The biggest problem facing the Christian church today are her internal divisions, most of which arise to some extent from our differing theological systems. A theological system is the way that a person understands how the various topics of Scripture fit together into one big picture. As our systems seek to categorize and explain the Bible and its teachings, we seek to assemble the various topics of Scripture into a coherent picture, which is often meant to explain everything.
Before I go any farther here, I want to point out that I am not against systems. As Dr. Richard Belcher put it, “Whether it is realized or not, every person has a system of theology.”2 God has created us in His image, which means in part that we, like the One who ordered the universe, have an innate desire to order and catalogue things. This sense of order differs from person to person, but in the end it will result in our building a system for our theology. Some know what their system is as it is meticulously built by their reason, block by block. Others have assimilated various truths and untruths and have formed them into a loosely-knit system that easily shifts and morphs as they encounter new truths. Still others don’t even know they have a system, even though they behave like they do when backed into a corner. We all have it, we all use it, we all need it to make sense of God’s truth and this universe.
As indispensable as these systems might be to us, there are four dangers that arise as we use the systems.
- The system can try to explain everything.
- The system can prefer deductive logic over inductive logic.
- The system can easily become the ultimate authority, replacing Scripture.
- The system can read its ideas into Scripture rather than bringing them out of Scripture.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
A. Trying to Explain Everything
Perhaps the biggest danger in any system is that it will seek to explain everything in Scripture and in the universe. This is a natural impulse for us humans, as most of us desire harmony around and within us. We have tried various ways of achieving this harmony, sometimes trying to alter our surroundings, sometimes trying to alter ourselves to fit our surroundings. This desire for harmony is extended to our understanding of Scripture and so we build constructs that attempt to explain everything. We want answers for every possible question and if we think we have all the answers we get proud.
The thing is that there are some things in Scripture that are not meant to be explained, or that cannot be explained using our human logic. Much of this lies within the character of God and the way He has chosen to reveal Truth to us. We’ll deal with this a little later on.
B. Primarily Using Deductive Logic
Because the system tries to explain everything, it will often use deductive logic rather than inductive logic as its primary form of construction.
Inductive logic is “reasoning from particular facts or individual cases to a general conclusion.”3 In other words we work from the source. We gather all the evidence, take a careful look at it, and then decide what it means. This is what the followers of the Inductive Bible Study Method use when they approach Scripture. The Bible is allowed to say what it will say before a conclusion is reached. In this case the object studied is the authority and the person studying the student.
Deductive logic, on the other hand, is “reasoning from a known principle to an unknown, from the general to the specific, or from a premise to a logical conclusion.”4 In other words, we know something to be true, therefore something similar that we encounter, but are uncertain of, must mean the same thing. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the best example of deductive logic, being an expert on many different things, he is able to deduce the truth about a person using his expertise. In this approach the person studying the object is the authority. The object is simply interpreted within a framework that the expert has already espoused and is not allowed to speak for itself.
Which type of logic is the correct logic for approaching the Scriptures? Probably the former, because of the fact that when deductive logic is used, the interpreter becomes the authority. Dr. Brad Mullen’s contention regarding authority is that “any additional authority supplants the Truth.”5 Thus when the interpreter is the authority, Scripture ceases being the authority. (Oops, am I using deductive logic here? Well, well, well!)
Now, deductive logic has its place and is often necessary, but when dealing with the Word of God my contention is that inductive logic should come first, because when deductive logic is given primacy, the theologian will often make statements that are not only un-Biblical, they are anti-Biblical.
C. Becoming the Ultimate Authority
As already mentioned above, when the deductive method is used in constructing the system, the authority in regards to the Truth moves from the Bible to the system. For that reason when the system is criticized using passages in the Bible that seem to contradict it, the person who holds to that system will perceive an attack on the entire integrity of their construct of truth and they will seek to defend it most vehemently.
The interesting thing is that when the system becomes the ultimate authority, the people holding to that system will look down on those who only partially accept it or don’t accept it at all. As an example, at one point my father was in a dialogue with a man who was an extremely strong proponent of the Five-Point Calvinistic System of Theology. While discussing that the Bible does support the idea of a free will in man (which Five-Point Calvinism denies), the young gentleman haughtily told my father that he had “not yet understood the doctrine of grace.” It seemed that this man viewed his understanding of the “doctrine of grace” as some sort of specialized, Gnostic knowledge that only Five-Point Calvinists could comprehend.
D. Reading Into Scripture
And that brings us to the fourth danger that threatens all theological systems. When the system is the ultimate authority, then all Bible passages that contradict (or seem to contradict) the system must be explained away. The exegete then reads his or her ideas into the Bible, rather than letting the Bible form or reform his or her ideas.
An example of explaining away passages is how those who hold to eternal security deal with passages such as Hebrews 6:4-6, which do seem to support the loss of salvation. Conversely those who hold to a loss of salvation deal just as badly with passages that seem to support eternal security, such as John 10:28-29. In either case, the problem passages are not treated fairly because they could prove the other side’s point.
An example of reading one’s ideas into a passage is the way that some Christians read I Corinthians 13:8. These verses are used to “prove” that the miraculous spiritual gifts (such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, healing, etc.) have already ceased. The passage does say that the tongues will cease, but gives no direct reference to the time frame, making it an easy passage to twist one way or the other, depending on one’s preference.
There are many examples of how various theological systems twist Scripture, and no system is innocent of doing so, though there are some who are less guilty than others. It is not the scope of this paper to deal with those failings. Others have written eloquently about these errors in their various books. My point here is to rather encourage a rethinking of our individual approaches to Scripture, to understand the necessity for tension in Scripture, as well as to prompt a constant willingness to allow our systems to be updated and maintained by the Word of God itself as we gain a deeper understanding of this one-of-a kind book, rather than allow them to become stagnant and so detrimental both to ourselves and those around us.
If you are interested in some of the ways that various systems mess with the Bible, I have listed a summary of some of these in Appendix A.
- 2. Richard P. Belcher, A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, Inc., 1986), p 1.
- 3. David B. Guralnick, Webster’s New World Dictionary (New York: Prentice Hall, 1986) as quoted in C. Gordon Olson, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation (Cedar Knolls, NJ: Global Gospel Publishers, 2002) p 19.
- 4. Ibid. pp 19-20.
- 5. Quote from his class Advanced Hermeneutics: History and Issues at Columbia International University, Fall 1999.