Allow Biblical Theology to Shape Systematic Theology, Not Reverse

This week on the Bellator Christi Podcast, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Chad Thornhill. Dr. Thornhill is the Professor of New Testament Greek, the Chair of Theological Studies, and Associate Professor of Apologetics at Liberty University. Dr. Thornhill discussed his findings from his book A Chosen People: Paul, Election, and Second Temple Judaism as it pertained to the understanding of individuals in the Second Temple Judaist period.

In addition to his discussion pertaining to his research, one of the most important points made by Thornhill on the podcast related to biblical hermeneutics (that is, Bible interpretation). He said that he taught his students not to read information back into Scripture, seeking to prove a particular point. Rather, the student should interpret the Bible according to the information given by the author to his intended audience.[1] This technique is much more difficult as it must involve in-depth research by the Bible student. But the difficulty is worth the time invested as it presents a far more accurate interpretation.

Truthfully, adherents of all theological interpretations have been guilty of reading into a passage what the person wants to read. This is true for both Calvinists and Arminians, for Molinists and Thomists alike. In the end, biblical theology must shape a person’s systematic theology. What is meant by “biblical theology” and “systematic theology”?

Biblical theology is understood as the “study of the Bible that seeks to discover what the biblical writers, under divine guidance, believed, described, and taught in the context of their own times.”[2] In other words, biblical theology is the understanding of the biblical writer’s theology. What did he believe? What was he intending to communicate? What did he desire for his readers to know? What were the circumstances surrounding his message? To answer these questions, one must use exposition to find the answers; that is, to remain true to the writer’s intention. Using this method, a person will eventually see the big picture of the Bible, which leads to a true systematic theology. Now, what is “systematic theology”?

Systematic theology is understood as an articulation of “the biblical outlook in a current doctrinal or philosophical system.”[3] Systematic theology looks at the overall picture as it pertains to particular doctrines. Whereas biblical theology will seek to examine, for example, what John believed about Jesus in his Gospel and letters; systematic theology will show what the Bible teaches about the identity of Jesus. It is imperative that one possesses a strong biblical theology before one can hope to hold a strong systematic theology.

Often and unfortunate as it may be, biblical expositors will often elevate the systematic theology of John Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, Arminius, Wesley, and Molina over that of the biblical text. When this is done, the expositor will jump through hoops in order to twist the Scripture into his/her theological system. Expositors force passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and Romans 9 into their paradigm, while often being untrue to the nature of the text. If such a passage does not fit into one’s systematic theology, then that particular aspect of one’s systematic theology needs to be examined against the biblical text and against the overall message of the Bible itself. The great theologians such as those mentioned earlier need to be studied fervently. If perchance a person holds to a doctrine that has been rejected by the vast number of theologians throughout history, then one had better possess strong and valid reasons for accepting such a claim. Yet while Calvin, Aquinas, Wesley, Molina, and Arminius are important and extremely knowledgeable, one should take note that they are not infallible. The Scriptures are infallible. The theologians were mere mortal men trying to understand the truths of Scripture. So, we should study them with the understanding that if their teachings contradict the Scriptures, then the Scriptures should be accepted and the particular theologian’s viewpoints rejected.

Systematic theology is extremely important! My major in graduate school was in theology, particularly systematic theology, so I hold a great deal of interest in the matter. Do not misread the message of this post. I believe that systematic theology is of utmost importance. However, I do think the challenge offered by Dr. Chad Thornhill should be adhered by all students of the Bible. The Bible should shape our systematic theology, not the other way around. Such is true also for a person’s political and social beliefs. If the Bible is God’s Word (which I believe it is), then it is the final authority of truth.

© August 16, 2016. Brian Chilton. 

Sources Cited

[1]  Chad Thornhill, interviewed by Brian Chilton, Bellator Christi Podcast (August 15, 2016), podcast, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/pastorbrianchilton/2016/08/15/election-from-the-perspective-of-second-temple-judaism-w-dr-chad-thornhill.

[2] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), Logos Bible Software..

[3] Ibid.

 

How Does God’s Immutability Affect Me?

I have told many before that I am a walking Murphy’s Law. If something is going to happen, it will likely happen to me. A few days ago, I was sick. To make matters worse, my wife was about to leave on a business trip to Orlando. I was so sick that I feared that I might land in the emergency room. I feared that my digestive system was again disturbed. I went to the doctor and they confirmed that I had the flu. I was actually happy that it was the flu rather than my digestive system. My mother-in-law kept my son for me that afternoon and evening. However, my night was about to become bizarre. I took my nausea medicine which makes me woozy. The medicine had just entered my system when our neighbor called and told me that the brake lights were left on. How was that possible? So, I went out in the dark, while woozy, trying to figure out why the lights were on. So, I eventually had to move the truck towards the garage light, take off the battery cables, while becoming increasingly drowsy. Needless to say, my night had changed from strained to downright bizarre. Things often change at dramatic pace. Often, faster than what any of us would like. However, we can find comfort in the attribute of God known as immutability.

