Sola Scriptura and Form: Theology as a Problem
In the first post of this series, I offered this thesis: “because the Bible is itself expressed in certain forms, and because the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice, we have an obligation to mirror biblical forms in our own expression of biblical truth.” I will continue this practice of clearly stating my claims; in this post, my contention is that the (admirable) desire to emphasize systematic theology has handicapped our ability to see the forms in Scripture.
I love theology, not insignificantly because of my upbringing. The church in which I grew up was led by pastors with seminary educations, and so from high school on I was taught the importance of sound, systematic theology. And I greatly appreciate this inheritance, and continue to insist on the importance of robust, biblically-sound systematic theology.
But my love of systematics is now tempered by this observation: our emphasis on systematic theology can incline us to view the Bible as a sourcebook of facts for the construction of our theology. The recent festschrift for John Frame really solidified this observation for me. Roger Wagner’s contribution to that volume said this:
Frame writes, “I am…disturbed by [Charles] Hodge’s statement that theology exhibits the facts of Scripture ‘in their proper order and relation’ (emphasis mine).” Implicit in the normativity and perfection of Scripture, Frame argues, is the idea that it has its Spirit-given order as well as its divine content. There is no need for the theologian to provide another, improved order.
Again, let me reiterate: I am not against doing theology; theology is a necessary task of the church. But I suspect that, given truth serum, many of us might acknowledge our hidden conviction that God would have served the church better had he inspired the Bible with a table of contents more akin to Erickson, Grudem, and McCune, and less like the collection of writings that he actually did inspire. And that, it seems to me, is a problem. It betrays a less than robust confidence in the Bible as God gave it.
Again from Frame:
Scripture is not merely a body of factual statements but is full of other kinds of language: imperatives, interrogatives, promises, vows, poetry, proverbs, emotive language, and so forth. The purpose of Scripture is not merely to give us an authoritative list of things we must believer but also to exhort us, command us, inspire our imaginations, put songs in our hearts, question us, sanctify us, and so on. Surely the work of teaching in the church is not only to list what people must believe but also to communicate to them all the other content of Scripture.
The heart of the matter is this: if we believe that systematic theology is ultimately a better presentation of God’s revelation than is the Bible itself, we will of necessity view the forms of Scripture as (at best) inconsequential, or (at worst) an impediment to God’s revelation. And so if form is important, seeing form will demand that we approach the text with new eyes, as it were.
About Michael Riley
Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.