Proper Christian theology is always speculative, in the specific sense that it has to address matters not only of economy (how God acts in history) but also of ontology (who God is in eternity). The great creeds of the ancient church, and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation which affirm their teachings, are the fruit of this speculative theology, addressing not just the acts of God but also his identity, something which requires more than just the construction of a redemptive-historical narrative culminating in Christ.
Last week, I offered some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology. This week, I want to consider why it is that theology demands more than just harvesting the immediate results of the exegesis of biblical texts.
Proper Christian theology is always speculative, in the specific sense that it has to address matters not only of economy (how God acts in history) but also of ontology (who God is in eternity). The great creeds of the ancient church, and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation which affirm their teachings, are the fruit of this speculative theology, addressing not just the acts of God but also his identity, something which requires more than just the construction of a redemptive-historical narrative culminating in Christ. To understand why this is so, we need to see how and why the church has come to confess Christ in the way she does – in other words, a knowledge of theological controversies.
Here is an example. For many years, I taught a basic introductory course in patristic theology, the anticipation of which was typically not a cause of great excitement for students. They (rightly) wanted to learn about the Bible. And the Ancient Church Fathers seem too remote, historically and intellectually, to be of much use to their future ministries. Given this, I started each course with a question designed to unsettle them. I would randomly pick on a student in the first class and ask ‘How many wills does Christ have?’ I recall only one occasion when the student gave the correct answer. Every other victim intuitively responded ‘One.’ At which point I offered the lethal follow-up: ‘So which does he lack, the human will or the divine? Or perhaps his will is a fusion of the two into one, and therefore neither human nor divine?’
The students usually knew they had been trapped but tended to offer a defense along the lines of ‘But you don’t find the teaching that Christ has two wills anywhere in the New Testament!’ To which I would reply that that might be the case with reference to explicit texts, but it was nonetheless the only position that ultimately made sense of the New Testament’s witness to the identity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Only a two-willed Christ could save; and to understand why, they needed a firm grasp of the development of theological arguments over time.
This is just one instance of what we might term the development of doctrine. ‘Development’ terminology can disturb Protestants as it might imply that the truth of the gospel fundamentally changes over time. But I am not using the terminology that way. I am referring not to the essential change of truth but to the elaboration and clarification of doctrinal concepts in a manner which refines the theological grammar and metaphysical framework necessary for a correct understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God and Christ. These concepts and the language in which they are expressed do not operate as alien impositions on the Bible. What they do is keep us alert to what the whole of scripture says even as we read particular passages. In short, as Mike Allen at RTS put it to me recently, ‘theological jargon helps with reading canonically.’
The patristic debates about God and Christ provide excellent examples. We all know that language of Trinity, hypostasis and substance is not there in scripture.* But Protestants use that terminology to set forth a grammar or metaphysical framework for understanding how the Bible names God. And the reasons why those creeds and confessions speak the way they do is intimately connected to the history of debate within the church.
Numerous models for understanding this pattern of development have been offered over the years. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Cardinal Newman who (while still a Protestant) wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. A long and subtle work, his basic contention was that doctrine develops from the Bible as trees grow from seeds: the final product may not look like the original but is it continuous and consistent with it and its growth is also inevitable.