September 9, 2010

The Danger Facing Systematic Theology

As you contemplate the task of moving from Scripture into systematic theology, please consider the following warning from Irenaeus about how the heretics known as the Valentinians distort Scripture to support their ideas. Note that Irenaeus is not against systematic theology; rather, he is against imposing an unbiblical system upon Scripture; he prefers to allow the “order” or “proper connection” of Scripture to assert itself. As we know, this is a perilous but necessary task, and this is why we should be constantly reading Scripture and hearing it, letting its order and proper connections form our theology. (Taken from Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1, chapter 7, in ANF, volume 1):

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.


  1. Dr. Yarnell,

    Thanks for this is definitely thought provoking.

    I think what would be helpful for students of theology, like myself, would be specific contemporary positive and negative examples of what Irenaeus is getting at.

    What I have trouble with is determining, especially among orthodox traditions, what imposing a system upon the text looks is a system is imposed and what measures to we take to ensure that a system is not imposed and ensure we have not presupposed things upon the text. There seems to be an assumption that there is a certain kind of theological method that brings no presuppositions with it.

    Or positively, how do we allow the "order" and "proper connection" of Scripture to allow itself to speak. I have been among a number of traditions and each always says they begin with Scripture itself as the authority while others do not. Each claims that the other is imposing ideas upon the text.

    This is where distinction needs to be made. Even in pure exegesis there are presuppositions regarding language and meaning that are not necessarily explicit from the text of Scripture itself but are deduced implicitly.

    So, while I can appreciate the statement and definitely believe it to be true, the question I have wrestled with for some time is how to do theology without imposing thought outside of the text upon it, or how do we do theology aware of and in recognition of our presuppositions that drive our theology removing the assumption of pure objectivity.



  2. Quincy,

    You have asked a very important question, and one that continues to bring me to my knees as I read and preach Scripture. Indeed, this question is why I wrote "The Formation of Christian Doctrine." I will not say that I have perfectly answered your question in that book (nor that I ever could), but I hope you will give what I have written there consideration. If I could provide a short answer that itself is unfolded at length in the book, it would be that we as a church come to the truth as we submit to the Lord Jesus Christ who reveals Himself in His perfect and orderly Scripture as illumined by the Holy Spirit.

    In Christ,

  3. Yes, Dr. Yarnell it is an important question and an issue I hope to tackle in my research through graduate and, Lord willing, future studies. I have my own thoughts similar to yours but the implications in them are somewhat bold and need to be thought through and tested...they are are def not outside the text (at least I'd like to think so). It involves the relationship of three things to theological method, the conscience, the gospel (Christ and the cross), and love (the degree of our love). I believe these all have bearing upon how we not only interpret, but in the process of our understanding the truth that is in Jesus.

    I def plan to read your work...if it is not within a course such as Development of Doctrine or Theological Method, it will be on my own time as it is on my reading list.



  4. A. W. Mays11:10 AM

    Thanks for sharing the quote. Remaining true to Scriptural truth is a great challenge when so many, more and more, seem to "leap" to fantastic conclusions which serve to support their "lustful desires" in gratifying their natural craving for "heaven on earth."


Edifying comments always appreciated!