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The Practical Importance of Systematic Theology

Category Articles
Date August 9, 2019

When we consider the surpassing glory of the subject-matter with which theology deals, it would appear that if ever science existed for its own sake, it might surely be true of this science. The truths concerning God and his relations are, above all comparison, in themselves the most worthy of all truths of study and examination. Yet we must vindicate a further goal for the advance of theology and thus contend for it that it is an eminently practical science. The contemplation and exhibition of Christianity as truth, is far from the end of the matter. This truth is specially communicated by God for a purpose, for which it is admirably adapted. That purpose is to save and sanctify the soul. And the discovery, study, and systematization of the truth is in order that, firmly grasping it and thoroughly comprehending it in all its reciprocal relations, we may be able to make the most efficient use of it for its holy purpose.

Well worth our most laborious study, then, as it is, for its own sake as mere truth, it becomes not only absorbingly interesting, but inexpressibly precious to us when we bear in mind that the truth with which we thus deal constitutes, as a whole, the engrafted Word that is able to save our souls. The task of thoroughly exploring the pages of revelation, soundly gathering from them their treasures of theological teaching, and carefully fitting these into their due places in a system whereby they may be preserved from misunderstanding, perversion, and misuse, and given a new power to convince the understanding, move the heart, and quicken the will, becomes thus a holy duty to our own and our brothers’ souls as well as an eager pleasure of our intellectual nature.

That the knowledge of the truth is an essential prerequisite to the production of those graces and the building up of those elements of a sanctified character for the production of which each truth is especially adapted, probably few will deny: but surely it is equally true that the clearer, fuller, and more discriminating this knowledge is, the more certainly and richly will it produce its appropriate effect; and in this is found a most complete vindication of the duty of systematizing the separate elements of truth into a single soundly concatenated whole, by which the essential nature of each is made as clear as it can be made to human apprehension. It is not a matter of indifference, then, how we apprehend and systematize this truth. On the contrary, if we misconceive it in its parts or in its relations, not only do our views of truth become confused and erroneous, but also our religious life becomes dwarfed or contorted. The character of our religion is, in a word, determined by the character of our theology: and thus the task of the systematic theologian is to see that the relations in which the separate truths actually stand are rightly conceived, in order that they may exert their rightful influence on the development of the religious life. As no truth is so insignificant as to have no place in the development of our religious life, so no truth is so unimportant that we dare neglect it or deal deceitfully with it in adjusting it into our system. We are smitten with a deadly fear on the one side, lest by fitting them into a system of our own devising, we cut from them just the angles by which they were intended to lay hold of the hearts of men: but on the other side, we are filled with a holy confidence that, by allowing them to frame themselves into their own system as indicated by their own natures — as the stones in Solomon’s temple were cut each for its place — we shall make each available for all men, for just the place in the saving process for which it was divinely framed and divinely given.

These theoretical considerations are greatly strengthened by the historical fact, that throughout all the ages every advance in the scientific statement of theological truth has been made in response to a practical demand, and has been made in a distinctly practical interest. We wholly misconceive the facts if we imagine that the development of systematic theology has been the work of cold, scholastic recluses, intent only upon intellectual subtleties. It has been the work of the best heart of the whole Church driving on and utilizing in its practical interests, the best brain. The true state of the case could not be better expressed than it is by Professor Auguste Sabatier, when he tells us that:

‘The promulgation of each dogma has been imposed on the Church by some practical necessity. It has always been to bring to an end some theological controversy which was in danger of provoking a schism, to respond to attacks or accusations which it would have been dangerous to permit to acquire credit, that the Church has moved in a dogmatic way. . . Nothing is more mistaken than to represent the Fathers of the Councils, or the members of the Synods as theoricians, or even as professional theologians, brought together in conference by speculative zeal alone, in order to resolve metaphysical enigmas. They were men of action, not of speculation; courageous priests and pastors who understood their mission, like soldiers in open battle, and whose first care was to save their Church, its life, its unity, its honour — ready to die for it as one dies for his country.’1

