Who needs Systematic Theology When We Have the Bible?

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, January 2nd 2003
Jan/Feb 2003

One subject that brings even fundamentalists and liberals together is the criticism of systematic theology. For instance, many of us were reared to suspect that if someone clearly embraced some particular system (e.g., Calvinist, Arminian, or Lutheran), then that would probably lead to the suppression of biblical teaching wherever specific passages didn’t easily fit into a nice, neat doctrinal package. Others reared in more liberal circles heard the traditional systems ridiculed for their alleged dogmatism and parochialism-for their arrogance in thinking that the Bible actually was true, much less clear enough to have what one could seriously call a “system of doctrine.” How presumptuous for an ecclesiastical group to say, in the words of the Presbyterian form of subscription, that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture”!

These criticisms rightly warn against specific dangers. First, we should have a healthy fear of ignoring some Scriptures in the interest of maintaining our “system.” During every great shift in Christian theology-take the Reformation, for instance-it is always possible to treat the existing system as unalterable. But for we who are heirs to the Reformation, this would be ironic, since the reformers were rightly critical of the notions of an unerring magisterium and irreformable dogmas. In fact, the Reformation occurred because some biblical passages came knocking on the door of the church; and division resulted largely because the late medieval church simply refused to rethink its interpretation of Scripture in the light of clear exegesis. Never mind that dikaioo (Greek: “to declare righteous”) did not mean the same thing as iustificare (Latin: “to make righteous”) or that metanoia (Greek: “repent”) did not mean poenitentium agite (Latin: “do penance”). Late medieval Catholicism was not willing to be altered in the light of careful exegesis. We, as evangelical Protestants, should resolve never to make the same mistake in the way we appeal to our traditions and their confessional teachings.

Second, it is true that the Bible is not itself a systematic theology. It is a diverse collection of writings having both God and specific human beings as its authors. Scripture is God’s inerrant Word but not a mere handbook of doctrine and morals. As Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “The Bible is no more a system of theology than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics” (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 1872). The Bible is not organized according to loci, or “topics.” It is, rather, a collection of narratives, poetry, law, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature. Even its straightforward doctrinal statements are lodged in historical gospels and epistles where a practical intent-reconciling sinners to God in Christ by the Spirit, and leading them in faithful response-dominates.

Even while recognizing Paul’s writings as Scripture, Peter writes, “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). Although he attributes these errors to their own ignorance and instability, Peter is acknowledging the point elaborated by the Westminster Confession: “All things in Scripture are not equally plain in themselves, nor equally clear to all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some portion of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Chapter 1, Section VII).

So we must be careful to keep our systems open to correction by accurate exegesis, that is, by accurate interpretation of biblical passages. And we must beware of equating our confessional and systematic theologies with Scripture itself. No responsible evangelical theologian has ever attributed final authority to any system. In fact, the Protestant scholastic successors of the great reformers especially stressed the splendid distinction between archetypal theology (God’s own knowledge) and ectypal theology (our knowledge). Creatures will never attain a God’s-eye view of anything, not even of themselves, but will always possess only a finite version of “the way things are.” Our older theologians used to call this “ectypal theology” theologium viatorum-the theology of pilgrims on the way-to contrast it with the theologium beatorum-the theology of the glorified in heaven. All believers living today are equally pilgrims. Although I am convinced, as a Reformed Christian, that our confession is the most consistently biblical, I realize that it must always be compared with Scripture and that it is only a reliable secondary standard because it is faithful to Scripture and not because either it or the church possesses any intrinsic authority.

I may conclude, on occasion, that our community could be challenged to think differently on a particular issue in the light of God’s Word. This challenge may come from my own exegesis, or from that of non-Reformed brothers and sisters, or even from my being challenged to rethink my previous reading of Scripture because of some question raised outside the discipline of theology. Yet these challenges shouldn’t cause one to abandon systematic theology; they simply make its task more urgent. We need to think more, not less, about Scripture’s consistent teaching on the great theological topics. We need to incorporate insights gleaned from our own scriptural study and from that of our other brothers and sisters in other traditions, but this can be done effectively only if we ourselves belong to some community of interpretation.

