IV. Necessity.—The necessity of theology has its grounds…
(a) In the organizing instinct of the human mind. This organizing principle is a part of our constitution. The mind cannot endure confusion or apparent contradiction in known facts. The tendency to harmonize and unify its knowledge appears as soon as the mind becomes reflective; just in proportion to its endowments and culture does the impulse to systematize and formulate increase. This is true of all departments of human inquiry, but it is peculiarly true of our knowledge of God. Since the truth with regard to God is the most important of all, theology meets the deepest want of man’s rational nature. Theology is a rational necessity. If all existing theological systems were destroyed to-day, new systems would rise to-morrow. So inevitable is the operation of this law, that those who most decry theology show nevertheless that they have made a theology for themselves, and often one sufficiently meagre and blundering. Hostility to theology, where it does not originate in mistaken fears for the corruption of God’s truth or in a naturally illogical structure of mind, often proceeds from a license of speculation which cannot brook the restraints of a complete Scriptural system.
President E. G. Robinson: “Every man has as much theology as he can hold.” Consciously or unconsciously, we philosophize, as naturally as we speak prose. “Se moquer de la philosophie c’est vraiment philosopher.” Gore, Incarnation, 21—“Christianity became metaphysical, only because man is rational. This rationality means that he must attempt ‘to give account of things,’ as Plato said, ‘because he was a man, not merely because he was a Greek.’ ” Men often denounce systematic theology, while they extol the sciences of matter. Has God then left only the facts with regard to himself in so unrelated a state that man cannot put them together? All other sciences are valuable only as they contain or promote the knowledge of God. If it is praiseworthy to classify beetles, one science may be allowed to reason concerning God and the soul. In speaking of Schelling, Royce, Spirit of Modern Philosophy, 173, satirically exhorts us: “Trust your genius; follow your noble heart; change your doctrine whenever your heart changes, and change your heart often,—such is the practical creed of the romanticists.” Ritchie, Darwin and Hegel, 3—“Just those persons who disclaim metaphysics are sometimes most apt to be infected with the disease they profess to abhor—and not to know when they have it.” See Shedd, Discourses and Essays, 27–52; Murphy, Scientific Bases of Faith, 195–199.
(b) In the relation of systematic truth to the development of character. Truth thoroughly digested is essential to the growth of Christian character in the individual and in the church. All knowledge of God has its influence upon character, but most of all the knowledge of spiritual facts in their relations. Theology cannot, as has sometimes been objected, deaden the religious affections, since it only draws out from their sources and puts into rational connection with each other the truths which are best adapted to nourish the religious affections. On the other hand, the strongest Christians are those who have the firmest grasp upon the great doctrines of Christianity; the heroic ages of the church are those which have witnessed most consistently to them; the piety that can be injured by the systematic exhibition of them must be weak, or mystical, or mistaken.
Some knowledge is necessary to conversion—at least, knowledge of sin and knowledge of a Savior; and the putting together of these two great truths is a beginning of theology. All subsequent growth of character is conditioned upon the increase of this knowledge. Col. 1:10—αὐξανόμενοι τῇ ἐπιγνώσει τοῦ Θεοῦ [omit ἐν] “increasing by the knowledge of God”—the instrumental dative represents the knowledge of God as the dew or rain which nurtures the growth of the plant; cf. 2 Pet. 3:18—“grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” For texts which represent truth as nourishment, see Jer. 3:15—“feed you with knowledge and understanding”; Mat. 4:4—“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”; 1 Cor. 3:1, 2—“babes in Christ … I fed you with milk, not with meat”; Heb. 5:14—“but solid food is for full-grown men.” Christian character rests upon Christian truth as its foundation; see 1 Cor. 3:10–15—“I laid a foundation, and another buildeth thereon.” See Dorus Clarke, Saying the Catechism; Simon, on Christ Doct. and Lift, in Bib. Sac., July, 1884:433–439.
Ignorance is the mother of superstition, not of devotion. Talbot W. Chambers:—“Doctrine without duty is a tree without fruits; duty without doctrine is a tree without roots.” Christian morality is a fruit which grows only from the tree of Christian doctrine. We cannot long keep the fruits of faith after we have cut down the tree upon which they have grown. Balfour, Foundations of Belief, 82—“Naturalistic virtue is parasitic, and when the host perishes, the parasite perishes also. Virtue without religion will die.” Kidd, Social Evolution, 214—“Because the fruit survives for a time when removed from the tree, and even mellows and ripens, shall we say that it is independent of the tree?” The twelve manner of fruits on the Christmas-tree are only tacked on,—they never grew there, and they can never reproduce their kind. The withered apple swells out under the exhausted receiver, but it will go back again to its former shrunken form; so the self-righteousness of those who get out of the atmosphere of Christ and have no divine ideal with which to compare themselves. W. M. Lisle: “It is the mistake and disaster of the Christian world that effects are sought instead of causes.” George A. Gordon, Christ of To-day, 28—“Without the historical Christ and personal love for that Christ, the broad theology of our day will reduce itself to a dream, powerless to rouse a sleeping church.”
