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The Truth Is on Your Side: Systematic Theology and Pastoral Ministry

Andy Wilson

Near the end of the second part of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, as the pilgrims continue on the path towards the Celestial City, they come across a man with a bloodied face who is holding a drawn sword. When they ask the man his name, he replies, “I am one whose name is Valiant-for-truth.” He then explains that he has just stood his ground against three wicked men who offered him three choices: become one of them; turn back; or lose his life. He chose “none of the above,” and had to fight for his life. When one of the pilgrims notes that the odds were stacked against him in that encounter, Valiant-for-truth replies, “ ‘Tis true; but little and more are nothing to him that has the Truth on his side.”[1] What a stirring picture of how the truth that God has revealed in his Word emboldens the believer! When our feet remain firmly planted on God’s truth, we are always on solid ground, even when faced with opposition, affliction, trial, temptation, change, or uncertainty.

The Open Statement of the Truth

The apostle Paul told the Christians in Corinth that faithful ministry is marked by a refusal to practice cunning or tamper with God’s Word and by a commitment to the open statement of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2). Christ works through the open statement of the truth to gather, feed, comfort, and protect his sheep. This makes systematic theology an essential tool for all who would be faithful in their calling as stewards of the mysteries of God and shepherds of Christ’s flock. If a pastor fails to give careful consideration to the organization of the various doctrines contained in God’s Word, how can he know that he is being faithful in his exposition and application of the biblical message? Ministry that neglects systematic theology is ministry that is in grave danger of being untethered from the truth.

Of course, systematic theology is not the only item in the pastor’s theological toolbox. As Geerhardus Vos noted in his classic Biblical Theology, there are four main departments in the study of Christian theology: exegetical theology (of which biblical theology is one branch), historical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology.[2] Some Christians may think that the inductive nature of exegetical theology makes it purer and less subject to human influence than systematic theology. It is certainly true that exegesis holds precedence in the study of Christian doctrine and in pastoral ministry. However, this does not mean that systematic theology is inherently less biblical than the exegetical branches of theology. The apostle Paul clearly had an organizational framework in mind when he spoke of the importance of following “the pattern of the sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13). How can that pattern be discerned without engaging in systematization? Moreover, a reluctance to systemize produces an atomistic hermeneutic that puts individual passages at variance with each other.

It is a good and necessary inference to say that the church is called to exercise its ministerial authority by formulating biblical doctrine in a system whose content is derived and regulated by Scripture as a whole. This is why, as Richard Muller points out, the Reformed have always thought that

exegesis functioned not as a disciplinary end in itself but as the ground and foundation for a path—a methodus—leading to theological formulation on all matters of doctrine and practice. That formulation, moreover, could take the form of preaching, of catechesis, or of didactic, scholastic, or polemical theology.[3]

When the church fails to handle Scripture in this way, the Bible is typically made subordinate to a churchly magisterium (the error of Roman Catholicism), the Christian consciousness (the error of liberalism and mysticism), or an individualistic biblicism that reduces Scripture to its explicit teachings and ignores the historical development of doctrine (the error of rationalism and fundamentalism). In short, the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura cannot really be upheld without systematic theology. As Louis Berkhof explains,

The Church does not find her dogmas in finished form on the pages of Holy Writ but obtains them by reflecting on the truths revealed in the Word of God. The Christian consciousness not only appropriates the truth but also feels an irrepressible urge to reproduce it and see it in its grand unity.[4]

Even though the pastor is often focused on expositing and applying particular texts of Scripture, he always needs to be immersing himself in the study of systematics to ensure that his handling of individual texts is consistent with the whole of Scripture and is not in isolation from the history of interpretation in the church.

Swerving from the Truth

It has become popular in our day to separate doctrine from practice and to look to methodology rather than theology to give shape to pastoral ministry. When this happens, the church begins to swerve from the truth. In the words of sociologist Peter Berger,

When churches abandon or de-emphasize theology, they give up the intellectual tools by which the Christian message can be articulated and defended. In the resulting chaos of religious ideas, the principle criterion left to the community as it seeks to find its way is, quite naturally, that of expediency.[5]

One does not need to look far to see evidence of this in the contemporary church. Recent decades have been marked by trendy ministry paradigms identified by various designations (seeker-sensitive, emergent, missional, etc.), all of which reflect a populistic impulse that typically involves a significant degree of cultural accommodation.

