Systematic Theology I - Lesson 2

Method of Evangelical Theology

Introductory issues of how to do EST and the criteria for assessing theological formulations.

Bruce Ware
Systematic Theology I
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Method of Evangelical Theology

Theological Prolegomena

Part 2

II. The Method of Evangelical Systematic Theology

A. Observation in Theological Method: Induction

B. Theory Construction in Theological Method: Deduction and Retroduction

1. Deduction

2. Retroduction

C. Criteria for Assessing Theological Formulations

1. Quantitative Criterion

2. Qualitative Criterion

3. Consistency Criterion

4. Coherence Criterion

D. Conclusion: Theology as Science, Art and Faith

  • An introduction to theology, answering the questions of what is EST (Evangelical Systematic Theology), why study EST, and how it relates to other theological disciplines.

  • Introductory issues of how to do EST and the criteria for assessing theological formulations.

  • Issues of cultural Christianity, and the evangelical position of "contextualized normativity."

  • Begins with a discussion of the background to the discussion (Pelagius, Augustine, Council of Carthage, and semi-Pelagianism), and then a discussion of Luther, Calvin, Arminius, the Synod of Dort and the Five Points of Calvinism.

  • Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and their views of Israel and the church

  • A discussion of these three positions and the key figures in each (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, von Harnack; Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr; Carnell, Henry, Graham)

  • The beginning discussion of revelation and the specifics of General Revelation

  • A continuation of the discussion of revelation with an emphasis on Special Revelation, moving into the topic of Inspiration (definition and key passages).

  • A survey of the recent debate, defining inerrancy (including the relationship of hermeneutics and inerrancy), and its relationship to authority.

  • The definition of illumination, why it is necessary, and how we come to know truth. The critceria for canonicity is then discussed and why the canon is now closed (i.e., why no more books would be accepted into the Bible).

  • Why there is a need to know God, and "theism" (arguments as to whether there is a God or not).

  • Can God be known? The Doctrine of the Trinity (Scriptural basis; historical background; Monarchian heresies)

  • Continuation of the discussion of the Trinity and the church's rejection of Monarchianism

  • Beginning of the discussion of the attributes of God's character, and how the discussion is organized.

  • The related doctrines of God's self-sufficiency and his love. (The lecture begins in the middle of a sentence but not much content is missing. Point V., subpoints 1 and 2 were covered in lecture 14. See Outline tab.)

  • God's incommunicable attributes are those that he does not share with us: self-existence; self-sufficiency; infinity; omnipresence; eternity

  • Completes the discussion of God's incommunicable attributes by discussing immutability, the doctrine that God does not change.

  • Discussion of those attributes of God's character that he shares (to some degee) with his creation, beginning with his intellectual attributes (omniscience).

  • A continuing discussion of God communicable attributes, both intellectual (Omnisapience; truth) and moral (goodness; love).

  • Continuation of the discussion of God's communicable moral attributes (love, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness, justice) and the attributes of God's rulership (freedom; omnipotence).

  • The Scriptural teaching and issues related to this central question

  • Hyper-Calvinism, Process Theology, Arminianism, and Calvinism

  • Concluding discussion on Calvinism

  • An introduction to the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of humanity's origin (Adam and Eve)

  • Theories on the structure of the human soul (Monism, Dichotomy, Trichotomy) and the transmission of the soul (Creationism, Traducianism).

  • Sin is one of the most foundational and significant topics in Scripture. The doctrines of salvation and sanctification are meaningless without an accurate understanding of sin. The Old Testament teaches both the personal and corporate aspects of sin. New Testament teachings include the essence of sin and total depravity.

  • The facets of the Fall, theories of Original Sin, and God's triumph over sin

What value is there to attempt to know the unknowable or to try to understand someone that, by their own description, is beyond our understanding?

Even though we cannot know everything there is to know about God, there are some things you can know because he has revealed them to you. You can develop a systematic theology as you contemplate what you experience in nature, what you can read in the Bible and what you can know from history. This will give you insights into who God is, how you can have a relationship with him, and how you will live your life differently. Dr. Ware begins by giving you a systematic theology definition and explains systematic theology teachings and concepts that you will find in systematic theology books. He also helps you to learn both the inductive and deductive approaches in assessing various criteria so you can determine for yourself the validity of any theological position.