Theology’s Delicate Dance

Systematic theology can never stand still. Just as with any science, new discoveries must be consolidated and incorporated into theological systems. Revolutionary periods in science (such as when Einstein’s relativity theories replaced Newtonian physics) are always followed by periods of precise systematization-and this is just as true for theology. The revolutionary epoch of Christ and the apostles was followed by the debates and precise definitions of the church fathers, councils, and creeds; the Reformation was followed by Protestant orthodoxy. In spite of what many scholars believe, these periods of consolidation do not necessarily fall away from the original purity and simplicity of the revolutionary periods. Indeed, they are necessary for the revolutionary periods to have long-term theological significance. Consolidation, at its best, brings order out of the chaos of competing interpretations. When it is done well, systematization leads to greater clarity and consensus.

Both stagnant orthodoxy and “start from scratch” biblicism fail to appreciate the delicate dance between induction and deduction in theology. What does this mean? Inductive reasoning starts with particular facts and moves toward a general conclusion, while deductive reasoning uses a general truth to interpret particular facts. Inductive reasoning goes something like this: One group of cancer patients was given a new cancer medicine, while another group was not; and more cancer patients in the first group improved. Therefore, this new cancer medicine is probably effective in treating cancer. Deductive reasoning, by contrast, goes like this: From what we now know in general about cancer, we can now conclude that inductive studies using placebo-effect control groups are less reliable than we once thought. These two kinds of reasoning complement and correct each other. So who would want science to make a choice between them? We are all better off with both kinds of reasoning working in tandem.

Precisely the same is true in our approach to Scripture and theology. On the one hand, we must allow particular passages in Scripture (the scriptural “facts”) to ground our general, systematic conclusions. Close study of individual passages, understood in terms of their contexts in their individual books, their relationship to the rest of what that author wrote as Scripture (for instance, all of Moses’ writings or all of Paul’s writings), as well as their relationship to all of the rest of Scripture, remains the catalyst for theology. Fresh studies of specific passages will always lead to new insights into God’s Word. Yet no one ever comes to the Bible and simply begins by inductively studying a particular passage. Inductive Bible study leaders may give the impression that they are setting aside their prejudices and simply reading Scripture, but this is not really the case. Baptists tend to read the Bible as if it teaches adult-only baptism, noncharismatics as if it teaches that there is no longer an office of prophet, and Calvinists as if it teaches unconditional election. We all read expecting to find specific things. And this is what we should anticipate. After all, we are Baptists or noncharismatics or Calvinists for the reason that we believe that our position-whichever it is-is biblical.

In other words, we never see Scripture through completely fresh, unprejudiced eyes. We read particular passages in the light of what we already know-or think we know-of Scripture’s general teaching. So we both deduce how to interpret particular Scriptures from our general knowledge of the whole of Scripture even as we inductively examine the particular parts of Scripture in order to reach general conclusions about the whole of it. It is never completely clear when we are doing the one task or the other. This delicate, back-and-forth dance that strives to get closer to the true meaning of Scripture is called “the hermeneutical spiral.”

When systematic theology does its job well, it is well aware of this spiral, knowing that a system without parts and parts without a system are equally useless for Christian preaching, faith, and practice. We are not free to impose a system on Scripture (which would be a purely deductive approach), but we are at no greater liberty to assume, rather arrogantly, that we are the first to read the Bible just as it is at face value (which would be a purely inductive approach). Imposing a system on Scripture makes the Bible a slave of tradition, while assuming that we are the first to read it just as it is at face value renders Scripture a slave to unacknowledged personal prejudices.

Good systematic theologians, regardless of their differences, always strive to approach Scripture as students rather than as masters. They also seek to gather together whatever Scripture says anywhere on the same topic and thus interpret the particular parts in the light of the whole, even as they once again test their conclusions about the whole in the light of what they find in Scripture’s particular parts-and so on. This dance never ends on this side of Glory. Significantly, the reformers and their successors-and especially the much-maligned “Protestant scholastics”-were simultaneously superior exegetes and systematizers. In our day, scholars are ruled by the university’s over-specialization; consequently, they usually are only Old Testament exegetes, or New Testament exegetes, or historical theologians, or systematic theologians. In contrast, the great reformational thinkers usually possessed a command of all of the biblical and theological languages, including Aramaic and Chaldean. They were pioneers of biblical scholarship. But they were also the great system writers, organizing the exegetical fruit of the church fathers, the reformers, and their own labors into a coherent whole. We have not seen their like since. Today, even in evangelical circles, exegesis (the parts) and systematics (the whole) frequently go their separate ways.

