On Preaching and systematic theology
As a PhD student in Systematic Theology, I am often confronted by friends who view my discipline as inimical to my central task as a Church of England ordinand: the expository (verse by verse) preaching of Scripture. ‘We should not preach a system or a framework’ they say, ‘we should just preach the Bible!’.
This view stems back to Charles Simeon, the great 19th century evangelical preacher, who famously said:
‘God has not revealed his truth in a system; the Bible has no system as such. Lay aside system and fly to the Bible; receive its words with simple submission, and without an eye to any system. Be Bible Christians not system Christians’
Simeon presents us with a simple choice: a ‘system’, or the Bible as given by God. This is an easy decision for anyone who holds Scripture as the supreme authority for life and doctrine. The Bible wins every time. But is this really the choice we are faced with?
At one level, Simeon was right. God has revealed himself to us through the Bible, a canon of 66 books from a diversity of authors, cultures and genres. It is not a bare list of propositional doctrinal statements. But affirming this is rather like affirming that the universe is not simply a system of abstract physical laws. That is certainly true, but it doesn’t stop us from attempting to discern the way things fit together and work.
Another useful illustration comes from the 2nd century theology Irenaeus. He said that reading scripture is like configuring a mosaic. This means that it is possible for people to bring together the pieces in more ways than one. They can be rightly arranged to form the beautiful image of a king, or they can be wrongly arranged to form the image of a dog or a fox. The question isn’t whether or not we will attempt to discern how the pieces fit together (or rather, whether or not we will form a system), but rather how we will fit the pieces together and what picture they will form.
The truth of this is borne out in the history of heresy. Most heretics never explicitly reject the authority of the Bible, as modern liberals do. On the contrary, they affirm the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture and engage in detailed exegesis of the text. But, to use Irenaeus’ image, they put the pieces in the wrong order, forming a dog rather than a king. This was true of Arius, who denied the deity of Christ, and it is true of many modern-day cults too. It is the job of a preacher, not simply to show people the individual pieces of the mosaic, but to guide people into seeing how they form a glorious picture of the King.
My thinking in this area has been greatly helped by favourite protestant theologian, the Dutch thinker Herman Bavinck. Interestingly, Bavinck implicitly agreed with Simeon up to a point, when he wrote that the Bible ‘nowhere contains a sketch of the doctrine of faith’. But from this fact he drew a very different conclusion. According to Bavinck, Scripture is ‘not designed so that we should parrot it but that as free children of God we should think his thoughts after him’. In other words, we are not supposed to unthinkingly repeat to ourselves the words of scripture, but rather imbibe them, whilst seeing to understand and ingest their deeper logic.
This is what it truly means to ‘fly to the Bible’. Not to reject the notion of a system, but to prayerfully discern how the different parts are related. The fact is, there are fundamentally basic questions that cannot be answered by a bare consecutive exposition of Scripture that gives no consideration to doctrine. For example, how do we hold together Paul’s description of Jesus as ‘the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim 2:5), with John’s description of the ‘Word’ who is ‘with God and is God’ (John 1:1) and the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares that there is ‘God is one’? A true systematic theologian is one who, being guided by the great teachers of the church, seeks to understand how these, and other different portions of scripture lead our minds and our hearts to a vision of a glorious mosaic of the Triune God.
Whilst claiming to preach ‘just the Bible’ apart from any system or doctrine may sound evangelical, Reformed and orthodox, the truth is the precise opposite. No serious orthodox theologian has ever taken this approach. Many who have followed this principle consistently have taught heresies and misled people. Others have become bullies, making themselves unaccountable to an orthodox body of teaching, who end up regularly undermine others through enforcing their personal interpretation of ‘what the text really says’. Bavinck writes that those who do this become ‘a branch that is torn from the tree and shrivels, an organ that is separated from the body and therefore doomed to die’. Wonderfully he also reminds us that ‘Only within the communion of saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended’. Systematic Theology gives us access to the shared mind of the communion of saints through the ages, as they have reflected upon Scripture. When Biblical exposition draws upon it, the love of Christ will shine through our preaching more powerfully.
Footnotes:  A W Brown Recollections of the Conversation Parties of the Rev Charles Simeon (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co 1863) p.15.  Herman Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics vol.1: Prolegomena (Ed. John Bolt, translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p.83.  Bavinck, Prolegomena, p.83.