Some of the first lectures in Dr. Ware’s Systematic Theology I give you the core theological positions of major movements like Calvinism, Arminianism, Covenant, Liberalism and Neo Orthodoxy and help you compare and contrast their different perspectives. Also, since the Bible is the primary source for determining your systematic theology, Dr. Ware defines and explains key terms like inspiration, revelation, inerrancy, illumination and canonicity. God’s existence and attributes make up a major part of this class. The final lectures in Systematic Theology I focus on what the Bible teaches us about humans and sin.

The study of systematic theology is a mixture of science, art and faith. Join Dr. Ware as he leads you in understanding the core teachings of Scripture in a way that help you articulate your systematic theology, deepen your relationship with God and live out your life as a changed person.

This is the first of a two semester class on systematic theology. We recommend the book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem as a companion book for this class. Dr. Grudem also wrote an abridged version entitled Bible Doctrines that includes discussion questions that are helpful for using in a small group/classroom situation. 

II. The Method of Evangelical Systematic Theology

Theological method is a very important part of theological discussion, and it actually occupies an enormous amount of literature. In our Doctrinal program, Dr. Wellum is teaching a seminar devoted, basically, to issues involved in theological method. They are complex, weighty and many of them are philosophical issues. They relate to epistemology- how you come to know what you know. How do we claim to know these things revealed by God? What role do our minds play in constructing those conceptions? Can we be confident that we know truth? What about the role of language? These are questions that have to do with religious language and all kinds of things that are involved in it. Obviously, we can’t go into great detail on it, but I do want you to realize that this area is strategically important to theology because what you decide on theological method will impact every other doctrine that you formulate or critique because, your methodology will tell you how to proceed either in constructing a doctrine or evaluating a doctrine that is out on the table. This is an important area. It is sort of like hermeneutics (principles for interpreting the Bible). What hermeneutics is to biblical studies theological method is to theology. It is a methodological study that affects how you do your discipline; how you do what you do in that area. So it is very important.


A. Observation in Theological Method: Induction

One of the clearest features of doing theology as evangelicals is that we start the whole theological endeavor with a presupposition. It is not a mindless presupposition; it is a presupposition that we have good reason for accepting. This presupposition is that God has spoken, and God has spoken authoritatively, definitively, and inerrantly in his word. When we think about the project of constructing theological conceptions, we don’t proceed in the way liberal traditions proceed. There is a huge difference in how an evangelical approaches theology and how a non-evangelical, liberal, would approach theology. If you don’t assume you have a definitive word from God, and you want to think about theology, what do you do? You speculate, you come up with all kinds of innovative (perhaps), creative (perhaps) but speculative ideas about God and about a relationship with him because there is not an assumption from the beginning that we have divine revelation. However, we do have a definitive word from God that we look at.

For example, Gordon Kaufman at Harvard Divinity School, who has taught there many years, has championed this notion for speculation as the basis for doing theology. He has a book that came out a number years ago entitled, The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God. You get the point of the book in the title. A theologian uses his or her imagination to envision a God-concept that will be the most useful, helpful, perhaps psychologically supportive, perhaps emotionally uplifting. What ever it is that you want to accomplish, you construct this God-concept, and then present it as therapy for people. If asked the question, “Is this meant to represent who God really is?” The answer would come back with a laugh, “Of course not! How could we possible know what God is really like? How could we actually know God? We do not have anything from him that would tell us who he is, or what he is like.” It is right there where you see the tremendous divide between the liberal tradition and the evangelical tradition. Evangelicals would say, “Suppose that we did have a definitive word from God? Suppose God has spoken? Wouldn’t it be absolutely preposterous and the height of presumption and folly not to pay close attention to what God has said? We have good reason to believe that the Bible is the word of God. That it is definitive revelation. That means when theologians begin their work, they begin with an objective starting point: Scripture. It is God’s revelation to which all eyes may turn. It is objective, it is observable, and it is public (it is there for people to see). There is objective revelation from God by which we may know what he has said.

