When Leigh first started talking to me about doing this course, I said, “Well, let’s do something on Christian doctrine.” And she said, “No, no, no, we’re going to do systematic theology.” I said, “Systematic theology? No one’s going to come out for a course entitled ‘Systematic Theology.’”
Systematic theology is one of the courses in seminary. Whenever someone goes to seminary, their family members and friends are always worried that they’re going to become completely irrelevant to Christian ministry. They’re going to grow cold in their love for the Lord. And systematic theology is one of those courses that sounds like it would do that to you. It sounds so clinical. What do you do in there? You systematize biblical teaching. You put it in kind of arbitrary categories created by theologians, probably given Latin labels and so forth. But no, that’s not what systematic theology is.
And so what I want to do today is do a couple of things. First, I want to briefly give you an overview of what systematic theology is. And then we want to look at our first doctrine, the doctrine of Scripture. In later weeks, we’ll look at the doctrine of God and God’s attributes. We’ll look at the doctrine of the Trinity. We’ll look at creation and providence, look at the person and work of Christ, look at salvation, and we’ll look at the church. So there’s a lot of ground to cover, and we’ll try to cover it as quickly and clearly as we can.
What Is Systematic Theology?
But let me say a few words about systematic theology as a way of studying the Bible. What is systematic theology? I think we can appreciate systematic theology by thinking about it as a way of studying the Bible that emphasizes or tries to pay attention to four or five different aspects of biblical teaching.
1. The Unity of Biblical Teaching and Truth
First, systematic theology is the study of the Bible that gives attention to the unity of biblical teaching. So in systematic theology, we ask not just what does Paul say in Romans, but how does what Paul says in Romans relate to what Moses says in Exodus and what Isaiah says and what John says and what the book of Revelation says. And so there’s an attempt to coordinate the different aspects of biblical teaching to see how what Paul says is related to what Moses says and so forth.
Scripture is the supreme source of truth, and we want to measure what science says and philosophy says and other disciplines say by the light of Scripture.And there’s also a secondary concern to think about how what the Bible says relates to what science says or what philosophy says. And so it really is an attempt to look at the unity of God’s truth. We believe God is the author of all truth, as the creator of all things, and that all things hold together in Christ, as Paul says Colossians 1. And so systematic theology as a discipline is an attempt to take that seriously. Scripture is the supreme source of truth, and we want to measure what science says and philosophy says and other disciplines say by the light of Scripture, but we do want to see how it all fits together.
2. The Full Scope of Biblical Teaching
The second aspect of systematic theology as a way of studying the Bible is that it gives attention to the full scope of biblical teaching. You remember Paul in Acts 20 when he is addressing the elders in Ephesus. He’s about to leave them. He says that “I have not refrained from proclaiming to you the whole counsel of God.” I haven’t refrained from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. This is what I mean by the full scope of biblical teaching. Systematic theology doesn’t want to just focus in on one part of it, but it wants to look at the whole thing. Herman Bavinck, a now deceased Dutch theologian but one of the best theologians in the Reformed tradition, he says, “Failure to attend to the whole counsel of God leads to one-sidedness and error in theology and pathology in the Christian life.”
In other words, a lot of the times the errors that we run into, theologically speaking, the things that can, despite our best intentions, lead us down the wrong road in terms of practice, lots of times those errors don’t come from necessarily following something false. They might even come from following something that’s somewhere in Scripture, but it’s not reading that thing in light of the whole of Scripture. And so, you know, every heretic who’s ever existed in the history of Christianity has used the Bible as the basis of false teaching. Well, one of the ways to avoid that is to give attention to the full scope of biblical teaching.
3. The Proportions of Biblical Teaching
The third aspect of systematic theology is that it pays attention to the proportions of biblical teaching. So the unity of Scripture, the full scope of Scripture, the proportions of Scripture. The Bible says something about everything: teaches us about God, teaches us about heaven, teaches us about earth, teaches us about the sea in all their depths. But the Bible doesn’t say everything about everything. It does talk about the fish that teem in the waters, but it’s not a book about fish. Well, there’s one book about fish, but as a whole, it’s not a major theme in the Bible. The Bible has topics that are matters of first importance, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. The gospel is of a matter of first importance. Christ died for our sins, according to the Scripture. He was raised on the third day. It also has matters that are of secondary importance. Remember Jesus and his arguments with Jewish authorities. He says, you’ve paid attention to these secondary matters, you should have payed attention to the most important things: mercy.
