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Why One Presbyterian Appreciates a Baptist Systematic Theology

It’s an exciting time to do theology. Technology allows unprecedented access to vast deposits of historical resources. Scholars across disciplines are talking to one another in new ways. Conversations across traditional divides enable both interdisciplinary and ecumenical sharpening of iron by iron.

For those faithfully listening to God speaking in Scripture, these are encouraging developments that have yielded fruit in recent theological publications.

In Systematic Theology: From Canon to Concept, Stephen J. Wellum leverages these trends to make a strong case for the importance of careful and cohesive theological reflection on Scripture. Like his earlier work on biblical theology, this text is thoughtful and clearly written. Wellum sets out in this text—the first of two planned volumes—to introduce the task of systematic theology and explore the doctrines of revelation, Scripture, God, creation, and providence.

Coherence of Biblical and Systematic Theology

The church’s health depends on careful systematic theology. As Wellum notes, “Systematic theology is not optional for the church; it is fundamental to our thinking rightly about God, the self, and the world.” Everyone does systematic theology. The real question is “whether our theology is true to Scripture or not” (4). Therefore, wisdom calls us to conform our systematic theology to Scripture’s teaching.

Healthy theology involves both reading Scripture and thinking about how to follow it. Therefore, Wellum refuses the false choice sometimes posed between biblical theology and systematic theology. Referring to the Great Commission, he observes, “To obey our Lord’s command requires careful biblical and theological thinking; knowing the Scripture, thinking rightly about who the Father, Son, and Spirit are; and faithfully applying all of Scripture to people’s lives. This is what theology is” (5).

Healthy theology involves both reading Scripture and thinking about how to follow it.

The task of systematic theology is essential for Christians as we read and apply the biblical text. It does not supersede or replace biblical theology. Instead, when systematic theology builds on the task of scriptural exegesis and biblical theology, it helps us to read Scripture more profitably.

In other words, like biblical theology, systematic theology is essential to healthy theology. It is indispensable because “theology does not merely repeat Scripture; it seeks ‘to understand’ Scripture in terms of application, logical implications, and metaphysical entailments as a ‘constructive’ exercise in ‘faith seeking understanding.’” Theology must move beyond interpreting passages, chapters, or even books to fit all of Scripture together into one coherent picture. In doing so, “theology constructs and defends sound doctrine so that the church is not ‘blown around by every wind of teaching’ (Eph 4:14), but is instead ‘rooted and built up in Christ’ (Col 2:7)” (108). 

Historical Theology’s Contribution

Wisdom requires admitting we are not the first to ask questions about what Scripture teaches. Such wisdom acknowledges at least two potential problems. On the one hand, raising the authority of theological tradition to that of Scripture confuses the Church’s voice with God’s voice. On the other hand, refusing to listen carefully to the wisdom accrued through centuries of the church’s reading and reflecting on God’s Word confuses the individual’s interpretation with God’s voice.

Wellum seeks to navigate a narrow channel between these twin errors. He does so by listening to a range of theological voices from the church’s past and constructively evaluating them in dialogue with sound biblical exegesis.

The dual emphasis on eclectic theological retrieval and meticulous attention to the detail of biblical theology makes for some especially strong chapters on the doctrines of revelation, Scripture, and God. Wellum’s emphasis on the inseparability and interdependence of these topics is a strength of the book. He observes that “from Genesis to Revelation, Scripture claims to be the product of triune communicative agency in and through human authors. And given who the triune God is, Scripture speaks with absolute authority. Even though Scripture is written by human authors, its message, truth, and reliability are not lessened” (287).

In a cultural climate characterized by skepticism about the existence and knowability of truth, the chapters on these subjects repay careful reading. Furthermore, Wellum’s treatment of natural theology, his retrieval of the patristic and medieval categories for understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, and his discussion of the classical categories of God’s attributes reflect a close interaction with biblical theology and constructive engagement with other theological traditions. Thus, this is an edifying volume for any Christian reader.