There is a real sense in which theology begins with observation. It begins with this role of looking at, observing and carefully studying what God has told us in his self-revelation in Scripture. There is a sense in which theology in the evangelical tradition functions very much like science. That is, you have objective data, you have an objective subject matter that you examine and try to understand what it is, the way that a scientist proceeds. Induction is the place where all theology begins, namely, observing the subject matter. In the encyclopedia of philosophy there is an article on scientific method. The author of that article defines scientific method this way: “Scientific method, if it has any unifocal meaning (that simply means if it means anything across the board in all sciences) it means the right mixture of observation and experiment on the one side and theory construction on the other.” Theology functions very much like science functions in that it starts with observation, with observing the data. This is what any scientist would do; a chemist, a biologist, or an astronomer. Granted the subject matter of biology and astronomy are different, but similar procedures, namely observe carefully what we are looking at. Take note to detail the qualities, and determine what is true about that subject matter. Obviously, in theology that parallels careful Bible study. Theology builds out of the discipline of reading the Bible correctly, trying to understand what passages of Scripture mean.

Induction is not the end of the story. Even the definition of scientific method is a combination of observation and experiment on the one side and theory construction on the other. No science, including theology (If you want to think of theology as a science, though some people find that a very troubling notion. I don’t; I find it actually an apt notion.) is content with mere description, mere tallying of inductively arrived at data. You are not content to ask, “What is true about something?” and have a long list, like a grocery list of all these things that are true. What do scientists attempt to do on with that objectively arrived at list? They try to make sense of it, to explain the phenomenon. Let’s take something complex, light for example. When physicists examine light, they have all these data that tell them certain characteristics about light, but they aren’t content with just these characteristics. They want to explain what light is and how it functions. There comes the rub. In some ways light functions like particles, and in other ways it functions like waves. How do we understand this? As far as I know, this has still never been resolved in a coherent unified theory of light. Obviously, we all agree that it is there, and it works, but how it works, we not quite sure. The point is that science moves beyond mere inductive itemization to synthesis and conceptual construction or to theorizing and providing theories to account for the data which has been observed.

Theology, likewise, moves beyond mere observation to theory construction.

B. Theory Construction in Theological Method: Deduction and Retroduction

1. Deduction

The first level of theory construction is moving beyond itemizing the data. In the case of theology, it is moving beyond observing the meaning of passages in a sort of sequential fashion, isolated from one another. We don’t think about what James says in light of what Paul says. We just get Paul down and get James down. What about Paul and the law? Paul and the law in some places doesn’t sound like Paul and the law other places. You don’t have to refer to Paul and James; it can be Paul and Paul. You start with observing the meaning of passages, but theology is not content to end there. Once we have a sense of what these passages are saying, now the quest is to put them together, to come up with a doctrine, a theory that explains all of the data.

The fist level of this movement from individual, or particular, to general is deduction. You try to have a deductive generalization about a particular set of data. Deduction always works on the basis of taking individual items, having a “therefore,” and having a conclusion. Deduction works on the basis that if this is true, if this is true, and if this is true, then this follows. It is a form of logical argument in which the conclusion, if it is an accurate deduction logically, necessarily follows from the premises. The premises are observational facts, truths which have been observed through induction. It says, here is an inductive truth, here is an inductive truth, here is one, and here is one; so given that, what is the general logical necessary truth that follows?

Theology follows this. It asks what must be the case in light of these things?

Let me give you a concrete example which I will use here and for retroduction when we get to it: the doctrine of the trinity. The early church struggled in the first century with who Jesus is, how we understand the nature of God in light of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We have the advantage of all of their labor and all of their thought. Some of us can yawn at the doctrine of the Trinity; shame on us. Intellectually, this was a huge challenge. The meaning of this doctrine to our faith is utterly enormous. How did we get there? This is a very simple version of it. We got there by theologians, thoughtful Christian people in reading their Bibles, came to the conclusion that one of the inductively observed certainties of the Bible is that the Father is God. No one questioned this. No heretic (someone who was ruled out of the church as a heretic) questioned the Father was God. Then along comes a much more controversial claim that was finally accepted as true, the Son is God. Arius proposed that if there is one God, God as Father, then the Son cannot be God. He can be like God, he can be made by God with great power and glory, but he cannot be God. Athanasius argued for the deity of Christ. So the debate went on and ultimately, at Nicea in 325, they affirmed the deity of Christ, that he was one nature with the Father. They concluded, John 1:1 and many other passages point to this, so they concluded the Son is God.

