Every Thumb's Width

Truth Can Handle Structure

To affirm of any human production that it contained many great and instructive truths which it would be impossible to systematize without weakening each separate truth, and frustrating the design of the whole, would be a serious reflection upon the author’s wisdom and skill! How much more to affirm this of the Word of God! Systematic theology is to the Bible what science is to nature. To suppose that all the other works of God are orderly and systematic, and the greater the work the more perfect the system; and that the greatest of all His works, in which all His perfections are transcendently displayed, should have no plan or system, is altogether absurd. If faith in the Scriptures is to be positive, if consistent with itself, if operative, if abiding, it must have a fixed and well-defined creed. No one can say that the Bible is his creed, unless he can express it in his own words.

—Charles Spurgeon, quoted by Ian Murray in The Forgotten Spurgeon, 9.

Murray includes the quote above from Spurgeon to explain why Spurgeon did not shy away from calling himself a “Calvinist.” Murray himself affirms:

As long…as there is such a way of thinking about the gospel as is historically associated with Arminianism there is need of a theological term to denote that way of thinking. The hiding of the word is of no help to anyone; and if a man, as for example the eminent John Wesley, has thought through his Arminianism he is not ashamed of the title. To him it represents scriptural concepts. Similarly if there is a body of evangelical truth, rediscovered largely at the Reformation period, and if this differs in certain major respects from a more comprehensive and later evangelicalism, there is need of a term to mark the difference. It is almost an accidental fact of history that Reformation theology became known as ‘Calvinism’ but the name once established has served an important purpose: to the one who believes it, it is a scriptural system and its association with the name of the 16th century leader is merely incidental. This is the sense in which Spurgeon uses the term ‘Calvinism’. For him it was a faith which belonged as much to Augustine and Paul as to the Genevan reformer. While we thus repudiate the use of these names as divisive labels, their occasional use in discussion is probably essential in the interests of clarity. It is pointless to claim to be merely Biblical when the whole question is, What do the Scriptures actually teach on certain issues? (emphasis added, ibid., 7)

Murray adds:

[The] same school which has taught humility of mind before God has also been the strongest in affirming the Church’s duty of holing a system of theology and there is no inconsistency here because the science of systematic theology concerns the derivation of truths from Scripture and the formulation of them, as far as possible, in a connected body of doctrine. To reject this science as an intrusion of reason upon Scripture is to pre-suppose that Scripture provides no adequate material or guidance for the formulation of what may justly be called a Biblical system. This presupposition, which has not infrequently been regarded as preserving the Scripture from ‘human systems’, is itself unbiblical. (ibid., 9)

In other words, biblical truth can handle structure and a name. Even false teachers aren’t foolish enough to stand up and say, “What I’m about to tell you cannot be found anywhere in the Bible.” Virtually everyone claims to be biblical. That’s why distinguishing what kind of biblical we are by name is important.

Update – September 29 at 2:09PM: I re-listened to Piper’s biography on Athanasius while running this morning. The following quotes are from that message turned book, Contending for Our All. Piper states we ought to learn from Athanasius that:

The truth of biblical language must be vigorously protected with non-biblical language.

“Bible language can be used to affirm falsehood….[Some] use the slogan, ‘The Bible is our only creed.’ But in refusing to let explanatory, confessional language clarify what the Bible means, the slogan can be used as a cloak to conceal the fact that Bible language is being used to affirm what is not biblical.” (64-65)

Piper then quotes R. P. C. Hanson:

Theologians of the Christian church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself. (emphasis his, 65-66)