A Training Tool in Theology for the Church
One of the common objections to a church having an extensive confession of faith is that the practice of arranging the truths of the Bible into a system is alien to the way the Bible presents the truth. The Bible is not a textbook of facts about God, so cataloguing the truths of scripture might miss something basic to the Bible’s teachings. One fear is that confessions leave behind the form in which the truth was originally presented and rework it according to abstracted and logical principles. Accordingly, the worry is that systematic theology leaves behind the plot line of the Bible (i.e. the relationship between promises and fulfilment, the stages of God’s creative and redemptive work and the covenantal shape of God’s revelation). Some may object that too much emphasis on abstracting truths from the given pattern of revelation may be a distraction from the real business of ministry to explain passages of the Bible to people, apply truth to everyday life, teach basic skills on how to read a bible text in its context and learn how to lead a church.
In the last five blogs, we have sought to address these concerns by going back to basics and asking:
- What is theology?
- How is theology shaped by its first cause (God and his works towards creatures)?
- How does theology operate in the church?
A confession of faith is the church’s answer to the question, what do you believe the Bible teaches? It is a work of theology in the broadest sense. As such, a confession of faith avoids abstraction and distraction for ministry. It leads a congregation through various theological disciplines (i.e. systematics, covenantal, pastoral and biblical theology), enabling them to understand the whole counsel of God.
When we consider what theology is, the idea of systematising the faith begins to appear as a natural consequence of the nature of God’s revelation rather than as a result of the imposition of abstracted logical principles. Our last five blog posts on this theme show how scripture is God’s self-revelation. It delivers a body of knowledge to us that contains truths that must be believed and obeyed. Theology is, therefore, both theoretical – in the sense of communicating conceptual truths – and practical and ethical. Good theology identifies the truths of scripture and arranges them into an order dictated by who God is and how he has acted toward us.
Theology of God precedes treatment of the economy of God’s works. This order flows from the reality of God and his works as revealed in scripture and not primarily from the imposition of other methods drawn from different disciplines outside of theology. This approach gives us the ordering of doctrines that appear in the confession and are typical of larger orthodox works of theology. We have also seen that summarising the truth of the Bible is essential to the Bible itself, in terms of how later bible writers handle earlier passages and themes, and also in church life in preaching, pastoral care and evangelism.
This systematising principle encompasses all the disciplines of theological study. All forms of theological methods, from biblical theology (which proposes models for understanding the historical-redemptive reading of the scriptures) to covenantal theology (which seeks to identify the covenantal structure and progress of revelation and God’s dealings with humanity) and biblical studies, are ways of systematising and analysing revelation in a broader sense. They all are means of reflecting on scripture and summarising different aspects of its teachings. These biblical disciplines all arise out of the nature of God’s revelation and the human need to receive it through interpretation and analysis of the text of scripture. When reading scripture, none of these disciplines, including systematic theology, should ever be practised in isolation from the Bible or each other in the church. Reading and teaching the Bible requires constant cycling through the disciplines. We move from asking questions about a passage’s immediate context to its redemptive-historical and covenantal context. We also seek to understand a text’s teaching in light of its contribution to broader theological themes across scripture. No listening to scripture is complete without application and obedience.
The Second London Confession reflects this mix of disciplines because it is an organised summary of the teaching of the Bible. It is not an abstract, exclusively systematic document in the narrow sense. It is a product of centuries of accumulated reflection on what the Bible teaches. Thus, it cycles from systematics to redemptive-historical theology, covenants, and ethics because the Bible and its teaching do so. Therefore, the church must confess the truth in all these ways. A confession helps us handle the Bible, understanding the broader themes and structures of revelation, which inform how we read passages in their covenantal and theological context. Without announcing it loudly, the confession properly relates the discipline of systematic, biblical and ethical or pastoral theology according to the biblical witness. Confessions stand as a model and curriculum for churches to learn how to do theology. It helps churches grapple with all aspects of the body of knowledge that the Lord has given in his word. Thus, the church is called to publicly, pastorally and evangelically confess this body of knowledge.
In our next blog, we will see how a confession of faith guards against distortions and imbalance in theology and practice by rightly ordering and relating doctrines to each other.