Biblical and Systematic Confusion Yields Gospel Delusions
The difference between biblical theology and systematic theology is like difference between my wife recounting a conversation she had with someone and my recounting such a conversation.
When my wife gets off the telephone with her mother, for instance, she gives me the blow-by-blow: “Mom said . . . then I said . . . then mom said . . . then I said.” She carefully recounts every interchange, and usually reenacts the full-range of emotions that transpired through the course of the conversation. Since I have not yet reached my glorified state, I’m often tempted to rush her to “get to the bottom line” or “land the plane.” In her grace, she forgives me and presses on in ushering me through the full existential gamut of what she just experienced.
When I get off the phone with a friend, on the other hand, I like, quite simply, to sum up. “The conversation was good. We decided to . . . ” The blow-by-blow feels inefficient. So I look over all the data and present her with a “bottom line” interpretation of that data.
Now my wife might say that my approach is less existential and more cerebral, at least she would if she was as pretentious as me and used words like existential. Gratefully, she’s not. I on the other hand would say that that interpretive, cerebral element indicates the work of synthesis and analysis upon which judgments are reached and decisions are made.
Wonderfully, Paul assures us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the body of Christ is served by both people like me and people like my wife.
It’s also served by both biblical and systematic theology. The analogy doesn’t work perfectly, but biblical theology sounds more like my wife sounds. It provides us with something like the blow-by-blow of narrative development through the course of redemption history. The chronology of the story is significant, as one thing portends, or leads to, another. Yes, a degree of interpreting and systematizing occurs in biblical theology, but, at least compared to systematic theology, the goal of biblical theology generally is not to interpret the data, but to describe it. It’s to show how all the data is in fact a story that hangs together: “the promise of the seed, you see, leads to the covenant with Abraham, which in turn leads to . . .”
Systematic theology sounds more like I sound. It presents us with a summing up—a succinct, comparatively cerebral interpretation that allows for judgments to be reached and actions to be taken. It’s no knock on systematic to call it cerebral, because the goal of the synthesis and analysis is living, believing, trusting, and action. That’s why John Frame refers to systematic theology as “application.” He says, “It is precisely when we do systematic theology that the specific question of application is explicitly raised.” Systematic must be sensitive to the philosophical categories of particular time and place—as Tom Schreiner mentions in his article—because it’s people in a particular time and place that systematic theology means to stimulate to action.
Clearly, both biblical and systematic theology, when done rightly, serve good and complementary purposes. In D. A. Carson’s language, one mediates, the other culminates. And the church needs both.
Yet it’s important, even critical, for us not to confuse the two—and the role each of them plays—particularly when it comes to defining the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the more common mistakes in defining the “gospel” these days, as I perceive it, is to confuse biblical and systematic categories. A biblical theological presentation of the good news follows the lines of redemption-history: creation, fall, redemption, new creation. Notice the elements of narrative and chronology in this presentation. That’s what I’m likening (an imperfect analogy) to my wife’s blow-by-blow description of a phone conversation.
A systematic theological presentation of the gospel takes much of the same data of this storyline and renders a “bottom line” in several areas of prominent concern, kind of like my own approach to relating the contents of a conversation. And these prominent areas of concern we might label as four different containers: God, man, Christ, and response, as in “This is basically what I’m saying about God: he’s loving” or “Here’s what I ultimately want you to understand about human beings: we’re sinful.”
By calling them containers, I simply mean to suggest that they are empty until someone places his or her definition inside of them. So a person might say, “God is loving, man is ignorant, Christ is a great example, and we should follow that example once enlightened.” That’s different content than “God is holy, man is sinful, Christ died as a substitute, and now we must respond in repentance and faith.”
The problem that concerns me arises when a writer or speaker provides what I’m calling a biblical-theological presentation of the gospel, and then acts as if the job is done. So the writer will say something like this: “the essence of the gospel is the coming of God’s kingdom to a world in need of rescue.”
Now often—not always, but often—the writer will provide this definition over and against the definition of the gospel as penal substitution. The “gospel,” we’re told, is not just about the salvation of individuals through faith in Christ’s death on the cross as a substitute for sin. That’s so individualistic. So cerebral. So legal. Rather, God came to declare his redemptive kingdom by defeating darkness, rescuing the nations, and reconciling the entire cosmos to himself. Not only that, it’s not just our “souls” that are saved. Christ came, and then Christ sent the church, to bring healing and salvation to life and body, soul and spirit, land and city.
The marvelous glut of kingdom language in the New Testament is marshaled to support this claim: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’” (Mark 1:14b-15). There it is: the kingdom of God is near; believe this good news, this gospel, of the kingdom.
There are two problems going on here. The first problem, though deeply significant, is tangential to my main point here, so I’ll mention it only briefly. And that is, describing the gospel as “the rescue operation of God’s inaugurated kingdom” doesn’t exhaust the work of biblical theology. As John Piper puts it,
The King must die before he reigns. Otherwise the justice of his reign would only bring judgment and not salvation. So all the kingdom blessings demonstrated in the Gospels had to be purchased by the blood of Christ. This is why the cross must ever be the center and foundation of the gospel and why the blessings of the gospel should not only be called gospel in relation to the cross.