The Bible doesn’t say everything about everything. It does talk about the fish that teem in the waters, but it’s not a book about fish.Now, the point is not we can neglect the secondary things and pay attention to only the first things. All of it’s important. But we do need to understand what are the priorities and emphases of Scripture. And again, both in our thinking but also in our living, in our worship, we can get out of whack. We can start majoring on the minors and we can minor the majors, and that will mess us up. Well, systematic theology tries to pay attention to the proportions of Scripture in this regard. It helps us to make sure that we not only understand what the Bible teaches, but we understand the way the Bible teaches what it teaches. We understand its shape, its pattern, and so forth.
4. The Relationships Between Various Doctrines
The fourth characteristic, the fourth aspect of systematic theology as a way of studying the Bible is that it is concerned with the relationships between various doctrines. I’ll give you an example. The Bible has something to say about good works. Think of the Ten Commandments, think of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible also has something to say about grace. When God reveals his name to Moses in Exodus 34 this is one of the chief characteristics of God’s nature: that he is gracious. The gospel is rooted in the grace of God.
Well, so you have two themes. You’ve got good works. You’ve got grace. Well, in order to have a fully biblical understanding of good works and grace, we not only have to understand what the Bible says about good works and what the Bible says about grace, we have to understand how it relates those two things. Why is that? If we think that good works are the basis for God’s grace, we’re going to get ourselves into all kinds of trouble. We’re going to misunderstand the nature of salvation, we’re going to rob ourselves of any assurance of salvation because we’re always going to be worrying, “Am I doing enough to be accepted by God?”
Systematic theology is about contemplating the relationships between various doctrines.No, good works don’t come before grace. They come what? After grace. And you think of Ephesians 2:8, 9 and 10, that’s exactly what it says: “By grace you are saved through faith. It is a gift of God, not on the basis of works lest anyone should boast.” But then, what does it say? “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” And so good works don’t go in front of grace, they go after grace. And you can get in trouble there, too, by forgetting that. If you think salvation is just about grace and God’s not interested in changing us, that’s a mistake, too.
Systematic theology is about contemplating the relationships between various doctrines. And ultimately the relationship that systematic theology is really most concerned with, in terms of the various doctrines of Scripture, is how does anything that the Bible talks about ultimately relate to God. Remember Paul’s discussion of God’s unfolding plan for Jew and Gentile in Romans 9,10, and 11. He comes to the end of that discussion and he really throws his hands up in the air and prays, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God, how unsearchable are his judgments, how inscrutable his ways?” And do you remember what he says? “For from him and through him and to him are all things, to him be glory forever.”
Well, systematic theology as a discipline is a way of studying the Bible and biblical teaching which wants to in every case say: how is this doctrine from, through, and to God, to the glory of God? And for that reason, systematic theology is ultimately—it’s not an abstract thing—it’s a very doxological way of studying the Bible. It’s what we might call God-centered biblical interpretation. Wanting to understand the Bible is not just a collection of fortune cookies, little scraps to help us make it through the day, but as a book that reveals and demonstrates the glory of God in creation and salvation and in the kingdom, which is to come.
The Doctrine of Scripture
So that’s systematic theology and our goal over the next several weeks is to talk about various doctrines in Scripture from the angle of systematic theology. The first thing I want to talk about today is the doctrine of Scripture. In my plan, at least if I can stick to the plan, is to look at three texts, three biblical texts, and to draw from these three texts, three big ideas that help us to understand the nature of Scripture and really the place of Scripture in relationship to God as Scripture’s author and Scripture’s end.
1. Matthew 11: God Is Pleased to Reveal Himself to Us That We Might Find Rest
The first passage I want to look at is Matthew 11. And so if you have your Bible with you or on your phone or whatever, look at Matthew 11:25–30. And if you want to plan ahead, the other two texts we’re going to look at are Psalm 19 and then 2 Peter 1:16–21.
