Systematic Theology Vindication of the Gospel

Prologue: Benjamin Breckinridge (B.B.) Warfield (1851-1921) – Professor of Theology, Princeton Seminary: a.k.a. Lion of Princeton.
There was perhaps no theologian in the world as deeply and as widely equipped for the theological task as this “leading ornament” of Princeton’s Theological Seminary. Warfield was well learned in all departments related to biblical studies – the original languages, Old Testament, New Testament, the new biblical “criticism,” theology, historical studies, philosophy, science. He stood out as a giant even in a Princeton land of giants, and was referred to as the “lion of Princeton.” It was said by those who knew him that not only did he know more than his great predecessors – he knew more than all of them put together. His learned grasp was as wide as it was deep, and in his own lifetime he was recognized for it. In all this God had prepared a spokesman, a defender of the faith who could take all comers – Fred Zaspel 

THE MANDATE OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY

With full acknowledgement and tribute to B.B. Warfield [*Vindication: justification with evidence and rational argument]

“False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.” (John Gresham Machen)

We live in an age where traditional Christian teaching is challenged, and if possible, subverted and rejected in the name of modern scientific knowledge and historical criticism. It is no small temptation for some Christian scholars to become intimidated and capitulate to the ‘superior’ truth claims pronounced by the new priests in the academia, and to accommodate the gospel so that it is more acceptable to the learned despisers of Christian faith.

As Warfield observes,

for one thing, the world is very confident of its own conclusions, and it is very sure of the infallibility of its own methods of research. It does not call its tenets “opinions,” “views,” “conjectures.” It dignifies them in the mass by abstract names of “philosophy,” “science,” “learning,” “scholarship,” It does not offer them to the Christian for testing and trial; it thrust them upon him as the perfect expression of knowledge. He is not requested to subject them to his touchstone, the Word of God, or sift from them the good and reject the bad. He is required to substitute them for teaching the Word of God as the only really solid basis of all his thinking. [“Heresy and Concession.” SSW2:675]

Warfield judges accommodation and theological compromises by intimidated Christians to be the fount of heresy in modern times.

“Modern discovery” and “modern thought” are erected into the norm of truth, and we are told that the whole sphere of theological teaching much be conformed to it. This is the principle of that reconstruction of religious thinking which we are now constantly told is going on resistlessly about us and which is to transform all theology. What is demanded of us is just to adjust our religious views to the latest pronouncements of philosophy or science or criticism. And this demanded with entire unconsciousness of the fundamental fact of Christianity – that we have a firmer ground of confidence for our religious views than any science or philosophy or criticism can provide for their pronouncements. It is very plain that he who modifies the teachings of the Word of God in the smallest particular at the dictation of any “man-made opinion” has already deserted the Christian ground, and is already, in principle, a “heretic.” The very essence of “heresy” is that the modes of thought and tenets originating elsewhere than in the scriptures of God are given decisive weight when they clash with the teachings of God’s Word, and those are followed to the neglect or modification or rejection of these. [“Heresies and Concessions,” SSW2: 676-677]

This is a call for Christian scholars to stand firm and “gird their loins with truth” (Eph 6:14, KJV). However, the answer to atheistic knowledge is not to reject knowledge but to challenge it with knowledge that does not preclude or prejudge supernatural revelation. That is to say, Christian should study thoroughly the methods and theories of modern scientific and historical criticism so that they are able to unmasks the underlying philosophical ideas and presuppositions of modern critical theories, and challenge modern critics when they claim their knowledge is superior because it is “objective” or “value free”. That there is no presuppositionless research is evident when critical scholars preclude reference to the supernatural and when these scholars reduce biblical revelation to elevated, rational but culturally conditioned spiritual insight and biblical history to myths.