Also controversial, which was not settled until the Council at Constantinople, is the deity of the Holy Spirit. Here come these Arians, the followers of Aries (Arius passed away in 336), who argued that the Holy Spirit is not God. They said the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God like God has hands, arms and Spirit. So it is not a personal agent; it is just a manifestation of God. That is all the Spirit is. No, argued the Cappadocians. They were the ones who won the day on this doctrine. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus argued for the deity of the Holy Spirit. So the church affirmed that Holy Spirit is God and everyone affirmed that there is one God. How do you put these premises together? The first step in this is deduction. I am not claiming that those early theologians actually conscientiously thought of themselves as doing deduction and then retroduction. I am claiming, on analysis, if you look back to see what happened, you see deduction - the logically necessary conclusion. If the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and there is one God, what is logically necessary is that God is one and three. He is one (that is premise four), and he is three (that is premises one through three).

How does this fall short of giving us a doctrine of the Trinity? What is lacking in the statement, “God is one and three”? It is a true statement, and it is the logical necessity of these four premises, so what is lacking in it? I am one in three also. I am one person, but I am also father, son and uncle (and few more things beside that). Why is it not a contradiction to say that Bruce Ware is one in three? I am one in a different sense than the sense in which I am three and four and five, and however many. This does not explain how it can be that God is one in three. It stops short of giving an explanation of how this makes sense. We crave that explanation in order to understand this truth. Augustine’s favorite and famous statement is, “I believe in order to understand.” Faith seeking understanding is exactly what he applied here. I believe what the Bible teaches; I believe that the Father is God, that the Son is God and that Holy Spirit is God. There is one God, and I believe that God is one in three; help me to understand what this is.

2. Retroduction

This term retroduction is not a common term; many of you, perhaps, have never heard it before. This is a very helpful conception. It is a term coined by the philosopher Pierce. Retroduction is the function of looking at data and then imagining, using your best creative abilities to ask the question, “How can we best make sense of the data?” You propose a possible way of doing that, and then you go back to the data and see if this way of understanding it has done justice to the data. If not, then you make modifications and keep working on this, attempting to come to an understanding that fits the data.

A definition from a very fine article by John Warwick Montgomery (a very fine theologian from our era, has written many things in apologetics, in theology, in science, and in law. He is a kind of a jack-of-all-trades. He has written a series of articles published in a book entitled, The Suicide in Christian Theology. He has a chapter in that book titled, “The Theologian’s Craft.” (I think it is really a superb article. Any of you have interest in going on for more serious study in theology; I would encourage you to get that article.) In that article, he defines retroduction in this way, “Retroduction is the creative ordering of relevant data into a conceptual fabric that exposes the relationships among those data in a way that enhances their native meaning.” What retroduction seeks to do is take these data and ask the question of how they can best be understood together, not as individual isolated units but together. If these data relate to the same subject matter, how do we understand them together? It may not be crystal clear how they go together, so what do you do? It is the creative ordering. As a Christian, that involves prayer and seeking God’s help to think of a way this should rightly be understood. Creative ordering is prayerful, humble seeking after God to try to understand how these things can be brought together in a holistic way. It is a creative ordering of the data into a whole fabric so that things are woven together, and they fit in a way that exposes and enhances the native meaning of each part, each datum. Each datum is allowed its full expression and enhanced when seen in relationship to the other. This is what retroduction attempts to do.

A simple example of this is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. (I married into a family who loves putting together jigsaw puzzles. My wife is the youngest of five daughters and she remembers growing up in their home it would not be a holiday if there were not a card table with a jigsaw puzzle going. They would go through a dozen of them over a four day weekend. I had never done a jigsaw puzzle in my life before I got married. So you can imagine when Christmas came or some holiday, I had to learn that it was absolutely necessary that we get a card table out and do a jigsaw puzzle. I have learned to appreciate doing jigsaw puzzles; they are a lot fun although my wife kills me; she puts in ten pieces to my one.) When you do a jigsaw puzzle, you start by putting the pieces out and turning them over upright. Then you begin noticing; you begin looking for certain things that will indicate how they go together. The easiest thing in a jigsaw puzzle is finding the border because you’ve got all these pieces out there that have edges on them and four of them have corners; those are fun to find because you know they are going in one of four places. Other things to notice about them are not quite that easy. Edges and corners are easy to spot, but then you begin looking at colors, textures, and lines. Now suppose (I would hate to do this, I would refuse to do this), you were given a jigsaw puzzle without being given the box top. You have no idea going into this what the picture should look like at the end. This is theology. We are not given the picture at the end. What we are given is all the pieces in the Bible. We take all of these pieces and ask how they can best be organized. Retroduction seeks to put the pieces together so that the native meanings of each piece are actually enhanced when they are joined appropriately. Can you see that in a jigsaw puzzle? Take a given piece. You hold it up and it has intrinsic native meaning; it has color, a certain pattern on it, and it has meaning in itself. But when you take that piece of the jigsaw puzzle, find its proper location,, and you place it where it belongs in relation to other pieces, isn’t the meaning of that piece enhanced? All of sudden you realize that the little line going through there is part of a shepherd’s staff. But you wouldn’t have known it was part of a shepherd’s staff unless it was connected to the other. So its meaning is enhanced. It doesn’t change the fact that the line is there, but it shows how it relates to the other pieces.