First, Matthew 11. Jesus has been engaged in his public ministry. He’s been rejected by many of his fellow countrymen. He’s been questioned by his own cousin, John the Baptist: “Are you the one to come or should we look for another?” And in response to the questions of John the Baptist, in response to the rejection of many of his countrymen, Jesus does a surprising thing: he praises God. He says in verse 25,
At that time, Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:25–30 ESV)
God is pleased to reveal himself to us in order that we might find rest in him.The first big idea that we want to draw out from this text related to the doctrine of Scripture is this: God is pleased to reveal himself to us in order that we might find rest in him. God is pleased to reveal himself to us in order that we might find rest in him. Now, this is a passage we could spend hours on, but no, just a few things related to that one proposition.
First, this passage describes a relationship between the Father and the Son as a relationship of knowledge. Now, the knowledge here is not just a mere intellectual knowledge. It’s the knowledge of love. No one knows the Father except the Son. No one knows the Son except the Father. The idea is that within the Godhead, within the one God, there has always been a relationship of knowledge, love, and fellowship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And indeed, the reason we call the Trinity, the Blessed Trinity or the Happy Trinity is that Father, Son, and Spirit, in and of themselves, in their relationship of knowledge and love are intrinsically happy. Well, the wonder that this passage teaches is that the God who knows and loves himself in the bliss and the happiness of his triune life is pleased to reveal himself to us.
And you get the interesting language of things being hidden and now revealed, it’s the imagery of parents on Christmas Eve who just can’t wait until the kids come downstairs and open the presents and find the things that have been hidden and the secret turns to discovery and wonder and joy. Well, this is how God is being described. This deep, secret knowledge and love of the Father and Son is now being revealed to us. And Jesus says, “This is your good pleasure, Father, to do this.” God’s happy to make himself known to us.
But note one further feature of this passage. God makes himself known to us, Jesus says, in order that we might find rest in him. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Many of you have probably read Augustine’s Confessions. You remember in the opening lines of that great work he says, “You’ve made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” C. S. Lewis says, trying to find happiness as a human being without coming to know God, without coming to know the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, he says, is just as impossible as trying to make a car run without gasoline. He says, just as a car was made to run on gasoline, it can only run on gasoline, so human beings were made for God and were made to know and love God. And therefore we can’t find rest, we can’t find that happiness for which we are made, we cannot flourish as human beings—that’s for you, David—apart from the knowledge of the Triune God. We’ll talk more about the Triune God in later weeks.
So first passage, Matthew 11, God is pleased to reveal himself to us. The Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is pleased to reveal himself to us in order that we might find rest in him.
2. Psalm 19: God Speaks Through General Revelation and Special Revelation
Second passage, Psalm 19. We’re going to have to cook. I’m trying to stay still for the sake of the cameras. I tend to be a little more mobile and in a former life I have been known to fall off these things. So if that happens, as long as no bones are broken, then we’ll just laugh and keep going on.
All right, Psalm 19. The second proposition, the second big idea I want to pull out related to the doctrine of Scripture is that God is pleased to reveal himself to us in a twofold manner. God is pleased to reveal himself to us in a twofold manner, and Psalm 19 is a chapter that talks about these two different ways that God reveals himself to us. What the Belgic Confession, which we’ll come back to in a moment, describes as the book of nature and the book of Scripture.
Listen to Psalm 19:
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. The Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Ps. 19 ESV)
Now again, like Matthew 11, this passage is so rich we could spend hours on it. But let me just draw your attention to a couple of things that this passage teaches us that is relevant for understanding the doctrine of Scripture.
First, as I mentioned a second ago, this passage talks about two books that God uses to reveal himself to us, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Listen to what the Belgic Confession, one of our Reformed confessions, says about these two books. It says, “We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures great and small are as so many characters or letters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God: even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle says. All which are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse.” So that’s the first book. “Second, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.”
Now, when it comes to these two books, theologians use the language of general revelation and special revelation to describe the content of these two books. General revelation because the revelation of God through the book of nature is available to all audiences. Again, Psalm 19, it’s available every day: “day to day pours out speech, night to night pours out knowledge.” It’s available to all ears: “there are no words whose voice is not heard, their voice goes to the ends of the earth.” And it’s available at all times: “from the rising of the sun to its setting.” And so that’s the nature of general revelation; it goes to all people. It says something about God’s character, says something about what he requires of us. But given our sin, given our our natural blindness, that general revelation is not able to bring us into a relationship where we can know, trust, and love God. If that’s going happen, we need special revelation.
