Chasing the System

Imagine your confession of faith, or your church’s doctrinal statement. Imagine what would happen if you started to play mix and match with the statements contained in it. This is a site dedicated to presuppositional apologetics, obviously, which almost inevitably means that we have to, at some point, personally examine our stance on things like Reconstructionism/Theonomy, along with confessionalism, the paedo/credo divide, eschatology, and other issues along those lines. Here’s what I want to point out, and want to stand out. Be wary of sudden swings, and be mindful of your theological stability (or lack thereof). This is a “mixed” credo/paedo site – we have both Baptists and Presbyterians who contribute here. If you’ve been reading theology for a while, you might have picked up on the fact that a Reformed Baptist and a Presbyterian formulate Covenant theology slightly differently. Take it from me – this is not ignored, among ourselves. However, it’s also the case that we have fairly deep roots in our respective systems to pull from – and we’re fine with respecting the other perspective as theologians, and as friends, even through we disagree with how they exegete Scripture. That being said, we are also cognizant of the fact that there are some things which we’re just going to express differently – and this is due to the differences in our positions. This isn’t something that either side should apologize for – and it isn’t anything to be ashamed of, or to cover up. The Baptists here are well aware that Van Til was Presbyterian, believe me! On the other hand, we also believe that the method is actually more consistent from the Reformed Baptist perspective. I’ve said before that I think Gill’s theological method goes hand in hand with Van Til’s apologetic method – far better than Hodge, certainly! Leave that aside for a moment, though.

Should I be faulted for not “being more consistent” with Van Til by refusing to accept paedobaptism? Or further, as some Reconstructionists would seem to believe, am I being inconsistent by failing to accept paedobaptism, theonomy, and postmillenialism as tenets of my theology? This is where the rubber meets the road for you, as a believer. If you are in a Reformed church, being taught faithfully and consistently – you need to be constantly on your guard against chasing after an elusive “greater consistency.” This isn’t to say that consistency is undesirable – this is to say that consistency can be, under some circumstances, an idol. At this point, I quite honestly don’t care whether you attend a PCA church, an OPC, a RB church, or an SBC church. All I’m saying is this; be very wary of sudden change or “impulse” decisions. I’m not a greybeard yet, but I’ve watched person after person fall into the trap of “chasing the system” instead of learning the system they already have. Think back to Van Til’s comments about “atomizing” your theology. What is going to change if you change from, say, CT to NCT? Or from paedo to credo? Or from postmil to amil? I would submit to you that each one of those changes involves at least some manner of paradigm shift, in practically every facet of theology. Now, what happens when they start to add up? Are you keeping track?

When each aspect of the overall systematic is considered as discrete, and not also in terms of the overall unity, you begin to see precisely what Van Til critiqued come out in your own system, as a result. I understand that the temptation for some, in light of that fact is to “change the whole system all at once” – but this doesn’t work especially well, either. You are then forced to reconcile dozens of major points, with all of their subpoints, all at the same time. Might I also submit to you that the development of your own studies is progressive as well, due to the intrinsic link to sanctification involved with it. When I see sudden, large shifts “inside the camp” this often seems to be symptomatic of something other than the process of sanctification, almost by the nature of the case. This is not the natural progression seen in sanctification – which makes me suspicious of the provenance of that change.

One other common tendency is for this to primarily involve younger believers. With the proliferation of teachers comes the proliferation of voices clamoring to be heard. With the ability for each and every viewpoint to be instantly granted an international hearing by virtue of it being on the internet, you can quite realistically find every conceivable combination of doctrines somewhere online. Where this causes the most problems is when these doctrinal changes come independently of the local church and the preaching and teaching to be found therein. Again, recall that I’m speaking to those within Reformed (or at least Calvinistic) churches of some variety, and those who have a strong confessional statement of some type. There is a difference between taking your own confessional statement and following it to its logical conclusion and disagreeing with (or modifying) what it teaches on the basis of an argument outside of or foreign to the context of your doctrinal statement. All too often we see younger/newer believers who are not all that familiar with their own confession reading folks who don’t adhere to that same confession – and then reading this other view into their confession as if it is natural to it.

