The question of why we do theology presses hard against us in this age. A number of objections are raised against the discipline of systematic theology. Though we deal with them individually here, we realize that in many cases they appear in combinations. Each objection rejects theology as a valuable study of the Bible in order to know God and replaces it with another form of study it deems more important.1Students of philosophy will note that these objections arise out of false or unbalanced epistemologies. While we do not believe that these objections are valid, we do value them because they warn us of dangers we need to avoid.
Objection 1: Empiricism. In the empiricist perspective, only those things that can be measured by the physical sciences can contribute to our knowledge of reality. We can know only what we see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Carl Henry (1913–2003) wrote, “Arrogating to itself sovereign sway over the whole of external reality, and thus implying omnicompetence to disclose its hidden secrets and to define whatever may be said about it, scientific empiricism has been hailed as the great demythologizer whose reliable way of knowing unmasks all the legends and myths of the past in order to substitute authentic knowledge.”2Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco, TX: Word, 1976), 1:157. Theology, then, is mere religious opinion and private belief, not a public form of knowledge worthy of authoritative teaching.
We answer empiricism, first, by showing its foolish inconsistency. The statement that we can know only that which is proven scientifically itself cannot be proven in a scientific laboratory; it is a philosophical assertion. Second, empiricism is naive about the physical sciences, which do not merely analyze data but, as John Frame points out, interpret it according to prevailing theories, which are based upon assumptions and traditions that change dramatically over time.3Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 117. Empiricism sets up a new mythology, enshrined around the idol of the infallible scientific community that acts with total objectivity.4Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 1:157. Against this idolatry, we assert that “the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). Third, empiricism fails to grapple with the fact that much of what we know derives from personal communication. This is true of knowledge we gain from other people. As to God, though we cannot see the invisible or measure the infinite, through his Son he has communicated with us (John 1:18; Col. 1:15). Frame says, “God’s speech to man is real speech. It is very much like one person speaking to another. God speaks so that we can understand him and respond appropriately.”5John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 3. This is a central teaching of the Bible and the basis of theology.
We may learn from the empiricist objection that theology must not become an exercise in abstract ideas. God’s Word has come to us in human history, indeed as a human being who was seen, heard, touched, and crucified, and who will come again (1 John 1:1–3; 3:2).
Objection 2: Pragmatism. Pragmatism argues that the only thing that matters is success in building the church, especially through evangelism. The important truths of the Bible, it is said, are simple and need no theological elaboration. From the point of view of pragmatism, theology is a waste of time. Instead, church leaders should devote themselves to the study of human social behavior in order to master techniques to increase the size of their churches. Pragmatism is a devastating application of empiricism to Christian theology, for it values only measurable, visible results.
We answer the pragmatic objection by affirming that sound theology is essential to evangelism and building the church. Evangelism is preaching the gospel. The church must guard against a false, accursed gospel, such as infected the Galatians (Gal. 1:8–9). Christian churches can be surprisingly open to receiving the preaching of “another Jesus” and “another gospel” by the servants of Satan (2 Cor. 11:4, 13–15).
As to building the church, the apostle Paul says Christ gives pastors and teachers to the church to build up the body “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:13–15). Theological knowledge, doctrine, and truth are crucial for spiritual growth. While there is certainly more to the Christian life than studying theology, true theology is quite practical. Samuel Miller (1769–1850), professor at Princeton Seminary, wrote,
In forming the religious character here recommended, it is of the utmost importance that the foundation be laid in clear views of divine truth. Doctrinal knowledge is apt to be undervalued by private Christians, and especially by the young. They imagine, according to the popular prejudice, that if the heart be right, and the conduct correct, the doctrines embraced are of small moment. This supposes that the heart of any one may be right, while his principles are essentially wrong; or that his practice may be pure, while his religious opinions are radically erroneous. But nothing can be more contrary both to Scripture and experience. The great Founder of our holy Religion declares that men are ‘sanctified by the truth.’ In fact, it is only so far as the truth is received, loved and obeyed that real religion has any place either in the heart or life.6Samuel Miller, introductory address to William B. Sprague, Lectures to Young People (New York: John F. Haven, 1830), xix.
