You are hereProlegomenon: I.The Integral Role of Development in Systematic Theology
Prolegomenon: I.The Integral Role of Development in Systematic Theology
by Samuel Frost
Before one can build a house he or she must first design the house. This is the blueprint; the theoretical model on paper for what will become a concrete reality in action. Following this analogy, the designer of the house does not draw up his or her plans in a vacuum. Previous plans and previous houses have already been built. The key to building a new house is to take the best from the previous ones and add new dimensions of engineering that will improve on previous models.Before one can build a house he or she must first design the house. This is the blueprint; the theoretical model on paper for what will become a concrete reality in action. Following this analogy, the designer of the house does not draw up his or her plans in a vacuum. Previous plans and previous houses have already been built. The key to building a new house is to take the best from the previous ones and add new dimensions of engineering that will improve on previous models.Herman Hoeksema wrote:
Dogmatics is that theological discipline in which the dogmatician, in organic connection with the church in the past as well as in the present, purposes to elicit from the Scriptures the true knowledge of God, to set forth the same in systematic form, and, after comparison of the existing dogmas with Scripture, to bring the knowledge of God to a higher state of development.1
Based on my analogy above, Hoeksema’s more technical elaboration of systematic theology defines the task I have set before me. The notion of development within the church as it relates to her understanding of the ‘knowledge of God’ is one point many Christians do not consider. The religion that one enjoys today in the name of Christianity is the product of ‘organic’ development. Another quote will sharpen my meaning:
In fact a written dogmatics never begins anew. It is always in a distinct tradition of thought. This implies certain conditions. It must wrestle with questions already posed.2
More recently, Robert Reymond, expounding on Louis Berkhof’s long respected approach to systematics, lists four concerns of the ‘doing theology’: constructive, demonstrative, critical, and defensive.3 The constructive is defined as formulating doctrines in ‘such a way that the organic connection of the several dogmas become clear, with new lines of development being suggested which are in harmony with the theological structure of the past.’4 This overlaps with demonstration from sound exegetical reasoning which is to be ‘kept’ and for ‘any new elements which [the theologian] may suggest.’5 The critical aspect is that ‘the theologian must allow for the possibility of a departure from the truth at some point or other in his church’s dogmas and in the systematic system which he himself proposes.’6 This is captured in the slogan of the Reformation: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (also, ecclesia semper reformanda) – ‘a Reformed church is always reforming’ or ‘the church must always be reforming’, which is found in principle in Catholocism as well).
Finally, the theologian must ably defend his theology from the pages of Scripture. This is seen in Reymond’s distinctions between ‘departure from the truth’ and ‘church’s dogmas’. Church dogma may in fact be a ‘departure from the truth.’ The truth is the Scriptures (John 17.17). The church’s ectypal understanding of that once-and-for-all delivered truth (Scriptures) ‘must allow’ room for error by entertaining the ‘possibility’ of such. Truth never changes, but our understanding of it does.
This is not meant to imply that the church cannot ever grasp the truth or that she is only left with some vague approximation of the truth. One cannot even know that they are approximating the truth if they can never even know what truth is in the first place. My methodology is to proceed on this line: some dogmas have been so firmly established so as to be necessary in order to logically maintain the Christian Faith, and some dogmas contain errors that must be eliminated. I say ‘contain’ because not everything said about the subject is in error. The ramifications have not been fully seen. For example: if we have statements 1,2, and 3 reaching conclusive-statements 4,5, and 6, the conclusive-statements may not be necessary logical deductions or ramifications of 1,2, and 3 upon further serious re-examination of 1,2, and 3. 1,2, and 3 are indeed correct statements, but they may actually imply a ‘new’ way of understanding 4,5, and 6 quite distinct from the way they were once understood and defined. Thus I do not proceed on ‘shaky grounds’ having nothing firm underneath. I assume that the history of God’s providence over the last two millennia of Church history has bore some fruit without which we could not proceed.
The stress I place on the idea of development is important in two regards:
1. Every theology of the past represents itself as a theology for that time, having engaged in its own past discussions, and as a result formulated new solutions based on past errors, or past inabilities to reconcile satisfactorily the problems raised. It assumes, correctly, that this inability of past thinkers is due to their failure to see the logical ramifications and implications of what they were saying. That is, their failure to trace out the logical end of each statement produced for the subject at hand. This failure is not due to lack of intelligence, more than it is simply due to the fact that human life is short. A theologian cannot be expected to trace out every logical end of every doctrinal proposition that he has expounded upon. He cannot be expected to be an expert on all fields of the theological task. Failure to see fuller ramifications is simply the limitations of Nature placed on him. It is the task, then, of the new generation to respect the ancient markers of their fathers, learn from them, and from their foundational proposals demonstrate further implications of what they did not see.7 This might, at times, call for major renovations. Indeed, at times it may call for a reformation.
2. The consideration for development within dogma admits the possibility that such indeed may occur. When someone actually does develop a full-fledged thesis that arrests the errors of past propositions, the onus is on the one making the challenge to be sure. No major conservative theologian denounces the idea of what Berkhof called, ‘organic development’8 (which assumes that the past doctors did indeed err, that is, failed to see their implications or internal contradictions), but when one suggests an alternative to the ‘orthodox’ position (which is an attempt to clean up the messy problems that it has caused), these same conservatives act quite the opposite of what they hypothetically profess to be a possibility by not even considering a new reformulation (to which, amazingly, the frequent response is that “no one has ever believed this way!”).
Thus, for these two regards, I allow for the possible overhaul of certain dogmas without a fallacious appeal to the popularity (ad populum) or length of time (tradition) these certain dogmas may have had. Once a theologian admits ‘possibility of departure from the truth’ concerning ‘church dogmas’ (deliberately leaving which ‘church dogmas’ may indeed be a departure from the truth), then the logical conclusion can be that a major church dogma, regardless of its traditional standing (else, it would not have been a dogma), may indeed need a complete renovation.9 Practically speaking, what you believe concerning various doctrines needs to be seriously re-examined from time to time because you may be wrong. To say that one is never in need of refinement is to give up all investigation because this same person has ‘arrived.’
1. Hoeksema, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Reformed and Free Publishing Association, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1985), 5.
2. Thielicke, Helmut, The Evangelical Faith: Volume 1 Prolegomena: The relation of Theology to modern thought-forms (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1974), 23.
3. Reymond, Robert L., A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1998), xxxii-xxxiii. For the influence of Berkhof see The History of Christian Doctrines (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1959), 22-24. He defined dogma as a ‘doctrine, derived from Scripture, officially defined by the Church, and declared to rest upon divine authority’ (21). Then declares, ‘The one great presupposition of the History of Dogma [is that] the dogma of the Church is changeable’ (22), and adds that ‘the Church itself, as a whole or in part, sometimes erred in its formulation of truth’ (24).
4. Ibid, xxxii.
5. Ibid, xxxii.
6. Ibid, xxxii.
7. My book covers this in detail, Misplaced Hope: The Origins of First and Second Century Eschatology (Bi-Millennial Publications, 2002), 28-40;52-58.
8. Op. cit., n.3, Berkhof, 24.
9. Non nova sed nove in Latin is ‘not new things, but in a new way.’ This is what I mean by re-nova-tion.