THE BIBLE OR TRADITION?
We begin Systematic Theology by listening to God in a regular reading of the whole Bible. When its whole message is branded on our inner being, we can begin to restate its message for ourselves and others. In fact, we must restate that message as the result of our meditation on his instruction day and night (Psalm 1:2).
But this is impossible! No one does it this way! Our beginnings in theology are almost always tradition; that is, what we have heard from parents, teachers and preachers or what we have read in the notes in our Bibles and books about the Bible and its teachings. We learn from hymns and worship services and from discussions with friends. We memorize verses from the Bible separated from their context and thus proof-texting someone else’s theology. We read creeds and confessions and learn theological systems. And then we read the Bible whole.
There is no use bemoaning our being grounded in tradition before we read the Bible. That is the way it is. We have to begin with the reality of the powerful impact of tradition in our lives. To ignore tradition is to be dominated by it. Only by recognizing it do we have a way of moving behind and beyond it to a theology based upon the Scriptures.
So we learn to hold our convictions lightly until we have thorough tested them and grounded them in the whole Bible. We read the Bible through again and again to delete, revise and enlarge our traditions. Normally we cannot do this until some time in our middle twenties. Suddenly there is a hunger and appreciation for wholeness and for grounding our convictions more deeply and on a more solid foundation.
This first doctrine in our Systematic Theology is a new look at the Bible. We listen to the whole Bible speak first about itself, or rather, we listen to God speak about his own revelation to us in the Bible.
SURVEY OF THIS SECTION
I have summarized this doctrine in six sections: (1) Revelation, (2) Dual-authorship, (3) Characteristics, (4) Preservation, (5) Interpretation, and (6) Proclamation.
Section one will deal with the Bible as revelation and revelation as disclosure in opposition to discovery. God has revealed himself in many different ways since creation, most notably in the incarnation of his Son. But we know the Son and are able to understand nature only when we understand the Bible. The Bible is not merely a witness to revelation. It is revelation. Moreover, it is the foundational and central revelation. Sola Scriptura must be our watchword and listening our practice.
Section two will discuss the unique dual-authorship of this Revelation from God. God, our Creator and Sustainer, is able to speak to us through ignorant and sinful human authors without having his message sullied or perverted by them. He is not only able to do this, he has said that he has done it. This is no combination of God’s words and men’s words so that we must seek his words among the chaff of human words. Every sentence is one hundred per cent God’s Word and one hundred per cent the words of the human authors. And the God who spoke this book through human authors has come to us to open our hearts to its message and to empower our proclamation of that message.
Section three describes the nature of that dual-authored revelation in a group of characteristics or attributes. The Bible is much more than it appears to be precisely because it is also the Word of God. The world, the flesh and the Devil will always tempt us to evaluate this book by its appearances rather than by the reality which is described in some group of characteristics that must be accepted by faith—usually against all appearances. Every one of these characteristics must be constantly preached so that we will really believe that this book is what God claims for it.
Section four will deal with the preservation of the Bible in its canon, text and translation. God has not signed the canonical books with an unmistakable signature nor has he kept all of the manuscripts perfect. Neither did he inspire any of our translations. Are all of the characteristics of the previous chapter true only of the autographs? If they are, then they are quite meaningless for our daily life and ministry. Perhaps that is why these characteristics have been, for the most part, ignored in the past hundred years. But the prophets, Jesus and the apostles were quite satisfied that the texts and translations that they used were the Word of God.
Section five is a discussion of the interpretation of the Bible. This is not an attempt to replace a course in hermeneutics. It is just that most of our hermeneutics courses are more concerned with the authorial intent of the human authors and with the interpretation of individual pericopes than they are with God’s authorial intent and the interpretation of the Bible as a whole. Systematic Theology is concerned to present the great Story or Drama and to demand that every pericope be interpreted in the context of God’s authorial intent and his Story.
Section Six treats the proclamation of the Bible to the various cultures of the contemporary world. Too often, Systematic Theology has been presented in an agenda provided by some philosophy or one of the sciences and has been incapable of moving across cultural boundaries. The abstract theologies of Western modernism have elicited little interest in many non-western cultures. Our metanarrative approach will help us to cross cultural boundaries and will communicate to a postmodern world. We must be aware of the opportunities and dangers as we move from modernism to postmodernism. Systematic Theology flows out of the whole nature of the Bible. We dare not decide what theology ought to be until we have listened carefully to the whole counsel of God. On the basis of this theology we learn how to live, worship, preach and counsel.
THE BIBLE AND THE OTHER DOCTRINES
We cannot understand the other doctrines until we have learned how to read and teach the Bible. What we learn here is not something to be set aside or forgotten while we study the doctrines of God, man and salvation. Rather we keep all of this in the forefront of our minds and hearts while we study each of the other doctrines.
At the same time, each of the other doctrines will greatly enlarge our understanding of the doctrine of the Bible. We will be introduced to the Living God and there will be amazed at the unexpected grace that this God would humble himself to speak to us. And he does not chat about the weather. He come to talk with us about the most important things for our life, fulfillment and happiness. We are honored by the depths and extent of the things that this God shares with us.
The Father speaks to us. The Son comes down to share our humanity and is the Word of God to us. He comes to provide salvation and to transform us from hell-bound sinners to disciples with an eternal future. The Spirit comes to break down our rebellion and to give us ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to respond to the Word of the revealing God.
He tells us that there is better revelation yet to come. The relative indirectness of our present fellowship with God will be replaced with the face-to-face fellowship and revelation of the second coming of our Lord.
God’s Word dominates our lives in a number of different ways. Every doctrine that we will study will add to our understanding of his revelation in the Bible. When we are done with Systematic Theology, we will have gained much knowledge of the Bible beyond what we will study in this section. At the same time, this study of the Bible will continually enrich all of the other doctrines.