In quite similar manner one of the latest critics (M. Pannier) of Calvin‘s doctrinal work feels moved to bear his testimony to the practical purpose which ruled over the development of his system. He says:

‘In the midst, as at the outset of his work, it was the practical preoccupations of living faith which guided him, and never a vain desire for pure speculation. If this practical need led [in the successive editions of the ‘Institutes‘] to some new theories, to many fuller expositions of principles, this was not only because he now desired his book to help students of theology to interpret Scripture better — it was because, with his systematic genius, Calvin understood all that which, from the point of view of their application, ideas gain severally in force by forming a complete whole around one master thought.’2

. . . It may possibly be thought, however, that these lessons are ill-­applied to systematic theology properly so called: that it may be allowed indeed that the separate truths of religion make themselves felt in the life of men, but scarcely that the systematic knowledge of them is of any value for the religious life. Surely, however, we may very easily fall into error here. We do not possess the separate truths of religion in the abstract: we possess them only in their relations, and we do not properly know any one of them — nor can it have its full effect on our life — except as we know it in its relations to other truths, that is, as systematized. What we do not know, in this sense, systematically, we rob of half its power on our conduct; unless, indeed, we are prepared to argue that a truth has effect on us in proportion as it is unknown, rather than in proportion as it is known. To which may be added that when we do not know a body of doctrine systematically, we are sure to misconceive the nature of more or fewer of its separate elements; and to fancy, in the words of Dr Charles Hodge, ‘that that is true which a more systematic knowledge would show us to be false,’ so that ‘our religious belief and therefore our religious life would become deformed and misshapen.’ Let us once more, however, strengthen our theoretical opinion by testimony: and for this let us appeal to the witness of a recent French writer who supports his own judgment by that of several of the best informed students of current French Protestantism.3 Amid much external activity of Christian work, M. Arnaud tells us, no one would dare say that the life lived with Christ in God is flourishing in equal measure: and his conclusion is that, ‘in order to be a strong and living Christian, it does not suffice to submit our heart and will to the gospel: we must submit also our mind and our reason.’ He adds:

‘The doctrines of Christianity have just as much right to be believed as its duties have to be practised, and it is not permissible to accept these and reject those. In neglecting to inquire with care into the Biblical verities, and to assimilate them by reflection, the Christian loses part of his virtue, the preacher part of his force; both build their house on the sand or begin at the top; they deprive themselves of the precious lights which can illuminate and strengthen their faith, and fortify them against the frivolous or learned unbelief as well as against the aberrations of false individualism, that are so diffused in our day.’

In support of this judgment he quotes striking passages, among others, from Messrs. F. Bonifas and Ch. Bois. The former says:4

‘What strikes me today is the incomplete and fragmentary character of our faith: the lack of precision in our Christian conceptions; a certain ignorance of the wonderful things which God has done for us and which he has revealed to us for the salvation and nourishment of our souls. I discover the traces of this ignorance in our preaching as well as in our daily life. And here is one of the causes of the feebleness of spiritual life in the bosom of our flocks and among ourselves. To these fluid Christian convictions, there necessarily corresponds a lowered Christian life.’ Mr Bois similarly says:5

‘There does not at present exist among us a strongly concatenated body of doctrine, possessing the conscience and determining the will. We have convictions, no doubt, and even strong and active convictions, but they are, if I may so speak, isolated and merely juxtaposed in the mind, without any deep bond uniting them into an organism. . . Upon several fundamental points, even among believers, there is a vagueness, an indetermination, which leave access open to every fluctuation and to the most unexpected mixtures of belief. Contradictory elements often live together and struggle with one another, even in the most positively convinced, without their suspecting the enmity of the guests they have received into their thought. It is astonishing to observe the strange amalgams which spring up and acclimate themselves in the minds of the young theological generations, which have been long deprived of the strong discipline of the past. This incoherence of ideas produces weakness and danger elsewhere also, besides in the sphere of doctrine. It is impossible but that spiritual life and practical activity should sustain also serious damage from this intellectual anarchy.’

