Systematic Theology in an Unsystematic Life

There are ways to get over the mountains.

This morning, I finished reading Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology by R. C. Sproul.  This delightful book consists of 60 chapters of about 5 pages each.  The broad sections cover an

Introduction to theology

Theology Proper

Anthropology and Creation

Christology

Pnuematology (the work of the Holy Spirit)

Soteriology (the doctrine of Salvation)

Ecclesiology (doctrine of the church)

Eschatology (doctrine of last things).

These are pretty standard subjects for Sytematic Theology.  Sproul’s coverage of the many topics in this book is short enough to rile just about everyone.  After all, he is a Presbyterian, a Calvinist, an Evangelical, an Amillenialist.  So, anyone who doesn’t line up with those isms can be miffed.  And for the isms we share, there is room enough to also be miffed.  Sproul touched lightly on the topics he covered.  He jabbed and poked at views he rejects, but rarely sliced, diced, and juiced those views and their adherents.

To all that last paragraph and the implied criticism, I would say, “Silence.  Cease and desist,” or simply, “Shut Up.”

The serious reader, the crusty old Calvinist, the bibliophile, and warrior with scars from ancient battles with the foe will not learn much of the What of theology from this book by Dr. Sproul.  But he profoundly teaches the HOW TO of theology.

This past year, one of my favorite teaching opportunities was the Theology and Apologetics class at Veritas Academy.  We read several books, read from others, watched some good videos, and had some great discussions.  What was lacking was a usable handy-dandy systematic theology text.  Most systematic theologies are fat books; that is, the kind that weigh down our bookshelves.  Such hefty tomes yeild much richness, but the challenge of the mountain is too much for many of us, and usually too much for theological beginners.

The joy of weighty books. A delight to the eyes, a vein of gold to the mind, and a benefit to the cardio-vascular system.

 

Here is where Dr. Sproul, master teacher and theologian, steps in.  Again, each chapter is five pages long.  Reading the chapter is easy enough and each chapter opens up the classroom setting or Sunday school to discussion.  In each case, Sproul includes a passage or two from Scripture to support the topic at hand.  (In contrast, the longer systematics might have pages of Scripture references.  That too has its place.)  Consider this:  If you and I knew at least one place in the Bible where we could readily turn and explain or defend a doctrine, then we would be well served.  “Amen” to extra passages, cross references, and exhaustive detail.  But knowing one or two key passages is a great starting place.

Sproul usually includes an anecdote or personal story to illustrate or supplement the doctrine.  Frequent readers of Sproul will recognize some of the stories or recurring people, such as his Dutch professor G. C. Berkouwer or his mentor John Gerstner.  Key teaching point:  When Sproul or any other author frequently mentions a particular author or thinker favorably, read that person.

Sproul also introduces, little by little, necessary theological language.  Every subject has its vocabulary.  Big words are tools to simplify concepts.  So, as the broad divisions indicates, the reader of theology needs to know terms such as Christology, Pnuematology, and Soteriology.  As a teacher in a classical Christian school, I have been amazed at how often Sproul introduces Latin terms.  The Church discussed theology for nearly 2000 years in Latin.  Even when the books were not written in that language, the quotes from authors in Latin were not generally translated.  The big words are necessary to expand the mind.  They are not to be used to intimidate the novice or lost person.  Don’t parade your theological acumen by saying things like “Your lack of an epistemologically sound hermenuetic explains your synergistic soteriology.”  (And I am not even sure what that sentence would mean.)  A doctor needs to know a better term than “funny bone” for the elbow, but “the olecranon process” is not the language to use on patients.

Sproul breaches discussion on heresies, false emphases, warped applications, and the like without a serious deconstruction of the problems.  But rest assured, there are plenty of books out there that, to use a term from C. H. Spurgeon, “thrice slew the enemy.”  Truth taught properly needs to weigh heavy on the truth itself rather than the distortions.  The teacher or class studying this book can use discussion time to expose heresies or harass fellow believers who are in error.

A last point to be made is that this book emphasizes living the faith.  A larger attempt at that same goal can be found in John Frame’s new and hefty Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.  For various reasons, Calvinistic and Reformed thought has proven to be a magnet to certain types of brainy, arrogant, intellect driven young men.  (Alas, none of those adjectives apply to me any longer, if ever.)  It is relatively easy for some young guys to work out in the theological weightroom lifting the Bavinck weights, doing N. T. Wright curls, and bench pressing Calvin’s Institutes.  You can spot the oiled and muscular theological intellects of these guys on the ecclesiastical beach of life as they show off, intimidate, and even sucker punch poor Arminians who are trying to pass out Chic tracts.

Systematic theology, however, was never meant to be an intellectual head-trip.  Calvin was writing a manual for the men and women in the pews or in the secret Bible study.  Yes scholars need to write, sometimes, for scholars.  Iron needs to be used to sharpen iron and not just for chopping up mushy substances.  But Christianity is a bottom up exercise as well as a top down program.  Disciples need to be taught.  They need key Bible passages to digest, some inspiring illustrations, some warnings, and application.

Sproul’s book is a great way to disciple the church.  It will also be the textbook of choice for my next venture in teaching theology to a class.

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