Queen of the Sciences?

That’s the old phrase reserved for systematic theology when people regarded it as the culmination of human thought about special and general revelation. Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield and the Old Princeton faculty more generally regarded systematic theology as the telos of biblical and theological investigation.

Warfield worried, however, that biblical theology would displace systematics:

Systematic Theology may look on with an amused tolerance and a certain older-sister’s pleased recognition of powers just now perhaps a little too conscious of themselves, when the new discipline of Biblical Theology, for example, tosses her fine young head and announces of her more settled sister that her day is over. But these words have a more ominous ring in them when the lips that frame them speak no longer as a sister’s but as an enemy’s, and the meaning injected into them threatens not merely dethronement but destruction.

In that new environment, the queenly status of systematics might have more to do with sexual orientation and the politics of identity rather than with a hierarchy of knowledge.

After reading the exchange between Dick Gaffin and Clair Davis regarding recent faculty developments at Westminster Theological Seminary, I am still convinced that an important difference between Old Princeton and contemporary Westminster is the status accorded systematic theology. Gaffin and Davis both debate how best to interpret Geerhardus Vos and the proper hermeneutic associated with redemptive historical exegesis, but systematic theology is distant from their concerns.

Of course, faculty at the Reformed seminaries are supposed to subscribe the “system of doctrine” taught in the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity. But whether all faculty are equally willing to teach and defend that system of doctrine — say in Sunday school or even in their own non-ST classes — is another question altogether. I mean, are the advocates of a Christotelic or Christocentric reading of the OT prepared to teach and defend limited atonement or the eternal decree? And if all seminary faculty were willing to contend for those doctrines, would the disputes among the Vossians have taken on such magnitude?

I am well aware that it is easy and a bit of a cliche to quote Machen the way that political conservatives quote the American founders. (Here goes Machen boy again.) But I wonder how many seminary faculty would agree with this assertion from Machen’s first address about WTS?

. . . biblical theology is not all the theology that will be taught at Westminster Seminary, for systematic theology will be at the very center of the seminary’s course. At this point an error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is. But it differs from biblical theology in that, standing on the foundation or biblical theology, it seeks to set forth, no longer in the order of the time when it was revealed, but in the order of logical relationships, the grand sum of what God has told us in his Word. There are those who think that systematic theology on the basis of the Bible is impossible; there are those who think that the Bible contains a mere record of human seeking after God and that its teachings are a mass of contradiction which can never be resolved. But to the number of those persons we do not belong. We believe for our part that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that he has given us not merely theology, but a system of theology, a great logically consistent body of truth.

That system of theology, that body of truth, which we find in the Bible is the Reformed faith, the faith commonly called Calvinistic, which is set forth so gloriously in the Confession and catechisms of the Presbyterian church. It is sometimes referred to as a “man-made creed.” But we do not regard it as such. We regard it, in accordance with our ordination pledge as ministers in the Presbyterian church, as the creed which God has taught us in his Word. If it is contrary to the Bible, it is false. But we hold that it is not contrary to the Bible, but in accordance with the Bible, and true. We rejoice in the approximations to that body of truth which other systems of theology contain; we rejoice in our Christian fellowship with other evangelical churches; we hope that members of other churches, despite our Calvinism, may be willing to enter into Westminster Seminary as students and to listen to what we may have to say. But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than what we find the Scripture to contain; and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow Christians, from whatever church they may come, if we set forth not some vague greatest common measure among various creeds, but that great historic faith that has come through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian church. (“Westminster Theological Seminary,” 1929)

Of course, Machen could be wrong about systematic theology. If so, a biblical theologian might want to step up and say so and explain why. Machen’s not the pope.

But if he is right about systematic theology being as biblical as biblical theology, if he’s right about it forming the center of the theological curriculum, and if he’s right about Calvinism (as the WTS affirmations and denials — see pp. 9 and 10 — suggest), then the debates about Vos and the proper way to read the Old Testament look less important than they have become. The real test is not whether you get Isaiah or Vos right, but whether or not your teaching and writing supports the system of doctrine taught in the church’s standards. If that were the criterion for appointment and promotion, the debate between Gaffin and Davis might be better left for the attendees at the Evangelical Theological Society.

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16 thoughts on “Queen of the Sciences?

  1. I am far from either a systematic or biblical theologian, but I get the sense that the movement to modify classical theism is not unrelated to the issues you discuss above. Would you say that the debate about divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility is another front in the biblical theology-systematic theology war?

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  2. As someone once remarked, biblical theology is the gadfly that keeps the horse moving but systematics is the horse that carries you to your destination.

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  3. Jesse, my sense is that the debates over divine attributes do reflect a discomfort with ST and its “scholastic” ways. But BT has been questioning ST longer than that.

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  4. For this unlettered reader, both are very helpful in my personal studies of theology, but STs have clearly been more useful.

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  5. But if the question is a doctrinal and or methodological question concerning whether Scripture is most basically divine revelation or a human book one does have a confessional concern. I seem to remember the WCF saying something about the Bible being fundamentally divine revelation. I am not saying any of the current parties involved would deny revelation, just saying that the nature of Scripture and revelation are both BT and systematic concerns/categories. Talking in BT terms versus Protestant Scholastic terms doesn’t necessarily mean one is talking about two unrelated topics.

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  6. The history of the discipline, usually set out in painstaking detail in opening chapters of a good BT, demonstrates a lot of room for what the elect on here would call heretical at the very least.

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  7. Hodge, ST, p 167–The Scriptures present the regular development, carried on through centuries and millenniums, of the great original promise, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” This development was conducted by some forty independent writers, many of whom understood very little of the plan they were unfolding, but each contributed his part to the progress and completion of the whole…..If the Bible be the work of one mind, that mind must be the mind of God. Only God knows the beginning from the end. Only God could know what the Bible reveals. No one, says the Apostle, knows the things of God but the Spirit of God.”

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  8. The history of theology and biblical studies, usually set out in painstaking detail in opening chapters of a good theology book, demonstrates a lot of room for what the elect on here would call heretical at the very least.

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  9. I have difficulty seeing how a hermeneutic that first views the OT as if it was not divine revelation in its first reading (starting point) is consistent with the WCF that argues that Scripture at its most basic is the divine Word of God. It seems to me that the WCF starting point IS divine Word and deed. The starting point cannot be both divine and human authorial intent. Likewise Vos sets out the primacy of divine revelation in the first 11 pages of his BT as the basis for Reformed BT, which I see as a development of Reformed Covenant Theology which is also described in Protestant Scholastic terms in the WCF.

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  10. thanks oldlife!

    Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God
    The odds of life existing on another planet grow ever longer. Intelligent design, anyone?
    ENLARGE
    CORBIS
    By ERIC METAXAS
    Dec. 25, 2014 4:56 p.m. ET
    3207 COMMENTS
    In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.

    Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.

    With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.

    What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.

    Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.”

    As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

    Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

    Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?

    There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.

    Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?

    Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

    Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”

    The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.

    Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” ( Dutton Adult, 2014).

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