However, we are grateful for this objection because it warns us against considering theological truth apart from its practical use. We must avoid “ivory tower” theology, but trace how the Bible applies, explicitly and implicitly, its doctrines to practical life and missions.
Objection 3: Ecumenism. Doctrine divides, we are told. Therefore, some, perhaps many, doctrines of the Bible are best left alone because careful study and fervent teaching produce more heat than light. From the ecumenist perspective, theology damages the unity of the body of Christ.
We answer the ecumenist objection by pointing out that sound doctrine unites, as the text quoted just above states about “the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). Only false doctrine divides. Paul warned the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:30, “Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” It insults the wisdom of God to say that his Word contains teachings that we do best to avoid. All Scripture is profitable for teaching and application (2 Tim. 3:16).
The ecumenical objection does offer this helpful warning, that we must never do theology with a divisive spirit, for “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose” (2 Tim. 2:24–25).
Objection 4: Anti-Intellectual Biblicism. Academic seminaries have betrayed Christians time and again. Therefore, we are told, we should not engage in theology, just read and teach the Bible. In this anti-intellectual embrace of the Bible, theology is the road to heresy.
We answer the anti-intellectual biblicist with another question: What does the Bible teach? It is impossible to teach biblical truth without reflecting upon the Bible in a systematic fashion. Thus, Christ not only says, “search the Scriptures,” but indicates that we must do so knowing that the whole Bible testifies to him (John 5:39). The intellectual discipline of theology is not infidelity, but obedience to the call to “meditate upon these things” (1 Tim. 4:15). Paul’s words apply here: “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren” (1 Thess. 4:13; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1). Ignorance is the mother of heresy. Cornelius Van Til said, “It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But ‘Bible-trained’ instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. . . . Systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.”7Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 22.
Yet we also acknowledge the force of this objection, for it is true that seminaries often do drift from their biblical moorings. Schools and theologians must keep watch according to Paul’s admonition: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16).
Objection 5: Romanticism. Romanticism is an appeal to the emotions. It says that real godliness is not a matter of truths in the mind, but of feelings in the heart. In this point of view, the only thing that matters is bringing people into a personal encounter with God so that they may be moved to love him. To the romantic, theology equals dead orthodoxy. Alternatively, romanticism may redefine theology as the study not of God, but of our feelings about God. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) said, “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech.”8Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 76 (sec. 15).
We answer the romanticist objection by quoting our Lord’s words in John 8:31–32: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Faithful reception of Christ’s Word results in knowing the truth. This is more than a feeling of joy, dependence, or awe. It is possible to respond to the Word with such emotions, but then fall away as the feelings prove to be nothing of abiding value (Luke 8:13). When Peter confessed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he did not merely declare his feelings, but said, “We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:69). As Frame notes, Schleiermacher was promoting subjectivism, not theology.9Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 77.
We do admit, however, that we must never reduce Christianity to a cold and emotionless set of beliefs. True theology in the heart is living and vital; indeed, as the knowledge of God, it is “life eternal” (John 17:3).
Objection 6: Agnosticism. In its most extreme form, agnosticism results in skepticism, the denial of all knowledge. Softer forms of agnosticism minimize how much we can know for certain about God, since God is so great. It holds that any attempt to build a system of truths not only fails but necessarily distorts the paradoxes of God and dishonors his infinity. To the theological agnostic, theology is arrogance.
We answer the agnostic that it is no arrogance to believe God’s Word with all our hearts, but rather the greatest humility (Isa. 66:2). The Bible is not a cloud of darkness, but a light that brings clarity and sight (Ps. 119:105). Christ rebukes ignorance and doubt when he says, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). The Bible does not commend doubt, but repeatedly affirms that “we know” certain truths.10John 3:11; 4:22; 21:24; Rom. 3:19; 7:14; 8:22, 28; 1 Cor. 8:4; 2 Cor. 5:1; 1 Tim. 1:8; 1 John 2:3, 18; 3:2, 14, 19, 24; 5:2, 15, 18–20. Faith, at least in part, is “a certain knowledge” that what God has revealed in his Word is true.11Heidelberg Catechism (LD 7, Q. 21), in The Three Forms of Unity, 73.
Yet we can learn even from the agnostic, for he reminds us that we always do theology as finite creatures and image bearers, not as God’s peers or equals. Our theology can be true, but never comprehensive of God’s infinite glory. This calls the theologian to humility.
Objection 7: Progressivism. The progressive argues that systematic theology is too dogmatic and rigid. We are told that we are on a neverending journey into truth, so we never arrive at any definite conclusions. Theological progressivism sees theology as bondage to tradition and posits an evolutionary view of religion in which we constantly shed old forms and advance to higher levels.
We answer progressivism by noting our biblical duty, as Paul writes to Timothy, to “hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). There is a deeply conservative element in theology, for it is our aim to preserve and expound apostolic truth, not add to it—yes, to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). True reformation is a return to “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16).
However, the progressive perspective contains a kernel of salutary truth: we are not to confuse our systems of theology with the inerrant Word of God. Therefore, there is the possibility and duty of further reformation according to the Word of God, but a reformation that builds upon the orthodox creeds and evangelical confessions of the past, not one that disowns them. Van Til wrote, “Creedal revision” that “tones down the specific and exact teachings of Scripture . . . to vague generalities” is “worse than useless; it is retrogressive.”12Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 20.
Objection 8: Rationalism. The rationalist says that all truth is deduced from the logical principles and self-evident truths in our minds. Our knowledge is based, it is said, upon reasonable thinking, but rationalism regards many essential Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, or substitutionary atonement, as irrational or illogical, and therefore untrue.
We answer rationalism, first, by noting that no one can deduce all his knowledge from rational principles, for we all rely upon the testimony of those we trust. Second, the most rational action we can take is to believe all that God has said, for he is the highest authority. John 3:31–33 says, “He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.” Third, rationalism fails because it is idolatrous. Frame explains, “The rationalist seeks certainty outside of God’s Word. He seeks the ultimate criteria for thought within his own innate ideas and deductive reasoning. In biblical terms, the rationalist’s quest is idolatrous because it is the attempt to deify human thought.”13Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 114. Since God is God, “there is no searching of his understanding” (Isa. 40:28), and his thoughts transcend our reasoning.
The objection of rationalism, however, does help us to guard against making foolish theological statements. Theology transcends logic, but it is not illogical. God cannot contradict himself (Num. 23:19), and therefore our theology should not engage in contradictions.
Objection 9: Relativism. The relativist argues that there is no absolute truth. The Bible, we are told, has as many meanings as there are people who read it, or even more. We have no right to force our opinion on others. The relativist considers theology to be an attempt to oppress others—an act of hatred or abuse.
We answer relativism, first, by noting that it contradicts itself. Frame writes, “The subjectivist tries to convince others of his view, and thus he concedes that there is some truth knowable to others beside himself. . . . He claims to know objectively the truth that there is no objective truth, and that is a self-defeating argument.”14Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 120. Second, the Lord is truth (John 14:6) and love (1 John 4:8). It is therefore no contradiction to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Those who love us best will tell us the truth, even if it wounds us (Prov. 27:5–6). Third, we do have access to absolute truth in the Word of God. The Lord Jesus says that to abide in his words is to know the truth (John 8:31), for, as he says to the Father, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Christ rebuked the Sadducees, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures” (Matt. 22:29). We must follow his Word or we will fall into error. The conflict between truth and error is “no piece-meal affair,” as Van Til observed, but “a life-and-death struggle between two mutually opposed lifeand- world views.”15Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 23. Therefore, we are best equipped to stand for the truth when our worldview is directed by systematic reflection upon the Bible.
Nevertheless, we appreciate the relativist’s warning against oppressive and hateful speech. Though Christ did not shrink from preaching divine judgment (Matt. 11:20–24), he warmly and lovingly calls unbelievers to himself: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vv. 28–30). Our theology must not lay oppressive burdens on the souls of those who turn to Christ (23:4) or set us up as lords over others (3 John 9–10). Rather, “we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
Having surveyed these nine objections to theology, we have seen that they actually speak against false and wicked theology, but not the sound theology of God’s Word. Therefore, let us not be deterred or discouraged by these objections, but rather let us press on to know the Lord and make him known.
Reformed Systematic Theology
Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley