Weekly Update 45 – Two Johns on Preaching, Systematics and being a Warrior

I’ve been very busy this week writing up, reading some more material, tracking down some new books, etc., so I’ve not had much time to dedicate to thinking about the blog.  Still waiting then to be put into digestible format are David Dickson’s views on the free offer and James Durham on the Lord’s day.

Once I finish this chapter on the Free Offer in the Creeds (which I am finding a bit of a bind to write up) and move straight into writing up the two chapters on Durham’s theology and understanding of the free offer of the gospel the blog should flow naturally from what I am writing up.  But at the moment things are slow.  So what follows is a fairly random selection of comments and extracts that I’ve been thinking about this week.

John Murray on Preaching

John Murray was a theologian whose writings I was taught to treat with the utmost respect when I was growing up.  Some of the older saints in the Highlands still speak with reverence of his preaching.  Murray spent a considerable amount of time thinking and writing about the free offer of the gospel (defending the traditional position) and here is one of his challenges about the practical outworking of the free offer:

It is a fact that many, persuaded as they rightly are of the particularism of the plan of salvation and of its various corollaries, have found it difficult to proclaim the full, free and unrestricted overture of gospel grace.  They have laboured under inhibitions arising from fear that in doing so they would impinge upon the sovereignty of God in his saving purposes and operations.  The result is that though formally assenting to the free offer, they lack freedom in the presentation of its appeal and demand.
John Murray, “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel,” Collected Writings, 1:81

Perhaps if more freedom were evident in the presentation of the gospel, conversions would be more evident also (with due deference to God’s sovereignty).

On the Value of Systematic Theology

There is a movement amongst certain sections of evangelical (& perhaps Reformed) thought to decry systematic theology.  John Dick in his Lectures on Theology has a few glorious statements in his introductory chapter which puncture the arrogance of these claims beautifully:

It is granted, that the Scriptures do not deliver religion to us in that artificial form which we find in the writings of the schoolmen … although there is certainly an approach to it in some parts of the Bible … but no man, I think, who is in possession of his senses, and understands what he is saying [ouch!], will deny, that religion is systematic.  The Word of God is not an assemblage of writings which have no other relation to each other but juxtaposition … There is arrangement here … although it may require time and patience to discover it … The study of the Scriptures is not recommended to us, that we may load our memories with a multitude of unconnected ideas, but that we may bring together and combine the truths which are scattered up and down in them, and thus “understand what the will of the Lord is.”
John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 1:6-7.

I am at a loss to understand the declamations which are so common against systematic Theology; and am disposed to think, that they are often as little understood by their authors, unless it be their design, as, in some instances, we have reason to suspect, to expose to contempt a particular set of opinions, to cry down, for example, not the system of Socinus or Arminius, but the system of Calvin.  Were their objections pointed against a particular system, as improperly arranged, as too technical in its form, or as encumbered with a multiplicity of useless distinctions; we might concur with them on finding the charge to be true.  But to admit, as they must do, that religion is not a mass of incoherent opinions, but a series of truths harmonized by the wisdom of God, and, at the same time, to exclaim against its exhibition in a regular form, as an attempt to subject the oracles of Heaven to the rules of human wisdom, is conduct which ill befits men of judgment and learning, and is worthy of those alone, who “know neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm”.
John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 1:7-8

He doesn’t mince his words, does he!  Systematic theology should be the crowning glory of Christian theological endeavour.  Historical theology is but a humble handmaid.

On being a Warrior (Polemic Theology)

A term of abuse which is often directed at those who value doctrinal exactness is to be called one of “Machen’s Warrior Children” (a reference to the founder of Westminster Seminary J. Gresham Machen).  This aversion to polemic theology is not new and has been well answered by John Dick:

In … Polemic Theology, the controversies are considered which have been agitated in the church … A polemic divine is a warrior; he goes forth into the field to encounter the adversaries of the truth.  The word has an odious sound, and seems to accord ill with the character of a teacher of religion, who ought to be a minister of peace.  On this ground Polemic Theology is often held up as the object of scorn … and it is loudly demanded, that the voice of controversy should be heard no more within the walls of the church, that the disciples of Christ should bury all their disputes in oblivion, and without minding differences of opinion, should dwell together as brethren in unity.  There is much simplicity and want of discernment in this proposal, when sincerely made.  It is the suggestion of inconsiderate zeal for one object, overlooking another of at least equal importance, accounting truth nothing and peace every thing … Often, however, it is intended to conceal a sinister design, under the appearance of great liberality; a design to prevail upon one party to be quiet, while the other goes on to propagate its nostrums without opposition … Nothing is more obvious, than that when the truth is attacked it ought to be defended; and as it would be base pusillanimity to yield it without a struggle to its adversaries, so it would be disgraceful … in one of its professed guardians not … to uphold the sacred interests of religion by his arguments and his eloquence.
John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 1:8-9

It is as if John Dick were writing today and not the best part of 200 years ago.  Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun!

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7 Responses to “Weekly Update 45 – Two Johns on Preaching, Systematics and being a Warrior”

  1. greenbaggins Says:

    Thanks much for this. It will be extremely helpful in my own thesis.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Thanks Lane. I’m sure you will have Dick already but for others he is available on google books in the two volume edition:

    http://tinyurl.com/3yhl58

    It is still much better to buy the printed volumes though 🙂

  3. R. Scott Clark Says:

    Hi Donald,

    Thanks for your good work. Looking forward to your thesis.

    One of Machen’s Warrior Children,

    Scott

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Dr Clark

    Thanks for the encouragement. I think I have mentioned it here before but your essay “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology” has been foundational for my historical thinking in this area.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  5. Steven Carr Says:

    Donald,
    These are some very good reminders; especially the one on systematic theology by Dick, who could very well be my favorite systematic theologian. I am persuaded that theology should be seen as a process that begins with exegesis, then biblical and historical theology, then moves into systematics, and ends with practice. I came into this whole idea years ago when I read Crooks and Hurst’s Theological Encyclopedia and Methodology. Exegetical theology, biblical and historical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology are to be studied individually but we must understand that they are all part of the theological process, and should not become ends in and of themselves. I am still doing some thinking on it, so I am not sure how preaching fits into all this, or if I even have the order correct. Feel free to share your thoughts on this.
    Thanks again for this post.
    Blessings,

    Steve

  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with your views on how all the areas of theology should link together to feed into systematic theology and then on into practice – I have hardly read any of him but I think a’Brakel is normally held up as a good example of linking ST to practice? I would probably also see preaching coming under practice as it needs to be informed by exegesis, BT, ST etc?

    One area I think we need to refocus on is the integration of Historical Theology and biblical exegesis. The act of exegesis must be historically informed as well as the “end product” of systematic theology. We stand within not only a reformed theological tradition, but also a reformed exegetical tradition – indeed we only have the former because of the later. That is why I am often disappointed to see modern commentaries failing to interact with the older reformed commentaries and being impoverished as a result.

    Every blessing
    DJ

  7. Steven Carr Says:

    Don,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. I would like to see a recovery of Reformed Exegesis in our theological schools. We need to recover not just the exegesis of Calvin and Luther but also the biblical scholarship of the Refomred Orthodox, as well as their understanding of Luther and Calvin. The critical age has done severe damge to the church by ignoring the biblical and theological scholarship of the orthodox refomed writers.

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