Today, biblical scholars often echo the pietistic claim, “No creed but the Bible,” as if they have no reason to give heed to other laborers in the Lord’s vineyard. Some biblical scholars who are masters of the biblical languages exhibit appalling ignorance of the historical, philosophical, and systematic precedents or implications of their work.

Biblical scholar Francis Watson pointedly criticizes this position in his book Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for the subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant regard for the long and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind, and-whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of the so-called “historical-critical method”-the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte [that is, their historical development] is tenaciously maintained.

A New Testament scholar or an “inductive Bible study” student who has no use for systematic theology is like a victim of amnesia: every reading of Scripture is like starting all over.

Imagine an open-heart surgeon whose expertise was limited to his or her own dissection of hearts, having no relation to any knowledge of the body as a whole, the circulatory system, or to the collective and accumulated knowledge of the field that can be learned through formal study. Or imagine an architect who had a command of geometry and drafting but had given little or no thought to buildings themselves. We would not trust surgeons or architects like these. Similarly, we ought not to trust systematic theologians who are not (at least to some degree) exegetes or exegetes who are not (at least to some degree) systematic theologians. Exegetical expertise that ignores the “big picture” (served by systematic and historical theology) is bound to confuse old errors with “new insights” and leave preachers and their congregations without a unified perspective on biblical teaching. Ignoring the Bible’s consistent teaching from Genesis to Revelation (i.e., the “system” of Scripture) by focusing merely on detailed exegesis of particular passages or authors is myopic: it is to focus on the trees without looking at the forest. Yet the opposite tendency misses the trees by focusing only on the forest, leaving it uncertain that the “forest” that is being seen has any basis in Scripture.

I believe the importance of systematic theology can be defended by appealing briefly to a few areas of common agreement in church history. I will draw my examples from areas of the widest agreement among Catholic and evangelical churches. Critics of historic Christianity charge that each of the following dogmas results from philosophical systems being imposed on the simple biblical text. I will try to show that those who accept these essential Christian claims have no basis for rejecting the possibility of systematic theology.

The Trinity

One of the most noticeable features regarding the major dogmas of the Christian faith is that they are among the most philosophical in the sense that they draw heavily on precise and often quite technical metaphysical terminology. Even if the point they make is strictly determined by the biblical text, the language is often borrowed from secular (i.e., Greco-Roman), conceptual “toolboxes.” And why not? After all, no one can communicate apart from some particular cultural-linguistic environment, not even the biblical writers! So the crucial question is never whether some doctrine sounds philosophical or technical, but whether it arises from Scripture or some other source.

From the very beginning in the development of our understanding of God’s unity and plurality, secular concepts were inevitably used to communicate divine revelation. Thus, John the Evangelist writes, “In the beginning was the Word [the Greek word is logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-3, 14). John’s use of the term logos is important and we would miss an essential point if we simply thought that he was using this word without any regard to the contextual meaning it had for his readers.

Good biblical scholarship will remind us how John’s use of logos relates to the Jewish (i.e., Old Testament) understanding of dabar (“word”) and especially to the use of sophia (“wisdom”) in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Yet John, who was capable of using sophia, nevertheless chose logos. In Greek thought, it was often believed that, whatever the source of the universe might be (a god, a plurality of gods, or a divinity that infuses all of reality), it used intermediaries such as “wisdom” or a logos to do the “dirty work” of making material things. John is no doubt subverting this pagan idea by saying what no Greek would have been willing to say about the Logos; namely, that (a) he is a person and (b) he is not an emanation or intermediary of God but is God himself. In these brief sentences, John utters the incomprehensible: The Word-the Logos-is identified with the Creator of Genesis 1:1; he did not come into being in the beginning but “was” in the beginning. But he not only “was God”; he also was “with God.” So he is God and yet is a distinct person in his own right. He is further distinguished from the creation in that he is himself the Creator of “all things.” John leaves his audience without any ambiguity here. Although Greeks (including Hellenized Jews) were inclined to regard the universe (or aspects of it) as eternal, John emphasizes that “without him nothing was made that has been made.”

