Pillar Journal

Beeke’s BOTM June 2024—Reformed Systematic Theology, Volumes 1-4

Theology is not just an academic subject—it is also a spiritual practice.

Theology is not just an academic subject—it is also a spiritual practice. In the recently completed 4-volume Reformed Systematic Theology set, authors Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley explore central Scripture themes from biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical perspectives. The result is a comprehensive yet accessible systematic theology of the Reformed Christian faith that ministers to the whole person―head, heart, and hands.

Read this brief excerpt from Volume 1 to learn why we must learn to love theology.

We read in Hebrews 1:1–2, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.” This is the great reason why we can and must do theology: God has spoken, and we have his Word. We will consider the doctrine of revelation in detail later in this volume, but let us consider this simple yet stupendous fact: God has revealed himself in words suited for our learning and comfort (Rom. 15:4).

The work of a theologian is to assist the church in hearing and responding to this Word. We find an excellent model for a theologian in Ezra the scribe: “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). As the result of Ezra’s ministry of the Word (Nehemiah 8), we read that the people met in public assembly to bless the Lord their God as the only God and the faithful covenant God of his people (Nehemiah 9). This, then, is the reason we do theology: God has given us his Word, and theologians must study it, do what it says, and teach it in God’s church so that people glorify him.

We will explore this call to the task of theology with special reference to the book of Deuteronomy. As the last sermons of Moses, Deuteronomy recapitulates the divine revelation of the first four books of the Bible, reminds the people that the Lord has redeemed them and spoken his covenant word to them, and summons them to respond. Moses’s words are God’s words, for he spoke “according unto all that the Lord had given him” (Deut. 1:3).

God Has Spoken, So We Must Hear Him

The book of Deuteronomy resonates with the call, “Hear, O Israel” (Hebrew shema yisrael, Deut. 4:1; 5:1; 6:3–4; 9:1). This is more than a command to use one’s ears; it requires thought. Since God has spoken, you must “hear” God’s words “that ye may learn them” (5:1). Hearing God’s words requires personal reflection and communal conversation (6:4–7). To “hear” the Lord engages your heart to “understand therefore” the implications of what he says (9:1, 3), to “speak not thou in thy heart” any thoughts contrary to his words (v. 4), but to “understand,” “remember, and forget not” (vv. 6–7). Since it is the one and only God who speaks, people must integrate what God says into their whole mind-set until God’s words rule them.

Receiving God’s Word into our whole life requires systematic theology. Van Til said, “It is a God-given duty that we should take the content of Scripture and bring it together into a systematic whole. It is plain that we are required to know the revelation that God has given us. Yet we would not adequately know that revelation if we knew it only in its several parts without bringing these parts into relation to each other. . . . Our minds must think systematically.”1Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 21.

We hear God by attending to the Word of Christ. The prophetic call of Moses foreshadowed and foretold the ministry of a greater Prophet “like unto” Moses (Deut. 18:15), ablaze with supernatural light on a mountain and talking with Moses and Elijah while Peter, James, and John watched (Mark 9:3–4). A cloud overshadowed them, and the Father said, “This is my beloved Son: hear him” (v. 7). After Christ died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, Peter quoted Moses’s promise and applied it to his fellow Jews in Jerusalem, “And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:23). The Christ-centered quality of our listening to God does not limit us to the New Testament, for, as Christ taught, all the Old Testament is about him (Luke 24:44–47).

Therefore, the prophetic Word of God through Christ requires that we hear him with open ears, an active mind, and a believing heart in the midst of the teaching and fellowship of God’s people. This is the essence of the theological task: to hear God’s voice with all that we are. Martin Luther said, “To hear God is bliss. . . . Therefore we must pay attention with trembling.”2Martin Luther, Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel Poellot, in LW, 9:48.

God Has Spoken, So We Must Obey Him

In the biblical perspective, we have not heard God rightly unless we do what he says. Deuteronomy 5:1 says, “And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them.” Deuteronomy 6:3 says, “Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them” (ESV). Allan Harman writes, “Not only were the people of Israel to listen to the stipulations of the covenant, but they were to order their lives in obedience to them.”3Allan M. Harman, Deuteronomy: The Commands of a Covenant God (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007), 75.

Deuteronomy describes the theological task as a work of remembrance, which refers not to bare mental impressions upon the memory, but to perpetually and faithfully embracing God’s Word to direct one’s life according to his covenant,4Deut. 5:15; 7:18; 8:2, 18; 9:7; 15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 32:7. as opposed to forgetting the Lord and his covenant.5Deut. 4:9, 23, 31; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7; 25:19; 26:13; 31:21; 32:18. Spiritual remembrance produces obedient action: “And thou shalt remember . . . and thou shalt observe and do these statutes” (Deut. 16:12). Conversely, forgetting God and his covenant results in disobedience: “Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day” (8:11). Ignatius wrote about AD 100, “Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit.”6Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, chap. 13, in ANF, 1:64.