But surely, the task of scholarship is to devise research tools that are compatible with its field of research. It is reality that determines the research tools and not arbitrarily devised tools that determine how reality should yield its secrets (c.f. T.F. Torrance). Indeed when rationalistic scholarship applies a methodology that rules out the supernatural , it ends up with conclusions that are inimical to Christian faith. Warfield suggests how a proper methodology would accept supernatural revelation as the beginning and end of theology,

In order to defend the idea of a distinctively supernatural revelation against this insidious undermining, it has become necessary to…emphasize the supernatural in the mode of knowledge and not merely in its source. When stress was laid upon the source only without taking into account the mode of knowledge, the way lies open to those who postulate immanent deity in all human thought to confound the categories of reason and revelation, and so practically to do away with the latter altogether. Even when the data on which our faculties work belong to a distinctively supernatural order, yet so long as the mode of acquisition of knowledge from them is conceived as purely human, the resultant knowledge remains natural knowledge.[“Ideas of Revelation and Theories of Revelation,” CW 1:39]

Warfield insists that it is is not enough to acknowledge God was the source of supernatural knowledge, nor merely that it becomes the property of men by a supernatural agency, but further that it does not emerge into human consciousness as an acquisition of the human faculties pure and simple.
It is undeniable that modern criticism poses a comprehensive challenge to the integrity of Christian faith. As such, Christian response to the challenge of modern criticism is not to make sporadic forays into new academic disciplines with a view of challenging bits and pieces of new “facts” or “findings” that are deemed to contradict Christian truth claims. Such “guerrilla” tactics will not convince a skeptical world as Christians are seen to be spoilers and sore losers unable to respond constructively to the growth of new knowledge.

Warfield warns,

He who only defends the minimum renounces the strongest and best of all the evidences of Christianity. That great demonstration of the truth of Christianity which springs at once from an apprehension of it was a whole, as a perfect and perfectly consistent system of truth: the evidence of the gospel itself as the grandest scheme of thought ever propounded to the world, is entirely lost. [“Heresy and Concession,” SSW2: 678]

Such defensiveness is unnecessary, especially for Warfield who shares the Augustinian ideal of “faith seeking understanding.” Warfield is probably following the footstep of his predecessor, Charles Hodge who concludes that reason is the necessary presupposition of revelation.

Reason is necessarily presupposed in every revelation. Revelation is the communication of truth to the mind. But the communication of truth supposes the capacity to receive it. Revelations cannot be made to brutes or idiots. Truths, to be received as objects of faith, must be intellectually apprehended. A proposition, to which we attach no meaning, however important the truth it may contain, cannot be an object of faith…. unless we know the meaning of the words nothing is communicated to the mind, and the mind can affirm or deny nothing on the subject. In other words knowledge is essential to faith. in believing, we affirm the truth of the proposition believed. But we can affirm nothing of that of which we know nothing. The first and indispensable office of reason, therefore, in matters of faith, is the cognition, or intelligent apprehension of the truths proposed for our reception. [Systematic Theology vol.1, p. 49]

Warfield buttresses his case for Christian duty and courage to confront criticism with a citation from Aquinas, “He who believes would not believe unless he saw that what he believes is worthy of belief on the basis of evident signs or something of the sort.” (Summa Theologiae 2a, 2ae 1, 4). That is to say, faith uses ‘right reason’ to apprehend correctly the evidence:

We believe in Christ because it is rational to believe in him, not even though it be irrational. Of course, mere reasoning cannot make Christian; but that is not because faith is not the result of evidence, but because a dead soul cannot respond to evidence. The action of the Holy Spirit in giving faith is not apart from evidence, but along with evidence; and in the first instance consists in preparing the soul for the reception of the evidence. [“Essence of Christianity and the Cross of Christ,” CW 3:395].

This calls for a systematic and constructive Christian theological apologetics where genuine faith confronts its critical challenges head on. First, Warfield notes the irony how criticism ends up strengthening Christian faith.

