Thinking Through Balanced Theology

truemanpic-261x300A dear friend gave me a fascinating article recently written by Dr. Carl Trueman, professor of Church History and Historical Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. In his article, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act” Dr. Trueman’s major concern is what he calls “the crisis in systematic theology.” Trueman’s thesis is that the growing interest in Biblical Theology is swinging the pendulum too far away from Systematic Theology. Though written in 2002, Dr. Trueman’s words are important for Southern Baptists today-particularly us young seminarians who have been heavily influenced by a Christocentric hermeneutic and a Canonical/Grand-Narrative Theology. Below are a few key quotes and some brief interaction with the article. Also, see Graeme Goldsworthy’s response to Trueman’s article here.

“My question, however, is: have the revolutionaries become the new establishment, and are we therefore missing out on issues of crucial importance through turning the valid insights of biblical theological preaching into ideologies which exclude other, necessary emphases? I raise the question because it seems to me as I mix with students in the USA and the UK that many of them have a good grasp of biblical theology. They understand the Bible contains a narrative, that this narrative culminates in Christ, and that this imposes certain demands upon the way they exegete any given passage. The problem is…that the triumph of biblical theology has been so complete in some quarters that we now need to realize that this new establishment might itself be generating problems of its own.”

I’m confident that some Biblical-Theology fanatics are already on the defensive toward any subsequent comments. It’s important to note, however, that earlier in the article Trueman acknowledged his appreciation for and welcoming of the biblical-theological/redemptive historical movement from Moore College and others. So, as he says, “the rest of this article should be read in that light.”

The problems that Trueman sees being generated from the biblical theology movement are:

1. “…the problem of mediocrity. It is one thing for a master of biblical theology to preach it week after week; quite another for a less talented follower so to do. We all know the old joke about the Christian fundamentalist who, when asked what was grey, furry, and lived in a tree, responded that ‘It sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer to every question is ‘Jesus”. One of the problems I have with a relentless diet of biblical theological sermons from less talented preachers is their boring mediocrity: contrived contortions of passages which are engaged in to produce the answer ‘Jesus’ every week. It doesn’t matter what the text is; the sermon is always the same.”

This section alone is worth the entire article. Strong words from Dr. Trueman, but, I think, worthy of our consideration. His clear concern is that because this type of preaching focuses so much on the macro (i.e. the grand narrative) it tends to miss the micro (the particular doctrines that buttress the big story). His comment that ‘no matter what the text, the sermon is always the same’ is curious. In one sense, every sermon should be the same insofar as it points people to Jesus and His gospel. But, Trueman is right that if not careful preachers with a biblical-theological bent will slip into boring mediocrity preaching every text the same.

2. “…the triumph of the biblical theological method in theology and preaching has come at the very high price of a neglect of the theological tradition.”

Trueman goes on to argue that the “economics of the history of salvation” have historically always been balanced by careful reflection on the ontological aspects of God “which undergirded the whole of the church’s life and history.” In other words, Trueman appreciates that biblical theology helps to explain the big picture of God’s mission and the grand story of the Bible, but fears that too much attention to the story kicks the legs out from under hundreds of years of careful, systematic doctrinal reflection of the church. As a dear friend said to me concerning this issue, “If we focus only on what God does, we miss who God is.”

3. “My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse.”

This is largely a restating of the first two points, but with a more stark contrast between economy and ontology. Trueman raises his voice a bit toward the end of the article in favor of a return to systematic theology, though his argument is not for either/or, but for both/and. Of course, his writing is not without bias as a professor of historical theology and church history, but his concern is fair and well stated.

It is important to be balanced in our theology. It is important to be balanced in our preaching. We should spend time fine-tuning our understanding of both God’s ontology and God’s economy and make certain that we regularly consult the great minds of the past. And we should guard against boring mediocrity while simultaneously proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus upon every occasion behind the sacred desk. Here is a final quote from Dr. Trueman:

“The biblical theological revolutionaries have become the new establishment, it [is] time for those of us rebels who think that the Bible raises more than just redemptive-historical questions, and that the creedal tradition of the church gives important insights on this, to raise our voices in dissent, to highlight the very real dangers of making this insight into an ideology and to do our best to bring the pendulum back a little.”


Comments 0

  1. I read that article a couple of years ago. I really liked it then, and still do. It does touch some nerves (I’ll be curious to see what kind of responses you get), but I think it’s an important corrective.

  2. Ben,
    Great post. I hope you’re not trying to steal my dissertation, because this is exactly what it’s on. 🙂 Sometimes it might seem that a theology of preaching for canonical theology is put on the backburner until the hermeneutical theory is grasped. However, if we preach canonically in a bland manner or ignore the diversity of Scripture, in my opinion we haven’t accurately exegeted the text canonically.

    Concerning the implied dominance of biblical theology over systematic theology in recent years, this is unfortunate. Part of what biblical theology is supposedly attempting to do is accurately reflect those categories that the text itself emphasizes, and this could naturally lead to systematizing those categories. I personally don’t think the two are in contradistinction. Systematic shouldn’t ignore B.T., and B.T. shouldn’t write off systematics.

