The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 3: The Systematicians Still Reign

evangelicalism-2017Modern evangelicalism has its roots in the European Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, particularly the stream that comes from John Calvin and his writings. “Calvinism,” after all, is not a book in the Bible but a theological construct based on Scripture. It seeks to answer theological questions not directly addressed by any particular passage of the Bible. This is done in various ways, but mostly using syllogisms. The syllogistic method assumes that if two propositions clearly addressed in Scripture are combined, a conclusion (third proposition) may be deduced that will have equal biblical authority. If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

The problem is the choice of “A” and “B” will influence the outcome, “C.”

Example
A – God is invisible to the human eye. (Romans 1)
B – Jesus was recognized as God by the early disciples. (John 20)
C – Therefore, Jesus was invisible.

I know this is an unfair and ridiculous example, but it shows the danger of careless theology by syllogism. To me, the basic problem is that syllogistic approach privileges logical method over the authority of Scripture if we are not careful. It assumes that our powers of rationality are an authority higher than God’s Word.

Syllogistic method, therefore, is not the province of biblical scholars who seek to interpret Scripture passages directly. It is the realm of systematicians. There are two levels for this in evangelical systematics. First is the “Analogy of Scripture,” where two (or more) passages of Scripture are used to draw a theological conclusion unstated by any single passage. A common version of this is the strategy of taking “clear” passages of Scripture to illuminate “less clear” passages of Scripture.

The second level of this syllogistic method is the “Analogy of Faith.” In this method, previous theological conclusions derived from the Analogy of Scripture method are used to interpret Scriptures whose theological intent may have some murkiness that is undesirable.

Where does evangelicalism stand in this regard today? In my 30-year career, I have seen the rise of biblical scholarship within the ETS that is somewhat disconnected from the syllogistic methods of the systematicians. The thoroughgoing biblical scholars seem to be guided by a couple of assumptions:

  1. Authorial Intent. This assumes that the only valid meaning of a text is the meaning intended by the original author for his original audience. If the biblical author is teaching his readers something about God (theology), we must understand this in context and therefore learn about God from an inspired source.
  2. Reluctance to allow indiscriminate application of outside texts for the interpretation of texts that are not self-evident in meaning. Therefore, the best help for interpreting a text is another text in proximity. For example, what does John 4:10 mean when it has Jesus promising “living water” to the Samaritan woman? It is not explained in chapter 4, but the phrase “living water” comes up again in chapter 7, and there the author explicitly says it refers to the “Spirit” (John 7:38-39). A common characteristic of evangelical theologians has been to use Paul to interpret everything. This is amazingly consistent if you watch for it. How many times have we seen an evangelical pastor preaching Nehemiah and throwing in a couple of quotes from Romans to help us understand? Or, preaching Daniel, we “cross-reference” Revelation to help us understand Daniel’s prophecies.

Grant Osborne, in his influential book The Hermeneutical Spiral, sought to challenge the indiscriminate cross-referencing of verses as a “best practices” method for interpretation. Osborne, one of the most capable evangelical biblical interpreters of his generation (and my teacher and friend), demanded that a strategy for consultation of texts beyond the immediate verse be ordered according to a “logical context.”

 

hermeneutical-spiral

The Logical Context graphic from Grant Osborne’s “The Hermeneutical Spiral” p. 22

Osborne’s students (including the authors of the current college classroom standard, Grasping God’s Word) have challenged the legitimacy  and supremacy of the systematicians in places like the ETS.

If you are still reading, you may be asking, “Why are you drawing such a hard distinction between biblical interpreters and systematicians? Aren’t the systematicians biblical scholars, too? And don’t the biblical interpreters produce theological conclusions?”

Here’s the difference, and I say these things from the perspective of one who is squarely in the biblical interpreter camp. The systematicians and biblical scholars have different starting points and therefore different products. The biblical interpreters seek to recover the author’s intended meaning in a given text and are not controlled by systematic presuppositions. The systematicians used the Bible as a resource with which to construct their comprehensive and coherent theological grids. The systematicians begin with questions and seek answers from the Bible. The interpreters begin with the Bible and uncover its answers without initial concern for how that might fit into a master system.

In 2016, the differences were on full display at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting in San Antonio. The conference’s theme was “The Trinity,” which is both an essential, hallmark evangelical doctrine and a theological edifice created by systematicians. It was clear, at least to me, that systematics and systematicians are still the dominant party in the ETS. This has many ramifications, but let me offer three in particular.

  1. Decline in biblical scholarship. I know this is a huge generalization, but in past generations, systematic theologians were also fabulous biblical scholars. John Calvin was a student of the Bible first and the author of the Institutes second (in my opinion). Luther, who was a theologian and a keen biblical scholar (especially in the Old Testament) was also influenced heavily by Augustinian theological presuppositions. Frankly, I don’t see this in the ETS as much now. I see systematicians who are amateurish in their handling of the text. To be fair, I see biblical scholars who attempt systematic syntheses who are not trained in systematic theology.
  2. The uneasy truce between Calvinists and Arminians in the ETS is waning. The Calvinist theologians have always controlled the ETS as far as I can tell. But there was always a mix of the two perspectives. Both groups understood their theological conclusions as “biblical,” even if they seemed to be irreconcilable to some. The ETS weathered a storm a few years back with the rise of “Open Theism,” which I have described elsewhere as “Arminianism on steroids.” This theological view was seen by the Calvinists of the ETS as a threat that could not be allowed within the membership, and it was crushed. Since then, I don’t detect much in the way of an Arminian voice or perspective in the ETS, especially among the plenary speakers or presidential addresses.
  3. The systematic method is dominant in evangelical preaching. I will say more about this next week, but there is a long-term decline in biblical preaching. We are now given thematic sermons based on proof-texts rather than teaching a particular passage. Many pastors have their favorite proof-texts that show up with regularity in their messages, no matter what the starting text might be. This is systematic presentation on the popular level. Scripture becomes a tool for theological presentation, not the source of doctrine the authors intended.

Next week: #4, Theological training and the church.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily the views of his employer.

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