Theology does just this. It takes this truth, and that truth, which relate together in some way and seeks to conceive conceptually of a unity in which all of those meanings are allowed their full expression. When united, they are given an enhanced sense of importance as they are connected together correctly.

C. Criteria for Assessing Theological Formulations

What kinds of things ought to be considered in either formulating or critiquing a theological proposal?

1. Quantitative Criterion

Has all the relative data been considered and accounted for in formulating a theoretical conclusion? This is a critical thing. Think, in science, what would happen if certain data, that actually affects the outcome were ignored? Whether purposeful or not (it may just be negligence, it may just be ignorance), but if certain relevant data are ignored, those data affect the outcome and they affect the conclusions you would draw. Obviously if you leave something out, you are going to have a deficient conclusion.

Likewise in theology, if you want a certain theological result from the outset, and you just know that this is where you are going to end up with this theological decision, to ensure that you get there, avoid any passages that might cause a problem with you holding this particular theological view. This is not a legitimate approach to theology. Number one, it does not respect Sola Scriptura. If we are dominated by some theological commitment that is nonnegotiable, and the text is actually ignored or set aside for the sake of holding onto this theological commitment, then it is not true that were are Protestants in the truest sense of the word. We are bound to tradition over Scripture. We have got to come to terms with how important it is to always let Scripture reign over our theology. Let our theology be adjusted so Scripture’s voice may be heard

The first criterion is quantitative. We want to look at every relevant passage that relates to whatever we are studying. There is this problem: if you read philosophy of science and discussions on methodology, you will find discussions regularly about what is called the problem of “inductive generalization.” It is impossible to arrive at absolute generalizations based on inductively arrived at information, because that induction can always be increased. Another way to put it is that you can never be confident that you have done all the induction that can be done related to a particular question. In science, couldn’t you perform one more experiment; couldn’t you examine one more specimen? How can you say that all the induction is done? You can’t. What you recognize then, is even though you say, as I just did, you need to account for all the relevant data, but you need to have an “*” by the word “all.” You recognize that you do the best you can to not ignore any relevant data, but it is always possible that you have. It is always possible that there is more data there than you have examined in arriving at your conclusion. Hence, you are always open to reexamine. This is why every single doctrine that we hold in the Christian faith needs to be open for reexamination on the basis of Scripture’s teaching.

All of you know, I think, that I am very critical of open theism for a number of reasons. But I am not critical of open theists for opening the question of how we should best understand God They and we have every right to do this if we can make our case on the basis of the Bible. If the Bible really does teach this, and we have been wrong about it, then God help us to go with the Bible. God help us to go with the truth and change our conceptions, if those have in fact been misconceptions.

Saying that we have to account for all the data sounds glorious and wonderful, but in fact, we have to recognize that we can never quite do that. We do the best we can, but we recognize that there is always more that could be brought that could change it. Archaeological discoveries could change it, better exegetical work could change it, and better attention to texts could change it.

2. Qualitative Criterion

By this criterion I mean that we have allowed each datum to be what it is. As it relates to theology, you have allowed every passage to speak what it wants. You are allowing every text to say what it really does mean. This is the goal: qualitative control (quality control) of theological method. You all know what quality control is in industry (I worked at a light fixture manufacturing company one summer. It was not my favorite summer job. Working on an assembly line, it was just amazing to me to watch workers who were angry at the foreman mess up the lights that came by, to take it out on the foreman. I sat there is disbelief; they were not taking it out on the foreman; they were taking it out on the poor sucker who buys the lights and it doen’t work. The quality control person would test every twentieth light that came off the assembly line: plug it in, check it, do the different things it was suppose to do, make sure it works, put it in a box and send it off.) Quality control is checking to make sure it is what it suppose to be. In theology, are goal is theological formations, understandings that match what the text is really saying. Let the text say what it wants to say. Let me use the jigsaw puzzle example to make this point. Suppose you pick up a piece and say, ah ha, I know where this goes. So you go to put it there and there is a knob on the piece that is keeping it from fitting into place, but you know it goes there. So you pull out your pair of scissors and trim that knob off just right and snug it in there. It fits; you made it fit. Is that the way a jigsaw puzzle is to be done? No, you have just ruined the end product by doing that. This is what we do in theology when we take these texts and assume we just know that they are suppose to fit. So we get our interpretive scissors and we begin cutting and shaping and making this thing be what it is not, to make it fit. Granted, it is anything but easy to tell if you are doing this or to tell if another person is doing it, but it is so important for us to affirm in principle and to have a heart commitment to endeavor to do theology in a way that lets the text speak what it wants. If we don’t like it, that is our problem. Isn’t this where liberals end up giving up hell, giving up judgment, giving up sin. They don’t like what it says, so they take out their scissors and trim. Let’s have respect for the text. If we don’t like what it says, of course we go back and examine and work to try to understand what the text says, let it stan,d and then work at putting together a theology that accords with the text.

3. Consistency Criterion

Having a consistency criterion means that when doing theology we try to ensure that all the parts are logically consistent with one another, that nothing we say here contradicts what we say here. It is based upon the conviction that if it really is true, it represents God’s mind, and if it represents God’s mind, it won’t be internally contradictory. Because God is not yin and yang, he is not good and evil; he is not light and darkness; he is not truth and error. He is good; he is right; he is truth. We seek to know what is true. One of the markers that you haven’t gotten it right is if there is logical contradiction. Having said that, logical consistency is not a guarantee that it is true. You can have logically consistent systems of error. Everything may fit together right, it could all be true, it could be logically correct, and there may not be one point that contradicts another point, but it is wrong. Logical consistency is not a guarantee of truthfulness but is what philosophers call a defeater. A logical inconsistency is a defeater; it defeats a model from being accepted as true because you know it has to be consistent in order to be true.

4. Coherence Criterion

Coherence is the most nebulous of the four criteria, and it is the hardest to get your mind around. This is about more than mere consistency. It is about putting the pieces together in a way that enhances the beauty, the wonder, the awe, and the glory of that truth. It is seeing the truth presented in a way that magnifies its wonder. I hope all of us have had experiences in thinking about theological truths where we sense that is exactly what has happened. Perhaps, it was meditating on the atoning work of Christ and the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement: the glory and the wonder of this doctrine, that he would take my place and bear my sin, which imputed to him, that I might receive his righteousness imputed to me. This is just absolutely glorious. When you see it, there is ring of truth about it. You read your Bible and hear this and say, “Yes! That is what it saying.” You see the whole thing together and you see glory in this wondrous truth. This coherence criterion is called in other disciplines the “aesthetic criterion.” It is a criterion that emphasizes the fit, the symmetry, and the way of relating the truths together that enhances the beauty and the glory and the wonder of those truths.

D. Conclusion: Theology as Science, Art and Faith

Theology is a combination of science, art and faith. It does have a very definite scientific approach insofar as we do careful observation, careful exegesis, and careful thoughtful biblical study. But it goes beyond that to a careful theory construction that comes out of it. So there is a kind of artistic element to theology, just as there is an artistic element to science as you conceive of ways or models of putting things together.

I recall one of the things that John Warwick Montgomery mentioned in that article, “The Theologian’s Craft.” He talks about the occasion when Watson and Crick, the two scientists who were working on the structure of DNA, had all of these data. They had been working for months and had amassed all of these data about DNA, but they couldn’t come up with a model that put it all together. Every conceptual model that they would bring to it failed in one way or another; it didn’t account for one thing or another or many things. They had tried for months to conceive of a model that put together all of these features of DNA that they had observed. One evening, late into the night, Crick walked down from the upstairs and the stairs that he went down was a spiral staircase down to the bottom. When he got at the bottom--just think, they had been preoccupied with this for months--he stopped and looked up at that spiral staircase and says, “That’s it.” He ran upstairs and applied this model to the data, and it worked. The double helix model of DNA filled out as they tried to put the model together, in a way that made sense, and it worked. This is the art.