(c) In the importance to the preacher of definite and just views of Christian doctrine. His chief intellectual qualification must be the power clearly and comprehensively to conceive, and accurately and powerfully to express, the truth. He can be the agent of the Holy Spirit in converting and sanctifying men, only as he can wield “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17), or, in other language, only as he can impress truth upon the minds and consciences of his hearers. Nothing more certainly nullifies his efforts than confusion and inconsistency in his statements of doctrine. His object is to replace obscure and erroneous conceptions among his hearers by those which are correct and vivid. He cannot do this without knowing the facts with regard to God in their relations—knowing them, in short, as parts of a system. With this truth he is put in trust. To mutilate it or misrepresent it, is not only sin against the Revealer of it,—it may prove the ruin of men’s souls. The best safeguard against such mutilation or misrepresentation, is the diligent study of the several doctrines of the faith in their relations to one another, and especially to the central theme of theology, the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The more refined and reflective the age, the more it requires reasons for feeling. Imagination, as exercised in poetry and eloquence and as exhibited in politics or war, is not less strong than of old,—it is only more rational. Notice the progress from “Buncombe”, in legislative and forensic oratory, to sensible and logical address. Bassanio in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, 1:1:113—“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing.… His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff.” So in pulpit oratory, mere Scripture quotation and fervid appeal are no longer sufficient. As well be a howling dervish, as to indulge in windy declamation. Thought is the staple of preaching. Feeling must be roused, but only by bringing men to “the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). The preacher must furnish the basis for feeling by producing intelligent conviction. He must instruct before he can move. If the object of the preacher is first to know God, and secondly to make God known, then the study of theology is absolutely necessary to his success.
Shall the physician practice medicine without study of physiology, or the lawyer practice law without study of jurisprudence? Professor Blackie: “One may as well expect to make a great patriot out of a fencing-master, as to make a great orator out of a mere rhetorician.” The preacher needs doctrine, to prevent his being a mere barrel-organ, playing over and over the same tunes. John Henry Newman: “The false preacher is one who has to say something; the true preacher is one who has something to say.” Spurgeon, Autobiography, 1:167—“Constant change of creed is sure loss. If a tree has to be taken up two or three times a year, you will not need to build a very large loft in which to store the apples. When people are shifting their doctrinal principles, they do not bring forth much fruit.… We shall never have great preachers till we have great divines. You cannot build a man of war out of a currant-bush, nor can great soul-moving preachers be formed out of superficial students.” Illustrate the harmfulness of ignorant and erroneous preaching, by the mistake in a physician’s prescription; by the wrong trail at Lake Placid which led astray those ascending Whiteface; by the sowing of acorns whose crop was gathered only after a hundred years. Slight divergences from correct doctrine on our part may be ruinously exaggerated in those who come after us. Though the moth-miller has no teeth, its offspring has. 2 Tim. 2:2—“And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”
(d) In the intimate connection between correct doctrine and the safety and aggressive power of the church. The safety and progress of the church is dependent upon her “holding the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), and serving as “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Defective understanding of the truth results sooner or later in defects of organization, of operation, and of life. Thorough comprehension of Christian truth as an organized system furnishes, on the other hand, not only an invaluable defense against heresy and immorality, but also an indispensable stimulus and instrument in aggressive labor for the world’s conversion.
The creeds of Christendom have not originated in mere speculative curiosity and logical hair-splitting. They are statements of doctrine in which the attacked and imperiled church has sought to express the truth which constitutes her very life. Those who deride the early creeds have small conception of the intellectual acumen and the moral earnestness which went to the making of them. The creeds of the third and fourth centuries embody the results of controversies which exhausted the possibilities of heresy with regard to the Trinity and the person of Christ, and which set up bars against false doctrine to the end of time. Mahaffy: “What converted the world was not the example of Christ’s life,—it was the dogma of his death.” Coleridge: “He who does not withstand, has no standing ground of his own.” Mrs. Browning: “Entire intellectual toleration is the mark of those who believe nothing.” E. G. Robinson, Christian Theology, 360–362—“A doctrine is but a precept in the style of a proposition; and a precept is but a doctrine in the form of a command.… Theology is God’s garden; its trees are trees of his planting; and ‘all the trees of the Lord are full of sap’ (Ps. 104:16).”
