Archive for the ‘John Dick’ Category

“Mystery is the Lifeblood of Dogmatics”

October 22, 2010

So wrote Herman Bavinck.  In more detail:

Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics. To be sure, the term “mystery” in Scripture does not mean an abstract supernatural truth in the Roman Catholic sense. Yet Scripture is equally far removed from the idea that believers can grasp the revealed mysteries in a scientific sense. In truth, the knowledge that God has revealed of himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human imagination and understanding. In that sense it is all mystery with which the science of dogmatics is concerned, for it does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end looks past all creatures and focuses on the eternal and infinite One himself. From the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One. (Bavinck, RD, 2:29)

This is very helpful, and much-needed antidote to rationalism.  I was struck by a similar passage in the writings of the great Scottish systematic theologian, John Dick:

…it is objected against revelation, that it contains mysteries and doctrines contrary to reason.  (JD) What do you object to mysteries?  (Objector) It is that they surpass our comprehension.  (JD) Well, but you are not required to understand them.  Have you anything further to say?  (Objector) Yes; it is absurd to suppose that a divine revelation would propose, as objects of belief, articles of which we cannot form an adequate conception.  They must be useless, as they are unintelligible.  (JD) No; I answer, it is by no means follows that a fact is useless because I cannot explain it … the mysteries of religion may have, and are proved to have, a powerful influence upon the devotion, the consolation, and the obedience of those who believe them.  Nothing can be more unreasonable than to object to mysteries in religion … it is so far from being true that religion ends where mystery begins, that all religion begins with mystery, and is accompanied by it throughout its whole progress.  What is a more mysterious subject than God, a being without beginning, infinite but not extended, comprehending all things at a glance, upholding all things without labour or perplexity, and infallibly accomplishing his purposes, yet leaving his creatures in possession of liberty?  Is there, in fact any thing which man thoroughly knows? … does it follow, that because he [God] has been pleased to speak to us, all the secrets of his Essence shall be disclosed, and his transcendent Majesty must be brought down to our capacity? … The objection against revelation on account of its mysteries, is utterly contemptible… (Dick, ST, 1:175-6)

Reformed theology, of course, is not contrary to reason, but neither is it rationalistic.  And that is a happy balance.

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

March 8, 2008

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!