denial of historic orthodoxy at worst. I am not suggesting that Grudem is a heretic or that he intends to be anything other than an orthodox and Nicene theologian. He is not intentionally departing from orthodoxy, but he is mistaken in the way he relates the submission of the incarnate Son to the being of the eternal Trinity. In that sense, he unwittingly departs from the orthodox articulation of the Trinity and its biblical and theological rationale, and therefore we cannot follow him on this central doctrine of the faith. He is not intentionally departing from orthodoxy, but he is mistaken in the way he relates the submission of the incarnate Son to the being of the eternal Trinity. We cannot follow him on this central doctrine of the faith. Click To Tweet

In this paper I have only focused on one doctrine, the relation of the Son to the Father. It is only fair to note that in many other places Grudem’s book remains close to historic orthodoxy. The problem is not so much with specific conclusions, in most cases, but with the method by which those conclusions are reached. And, unfortunately, there are other places in the book where the methodology does create problems. His treatment of immutability and impassibility, for example, is quite problematic.[14] He speaks of God as changing and as if God were in time: “God does act and feel emotions and he acts differently in response to different situations.”[15] Grudem does not interact with the historic reformed tradition very extensively, preferring to interact mostly with contemporary Evangelical theologians such as John Feinberg, John Frame and William Lane Craig. Grudem’s biblicism permits him to eschew deep foundations in patristic and scholastic thought and that is another weakness of this approach to doing theology.

There is no problem, in principle, with a systematically arranged biblical theology. The problem with this book, however, is that is aspires to be more than that; in fact, it claims to be a systematic theology. On page 1 of the book, Grudem defines systematic theology as: “any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.”[16] He explains that this involves “collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teaching clearly.”[17] He specifically differentiates systematic theology from church history and philosophy and argues that these two disciplines are not integral to systematic theology as such.

This is, in my view, a modern, Enlightenment-inspired understanding of theology. Modern, liberal theology insists that we not read church dogma into the Bible. Instead, we are to do our exegesis in a “neutral and objective” manner. But what tends to happen in practice is that when the historic, creedal tradition is ignored the Bible ends up being interpreted from within the framework of modern metaphysics. Grudem’s work is thus a very conservative example of the liberal project.

It would have been better if he had been willing to use the creedal orthodoxy of historic Protestantism to contemplate the meaning of the texts so as to deduce from the plain teaching of Scripture deeper metaphysical truths which are the implications of biblical doctrines. This is what post-Reformation reformed scholastic theology did and this is the theology that is reflected in the confessions of the Reformation that define Protestant theology. If we wish to avoid drifting into liberalism and pantheism, we need to cultivate our roots in confessional Protestantism. This means doing systematic theology and not just biblical theology. It means contemplating the metaphysical implications of the text in an awareness of the historic teaching of the church. It means more than summarizing the results of a first round of exegesis of the biblical text.

It is as a systematic theology that Grudem’s book ultimately falls short. It does not deduce appropriate metaphysical conclusions from the doctrines discovered in Scripture and it does not contemplate the text of Scripture in a “second exegesis” in self-conscious awareness of the conflicts and tensions between the metaphysics of historic Christian orthodoxy and the anti-metaphysics of post-Kantian modernity. Because it does not do these things, it fails to see the depth of meaning in the Biblical concept of sonship that the pro-Nicenes of the fourth century saw, and it reads aspects of the incarnation back into the ontological Trinity in a way that is problematic for the doctrine of the Trinity. In the end, the method used in this book is inadequate for teaching students of theology how to speak about God’s being without confusing the Creator-creature distinction.


[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I: God and the Works of God(London: Bloomsbury T. & T. Clark, 2016), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, edited by Richard B. Gaffin, (Phillipsburg, PA: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980). Italics in original. This lecture was Vos’s inaugural lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary when he took up the chair of Biblical Theology there.

[4] By “metaphysical” in this context I refer primarily to conceptual description of the relationship of the Creator to creation and creatures.


[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 307.

[7] Sandys-Wunsch, John, and Laurence Eldredge. “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of His Originality.” Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980), 143.

[8] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 292-301.

[9] Charles Lee Irons, “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, eds. Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 98-116.

[10] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 307. Italics in the original.

[11] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 310.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 “Of the Holy Scriptures” article 6.

[14] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 192-96.

[15] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 192-93.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology,1.

[17] Grudem, Systematic Theology,1.


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 and you can follow him on Twitter.

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