D. A. Carson is helpful as well:
Yet from what are human beings to be rescued? Their sin, yes; the powers of darkness; yes. But what is striking is the utter absence of any mention of the wrath of God. This is not a minor omission. Section after section of the Bible’s story turns on the fact that God’s image-bearers attract God’s righteous wrath. The entire created order is under God’s curse because of human sin. . . . And it is the overcoming of this most fundamental sin that the cross and resurrection of Jesus achieve. The most urgent need of human beings is to be reconciled to God. . . . [T]o speak constantly of the advance of the kingdom without tying kingdom themes to the passion narrative, the way the canonical Gospels do, is a terrible reductionism.
In addition to not exhausting the biblical theological work and presenting a partial gospel, there’s a second way in which “the gospel of the kingdom” doesn’t get the job done. There is an accompanying and overlapping failure to do the work of systematic. It’s one thing to provide a biblical theological description. And that’s great. It’s God’s story. Tell it again and again. But I also need—and all the other people sitting in the pews also need—systematic application. We need to know what to believe, and how to live. That’s what systematic theology gives us.
WHY WE NEED A SYSTEMATIC FORMULATION OF THE GOSPEL
In a sense, we cannot not place something inside of each of these containers no matter how we articulate the gospel. By what we say or don’t say, we are saying something about God, something about man, something about Christ, and something about the necessary human response. The only real question is what?
So, Bishop Wright, Pastors McLaren and Bell, blue-like-jazz Miller, what are you saying to me about God? I don’t think it’s individualistic, overly cerebral, or beholden to Western legal categories for me to want to know what you think about God. I’m just a person who wants to know who God is. Is he loving? Holy? Like my grandpa?
And what do you think about humans? Why do they need rescuing or healing? You don’t seem to emphasize sin and the penalty of sin like some other theologians I know. What does that mean you think about sin?
What about Christ? You talk a lot about his mission, his perfect life, even his resurrection. But why does each one of the Gospel writers slow the narrative way down and spend such a large percentage of their chapters on the twenty-four hours leading up to his death? Why did he have to die?
And what of our response? Do we have to do something? Nothing? Faith? Works? What?
Give me the bottom line. I need you to land the plane.
In short, are God and man separated by sin and the wrath of God or not, and what must we do?
Suppose I stand in the pulpit, at the classroom lectern, or on the street corner and say this: “God created the universe. Humanity sinned and fell from God’s presence. Christ came to redeem a people. Those people look forward to their complete restoration in the new creation.” That’s what you might call a biblical theological narration of the gospel storyline—creation, fall, redemption, new creation (and, yes, assume, I’m expanding on each point to include language about the kingdom). Now, what’s missing from this “gospel presentation”? What’s missing is that I haven’t addressed my hearer! I haven’t done the difficult and often offensive work of applying it to you. God created you in his image. You have sinned against God. You must repent and believe in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in order to be saved.
When I apply the biblical theological narration to you—you who live in a certain time, in a place, who must believe certain things, and make certain decisions—I’m doing the work of systematic. I’m telling you what you absolutely must know. In a sense, my entire point in this article can be summarized by saying that “creation, fall, redemption, new creation” becomes “God, man, Christ, response” when it’s applied to individual consciences, individual human beings who will individually give an account to God.
I don’t think you can say these categories are outdated by this generation or that generation, this worldview or that. God, man, Christ, response—these look pretty basic to me. When these categories are not explicitly addressed, moreover, it feels like—this is how I’ve learned to work through differences with my wife; I don’t say “you were,” I say, “I felt,” because it leaves her motives untouched and delimits my charge to an admittedly fallible subjective response—it feels like, as I was saying, the writer is deliberately trying not to say that God is holy, man is sinful, Christ removed the penalty of sin, and now we must repent and believe. It feels like they want to downplay God’s holiness, and downplay the horror of sin, and downplay God’s hatred of sin and the need for a justifying act of propitiation. I may not be right. I’m just saying how I feel!
(I know that it’s popular among some biblical scholars today to say, “I don’t do systematic, I just do exegesis.” Now let me move beyond a profession of my feelings and say as plainly as I can, that’s a naïve claim. Everyone has a systematic. Everyone believes some bottom line about God, man, Christ, and the called for response.)
WHY WE NEED A BIBLICAL THEOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE GOSPEL
But we should also come at the issue from the opposite angle. Our systematic formulations of the gospel must remain closely tethered to biblical theology for a couple of reasons. First, our systematic formulations are never as good as Scripture. So we must continually strive to improve them by reapplying ourselves to biblical theology.
Second, our systematic formulations do seek to address the philosophical questions and worldview categories of the day. When a new worldview emerges, or when we transplant ourselves into a new culture, it makes sense to look again at the biblical foundations; to take one step backwards from systematic to biblical theology, as it were, in order to evaluate whether a better, or tweaked, or supplemented systematic formulation might serve the occupants of that worldview or culture. But let me make three caveats here.