Theology is sometimes downplayed for the sake of ecumenical efforts at gaining greater influence in society. One of the ways this has taken place in recent decades is in the stance taken by some evangelical and Reformed Christians toward Roman Catholicism. The 1990s saw the publication of the documents of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which pursued unity by setting aside points of doctrinal precision that were regarded as vital by the Reformers. In 2005, prominent evangelical historian Mark Noll teamed with journalist Carolyn Nystrom to co-author Is the Reformation Over?, in which they argued that contemporary Protestants and Roman Catholics have attained significant doctrinal rapprochement. And in 2017, Covenant Theological Seminary marked the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by asserting that the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions can give a better and more credible testimony to Christ by finding common ground and cooperating with each other rather than by merely rehashing the reasons why the Reformation took place.[6] The problem with these and similar efforts is their failure to reckon with the fact that the fundamental issues that led to the sixteenth-century division between Protestants and Rome remain unresolved. That is, Rome continues to reject the biblical doctrines that are summarized by the Latin slogans sola fide and sola Scriptura. On top of that, the Second Vatican Council resulted in Rome’s embrace of various aspects of liberal theology. In light of these things, while Reformed and evangelical Christians certainly can forge fruitful alliances with Roman Catholics on a number of political and social issues, we cannot say that we have a common cause in the gospel when we have major differences on doctrines that are at the heart of the gospel.

It is sometimes thought that placing too much emphasis on theology in the Christian life reduces Christianity to the intellect when the seat of our personhood is in the heart. The heart is indeed the core of our being, but the heart should not be defined in a manner that separates it from our rational functions. After all, Scripture speaks of the heart as inclusive not only of the will and the affections, but of the mind as well. As Craig Troxel explains,

The heart is the governing center of a person. When used simply, it reflects the unity of our inner being, and when used comprehensively, it describes the complexity of our inner being—as composed of mind (what we know), desires (what we love), and will (what we choose).[7]

If desire is elevated over the mind, our religious practices and beliefs will be regulated by tradition, experience, or expediency rather than by sound doctrine. While it is wrong to reduce human nature to bare intellect, it is just as wrong to think that the will and the affections can be transformed apart from the renewing of the mind (see Rom. 12:2). Of course, we should not seek to acquire knowledge of God’s truth merely to fill our heads with information. Rather, we should ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all the truth and cause that truth to sink down into our innermost being so that it can shape our affections and our wills. In the words of John Calvin, “We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us.”[8] This means there is an interdependence between sound theology and faithful ministry. As John Murray once put it,

He would be a poor theologian indeed who would be unaware of, or indifferent to, the practical application of God’s revealed counsel. But likewise, and perhaps more tragically, he would be a poor exponent of practical theology who did not know the theology of which practice is the application.[9]

To use an analogy, while it would be wasteful to go through medical school without ever intending to practice medicine, it would be irresponsible and fraudulent to practice medicine without the proper training and credentials. In the same way, while failing to apply theology to life misses the point of the study of theology, conducting ministry with little interest in theology is religious quackery.

Maintaining a theological focus in ministry is critical as we live in a culture in which people increasingly locate truth in their inward emotions and experiences and operate under the assumption that the supreme purpose of life is to be happy and feel good about themselves. This is not an atmosphere that is friendly to objective truth. One of the areas where this is especially evident is in our culture’s handling of homosexuality and transgenderism. The fact that some people experience homosexual desire or gender dysphoria is taken to mean that these things define who they are and therefore need to be expressed, affirmed, and celebrated. When the church goes along with this line of reasoning, personal experience is elevated above Scripture. We need systematic theology because it combats the therapeutic mindset that makes the self sovereign, calling us instead to submit to the body of truth that God has revealed in his Word.

Contending for the Truth

When the church keeps theology primary, it understands that its ministry needs to be carried out in a manner that is always mindful of the church’s spiritual antithesis with the world. While we certainly should strive, as far as it depends on us, to “live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18), we have to remember that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Jas. 4:4), and that we are called to expose the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). The church often loses sight of this by prioritizing mission over theology. When this is done, the focus is upon having a positive engagement with the unbelieving world, and there is a corresponding reluctance to engage in cultural confrontation. The assumption is that if we are direct and uncompromising in setting forth the Bible’s teaching, we are failing to show compassion and empathy towards those who are living in sin and error. But if this were really true, then Jesus and the inspired authors of Scripture would stand condemned as unloving.

Another unwarranted assumption is that the church will be more effective in ministry if it expresses support for culturally popular ideas and causes while downplaying the culturally offensive aspects of Christian teaching that speak to those matters. If this were true, then the way to advance the gospel would be to follow the lead of the culture, a notion that is in conflict with the biblical admonition not to be conformed to the pattern of the world (see Rom. 12:2).