Bose, Ecumenical Councils: “A creed is not catholic because a council of many or of few bishops decreed it, but because it expresses the common conviction of entire generations of men and women who turned their understanding of the New Testament into those forms of words.” Dorner: “The creeds are the precipitate of the religious consciousness of mighty men and times.” Foster, Christ. Life and Theol., 162—“It ordinarily requires the shock of some great event to startle men into clear apprehension and crystallization of their substantial belief. Such a shock was given by the rough and coarse doctrine of Arius, upon which the conclusion arrived at in the Council of Nice followed as rapidly as in chilled water the crystals of ice will sometimes form when the containing vessel receives a blow.” Balfour, Foundations of Belief, 287—“The creeds were not explanations, but rather denials that the Arian and Gnostic explanations were sufficient, and declarations that they irremediably impoverished the idea of the Godhead. They insisted on preserving that idea in all its inexplicable fulness.” Denny, Studies in Theology, 192—“Pagan philosophies tried to capture the church for their own ends, and to turn it into a school. In self-defense the church was compelled to become somewhat of a school on its own account. It had to assert its facts; it had to define its ideas; it had to interpret in its own way those facts which men were misinterpreting.”
Professor Howard Osgood: “A creed is like a backbone. A man does not need to wear his backbone in front of him; but he must have a backbone, and a straight one, or he will be a flexible if not a humpbacked Christian.” Yet we must remember that creeds are credita, and not credenda; historical statements of what the church has believed, not infallible prescriptions of what the church must believe. George Dana Boardman, The Church, 98—“Creeds are apt to become cages.” Schurman, Agnosticism, 151—“The creeds were meant to be defensive fortifications of religion; alas, that they should have sometimes turned their artillery against the citadel itself.” T. H. Green: “We are told that we must be loyal to the beliefs of the Fathers. Yes, but who knows what the Fathers believe now?” George A. Gordon, Christ of To-day, 60—“The assumption that the Holy Spirit is not concerned in the development of theological thought, nor manifest in the intellectual evolution of mankind, is the superlative heresy of our generation.… The metaphysics of Jesus are absolutely essential to his ethics.… If his thought is a dream, his endeavor for man is a delusion.” See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1:8, 15, 16; Storrs, Div. Origin of Christianity, 121; Ian Maclaren (John Watson), Cure of Souls, 152; Frederick Harrison, in Fortnightly Rev., Jan. 1889.
(e) In the direct and indirect injunctions of Scripture. The Scripture urges upon us the thorough and comprehensive study of the truth (John 5:39, marg.,—“Search the Scriptures”), the comparing and harmonizing of its different parts (1 Cor. 2:13—“comparing spiritual things with spiritual”), the gathering of all about the great central fact of revelation (Col. 1:27—“which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”), the preaching of it in its wholeness as well as in its due proportions (2 Tim. 4:2—“Preach the word”). The minister of the Gospel is called “a scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 13:52); the “pastors” of the churches are at the same time to be “teachers” (Eph. 4:11); the bishop must be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), “handling aright the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), “holding to the faithful word which is according to the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in the sound doctrine and to convict the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:9).
As a means of instructing the church and of securing progress in his own understanding of Christian truth, it is well for the pastor to preach regularly each month a doctrinal sermon, and to expound in course the principal articles of the faith. The treatment of doctrine in these sermons should be simple enough to be comprehensible by intelligent youth; it should be made vivid and interesting by the help of brief illustrations; and at least one-third of each sermon should be devoted to the practical applications of the doctrine propounded. See Jonathan Edwards’s sermon on the Importance of the Knowledge of Divine Truth, in Works, 4:1–15. The actual sermons of Edwards, however, are not models of doctrinal preaching for our generation. They are too scholastic in form, too metaphysical for substance; there is too little of Scripture and too little of illustration. The doctrinal preaching of the English Puritans in a similar manner addressed itself almost wholly to adults. The preaching of our Lord on the other hand was adapted also to children. No pastor should count himself faithful, who permits his young people to grow up without regular instruction from the pulpit in the whole circle of Christian doctrine. Shakespeare, K. Henry VI, 2nd part, 4:7—“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”1