Systematic Theology & Confessing the Faith
When you last shared the gospel with a non-Christian friend, did you read plain Scripture to them, or did you summarise the key elements of the faith? When you last spoke words of encouragement to a struggling Christian brother or sister, if you read some scripture, how did you select the bible passage to share? Did you randomly jump into the bible or look for a text on a theme? If you didn’t share a particular bible passage, how did you counsel them with the truth? To encourage someone in the faith, we need to be able to articulate the core truths of the faith in suitable ways. If you remember coming to faith, how did someone share the gospel with you? What key truths were shared with you? What things do people have to believe to be converted? How identify “the faith” handed down to the saints and identify false teaching? In short, we have to work in summaries of the Christian faith to evangelise, do pastoral care and protect the church from false teaching.
The Christian faith has content to be received, believed and passed on. Systematic theology is the practice of identifying, describing and summarising, for the life of the church and its witness, the teachings of scripture. The practice of summarising the doctrines of the faith for teaching, edification, correction and outreach is a biblical practice that is integral to the life of the church. Therefore, all Christians are systematic theologians. The question is are we faithful theologians, and do we confess, believe and pass on the teachings of scripture accurately?
The bible itself leads us to do more than simply read it out. The bible calls us to summarise its teachings so they can be explained and handed on. For instance, the Apostles didn’t just read out Scripture but summarised it in order to teach it and unfold its meaning. We see this whenever the New Testament takes up teaching from the Old Testament and explains it (e.g. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 summarising Israel’s history or Paul explaining the Abrahamic covenant in Romans 4:9-25 or Galatians 3:13-29 and 4:21-31). We also see this in the Old Testament, where later texts summarise earlier texts (e.g. Psalm 8 retelling the creation story, Psalm 77 retelling the works of God in the exodus, or Psalm 89:3-4 summarising 2 Samuel 7:12-17). Later texts in the bible summarise and interpret earlier texts. This is why we use the bible to interpret the bible. The critical point here is that identifying and summarising key truths for explaining and passing on truth is central to the bible.
Not only is it central to the bible’s internal structure, but summarising the key truths of the faith in the form of sound words is central to God’s method for passing on the gospel in the Apostolic and post-Apostolic Ages. As the Apostles’ time drew to a close, they were concerned about passing on the doctrine they had received from Jesus. So they encouraged post-apostolic church leaders to adopt the forms of teaching they had heard from the Apostles.
For example, in 2 Timothy 1:8-10, Paul tells Timothy that the gospel begins with God. Paul is a prisoner because of the Lord’s testimony which is the gospel (v8). The purpose and grace of God are revealed in the appearance of Jesus (v10). Paul is made a preacher, apostle and teacher of the message (vv11-12). He taught the gospel in the form of sound words and entrusted it to Timothy, who he charged with retaining and guarding the standard or form of sound words he heard from the Apostle (vv13-14). Timothy is to pass on the form of sound words he heard from Paul to faithful men. This means more than passing around the Pauline epistles. It means passing on a body of knowledge through teaching summaries of the key doctrines of the faith.
Notice two things:
- The faith is passed on as a body of knowledge set out in the form of sound words.
- The triune God stands over and works through this whole process: The Son reveals the Father’s purpose and grace, and the Holy Spirit is active in guarding the truth.
All accurate statements and summaries of the truth come about by the Holy Spirit’s work in the believing reader of the bible. This work is not the same as that of inspiration. It is the Spirit’s work of illumination. Why is this important? 2 Timothy reminds us that God controls the revelation and reception of the truth about who he is and what he has done.
The church’s practice of developing formalised statements, or forms of sound words, which summarise the key doctrines of the faith for both corporate confession and for passing on truth, can only be explained by the work of the Triune God. It is the pattern that God himself initiates and oversees as the church reflects on the testimony of the prophets and apostles by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.
If we are Christian, we have received the faith once handed down to the saints. There is one gospel, a body of knowledge revealed by God, which has been handed down to us today. We don’t have to start from scratch, and with the bible, work out who God is, his triune nature, the two natures of Christ, the situation of mankind, why Christ died on the cross, what his resurrection means etc. This has all been studied, summarised and confessed by the church through the ages as the Holy Spirit has illuminated the scriptures down through the ages.
To teach God’s word, we must receive and understand the contents of the faith ourselves. We need to be Timothy’s! We need to receive and understand the commonly held summaries of the faith’s key doctrines and their scriptural foundations. We cannot dismiss them as irrelevant. They came about by the Spirit’s illuminating work as the church has read the scriptures over the centuries. As we receive these summaries, in the forms of creeds and confessions in the common notebooks of the church, we stand in the line of true apostolic succession – the passing down of the apostolic faith from generation to generation.