So the efforts of the naturalistic school of historical criticism, to bring into doubt the genuineness and unity of the books of the Bible, with a view to rearranging their material in an order for which a plausible plea for natural development might be put in, has not only called forth a mass of direct evidence for the authenticity of the books, such as was undreamed of before, but has also given birth to a whole library of more indirect argumentation of a nature and amount sufficient almost to revolutionize the science of “the evidences.” [“Christian Evidences: How Affected by Recent Criticism,” SSW 2:127]

Second, the very attempt by critics to question the Bible and undermine faith ends up bolstering Christian faith:

Criticism has proved the best friend to apologetics a science ever had. It is as if it had walked with her around her battlements and, lending her its keen eyes, pointed out an insufficient guarded place here and an unbuttressed approach there; and then, taking playfully the part of the aggressor, made feint after feint towards capturing the citadel, and thus both persuaded and enabled and even compelled her to develop her resources, throw up a new defences, abandon all indefensible position, and refurbish her weapons, until she now stands armed cap-a pie, impregnable to every enemy. The case is briefly this: recent criticism has had a very deep effect upon the Christian evidences in modernizing them and so developing and perfecting them that they stand now easily victor against all modern assaults. [“Christian Evidences: How Affected by Recent Criticism,” SSW 2:131]

 

THE METHOD OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions. ( ARISTOTLE, Metaphysics, II, (III), i.)

C.S. Lewis once narrated a story about a woman who claimed to have seen a ghost, but still would believe in ghosts as such.

In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing…If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question

The story from C.S. Lewis confirms that there is no isolated, uninterpreted ‘fact’. That is to say, there is no such thing as ‘raw data’, and that ‘data’ gains meaning and significance in the context of a wider theory.

Warfield cites James Denny,

A fact of which there is absolutely no theory is a fact which stands out of relation to everything in the universe, a fact which has no connection with any part of our experience; it is a blank intelligibility, a rock in the sky, a mere irrelevance in the mind of man. There is no such thing conceivable as a fact of which there is no theory; such a thing could not enter our world at all; if there could be such a thing, it would be so far from having the virtue in it to redeem us from sin that it would have no interest for us and no effect upon us at all. “Right of Systematic Theology,” SSW 2: 235-236

For the Christian, “truth is an organic unity,” and “all truth is God’s truth.” As such, Christianity must be defended as a unified whole. In this regard, it is necessary to resist the tyranny of modern positivistic science which insists that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and restricts all knowledge to what is empirically accessible. Warfield suggests an alternative view of science built on three presuppositions: (1) the reality of its subject-matter; (2) the capacity of the human mind to apprehend, receive into itself, and rationalized this subject-matter; and (3) some medium of communication by which the subject-matter is brought before the mind and presented to it for apprehension. To break the cordon of restrictive empiricism, one may define science as a body of knowledge gained from a systematic study of reality that is publicly accessible, systematically analyzed and coherently unified (what German scholars call “wissenschaft”).

Warfield also refutes the claim that science is fundamentally objective and insists that human knowledge is not strictly objective or strictly subjective. On the contrary, knowledge is a union of objective and subjective elements.

Facts do not make a science; even facts as apprehended do not make a science; they must be not only apprehended, but also so far comprehended as to be rationalized and thus combined into a correlated system. The mind brings to every science somewhat which, though included in the facts, is not derived from the facts considered in themselves alone, as isolated data, or even as data perceived in some sort of relation to one another. Though they be thus known, science is not yet; and is not born save through the efforts of the mind in subsuming the facts under its own intuitions and forms of thought. [“Idea of Systematic Theology,” CW9:53]

Reasoning by analogy, Warfield argues there is no dichotomy between facts and Christian doctrine,

No one would contend that Christianity consists in doctrines as distinguished from facts, far less that it consists in doctrines wholly unrelated to facts. But neither ought anyone contend that it consists in facts as distinguished from doctrines, and far less that it consists in facts as separated from doctrines. What Christianity consists in is facts that are doctrines, and doctrines that are facts. Just because it is a true religion, which offers to man a real redemption that was really wrought out in history, its facts and doctrines entirely coalesce. All its facts are doctrines and all its doctrines are facts. [“The Right of Systematic Theology,” SSW 2: 234]