 Immutability means that God does not change. Wayne Grudem defines the immutability of God as that “God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations.”[1] Norman Geisler adds “That God is unchangeable in His nature has solid support in biblical, historical, and philosophical theology. Despite many anthropomorphic expressions, the Bible has clear and repeated references to God’s immutability.”[2]

 In Numbers 23:19, we find Balaam presenting his second of four oracles to Balak. These oracles come after Balaam had the bizarre incident where God spoke through a donkey. The miracle is not so much that God spoke through a donkey, but rather that Balaam spoke back to the donkey! Personally, I have never found a donkey to which I particularly cared to speak. Nevertheless, God used this means to set Balaam straight. Balak wanted Balaam to condemn God’s people. Yet in his second oracle, Balaam responds to Balak’s critique by noting the immutability of God. God does not change. If God chose to bless his people, who was Balaam to say otherwise? So what do we find in Scripture pertaining to the immutability of God? We find four ways that God does not change.

 1. God’s immutable ATTRIBUTES do not change (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 102:26-27).

Beginning with our passage, we read Balaam stating that “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and he will not fulfill it” (Numbers 23:19)?[3] Also, the psalmist states that “They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Psalm 102:26-27). Both Balaam and the psalmist acknowledge that God’s attributes do not change. Meaning that the attributes that we have discussed and will discuss are unchangeable. God is not one day omnipotent and the next day limited in his power. God remains the same forever.

2. God’s immutable CHARACTER does not change (Hebrews 6:17-18; Hebrews 13:8).

The writer of Hebrews notes that “when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17-18). The writer also notes that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The writer of Hebrews shows us that we can find hope and encouragement in the steadfast character of God.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a woman who told me, “Brian, do you know the thing I appreciate most about you?” Anytime a preacher receives a compliment, the preacher’s ears perk up. I inquired, “No, what?” She said, “I appreciate that you are the same every time I see you. Whether in church or out of church, you are the same.” While I appreciate the kind woman’s compliment, we find that it is truly God who completely remains unchanged in his character. Such is the mark of integrity. God most certainly has integrity.

3. God’s immutable PURPOSES do not change (Ephesians 3:8-13; 1 Peter 1:20).

Paul writes in Ephesians that he was to preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:9-10). Peter also writes that Christ “was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:20). Paul and Peter teach us that God’s purposes do not change. The plans of God are set before time began. God doesn’t change his purpose one day to the next. God’s plans are set from eternity past.

4. God’s immutable PROMISES do not change (Titus 1:2; James 1:17).

Paul writes to Titus that “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). James also notes that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Paul and James both teach their readers that since God’s character and attributes do not change, therefore God’s promises do not change. Thus, if God promises you something, it is as good as done.

I read a story about a pastor who met with an elderly man at the point of death. Due to his medication, the older gentleman said, “Pastor, I am ready to go. But I wish I could have peace.” The pastor said, “Sir, why do you not have peace?” The gentleman said, “I would have peace if I could simply remember the promises of God.” The wise pastor replied, “Do you think God has forgotten? It doesn’t matter if you remember them. As long as God remembers his promises, he will fulfill them.” The gentleman lying in the hospital bed found peace that night because he realized that God will always fulfill his promises seeing that God is unchanging.

So, how does God’s immutability affect you? Here are five ways.

  1. God will always be faithful, despite the unfaithfulness we experience with others. Nearly all of us have experienced unfaithfulness from time to time. Your experience of unfaithfulness could come from a spouse who discontinued their promised love for you. Your experience of unfaithfulness could have come from a friend who promised to have your back, only to stab you in the very back they proposed to protect. Your unfaithfulness experience could have come from an employer who fired you days before you were set to retire. While we experience unfaithfulness in life, due to his character, God will always be faithful to us.

 

  1. God will always fulfill his promises, in spite of our experiences of worldly lies and manipulations. While some people seek to manipulate you for profit or gain (others just enjoy getting one “over on you”), God will fulfill his promises due to his unchangeable character. Jesus promised that he would never leave you nor forsake you. That is a promise you can take to the bank.

 

  1. God will never change truth, despite society’s promotion of skepticism and doubt. Since God is unchangeable, his truth is unchangeable. Societies have come and societies have gone. But God’s truth still remains. It is said that Voltaire claimed that a hundred years after his death that the Bible would be no more. Ironically, it is said that Voltaire’s home was turned into a Bible translation facility around a hundred years after his death. From his home, a particular Bible society distributed the very Word that Voltaire claimed would be doomed. God’s immutability means that his truth remains forever.

 

  1. God will always be with you, despite the seeming chaos you experience. God’s steadfastness provides order in the midst of our chaos. God will provide order when no one or nothing else can.

 

  1. God will be your rock in an ocean of turbulence, an ever present help in times of trouble. Due to his steadfastness and unchangeable nature, God is an anchor and rock in the midst of the turbulent times in which we live.

Lighthouses_csg007_Kereon,Brittany,France

Turn to God—our unchangeable hope!!!

 

© March 15, 2016. Brian Chilton.

 

Sources Cited

 Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology: In One Volume. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Notes

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 163.

[2] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011), 444.

[3] All quoted Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).