While we should not be inhospitable to those who are outside the church, we do need to be careful how we define what it means to be hospitable. A biblically hospitable church is one that faithfully sets forth God’s terms for how sinners are welcomed into his kingdom, as well as how he expects those who belong to his kingdom to live. The church does not exist to adapt itself to the desires of man. On the contrary, the church is the place where redeemed man is brought into conformity with what God has expressed in his Word.

While engaging in theological controversy is an important aspect of pastoral ministry, there is such a thing as an unhealthy craving for controversy. The apostle Paul addresses this problem when he writes,

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words. (1 Tim. 6:3–4)

In saying this, Paul does not mean that we should never engage in controversies over words. After all, he criticizes those who deviate from the sound words of Christ. Paul obviously thought that there are times when it is necessary to enter into controversy in order to contend for the truth. Having “an unhealthy craving for controversy” means seeking out controversy for personal benefit. This is what the false teachers in Ephesus were doing. They were engaging in arguments that were profitless and unedifying. They were using controversy as a way of gathering people around themselves. In short, they weren’t interested in the truth.

Theological controversy is sometimes avoided in our day by calling for dialogue in so-called “safe spaces.” While this may sound enlightened, it is often a tactical move that is used to disseminate and give credibility to unorthodox views. Dialogues of this nature reflect a dialectical perspective that assumes that opposing views can be reconciled by showing how each side gives expression to a portion of the truth. James Buchanan shows the futility of this kind of dialogue in his discussion of the failed attempt to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines of justification at the Colloquy of Ratisbon (1541):

At Ratisbon, the difference between the Popish and Protestant doctrines of justification seemed to resolve itself into one point, and even on that point both parties held some views in common. It might seem, then, that there was no radical or irreconcilable difference between the two; and yet, when they came to explain their respective views, it was found that they were contending for two opposite methods of justification—the one by an inherent, the other by an imputed, righteousness; the one by the personal obedience of the believer, the other by the vicarious obedience of Christ; the one by the inchoate and imperfect work of the Spirit in men, the other by the finished work of Christ for them, when he “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” This fact shows the utter folly of every attempt to reconcile two systems, which are radically opposed, by means of compromise between them; and the great danger of engaging in private conferences with a view to that end. In the open field of controversy, truth, so far from being endangered, is ventilated, cleared, and defined; in the secret conclaves of divines and the cabinets of princes, it is often smothered or silenced. It has far less to fear from discussion than from diplomacy.[10]

If the focus of a dialogue is upon managing and reconciling different viewpoints rather than understanding and measuring them against God’s Word, then truth is not the goal. The church needs to maintain that the clear teaching of Scripture is non-negotiable. If we enter into dialogue with views that are patently false, we are failing to contend for the truth. Moreover, as Rod Dreher warns, there have been far too many instances where

the liberals within various church circles have called for dialogue, but after they gained power within the church, declared that dialogue with the orthodox must end, because it would be wrong to have a dialogue with people who believe such immoral things.[11]

Conclusion

Pastoral ministry that is committed to the truth will provoke opposition. Valiant-for-truths are at times the object of people’s vexation, disdain, and false accusations. They are often marginalized and disparaged for eschewing what is culturally fashionable for the sake of theological faithfulness and consistency. And when they have to confront the abandoning or downplaying of sound theology in their own circles, they may find that some try to silence them by portraying their criticisms as inaccurate, intemperate, unloving, and divisive. While none of this is pleasant, we will only grow discouraged by it if we forget that the truth of God will stand forever. When the truth is on our side, we can be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before Nebuchadnezzar (see Dan. 3:16–18). On the one hand, we know that our God is able to deliver us from any threat breathed out by man. On the other hand, we know that faithfulness is always worth it, even if the Lord chooses not to deliver us in this life. As Luther put it in his great hymn,

The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

Endnotes

[1] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017), 348–349.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017), 4.

[3] Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2: Holy Scripture, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 502.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 23.

[5] Peter L. Berger, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 124.

[6] Melissa Morgan Kelley, “Protestant-Catholic Relations on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,” By Faith: The Online Magazine of the PCA (September 21, 2017): http://byfaithonline.com/protestant-catholic-relations-on-the-500th-anniversary-of-the-reformation/, accessed February 13, 2020.

[7] A. Craig Troxel, With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 21.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), 3.6.4.

[9] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1: The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 108.

[10] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 127–128 (italics original).

[11] Rod Dreher, “The Dangers of ‘Dialogue,’” The American Conservative (September 13, 2017): https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-dangers-of-dialogue/, accessed February 18, 2020.

Andy Wilson is an OPC minister and serves as the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2020.

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