Caveat one: this backward step should not be made by simply throwing theological tradition (small “t”) out the window. The development of doctrine in the history of the church has a rationale and wisdom to it. Only the devilishly arrogant think they can chuck it and start over in order to serve the needs of the day. Caveat two: we shouldn’t overestimate the differences between cultures and worldviews. All of them involve a holy God, sinful people, and a propitiating Christ. See Romans 3. Caveat three: many writers today confuse going back to biblical foundations with going back and picking their favorite texts in the interest of serving contextualization.
Third, just as my wife prefers one style of reportage while I prefer another, it seems reasonable to suppose that differences of temperament mean that some personalities will be more served by a narrative, blow-by-blow approach to the gospel, while others will be better served by temporal concrete statements. (This is just a personalized version of the last point.) Yet let me again offer two caveats.
First, the Ethiopian eunuch read the narrative of Isaiah 53. But he still needed Philip to explain it to him. Second, if in fact the kingdom storyline in Scripture mentions anything about a holy judge, a guilty verdict, and the wages of sin being death, those are probably details you will want to mention in your storytelling.
IMPROVING OUR SYSTEMATIC FORMULATION
To sum up, some advocates of the so-called gospel of the kingdom seem to commit two mistakes: they don’t give us all the biblical data (the point Piper and Carson affirmed), and they don’t seem to give us a clear enunciation of their systematic.
Yet let me close by pointing to two ways recent writers who emphasize the gospel of the kingdom can help us to better articulate the systematic gospel of penal substitution through the “containers” of God, man, Christ, and response. First, the emphasis on the corporate dimensions of our salvation helps us to formulate a better doctrine of sin, doctrine of Christ’s work, and doctrine of the church. God promised Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the nations on earth, and Christ has come to save a people. This biblical theological data, if I might call it that, should affect our formulation of God, man, Christ, response.
- Our triune God displays his holiness and love, firstly, in his perfect and righteous relationship within his three persons. He then calls humanity to image or display this holiness and love in our relationship with him and one another.
- We, in rebellion against God, have displayed our rebellion against him by breaking his commandments and murdering and not loving one another.
- Christ came to pay the penalty of our rebellion and to win a bride, gather a flock, give life to a body, that they might be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex 19:5; 1 Pet 2:9) who mediate God’s glory to the world. His work of substitution reconciled this people to God and to one another, undoing both the vertical and horizontal estrangement which were products of the fall and God’s curse. In other words, the imperative of Hebrew 10:25—”don’t forsake assembling”—follows the indicative of Christ’s accomplished work of breaking down the wall of partition (Eph. 2:14-18).
- We are therefore to respond in repentance and faith—a repentance marked by love for God and neighbor in the gathering, worshipping, hospitality, and going (disciple-making) of the church.
There’s no need to describe the gospel of salvation for the forgiveness of sins as individualistic. We just need to state it better.
Second, the emphasis on the kingdom or rule of God reminds us that our systematic formulation requires a strong understanding of faith and repentance. Faith does not mean, “I believe in Jesus; now I get off scot-free.” Faith means following, trusting, repenting.
And repenting means I get off the throne and God gets back on the throne in every area of my life, which will be particularly manifest in whether or not I serve and love others (John 13:34-35; Phil 2:4ff). The kingdom of God is where the Word of God—in flesh and in writ—rules. So faith and repentance means that our lives will be marked by listening. We want, above all else, to hear God’s word, so that we might believe it and live it. (How strange that so many advocates of the gospel of the kingdom refuse to deal with the word of God in a straightforward manner.)
Though my flesh sometimes wants my wife to communicate just like me—vain? Who, me?—I praise God that she doesn’t. What a richer man I am because of our differences. How she teaches and humbles and sharpens me. How much more should our imperfect systematic formulations yield continually to the theology of the inerrant Word (no, I’m not saying biblical theologians are inerrant!). Praise God for inaugurating his kingdom in our fallen world through the propitiating, justifying, reconciling, ransoming, freeing work of his Son on the cross!
1. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R, 1987), 212.
2. Tim Keller makes a similar point here: http://theresurgence.com/r_r_2006_session_seven_video_keller.
3. John Piper, God is the Gospel (Crossway, 2005), 32.
5. In his discussion referenced above as well as at the 2006 Desiring God conference (click here: http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/EventMessages/ByDate/1832_The_Supremacy_of_Christ_and_the_Gospel_in_a_Postmodern_World/), Keller makes the point that among many in today’s post-modern culture, it’s not enough to just briefly say “God, man, Christ, faith” and expect people to understand what we’re talking about. Instead, he says we should help people to understand the gospel within the context of their worldviews. I don’t see myself as disagreeing with this. My point is merely that the systematic categories themselves are valid. Keller’s point is helpful for instructing us to take greater care in sensitively defining those categories for today’s generations and worldviews.
6. For example, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (IVP, 2000).