Precision and Consistency

This first installment of Wellum’s Systematic Theology leaves me anticipating how he will handle even more controversial subjects in the second volume. This unashamedly Presbyterian reviewer hopes his “unashamedly Baptist” brother will continue to place the precision of biblical theology in conversation with the retrieval efforts of historical theology to build even more bridges for constructive rapprochement between our respective “rooms” in God’s household. Unsurprisingly, given our different backgrounds, I have some points of friendly critique.

In a cultural climate characterized by skepticism about the existence and knowability of truth, the chapters on these subjects repay careful reading.

First, despite Wellum’s emphasis on categorical precision and retrieval through historical theology, he seems to adopt a grand narrative of decline regarding the Enlightenment, overlooking important historical discussions about how Christians both contributed to the development of modern thought and received critique during the transition to modernity. There is room for refinement here. For example, Wellum acknowledges that skepticism toward the “the truth of the gospel has existed in every age of the church” but then asserts that a “full-blown assault begins in the Enlightenment and continues today unabated” (41). The tactics for attacking the gospel may have changed, but the world, the flesh, and the devil have always strenuously opposed the truth according to the spirit of every age. Grand narratives of cultural progress and decline typically falsify as much as they clarify, and they lead to abuse by both cultural conservatives and progressives.

Second, it would help to set forth a more explicit account of how the retrieval efforts of historical theology work and to ask why it is more operative in some chapters of Wellum’s work than in others. Recent discussions of such retrieval lead us to ask, Why should we listen to some authors from the past more than others? Why should we follow an author in one area but not in others? What principles do we utilize when our historical sources and traditions disagree? Thickening the engagement with such questions might help enrich the work’s ecumenical potential.

Covenantal Debate

Finally, this book would have benefited from greater nuance about the diversity within covenant theologies to better account for continuity and discontinuity between patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern approaches to the subject. There are points within Wellum’s account of progressive covenantalism that sound more like historic Reformation accounts of covenant theology than he acknowledges.

For example, as someone who fully subscribes to the doctrine of the covenants in the Westminster Confession of Faith, I am pleased to endorse the summary of the biblical narrative in Wellum’s definition of progressive covenantalism:

It is better to think of God’s one redemptive plan, grounded in the “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis, revealed through a plurality of covenants (e.g., Gal 4:24; Eph 2:12; Heb 8:7–13), all of which reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Post-fall and due to God’s promise (Gen 3:15), God’s one redemptive plan is revealed through the covenants as the new covenant is progressively unveiled. This allows us to think of the continuity of God’s plan across time, now fulfilled in Christ, and it also helps us avoid “flattening” the differences between the covenants, which directly impacts a number of theological issues, specifically ecclesiology and eschatology. Each covenant, then, directs the life of those under it, but each covenant is also revelatory and prophetic of who and what is to come, namely Christ and the new covenant. (436)

Wellum’s affirmation of the intra-Trinitarian pactum salutis, or covenant of redemption, makes his presentation more like historic Reformation accounts of covenant theology than many recent “Reformed” populizers, including several of the conversation partners that appear in his footnotes. He also affirms that the “creation covenant” with Adam was “temporary,” a “probation,” and required “covenantal obedience” to obtain “eternal life,” which, in spite of his claims to the contrary, sounds exactly like the doctrine of the “covenant of works” in the Westminster Confession (442). Wellum expresses his substantive affirmation of the covenants of redemption, works, and grace with thoughtfulness and concern for careful biblical exegesis.

The primary caveat to my substantive agreement on the biblical narrative relates to the status of the new covenant and whether there is unresolved tension between his claims that “the fullness of new covenant blessings is still future” and that “all new covenant realities are now here and applied to the church in principle” (528). As Wellum explores the doctrines of the church, sacraments, and eschatology in the second volume, it will be interesting to see how he negotiates this tension. If the fullness of new covenant blessings is still in the future, this should inform theological reflection on these topics.

In the meantime, Wellum helps us to see what careful biblical and theological thinking can look like. In this first volume of his Systematic Theology, Wellum displays the Bible’s primary message, the revelation of God, the story of redemption, and the meaning of all things in relation to God. I look forward to the expansion of the project in the next volume.

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