It has become fashionable in these days of specialization for biblical scholars who imitate the model of empirical science to focus on collection of background historical data to exegete the text without giving due consideration to historical and systematic theology. But such a procedure amounts to an unwarranted separation of ‘raw’ historical data from theological interpretation.  Indeed, the process of relying on exegesis in isolation from the systematic theology would militates against biblical revelation as it ignores how Christian revelation was given to a particular people with its own consistent historical and religious understanding. For example, the latter parts of the Old Testament and the New Testament themselves interpret those revelations that were given earlier to Israel. To do exegesis of particular scripture without taking into consideration the unity of the Bible with related biblical passages (biblical theology) and the community’s received tradition of meaning (systematic theology) would be to do violence to the text. Warfield quotes James Denny to rebuke exegetes who ignore this context (biblical and systematic theology),

A mere exegete is sometimes tempted to read New Testament sentences as if they had no context but that which stands before him in a black and white; they had from the very beginning, and have still, another context in the minds of Christian readers which it is impossible to disregard. They are not addressed to minds in the condition of a tabula rasa; if they were, they could hardly be understood at all; they were addressed to minds that had been delivered – as Paul says to the Romans: a church, remember, to which he was personally a stranger – to a type or mold of teaching; such minds have in this a criterion and a clew [sic] to the intention of a Christian writer; they can take a hint, and read into brief words the fullness of the Christian truth. [“The Right of Systematic Theology,” SSW 2:240-241]

The relation of Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology is based on a true view of its function. Systematic Theology is not founded on the direct and primary results of the exegetical process; it is founded on the final and complete results of exegesis as exhibited in Biblical Theology. Not exegesis itself, then, but Biblical Theology, provides the material for Systematics. Biblical Theology is not, then, a rival of Systematics; it is not even a parallel product of the same body of facts, provided by exegesis; it is the basis and source of Systematics. Systematic Theology is not a concatenation of the scattered theological data furnished by the exegetic process; it is the combination of the already concatenated data given to it by Biblical Theology. It uses the individual data furnished by exegesis, in a word, not crudely, not independently for itself, but only after these data have been worked up into Biblical Theology and have received from it their final coloring and subtlest shades of meaning—in other words, only in their true sense, and after Exegetics has said its last word upon them. [“The Idea of Systematic Theology,” CW 9:66-67]

Warfield gives an apt illustration drawn from the military,

From this point of view, we find no difficulty in understanding the relation in which the several disciplines stand to one another, with respect to their contents. The material that Systematics draws from other than Biblical sources may be here left momentarily out of account. The actual contents of the theological results of the exegetic process, of Biblical Theology, and of Systematics, with this limitation, may be said to be the same. The immediate work of exegesis may be compared to the work of a recruiting officer: it draws out from the mass of mankind the men who are to constitute the army. Biblical Theology organizes these men into companies and regiments and corps, arranged in marching order and accoutered for service. Systematic Theology combines these companies and regiments and corps into an army—a single and unitary whole, determined by its own all-pervasive principle. It, too, is composed of men—the same men which were recruited by Exegetics; but it is composed of these men, not as individuals merely, but in their due relations to the other men of their companies and regiments and corps. The simile is far from a perfect one; but it may illustrate the mutual relations of the disciplines, and also, perhaps, suggest the historical element that attaches to Biblical Theology, and the element of all-inclusive systematization which is inseparable from Systematic Theology. It is just this element, determining the spirit and therefore the methods of Systematic Theology, which, along with its greater inclusiveness, discriminates it from all forms of Biblical Theology, the spirit of which is purely historical.[ “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” CW 9:67-68]

 

THE MISSION OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
As the origin of systematic theology is truth perceived as a unified whole, so, the goal of systematic theology is to address the whole person. Warfield explains,

We do not possess the separate truths of religion in the abstract: we possess them only in their relations, and we do not properly know any of them – nor can it have its full effect on our life – except as we know it in its relations to other truths, that is, as systematized. What we do not know, in this sense, systematically we rob of half its power on our conduct; unless, indeed we are prepared to argue that a truth has effect on us in proportion as it is unknown, rather than in proportion as it is known. To which may be added, that when we do not know a doctrine systematically, we are sure to misconceive the nature of more or fewer of its separate elements; and to fancy, in the words of Dr. Charles Hodge, “that it is true which a more systematic knowledge would show us to be false,” so that “our religious belief and therefore our religious life would become deformed and misshapen.” [“Idea of Systematic Theology,” CW 9: 83]

The holistic concerns of systematic theology belies the common misconception that systematic theology, as generalized systems of truth is indifferent to the struggles of the soul in practical religion. Its critics delight in quipping how systematic theology produces beautiful blossoms, but alas, it only bears inedible fruit! Warfield demurs,

We wholly misconceive the facts if we imagine that the development of systematic theology has been the work of cold, scholastic recluses, intent only upon intellectual subtleties. It has been the work of the best heart of the whole Church driving on and utilizing in its practical interests, the best brain. [“Idea of Systematic Theology” CW 9: 81]

Warfield counters critics with an insistence that there is no separation between theology and Christian practice.

The revelations of the Scriptures do not terminate upon the intellect. They were not given merely to enlighten the mind. They were given through the intellect to beautify the life. They terminate on the heart. Again, they do not, in affecting the heart, leave the intellect untouched. They cannot be fully understood by the intellect, acting alone. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God. They must first convert the soul before they are fully comprehended by the intellect. Only as they are lived are they understood. Hence, the phrase, “Believe that you may understand,” has its fullest validity. No man can intellectually grasp the full meaning of the revelations of authority, save as the result of an experience of their power in life. Hence, that the truths concerning divine things may be so comprehended that they may unite with a true system of divine truth, they must be: first, revealed in an authoritative word; second, experienced in a holy heart; and third, formulated by a sanctified intellect. Only as these three unite, then, can we have a true theology. And equally, that these same truths may be so received that they beget in us a living religion, they must be: first, revealed in an authoritative word; second, apprehended by a sound intellect; and third, experienced in an instructed heart. Only as the three unite, then, can we have a vital religion. [“Authority, Intellect, Heart,” SSW 2: 671]

Finally, Warfield stresses that the ultimate goal of systematic theology is the public witness and presentation of the whole Gospel for the whole man. That is to say, the systematic theologian’s work is:

the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbours as themselves, to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold Him precious; and to recognize and yield to the sweet influences of the Holy spirit whom He has sent. With such truths as this he will not dare to deal in a cold and merely scientific spirit, but will justly and necessarily permit its preciousness and its practical destination to determine the spirit which he handles it, and to awaken the reverential love with which alone he should investigate its reciprocal relations. For this he needs to be suffused at all times with a sense of the unspeakable worth of the revelation which lies before him as the source of his material, and with the personal bearings of its separate truths on his own heart and life; he needs to have had and be having a full, rich and deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to his God, to be resting always on the bosom of his Redeemer, to be filled at all times with the manifest influences of the Holy spirit. The student of systematic theology needs a very sensitive religious nature, a most thoroughly consecrated heart, and an outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon him, such as will fill him with that spiritual discernment, without which all native intellect is in vain. He needs to be not merely a student, not merely a thinker, not merely a systematizer, not merely a teacher – he needs to be like the beloved disciple himself in the highest, truest and holiest sense, a divine.

Amen

Bibliography.

-Books by Benjamin Breckinridge (B.B.) Warfield:

The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 10vols. Oxford UP, 1927-1932; reprint, Baker 2003. CW

Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield. Ed., John E. Meeter. 2 vols. Presbyterian & Reformed 1970, 1973; reprint, 2005. SSW

-Authoritative Introduction:

Fred G. Zaspel. The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary. Crossway 2010.