It is easy for us who have been reared in Christian churches to find here some clear teaching about the Trinity. Yet that was not obvious to everyone in the ancient church. The Alexandrian presbyter Arius (though himself trapped in Greek neoplatonic modes of thought) accused the church fathers of imposing a system on the biblical text. Taking a woodenly literalistic approach to the Bible, Arius concluded (especially from Proverbs and the apocryphal Book of Wisdom) that Jesus Christ was the first created being rather than God himself. Arius was simultaneously rationalistic and biblicistic: How could anyone believe in one God in three persons, and how could anyone say that Jesus is God when Wisdom-remember the links between the Greek word for wisdom (sophia) in the Septuagint and John’s use of logos in his Gospel-is said in Proverbs to be created?

Arius’s conclusion was branded heresy. Yet it is amazing to see the similarity of his approach to that of the turn-of-the-last-century historical theologian Adolf Harnack. Harnack argued that all of these major Christian dogmas were merely philosophical versions of pagan thought that replaced the simple piety of a purely human but divinely gifted Jesus. Like Arius, he failed to see how his own thought was governed by rationalistic and pagan modes of thinking as well as how the biblical writers were employing secular categories for the very purpose of subverting secular thought.

John’s profound but brief statement does not get us all the way to the Trinity, for it does not clearly say that God is one in essence and three in person. So how do we get there? First of all, there is the biblical claim that God is one. Nothing could be closer to the heart of God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament in the face of the surrounding nations’ polytheism. Many Scriptures justify the assertion of monotheism. (At this point, systematic theology draws upon very detailed and specific exegesis of particular passages.)

But that is not all that Scripture reveals. While God is one in the sense that Yahweh has no rivals, Scripture reveals that he is not numerically one in the sense of mathematical oneness. This revelation of God’s one-in-threeness grows organically from the Old Testament to the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the Angel of the Lord is repeatedly identified as the Lord God himself; and yet it is clear in such passages that God and this divine Angel are engaged in conversation. Similarly, references to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person, and as someone who is sent by God and from God, occasionally appear.

In the New Testament we see fuller revelation of the plurality of persons in the Godhead. At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven pronounces his benediction on the one whom he identifies as “my Son,” while the Holy Spirit hovers over the Son in the form of a dove. In the Gospels (and especially but not exclusively in John’s Gospel), Jesus makes obvious declarations about himself that no good Jewish boy would make unless he were either a blasphemer or God incarnate. He repeatedly identifies himself with God, yet speaks of the Father and the Spirit as distinct from “the Son” (as he refers to himself). Especially in John 14-16, he makes bold statements about his being one with the Father, and of his own sending of the Spirit (along with the Father’s sending of the Spirit). The commission to baptize “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19) is one of the most incontrovertible grounds of Trinitarian dogma. It would have been a gross violation of biblical faith to baptize converts into the “name” of anyone other than God. (Again, exegesis and contextual studies are necessary to support this point.) Other passages make reference to all three persons in the Godhead in a way that lends the doctrine of the Trinity additional support (see 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:2).

So the doctrine of the Trinity is based on inductive and deductive reasoning from the biblical text. Exegesis of particular passages-induction-is essential, but what does it yield? It tells us that there is one God. It also tells us that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But then induction fails us. A deduction needs to be made. Initially, it seems that we have only two choices: either we can deduce that the results of exegesis are so contradictory that we must dismiss Scripture’s witness altogether or we must side with one set of passages (leading to unitarianism) or another set (leading to “tritheism,” or three distinct Gods-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Yet there is a third possibility; namely, to deduce that the results of our exegesis give us an affirmation-that God is both “one” and “three”-that is, neither contradictory nor capable of being fully understood.

But how is God “one” and “three”? If he is one in the same sense in which he is three, then that is a contradiction and not just a mystery or a paradox. At this point, the church fathers rightly appealed to the technical language available to them-God is one in essence and three in person-not in order to explain the Trinity so that it is no longer a mystery, but in order simply to state it. This is a very important point, since critics of systematic theology often accuse it of trying to “explain away the mystery” of biblical teaching. On the contrary, the church fathers appealed to precise definitions in order to preserve the mystery without surrendering either to unitarianism or tritheism.