Well, look at what the Psalmist says about special revelation. First of all, in verses 10 and 11, the Psalmist describes special revelation as being something that’s more valuable, sweeter, more rewarding than anything we could know in our creation. It’s more valuable than gold, it’s sweeter than the honeycomb, and it’s more rewarding than any other advice we could ever receive. And so the supremacy of special revelation is emphasized in the song.
But here’s where I want you to note, note why the Psalmist values special revelation. Look at the description of the human anatomy that that he gives really beginning in verse seven. He talks about the soul. He talks implicitly about the mind, talking about wisdom. He talks about the heart. He talks about the eyes. Why is he referring to the human being in the totality of his being? Well, because he says Scripture in special revelation is designed to make us whole. So what does it do? It revives the soul. It makes wise the simple. It rejoices the heart. It enlightens the eyes and so forth.
Now, the last thing that Psalm 19 says about special revelation is not only does special revelation really teach us what God says to us, but it teaches us how to speak back to God. Remember how the song concludes? The Psalmist looks at the glory of God’s creation, he looks at the glory of God’s law as revealed in Scripture, and he realized that there is one creature in this universe who is out of step with everything else. There is one creature that is failing to give glory to God like the heavens give glory to God, that’s failing to correspond to God’s law, like Scripture corresponds to God’s law.
Scripture not only teaches us what God says to us, . . . it teaches us how to speak back to God. He says “Who can discern his errors?” But what does he do? He appeals to God’s mercy. He asked God to forgive him of his sins. He asked God to give him his heart, to give him a new heart in order that the words of his mouth and the meditation of his heart might be acceptable to God. That just as creation glorifies God, just as scripture glorifies God, he might be made whole through the knowledge of God that he might glorify God with his life. And so Scripture not only teaches us what God says to us, but in Psalms like this, it teaches us how to speak back to God.
And indeed, it teaches us how to speak back to God in every situation. Look at the hymns of the church. Look at contemporary praise songs. There are a lot of great ones, but sometimes the songs we sing in church don’t always reflect every aspect and dimension of human existence. Well, you couldn’t say that of the Psalms. The Psalms teach you how to speak to God when things are going well. And then there’s a whole lot of Psalms that teach you how to speak to God when things aren’t going well, when life isn’t working out according to our plans and our dreams, when the things that are supposed to lead to success have led to a brick wall. The Psalms teach us how to lament. They teach us how to say, “How long, O Lord?” And that’s one of the blessings of special revelation. God wants a two-way line of communication between himself and his people. And in Scripture, we have teaching about how both sides of that communication work.
3. 2 Peter 1: The Bible Is Our Supreme Source of Revelation Because It Is Inspired
The last text I want to look at very briefly is 2 Peter 1, and we’ll just make the briefest of comments here regarding the nature of Scripture. Second Peter, chapter 1. This the apostle Peter, the last words we have from his pen, something of a last will and testament in many ways. He says in verse 16:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice, borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we had the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this, first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2. Pet. 1:16–21 ESV)
Well, this last text, the truth I want to bring out of it, in terms of the doctrine of Scripture, is this: until Jesus returns—when we will see God’s face, when we will see Christ—until Jesus returns, the Bible is our supreme source of special revelation. Until Jesus returns, the Bible is our supreme source of special revelation. Why is that the case? Well, the reason is that the Bible is inspired, and this is what this passage is about: the inspiration of the Bible. In fact, this is one of the most important texts in the Bible that teach about the Bible itself and its status as God’s inspired Word.
Until Jesus returns, the Bible is our supreme source of special revelation.Note two things about inspiration that this passage reveals. First, the inspiration of Scripture is rooted in the fact that prophets and apostles had special access to God’s revelation in Christ, they had special access. Remember what Peter says: we were eyewitnesses of Jesus’s majesty. Actually, he says we are ear-witnesses because we heard the Father’s voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son.”
