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Must We Have a System?

By Dr. Robert Morey, M.Div., D.D., PhD.

En Espa├▒ol  (translated by Armando Valdez E.)

When God created man in His own image, He gave man a holistic outlook on life. This world-and-life view was a system of thought in which Adam and Eve were able to see all of life from God's perspective. They could interpret all of reality in its proper meaning and significance. This original creation world-and-life view was internally and externally consistent, harmonious, satisfying and complete. Since it was internally satisfying, Adam and Eve experienced intellectual and aesthetic pleasure as they interpreted the world around them. From the stand point of this comprehensive world-and-life view, Adam was able to name all the animals (Gen.2:20). Prior to the fall, then, Adam had an "answer" for everything he experienced in life.

The fall of man into sin must be interpreted as involving initially a radical change in his perspective on life. What Satan offered man was a different system of thought in which the significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was interpreted from Satan's viewpoint instead of God's. Satan's perspective also reinterpreted God's motives and character, and man's potential. Man was faced with two conflicting systems of thought which interpreted reality from two outlooks.

Once man began to see the tree, God's person, and his own place in creation from Satan's viewpoint, man fell. His eating the fruit was merely the outward sign of the inward change of his perspective.

As a result of sin's entrance into the world, the holistic, consistent, harmonious, satisfying and complete world-and -life view that man had at the beginning was lost. Instead of the ability to view all of life in its proper context, man's view of life was shattered, twisted and distorted. Satan had offered to man another system of thought, but one which could not match the wisdom of God.

Though man had lost his initial God-given view of life, there remained in him a desire and need for an intellectually and aesthetically pleasing system of thought in which all of life could be interpreted. This inward drive came from God's image within man and called him to search for a perfect system. This need and desire has indeed prevailed in the history of mankind.

The history of philosophy is the greatest testimony to man's search for a perfect system. In this light we can understand why so much hope was placed in the systems of the classical Greek philosophers. Plato's system was initially thought to be the "answer." Then along came Aristotle who refuted Plato and gave his system in its place. After Aristotle came Plotinus who refuted Aristotle. After one successor upon another, the modern philosophers such as Kant, Hegel and Dooyeweerd bring us up to the present. Each of these philosophers in his own generation developed what he thought was a perfect and complete system of thought by which all life could be interpreted.

The scientist have followed in the same path. It had been hoped that Newton had articulated the perfect scientific system. Then Einstein developed his system of thought which refuted Newton's, and a new way of interpreting reality was posited. Now we have the emergence of quantum mechanics and the introduction of Eastern philosophy into physics in order to give us a new system beyond that of Einstein's theory of relativity.

Perhaps we can make the general observation that the main problem came in viewing systems as fixed, instead of viewing the extension of human knowledge as a process of growth.

When we examine the history of theology, we must admit that nearly all the theologians seem to be on the same path that the philosophers and scientists have taken. Most theologians assume that there is a perfect theological system which is complete and answers all problems. Just as the philosophers sought a perfect philosophical system and the scientists a perfect scientific system, so most theologians went in search of a perfect theological system by which all of life and Scripture should be interpreted.

In this search for a perfect system, Augustine ended up importing neo-Platonist philosophy into Christian theology. Aquinas rejected neo-Platonism but imported Aristotle's system. When we deal with the Reformation we discover that Calvin, and later the Puritans, developed another system by which they could interpret Scripture and life. This has come to be called covenant theology. Charles Hodge in his systematic theology imported Scottish Realism by way of McCosh. W.G.T. Shedd introduced Kant's philosophy in his theology.
 Many of us were at one time devoted to the dispensationalist system of thought. At that time we thought that dispensationalism provided us with a comprehensive system. Then we were introduced to the doctrines of grace and the iron grip of dispensationalism was broken. At first many of us simply adopted covenant theology in order that we might have another system that seemed to answer all questions. Recently, however, we have discovered serious defects in covenant theology.

In our initial enthusiasm for covenant theology, we assumed naively that we could adopt this system without partaking of infant baptism. The Presbyterian covenant theologians told us that if we were going to be "Reformed" we must accept all of it or none of it. They could not see how we could refrain from accepting the system in its entirety.

Some of us, therefore, have entered into a phase in which we are wondering about in the wilderness without any system. Others in various traditions have experienced the same thing. Contemporary Reformed theologians have accused us of being dispensationalists because in their minds there are only two systems of thought for options. It must be understood clearly that Reformed theology has always assumed that there is a comprehensive theological system which can be discovered and expounded. That is why most systematic theologies are written by Calvinists!

Since many feel uncomfortable with both dispensationalism and covenant theology, the question arises, do we need a system? Must we carry on the quest which has been followed for centuries? Several considerations should cause us to hesitate in producing another theological system.

First, there is no warrant in Scripture itself for the assumption that there is a perfect system to be found and set forth by men. There is no indication in the Word of God that it was given to provide us with such a system or that seeking a system is in harmony with its inspired purpose.

Second, when we begin to search the scriptures to find the system, we end up ignoring many texts and avoiding detailed exegesis. We are drawn toward speculative theology instead of exegetical theology.

Third, once we have artificially constructed a system, it becomes ultimately more authoritative than Scripture itself. Doctrine need not be based on any text, but only on what we think can be "deduced therefrom." Church confessions and creeds begin to carry more weight than Scripture.

Fourth, Scripture is no longer regarded as the substance or focus of revelation, but only as the package in which the system arrives.

Fifth, it is assumed that a system is needed in order to provide "the key" to unlock the many parts of Scripture. A "key" methodology functionally denies the perspicuity, or clearness, of Scripture.

Sixth, all "key" systems are reductionalist methodologies. Contemporary theologians often pick one theme in Scripture, abstract it out of its context, absolutize it as the "key," and reduce all other ideas in Scripture to that theme. The popular "keys" include: hope, promise, reconciliation, kingdom of God, remnant, dispensations, covenant, Pauline eschatology, people of God, etc. It is assumed that unless we choose one of these "keys," it will be impossible to interpret Scripture.

Seventh, the "key" theologians fail to recognize that Scripture is multithematical, multidimensional and in everything focused on Christ. A close exegesis of Scripture reveals that a number of themes which begin in Genesis are developed throughout Scripture. Just as a rope has many strands which stretch from beginning to end, so the Bible develops a number of themes. To choose one theme and reduce all ofScripture to it flattens the Bible as if it were a single dimensional revelation.

Eighth, our natural fixation on one system has the tragic practical effect of cutting us off from learning from other traditions. When we view one system as "it," we look down our nose at what others are saying.

Considering the current theological systems vying for our allegiance, we should be cautious about any "key" system which is one-dimensional and reductionist. We will have to be content to live with many loose ends, that is, insoluble problems and unanswered questions. The antinomies, mysteries and paradoxes of Scripture must be accepted for what they are. Yet we must never use our ''finiteness'' as an excuse to skirt discovering all of God's truth that we can. To opt for dispensational or covenant hermeneutic is often an escape from honest exegesis. Let us speak where Scripture speaks and remain silent where it is silent.

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