Although the Council of Nicea in a.d. 325 gave a universally acceptable definition of the Trinity, it was the Christological debates that refined our understanding, particularly of the Son’s relation to the Godhead.

The Incarnation

The same factors are at work in the debate over Christ’s person. On one hand, the Bible clearly testifies to Christ’s full deity. On the other hand, it is just as clear about his full humanity. Rationalists on both sides, who could not live with the mystery, denied one or the other. Again the church, by God’s grace, rose to the occasion and defined what it had intended at the Council of Nicea by declaring that the Son was homoousios (of the same essence) with the Father. Arius and his followers wanted to settle for saying that the Son was homoiousios (of similar essence) with the Father but not homoousios (of the same essence).

While it may be true that such terms have their shortcomings, as does all language, they provide very precise guardrails against heresy in both directions. Arians could say that Jesus was divine in some sense, just as docetists (from the Greek, dokeo, “to seem,” this heresy asserted that the body of Christ only seemed physically real) and Apollinarians (followers of the heretic Apollonarius who believed that Christ’s manhood was not distinct from his divinity but was, instead, deified, so that he had only one nature) could affirm his humanity in some sense, but in exactly what sense? The technical language was not intended to make simple faith in Christ a metaphysical puzzle. Quite the contrary, it was meant to provide razor-sharp clarity. It was crafted for the purpose of forcing church teachers either to affirm or to deny that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, reconciling sinners to himself-which is the core message of Scripture.

Simplistic exegesis would have yielded a choice between the humanity and deity of Christ. A systematic, “big-picture” deduction from both sets of exegetical data was necessary in order to affirm the mystery without explaining it away. Those today who think they do not need systematic theology often forget that they presuppose the truth of the Trinity and the hypostatic union-the two natures-of the Son because of theological systematization they have inherited from their participation in the church. It is sheer folly to think that we believe in the Trinity simply through an inductive Bible study of Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make man in our image”), whose explicitly Trinitarian intention is dubious at best. Indeed, most heresies-such as Jehovah’s Witnesses’ denial that Jesus is God the Son-are the result of simplistic inductive Bible study that ignores Scripture’s total teaching on a given subject. It is hard work to hold on to both reins-exegesis/induction and systematization/deduction-at the same time; but if we don’t, then we will most surely veer off of the ridge of orthodoxy into heresy either to the left or to the right.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom

With more space, we could analyze other major Christian teachings along similar lines. In the fourth-century debates over grace and free will, the heretic Pelagius lifted certain biblical statements out of context and forced the whole Bible to be read in the light of his rationalistic deduction as to what such statements implied. He reasoned: If God commands us to do something, then it must be possible for us to do it. Yet it is obvious that God commands perfect obedience. Therefore, we must be capable of being perfectly obedient.

The church concluded that this was flawed not only in substance but also in method. Each individual passage of Scripture must be interpreted in the light of the whole of Scripture rather than forcing the whole of Scripture into one’s interpretation of a part of it. In his Romans commentary, Pelagius interprets Paul’s repetition of God’s word to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” like this: “This is correctly understood as follows: I will have mercy on him whom I have foreknown will be able to deserve compassion, so that already then I have had mercy on him.” Pelagius is so dedicated to his all-controlling dogma of human liberty that sometimes it seems as if he is arguing with the apostle himself: “If, as some suppose, it does not depend on the one who wills or on the one who runs”-as Paul clearly states-then why, Pelagius asks, “does he himself also run, as he says: ‘I have finished the race’ (2 Tim. 4:7), and why has he urged others to run, saying: ‘Run so as to take all’ (1 Cor. 9:24)?”

Throughout his commentary, Pelagius is clearly uncomfortable with Paul’s more robust defenses of salvation by grace alone on the basis of Christ’s work alone. His commentary runs quickly-and with great distortion-over those passages; and then he regains his enthusiasm when he comes once again to Paul’s imperatives. This separates Paul’s imperatives-his commands for believers to do this or that-from his indicatives-his proclamations of what God has done for us-and so, since the gospel is found particularly in Paul’s indicatives, Pelagius completely misses Paul’s point. In reading Pelagius, it is hard to realize that you are reading a commentary on Romans if you do not keep on reminding yourself of that fact.