Since confessionalism is not exactly something most “imports” to Reformed churches grew up with, it is understandable that they have a tendency to treat their confession a bit more loosely, given the “inclusive” emphasis for “statements of faith” in greater evangelicalism. I will readily admit that I am myself an “import” to the 1689, and had a bit of an issue with this myself, when I started out. I received some very good advice, before I had ever attended a 1689 church – study the history and context of the confession, as well as the theology of the ones who penned it, and defended it in the succeeding generations. When I did so, I came to a much greater appreciation of the confession I claimed to adhere to (but did so only superficially up to that point). Over time, I’ve come to love my confession as a faithful expression of unity in doctrinal matters, meant to both exclude and include respectively. In other words, it is a prescriptive as well as proscriptive document. As such, I’ve come to realize that if I want to defend the faith, I have to do so in terms of the doctrinal standard to which I adhere, and am kept accountable by. Further, if I am to do so, it must be in terms of a systematic application of that standard, not merely as a series of discrete points of theology.

It’s not a system I’m chasing – because I already have all the system I need. You are going to find at least a little bit about practically every point you could discuss somewhere in your confession. That being said, it’s evident that they aren’t meant to be exhaustive expressions. On the other hand, it’s just as evident that a systematic theology is far more suited to that role. The next question is, then, whether you’re using the tools provided for you by those who preceded you in your family of faith, isn’t it? If you’re a Reformed Baptist who needs to delve deep, I don’t see any excuse for passing over the works of Gill. If you’re in the SBC, there are several systematics for you to look through there. Presbyterians, obviously, have quite a few systematics to choose from. If you have the tools – use the ones “native” to you first. Again, let me stress this – use the ones native to you first. Using myself as an example, I’ve found that the answers that come most “naturally” to me are going to be out of Gill. What I then do is “cross-reference” his answer with Calvin, and then with the Presbyterian and/or SBC founders works if necessary. However, I don’t go to, say, Berkhof, first; or Hodge, or even Bavinck. Not because I don’t appreciate them, but because I know that there is going to be at least some aspect of their treatment that I’m going to have to “translate,” at least slightly, into something a Baptist could affirm. Now, this is to a lesser or greater extent, and depends on the subject in many cases. As I’ve mentioned many times before, Reformed Baptists and the OPC are very close together, doctrinally. They have many of the same influences, and a very similar cultural as well as doctrinal background.

I’m not saying, contrary to what some have mistakenly concluded from misreading prior statements of mine, that you have to have an exhaustive knowledge of systematic theology or your confessional standard to speak to a subject. I’m saying that the tendency to treat confessions as “guidelines” rather than as “standards” is engaging in an atomistic concept of the very thing that we are, in fact, presupposing as covenantal apologists and should be considered as analogical expressions of God’s precepts – both in unity and diversity. We hear talk about “buffet style theology” and think to ourselves “I’m so glad I’m not like those evangelicals” – but in a subtle way, we’re acting just like they do. We’re just better at making it look like we’re standing firm.

The recent buzz about Tiber swimming and a potpourri of other issues; some related, and other unrelated, has brought this to the forefront of my attention. There’s a distinct tendency to “chase a system,” as I mentioned earlier. There seems to be some desire, perhaps motivated by the desire for consistency, to find a “silver bullet system.” When I say that, however, I’m going to have to define what I mean. What I mean is not a critique of systematic, in the historical sense – I just presented why I think we *should* be studying systematic. What I mean is not a critique of consistency, or the desire for it, either – that’s a given – as long as it is balanced. What I do mean is this; in the attempt to be “more consistent,” in the lines of perhaps even a Van Tillian approach to theology and apologetics, there is a tendency to actually destroy the system you already had in that process – at least in any sense of having any coherent standard with which to fellowship with other believers in like faith and practice.

That common standard, in Reformed churches, is your confession. It does speak to things like eschatology, the law of God, or the covenant. Where we too often go wrong is in appealing to practically everything BUT our confession, and the systematics written within that context. Let me repeat: Don’t chase the system. Learn the system you already have.

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