    Also, WAR EAGLE

    Matt Emerson

  3. I’m on a different computer Nathan:)

    Personally, I would like some specific examples of what he is talking about concerning God’s ontology. Who in the biblical theological “movement” is doing what he is talking about?

    But even if there are some/many and while he did not mention this [I want to say it anyway], there is a big difference between the Trinity in the creedal tradition and “the covenant of grace” [for example].

    Even if he is justified, it would be a mistake to take his example of the Trinity to then try and justify EVERYTHING in the creedal/confessional tradition [including the Baptist tradition].

    Ultimately, both the doctrines and the extra biblical terminology in Baptist confessions must be justifiable from Scripture alone.

    Also, when it comes to preaching, I do think the rise of biblical-theology is probably changing the nature of how sermons are preached. However, I think there can be growth in this area through trial and error that can come in simply preaching every week.

    But if we turn to the systematic theology sphere, would he want to defend the idea that there are not less talented followers of preaching systematic theologians whose sermons are boring?

  4. Benji, Thanks for your comment. I’m with you on needing some more specific examples. It was a bit ironic that his critique is that biblical theologians tend to be too general and neglect the details of the text, yet his comments were quite general themselves.

    I’m interested that you don’t see the rise in Bib Theol changing preaching today. It seems to me that it has, but that could simply be the circles I run in and people I listen too. Nevertheless, I think Trueman’s strongest point, and most pertinent to B21 readers, is the “boring mediocrity” risk that we run when we neglect the systematic side of things-so to speak.

    You raise a good question about systematic theology sermons. Perhaps there are followers of systematic theologians whose preaching is boring and mediocre, but I can’t personally think of any preachers who seek to week in and week out preach sermons that could be classified as systematic theology. Some have tried who who became known as “topical” preachers (most who didn’t do it well), but I can’t think of any who seek to preach systematic theological sermons. Of course, one could argue that expositional preaching serves this purpose because by dealing with each verse of the text one must also deal with individual doctrines that arise in the text. And perhaps, this is what Trueman wants to see more of. If preachers will keep one eye on the drama of scripture, and another on the particulars of the text, there will be a healthy diet of biblical and systematic theology, and they will preach sermons that don’t sound the same each week.

  5. BQ2,

    I think you misread what I said. I said “I do think the rise of biblical-theology is probably changing the nature of how sermons are preached.”

    I think I probably should not have said “systematic theology” preaching but “doctrinaire” type preaching. Maybe even rigidly doctrinaire where they define doctrines with extreme precision.

    Personally, I don’t think systematic theology should be jettisoned, but I do think it needs to be reformed. Interesting interview of D.A. Carson by Dever on the 9marks website concerning systematic theology [among other things].

  6. My statement that “Personally, I don’t think systematic theology should be jettisoned, but I do think it needs to be reformed” could probably be misunderstood I think.

    I don’t mean “reformed” in theology in the sentence above, but reformed in the sense of changed.

  7. Benji, you’re right, brother, I misread your comment. I apologize for that.

    Thanks for the head’s up about the Carson/Dever interview. I’m curious what your thoughts are concerning needed changes in Systematic Theol.

  8. BQ2,

    Since I have not read all systematic theologies, there might be some that deal with some [but I doubt all] of the things I am about to mention.

    1. Scripture: Not really change, but progression. O.T.– anticipatory of Christ; N.T.–revelatory of Christ; robust typology; affirmation of heavenly ideal, antitypical truth in N.T. [I’m following Geerhardus Vos’s thought here on John]; working out the implications of Christ’s revelatory word coming through the apostles in how the N.T. should be viewed in relation to the O.T.

    2. Covenants: Rejecting that any of the biblical covenants are administrations of some other covenant, but are covenants in and of themselves; the New Covenant finally gets to shine and its implications affect other areas of theology.

    3. Law: Rejecting the threefold division of Mosaic Law and affirming that it was a package deal; Affirming obedience to the Law of Christ and only that particular law for the Christian; allowing Christ’s new command to have its proper emphasis; exploration of whether the church is bound to the example of the apostles/early church or not and what the implications would be depending on what side one comes down on.

    4. Ecclesiology: Affirming that the fundamental meaning of the church, at the least, is that of people [called out ones] and not an it [organization]–I’m at least somewhat following John Reisinger’s thought here; Affirming that the cup in the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the New Covenant and not baptism; rejecting over systematizing the meaning of baptism; Affirming that Spirit baptism is distinct from water baptism.

    5. Christology: Affirming that Christ is the prophet like unto Moses who gives “His” new law.

  9. Boring sermons? Not at Crossway. You guys do a great job. We come to Sunday sevcrie to hear a teaching on God’s word and that is exactly what we get. Keep up the good job guys. PS. Just a side thought here .if you four attended the conference and Steve wasn’t there .when he comes back will he be the boring sermon guy? lol jk

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