Scripture affirms divine sovereignty-including God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, predestination, and his overruling freedom-and human responsibility (which involves genuine creaturely freedom and therefore human accountability). Peter justly blames human beings for crucifying Christ even as he asserts that Jesus was delivered up by God’s foreordained council (see Acts 2:23; 3:12-18; cf. 4:27, 28). Scripture includes specific examples revealing God’s purposes even in the sinful acts his creatures freely commit (see Gen. 45:1-8; 50:20; Isa. 10:5-7; Lam. 3:38). Can we provide an explanation that resolves the mystery? Once again, reason risks running headlong into either fatalism or human autonomy. Systematic reflection forces us to integrate the whole of biblical teaching so that we will not exclude any part of the biblical witness. The fact that each major Christian doctrine ends up in mystery-yet without contradiction-is, I believe, a witness to its truth. Beware any alleged simple resolution of a major Christian truth.

Sola Scriptura

One last example comes from the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture (sola scriptura). Our Roman Catholic friends regularly remind us that the very words, “Scripture alone,” cannot actually be found in Scripture itself. Of course, they are correct-if we take a strictly inductive, nave, and biblicistic approach. But the reformers did not demand that a doctrine is stated in so many words in a given verse or set of verses in order for it to be believed. “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture,” says the Westminster Confession, “or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men” (; my emphasis). Like the doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, “Scripture alone” is a “good and necessary” deduction from Scripture’s whole teaching about itself in contrast to purely human authorities.

Every Christian Needs Systematic Theology

How does systematic theology relate to laypeople? Biblical scholars may need to listen to systematic theologians and vice versa, but surely the average layperson can’t be expected to attain the rank of “systematic theologian.” Of course, that’s true. In fact, even a biblical exegete can’t be expected to become a systematic theologian in terms of professional training and specialization.

Nevertheless, we all need systematic theology. A month of inductive Bible studies is unlikely to lead a person to the doctrine of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ. It may raise questions that that doctrine answers, but there is no verse that says, “The same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body.” The rest of the brief Creed of Chalcedon (451 a.d.) reads:

Consubstantial with the Father [homoousion to patri] according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [homoousion ton auton hemin] according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God [theotokou], according to the Manhood [anthropoteta]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures [duo physesin], inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person [prosopon] and one Subsistence [hypostasis], not parted or divided into two persons [prosopa], but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Every believer needs at least some “big picture” grasp of the doctrinal teaching of Scripture. While most readers would not come away from a Bible study with the sort of refinement exhibited in the Creed of Chalcedon, at least those trained through the teaching, the liturgical ascriptions of praise, the hymns, Sunday school, and catechism classes and sermons can get the most out of their inductive reading of Scripture precisely because they are already engaged in making deductions based on the whole system of Christian theology as they know it.

A well-trained believer will come to particular passages that stress the humanity of Christ and yet recall the conclusion that our forefathers have reached by examining all of the relevant biblical data and, thus, interpret those passages in the light of the hypostatic union. This does not impose a system on the Bible but, rather, interprets particular passages in the light of the whole teaching of Scripture.

In the end, all Christians engage in systematic theology-not at the professional level, necessarily, as those who study full-time to serve the ministers of the Word in their preaching-but as “the faithful.” The question is never whether we will have a systematic theology but what kind of systematic theology we will have. Will it be a tangled ball of yarn? Will we merely inherit it without much questioning or investigation on our part? Will it be based on Scripture as its normative authority or will it rely more on reason, experience, and tradition than on solid exegesis?

Many of those who most vociferously denounce “systematic theology” as obscuring the plain reading of Scripture end up being among the most guilty of imposing their own system on the Bible precisely because they do not realize that this is what they are doing. Their unawareness that they have, in various ways, inherited a tradition and been formed by certain communal readings of Scripture keeps them unconscious of their own “big picture” ways of organizing the Scriptures into a systematic whole.

All Christians, therefore, are obliged to recognize that they read the Scriptures both inductively (or exegetically) and deductively (or systematically). It is only when we are aware that this is what we inevitably do-and, thus, strive to subject our presuppositions and interpretive frameworks to the light of Scripture-that we can truly begin to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

1 [ Back ] In this article, Professor Horton has referred to the following sources: Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 1:1; Francis Watson's Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), page 4; Theodore De Bruyn's translation of Pelagius's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pages 117 and 118.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, January 2nd 2003

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology