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Fitting the pieces of the Bible together

Religion | An excerpt from John Frame’s Systematic Theology

In 1976 I publicly professed faith in Christ, was baptized, and joined a church, believing what I read in the Bible but not understanding much about how things fit together. A year later a trustworthy minister walked me through a seminary bookstore and told me I needed to buy Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, John Calvin’s two-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Charles Hodge’s three-volume Systematic Theology—so I did, 1-2-3, spending more than I should have in terms of my budget at that time. 

They were excellent investments. Berkhof was so hugely useful that many moves later I’ve held onto it, although it’s now available for free online. Calvin was terrific and Hodge was helpful, and both now are available online for free at several places, including the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Calvin and Hodge).

How then should you spend the money you have undoubtedly set aside for deep theological study? Wayne Grudem’s 20-year-old Systematic Theology (Zondervan) is excellent, and with 400,000 copies in print, many people already know of it. I haven’t seen it online for free, but if you like to listen rather than read, 117 podcasts of Grudem’s systematic theology lectures are available for free at Apple iTunes or Monergism.

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The systematic that you may not be aware of is John Frame’s new Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, 2013). So far I’ve just dipped into it, and have learned something each time. It comes highly recommended by John Piper and many others who are much more discerning than I am. As Piper put it, ”Few in our day champion a vision of God as massive, magnificent, and biblical as John Frame’s. For decades, he has given himself to the church, to his students, and to meticulous thinking and the rigorous study of the Bible.” And now, he gives himself to you. We’re glad to post Frame’s first chapter here. —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 1: What Is Theology?

Theology is full of definitions of things. One of the useful features of a systematic theology is that you can turn there and get quick definitions of terms such as justification, glorification, or hypostatic union. Definitions are useful, but we should be warned that they are rarely, if ever, found in Scripture itself.[1] Such definitions are themselves theology in that they are the work of human beings trying to understand Scripture. This work is fallible, and theological definitions are almost never adequate in themselves to describe the complex ways in which language is used in the Bible. For example, when John speaks of those who “believed” in Jesus in John 8:31, he is not using the term in any of the classical theological definitions of belief or faith. You can tell, because in verse 44 Jesus tells them, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

This reminder is especially appropriate when we are defining terms that are not explicitly found in Scripture itself. Theology itself is one of these. Theologians have developed a number of terms and concepts that are absent from Scripture itself, such as Trinity, substance, person, nature, aseity, inerrancy, effectual calling. There is nothing wrong with inventing new terms in order to better communicate biblical teaching. Indeed, this happens on a grand scale whenever the Bible is translated into a new language. When people first translated the Bible into French, German, English, and other languages, each time they had to come up with a whole set of new terms for everything in the Bible. From this fact, we can see that the line between translation and theology is not sharp.

Theologians came up with the term effectual calling to distinguish one biblical use of the term calling from others. Effectual calling is God’s sovereign summons that actually draws a person into union with Christ. But this is not the only kind of calling mentioned in Scripture. Calling can also refer to a name-giving, or an invitation, or a request for someone’s attention. So the term effectual calling isolates a particular biblical concept, distinguishing it from others. We see again, then, how making a definition is itself a theological task. It can help us to understand something of the teaching of Scripture.

Definitions, then, can be helpful teaching tools. But we should not look at them to find what something “really is,” as though a definition gave us unique insight into the nature of something beyond what we could find in the Bible itself. A theological definition of omniscience doesn’t tell you what omniscience really is, as if the biblical descriptions of God’s knowledge were somehow inadequate, even misleading or untrue. Even though there are none to few definitions in the Bible, Scripture, not any theological definition, is our ultimate authority. Theological definitions must measure up to Scripture, not the other way around.

NOTES

1. A few Bible passages come close to defining something, such as 1 John 3:4 (sin); 1 John 4:10 (God’s love). But are these definitions, or only contextually significant descriptions? Of course, the precise distinction between definition and description is not always clear.

2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 49–50. He uses a somewhat shorter definition in CD for the related concept dogmatics: “As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.” CD,1.1:4.

3. James Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 129–40, 246–96.

4. In all the discussion below, it should be evident that the term theology refers both to the activity of seeking knowledge and to the texts in which that knowledge is recorded.

5. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (New York: Harper, 1963).

6. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 1:19.

7. Didaskalia is translated “doctrine” in 1 Timothy 1:10; 4:6; Titus 1:9; 2:1. Of course, we today often use doctrine as a synonym for theology.

8. Another way of bringing out the practicality of theology is to note that the term has often been used (by Abraham Kuyper, for example) to denote the knowledge of God that believers receive by saving grace, as in John 17:3. The early pages of John Calvin’s Institutes discuss this saving knowledge of God in Christ. On the first page Calvin says that we cannot rightly know ourselves without knowing God, and vice versa. On this concept of theology, see SBL, 73–78.

9. Later, I will indicate three perspectives that we can bring to bear on many theological questions. In my definition of theology, those three perspectives are Scripture (normative), persons (existential), areas of life (situational). So my definition of theology contains these three elements.

10. Exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology are all misnomers. Exegetical theology is not more exegetical than the others, nor is biblical theology more biblical, nor is systematic theology necessarily more systematic.

11. Meaning is not something different from application. See my discussion in DKG, 83–84, 97–98. When someone asks, “What is the meaning of this passage?” he may be asking for a number of things, including (1) a translation into his language, (2) an explanation of its function in its immediate context or in the whole Bible, and (3) help in the personal appropriation of its teaching (what does it mean to me?). These forms of meaning are also forms of application, so the two terms cover the same ground. It is therefore misleading for someone to claim that items1 and2 represent meaning, but3is merely application. All of these are questions about meaning and also about application. All questions about meaning are questions about application, and vice versa.

12. Full disclosure: I do not have an earned doctorate. I completed all requirements for the Ph.D. at Yale University except for the dissertation. In 2003 I received an honorary D.D. degree from Belhaven College. So critics are welcome to dismiss my comments here as sour grapes if they prefer. I trust that other readers will respond in a less ad hominem fashion.

13. John Murray’s lectures in systematic theology consist almost entirely of the exegesis of biblical passages that establish Reformed doctrines. He explains his method in his important article “Systematic Theology,” in MCW, 4:1–21.

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