Hearing and remembering God’s Word requires more than just reciting texts from the Bible, for God’s law does not explicitly regulate every situation. Rather, it requires a worldview that takes into account the whole counsel of God in order to guide the whole life. Therefore, the obligation to obey God’s Word necessitates the theological task, for obedience requires the engaging of one’s whole mind to discern God’s will by the integration of his various revelations into a unified whole. Without systematic theology, we cannot apply the fullness of God’s Word to our lives.

God Has Spoken, So We Must Teach Others of Him

The fact that God has spoken necessitates our teaching his Word to other people. Deuteronomy envisions two kinds of teaching: domestic teaching in the home and ecclesiastical teaching in the assemblies of God’s people. Teaching the family and teaching the church are closely related, for the Lord commanded Moses to teach the people so that they would teach their children (Deut. 4:9–10, 14; 5:31). The theological task has multigenerational ambitions, aiming to inculcate the fear of the Lord into “thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son” (6:2; cf. Ps. 78:1–7). Israel must hear the words of the Lord and keep them upon their hearts in order to “teach them diligently unto thy children,” permeating every activity of life with an ongoing conversation between “thou” and “thy son” about God and his Word (Deut. 6:7, cf.11:19). Good theology bears fruit in accurate and skillful catechisms and other tools by which people in every age group may drink in the doctrine of the Lord as their spiritual milk.

Moses possessed a unique office as the preeminent prophet of the old covenant. God entrusted a continuing teaching office to the priests (Deut. 17:9–12; cf. Mal. 2:1–9). The Lord said to the people through Moses, “Do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do” (Deut. 24:8). Thus, it was written of the sons of Levi, “They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law” (33:10). The old covenant priesthood with its rituals passed away at the sacrifice of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, but in the ministers of the Word in the new covenant church, the teaching office continues (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 1:9). The perpetuity of this teaching office requires the training of men in sound doctrine and the refutation of error, and thus the work of theologians.

John Calvin said of God’s pastors, “They must all their life long endeavor to maintain the doctrine, and therewithal they must have their mouths open to preach the word that is committed unto them, to the end that that treasure be not lost nor buried, but that all men may be made partakers thereof.”7John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy (1583; facsimile repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 1206. Thus, theology serves missions.

God Has Spoken, So We Must Glorify Him

The most famous call to hear the Lord appears in Deuteronomy 6:4–5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” God has spoken, and we must love him. All our study, obedience, and teaching aims at returning to the Lord the all-encompassing love that he deserves from us. Such love expresses itself in exclusive worship, the fear and service of the Lord alone (vv. 12–14). Calvin queried in his catechism (Q. 6), “What is the true and right knowledge of God?” and answered, “When we know Him in order that we may honour Him.”8Reformed Confessions, 1:469.

Orthodox theology aims at doxology. Deuteronomy 10:12 indicates that worship is the sum of all God teaches us in the Word: “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” By contrast, the greatest disaster into which a people can fall is to serve other gods.9Deut. 4:19, 28; 5:9; 7:4, 16; 8:19; 11:16; 12:2, 30; 13:2, 6, 13; 17:3; 28:14, 36, 64; 29:18, 26; 30:17; 31:20.

The highest purpose of God’s redemptive acts is to distinguish himself from all false gods and idols, so that he alone is glorified as God (Deut. 4:15–19, 32–40). Sound theology teaches us the nature of the true God, so that we will not worship “them which by nature are no gods” (Gal. 4:8). We do not want to fall under Christ’s rebuke to the Samaritans, “Ye worship ye know not what” (John 4:22). Johannes Wollebius said, “Christian theology is the doctrine concerning God, as he is known and worshiped for his glory and for our salvation.”10Wollebius, Compendium, proleg. (1) (29).

True theology not only directs whom we worship but also regulates how we worship. After forbidding Israel to imitate the other nations in the manner of their worship, the Lord said, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32). The doctrine of God’s holiness and a biblical ecclesiology teach us to be zealous in worshiping God according to his command, and not the inventions of man’s will (Col. 2:20–23).

We must do theology because God has spoken, and we must glorify him according to his will. Without sound doctrine, “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols,” as Calvin said, for “man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.”11Calvin, Institutes, 1.11.8. Kelly Kapic writes, “Whether it is the distant and uninterested deity of modernity or the fragmented and territorial gods of postmodernity, all times and cultures carry the danger of warping our worship.”12Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, 18. However, Calvin said, “If we will know whether we have profited in God’s law or no, we must always sift and search ourselves whether we have such desire and zeal that God should be honored and glorified by us.”13Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, 266. Thus, the theologian should not be motivated by merely accumulating knowledge, but, as Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) said, by “the fervor of my burning soul.”14Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity: English Translation and Commentary, trans. and ed. Ruben Angelici (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 3.1 (116).

Excerpt From
Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1
Joel R. Beeke