Cannot we see in the state of French Protestantism as depicted in these extracts, a warning to ourselves, among whom we may observe the beginnings of the same doctrinal anarchy? And shall we not, at least, learn this much: that doctrine is in order to life, and that the study of doctrine must be prosecuted in a spirit which would see its end in the correction and edification of life? Shall we not, as students of doctrine, listen devoutly to the words of one of the richest writers on experimental religion of our generation,6 when he tells us that:

‘Living knowledge of our living Lord, and of our need of him, and of our relations to him for peace, life, testimony, service, consistency, is given by the Holy Comforter alone. But it is given by him in the great rule of his dealings with man, only through the channel of doctrine, of revealed, recorded, authenticated truth concerning the Lord of life.’ And shall we not catch the meaning of the illustrations which he adds:

‘Does the happy soul, happy because brought to the “confidence of self-despair”, and to a sight of the foundation of all peace, find itself saying, “O Lamb of God, I come,” and know that it falls, never to be cast out, into the embraces of ever-living love? Every element in that profound experience of restful joy has to do with doctrine, applied by the Spirit. “O Lamb of God” would be a meaningless incantation were it not for the precious and most definite doctrine of the sacrifice of propitiation and peace. That I may “come just as I am” is a matter of pure Divine information. My emotions, my deepest and most awful convictions, without such information, say the opposite; my instinct is to cry, “Depart, for I am a sinful man.” The blessed doctrine, not my reveries, says, “Nay; He was wounded for thy transgressions; come unto him.” . . . And when [one]. . . draws towards the journey’s end, and exchanges the trials of the pilgrimage for the last trial, “the river that hath no bridge,” why does he address himself in peace to die, this man who has been taught the evil of his own heart and the holiness of the Judge of all ? It is because of doctrine. He knows the covenant of peace, and the Mediator of it. He knows, and he knows it through revealed doctrine only, that to depart is to be with Christ, and is far better. He knows that the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But he knows, with the same certainty, that God giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ; and that his sheep shall never perish; and that he will raise up again at the last day him that has come to God through him. All this is doctrine. It is made to live in the man by the Holy Ghost given to him. But it is in itself creed, not life. It is revealed information.’

If such be the value and use of doctrine, the systematic theologian is pre-eminently a preacher of the gospel; and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbours as themselves; to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold him precious; and to recognize and yield to the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. With such truth as this he will not dare to deal in a cold and merely scientific spirit, but will justly and necessarily permit its precious­ness and its practical destination to determine the spirit in which he handles it, and to awaken the reverential love with which alone he should investigate its reciprocal relations. For this he needs to be suffused at all times with a sense of the unspeakable worth of the revelation which lies before him as the source of his material, and with the personal bearings of its separate truths on his own heart and life; he needs to have had and to be having a full, rich, and deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to his God, to be resting always on the bosom of his Redeemer, to be filled at all times with the manifest influences of the Holy Spirit. The student of systematic theology needs a very sensitive religious nature, a most thoroughly consecrated heart, and an outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon him, such as will fill him with that spiritual discernment, without which all native intellect is in vain. He needs to be not merely a student, not merely a thinker, not merely a systematizer, not merely a teacher — he needs to be like the beloved disciple himself in the highest, truest, and holiest sense, a divine.

Notes

  1. A. Sabatier, ‘Esquisse d’une philosophic de la religion’, 1897, p. 306; cf. `The Vitality of Christian Dogmas’, London, 1898, pp. 31-33.
  2. Jacques Pannier, ‘Le Témoignage du Saint-Esprit,’ 1893, p. 79.
  3. Arnaud, ‘Manuel de dogmatique’, 1890, p. ix.
  4. ‘De la valeur religieuse des doctrines chrétiennes’, p. 14.
  5. Revue théologique de Montauban, 13e Année, p. 14.
  6. Principal H. C. G. Moule, in his paper entitled ‘On the Relations Between Doctrine and Life’, printed in ‘The Church and her Doctrine’ (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 18921) pp. 185-188.

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