I have had glorious times as a theologian in working on really difficult knotty theological questions. I pray and work at it; will this do it? No. Go back to the passages and try to study them very careful. In the end, God has been gracious many times as I come to see this is how it goes together. This also explains why you have Calvinists and Arminians. Why you have covenant and dispensational theologians. Why you have Baptists and Presbyterians. The reason for this is because the data do not tell us how they go together. Sovereignty and freedom, how do they go together? You have an Arminian proposal, and you have a Molinaist proposal. You have an open theist proposal, and you have a reformed proposal. What are these proposals? They are ways of trying to account for the data. They can’t all be right; they are mutually exclusive options, so what do you do? You go back and ask, have they looked at all the relevant data? Have they treated those data correctly? Have they understood those passages right? Is there consistency in this model? What about putting it together in ways that magnifie the beauty and glory of this truth to the glory of God? How does this work? You realize there is truly an art to this as well as science. It requires humility. It requires the Holy Spirit. It requires a prayerful attitude that God would help us to see how to put it together.

Theology is a combination of science, art and faith. There is a little passage by Karl Barth in his brief book that he wrote toward the end of his life called, Evangelical Theology. He says in this book, “There can proud…” Then he goes through this litany of different disciplines: “There can be proud biologists; there can be proud English literature professors; there can be proud all kinds of things, but there can be no proud theologians.” Everything a theologian knows, works with, or comes up with is given to him or her. It is a matter of coming before God and acknowledging how utterly dependent we are on his helping us to see what these truths are and putting them together in a way that makes the best sense possible.

Class questions on theological method

Would it be alright to go with a tradition in light of the differences there are among traditions if you have confidence that the people in the tradition are godly, capable, responsible people?

There is a sense in which any one of us who is not an expert in that field ends up having to do that. We have to trust authority. I think we would all be surprised if we analyzed just how much we take as true, and believe and live by on the basis of authority. We trust authorities. Yes we do this in every case. My answer though is this, for those who are the leaders in the church, that we have the responsibility of weighing the evidence in a way that perhaps others who are not the leaders or are not the experts don’t have to the same measure. Just as a medical doctor, a research doctor has a responsibility in understanding what certain side effects of different combinations of drugs would have that you and I don’t have, couldn’t have. We have to trust in authority to tell us what to do. But he better not trust in authority, he had better know what he is talking about when he says that. So if you see the pastorate as that group of God appointed leaders who are the pastor, shepherd, teachers responsible for the heritage of the faith of the church, then we better, jolly-well, work hard at thinking through the questions, studying diligently. We can’t just say, the rest of my Baptist friends believe this and just follow along. We can’t do that.

Where does the work of others fit in?

The minute you open a commentary to help you understand a passage, you are inviting help from other people. All along the way, input from other people help you gain better understanding of what texts say, and of proposals that are out there of how to put things together. We can understand texts by depending upon the work of other people, and yet ultimately we are responsible before God to represent what Scripture said. That may mean that we end up lining up with a whole host of other people who have come to the same conclusion. It may mean that we modify an interpretation or line up in another place than perhaps we once were because we are convinced that this is where Scripture requires we stand. We have to take a stand in it in the end, but clearly we’re dependent upon, and make great use of, many people, historically and contemporarily.

There is no unbiased, totally objective place that we can be; we all come with certain pre-commitments. What we all have to do is own this principle, that no matter what we hold as theologically true, we are open to refinement on the basis of clear Scriptural teaching. The minute that we would refuse to do that and say, oh no I would never give this up; I wouldn’t ever dream of opening this up for question; then all of a sudden we have moved away from Sola Scriptura and we have become creedalists of some kind or another. That means the doctrine of the trinity, the doctrine of the hypostatic union, the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, along with the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture of the church; all doctrines are open for re-examination on the basis of biblical teaching. How much will it take to convince us that the substitutionary atonement doctrine is wrong, or that the trinity is wrong? It is going to take an amazing case from the text to do this. I don’t think it is going to happen. I do not think that before the Lord returns that we are going to have a compelling case that the trinity is wrong. We have a tremendous confidence that the doctrine of the trinity is correct, and a tremendous confidence that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement is correct. On a lot of these central doctrines, we have tremendous confidence that they are true. Don’t confuse that with thinking that they stand in the same place that Scripture stands. Scripture always is the only final, ultimate authority for the church. Let’s keep clear what is, in fact, the non-negotiable authority and what else is subject to it. Which, of course, is all of our doctrinal formulation.

Another way to think of this is that we ought to hold doctrinal convictions somewhere on a spectrum of 0 to 100. We ought to recognize that not everything we believe is going to be at the same level of confidence. So some doctrines that we hold may be at 50%, some doctrines more. Now I hold a pre-trib view, and I still think it is true. All these years I have been teaching, I have read and studied and heard many criticisms of the pre-trib view, but I still think it is right. I realize that are some very strong objections to it, and some very good reasons for a post-trib view, or a mid-trib view, but I still think pre-trib is right. I think, with all things considered, the weight of evidence falls on the pre-trib position. I hold that with a level of confidence of about 55. I am also pre-millennial. My pre-millennial view is probably up at 85%. I am pretty convinced that Revelation 20 teaches a pre-millennial return of Christ. I have not found arguments by amillennialists and postmillennialists persuasive. Now I hold the doctrine of the trinity, and the substitutionary atonement at 99.9%. What would it take to convince me that it is not right? An awful lot. It would require massive evidence from texts somehow showing that the way we have been convinced about this is foreign to the text of Scripture to convince me that the trinity is not right, or that God as creator is not right. Every one of these views is held because of what Scripture says. If a convincing case can be made, then we ought to be open to looking at it. Being open to look at it is not the same as being on the edge of abandoning it. Don’t go that way. Just realize that being open to reexamine is a recognition that Scripture is our only final authority.

I think pastors have made a mistake in the past by absolutizing everything that they preach. Here is the problem. People who are in that church hear the pastor, and every time he preaches it is the word of God; it is absolutely true; it is absolutely authoritative. Then they find out that a whole lot of good Christian people have a different opinion on this thing, and they have awfully good reasons for thinking so. So a pastor is as dogmatic about a pre-trib rapture as he is about the trinity; then as people begin to question, maybe this pre-trib rapture view is not as certain as I thought, what do they do over here with the doctrine of the trinity? It is the same principle that happens in legalistic homes. Some parents raise their children with all ethical standards being absolute. So don’t commit fornication, don’t marry an unbeliever, and don’t dance are put in the same category. Or don’t play cards. In my generation, growing up many of us were raised in very legalistic environments. My own home, I praise God for this, was not nearly so oriented that way. The church I grew up in was, but my home wasn’t. Many of my friends grew up in homes like this. There was absolute black and white on everything; there was no gray, no shades of this might be right for some and not for others on anything. Or it may be right later but not now. There was none of that; it was black and white, period. So these kids who learn that it is wrong to play cards and dance and have premarital sex, guess what happens? Oh cards, that’s not so wrong after all, is it? So maybe it is the same with premarital sex. You get point. Pastors need to be honest with their people and make clear that they are preaching on things that are in fact clearly taught in Scripture, and widely held in the church and proclaimed with the deep sense of conviction and confidence; and then other things they should say that good Christian people differ make them aware of some of the other positions held.

In the preaching of John Piper, if you listen to some of his sermons, when he preached through Romans 7, I think he is dead wrong on Romans 7. I don’t hold the view that this is Paul the Christian, but what I did appreciate so much is Piper’s acknowledgment of the reasons of good Christian people who differ with him on this. At the same time, he preached with a great deal of confidence in his own view on it. It was a good balance between preaching with conviction the things that you really do believe and an acknowledgment that here is an area where good Christian people can rightly differ.

I think that there is a difference between this spectrum of confidence in doctrinal convention and a continuum of orthodoxy and heresy. Maybe that other one ought to drawn horizontally. Here we have orthodoxy; you can be Arminian or Calvinist; you can be cessationist or charismatic. What defines what is within these boundaries are doctrinal commitments that the Church, throughout its history, has affirmed as central to the faith: one God, creator, deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc. These doctrines define the boundaries within which we differ. If you hold a view out here, such as Jesus-only Pentecostals, that is not orthodox; it denies the trinity and is an unacceptable view to the church. In my view, open theism is out of bounds because it denies of God an attribute: comprehensive knowledge of all that can be known and is known including knowledge of everything future. The Bible makes it clear God has this attribute and so much of the Christian faith depends on. If you don’t believe me, look at the current issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; the paper that I read at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in November is printed in that issue, and I list 26 implications of denying God’s comprehensive knowledge of the future. They are massive implications. That is the thing you have to weigh. The question is what has been compromised that is central to Christian faith.

Blessings on you.