The second thing this passage teaches us is that the inspiration of Scripture not only flows from the fact that prophets and apostles had special access to God’s self-revelation in Christ, but he also tells us that they had a special anointing from the Holy Spirit, which ensured not only that they remembered what they saw, but that they were able to reliably communicate it to us. This is what the last couple of verses in the passage we read are all about. “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man.” In other words, these aren’t just kind of human ideas or even human interpretations of the meaning of God and the meaning of the gospel. But no, men were moved by the Spirit, carried along by the Holy Spirit in such a way that they spoke from God. Yes, these are human words. Yes, they are given to us through human prophets, human apostles. But the message is a message that comes to us from God.
What we have in the Bible is the guarantee that we don’t have fake news.Now, why does that matter? Well, one of the biggest crises that we’re in the middle of right now is the inability to trust the reports that you see on television, that you read on the Internet, that your friends post on social media. The whole idea of fake news. And we’re really in a crisis of knowledge, aren’t we? Regardless of where we are on the political spectrum, I think everybody kind of realizes we’re in a bad place. What we have in the Bible is the guarantee that we don’t have fake news.
The God who is pleased to make himself known to us, that we might find rest in him, he has provided a reliable source of revelation in holy Scripture by calling prophets and apostles and inviting them into his council. You think of Isaiah beholding God’s glory in Isaiah 6. You think of Moses at the burning bush hearing God proclaim his own name to him. You think of the three disciples at the Mount of Transfiguration, which Peter describes here. He brought them into his council, and then by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he assured that through their ministries and through their writings, we would have a reliable testimony to what God would have us know
There are a number of other things in this passage that it teaches about Scripture. It says something about the unity of Scripture. He says, we have the prophetic word confirmed. And the idea there is that what the prophets were looking forward to, we the apostles in knowing Jesus and seeing Jesus, we’ve now seen those things come to pass. And it’s really kind of a glorious statement, because what it’s saying is that all of Scripture holds together as a testimony to Christ. And so Peter says there’s a unified testimony in holy Scripture.
He says there’s a sufficient testimony in holy Scripture. Earlier in the chapter, he says that God has given us all things that are necessary for life and godliness. That’s a pretty amazing promise.
Peter says that God has given us a truthful testimony in holy Scripture. Again, we did not follow cleverly devised fables or myths. We can count on Scripture.
This book has authority. This book has a right to speak into your life. So pay attention.He says he’s given us an authoritative word in Scripture. Peter says we would do well to pay attention to this word. And again, there are a lot of words out there that we don’t need to pay attention to. We can take them with a grain of salt. But Peter says, not here. Pay attention. What’s the assumption? This book has authority. This book has a right to speak into your life. So pay attention.
And then Peter says, we have in this book a clear word. That doesn’t mean that every passage is clear. Scripture has its heights and its depths. And Peter will actually say in this very book that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand. Isn’t that a relief? But the point is that its basic message and what it teaches about God, it’s clear.
We see that in Peter’s description of the apostolic and prophetic word as a lamp shining in the darkness. In the middle of a dark world, we’ve got a clear word. We’ve got the Bible, which is a lamp to our feet, a light to our path. What’s the next step I need to take? God doesn’t want to leave us in the dark. Sometimes we think, “God give give me a word, give me a message.” And God’s answer would be, “I have. It’s right here. I’m shouting to you.” And so if we want to know the light that God wants to shine in our lives, we can find it in Scripture.
Well, I conclude with Peter’s statement in verse 19, and then we’ll take some questions. He describes this prophetic and apostolic word that’s been confirmed in the coming of Christ. He describes it as a light that shines until the morning star rises and the day dawns. Till the morning star rises in your heart and the day dawns. What is that metaphor talking about? It’s talking about the second coming of Jesus. And his point is this: while the Bible is the supreme source of revelation for us right now, it’s leading us to an even far greater revelation of God when Christ returns. And until that day, we have a light to our feet, a lamp to our feet, a light to our path.
Remember when we began, we talked about the nature of systematic theology and I said, really, you can summarize systematic theology as God-centered biblical interpretation, trying to understand how everything that it says in the Bible relates ultimately to God. Well, this is what we’ve tried to do in talking about Scripture. What have we seen? Scripture is from God. It’s his good pleasure to make himself known. It’s about God. It ultimately reveals the Father and the Son and how they want to bring us into fellowship with themselves through the Spirit. But ultimately, Scripture leads us to God. It’s the light that directs us on the path to the place where, like Jesus says in Matthew 11, we can ultimately find rest in him.