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Scope and Purpose of Theology

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 14, 2024 12:01 am

Scope and Purpose of Theology

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 14, 2024 12:01 am

What are Christians seeking to accomplish when they study theology? Today, R.C. Sproul explains that the goal of theology is nothing less than to learn from God and to grow in our relationship with Him.

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R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

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Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

Theology is unavoidable for any Christian. Theology is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us, and it's not a question of whether we are going to be engaged in theology or not. It's a question of whether our theology is going to be sound and biblical or unsound.

As R.C. Sproul just said, theology is unavoidable. It's why he titled the print edition of his introduction to systematic theology, Everyone's a Theologian. And because we are all theologians, we must ensure that our theology is biblical and sound. Welcome to the Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

I'm your host, Nathan W. Bingham. When we speak of theology, you'll sometimes hear people refer to systematic theology, biblical theology, even historical theology. Today, Dr. Sproul will explain the relationship between all three and then take the time looking at Scripture to unpack the purpose of theology, because that purpose is far higher than merely winning an academic argument.

Here's R.C. Sproul on the scope and purpose of theology. There are many competing systems of theology in the Christian world, some claiming to be biblical, others don't worry about whether they're biblical. But the point is that there are different systems of theology that claim to be faithful to the Bible. So if these systems of thought collide and don't agree at certain points, then obviously there are mistakes to be found in these systems of theology.

And that's something that we always have to struggle with. In this sense, the study of theology is a science. Now I say that with a smile, because there are lots of folks out there who would argue vociferously that there's a big gap between science and theology. Science is that which we learn through empirical inquiry and investigation, and theology is the work of dreamers or people whose hearts are inflamed by religious emotions and so on. But classically and historically, we understand systematic theology to be a science in this regard, that the word science comes from the Latin word that means knowledge.

And certainly at the outset of the Christian faith, we believe that through God's divine revelation, we have real knowledge of God. The only way theology would not be a science would be if it could be demonstrated that any knowledge of God is impossible. But the quest for knowledge is what science is about. The science of biology is a quest to learn or gain a knowledge of living things. And the science of physics is an attempt to gain knowledge about physical things and so on.

And so the science of theology is an attempt to gain a coherent, consistent knowledge of God. Now, we share something else with other sciences. Sciences have paradigms or models that they use, and maybe you've heard the phrase paradigm shift. Well, what's a paradigm shift? That's when something is changed significantly in the scientific theory of a given discipline.

When I was a high school student, I had to study physics, and we had a textbook. And if I would go and get that textbook now and read it to you, you would laugh because some of the theories that were presented in my high school science book have been demolished since the fifties when I went to high school, and nobody takes them seriously anymore because there have been significant shifts in the theories of physics in the last forty or so years. And we call that shift a paradigm shift, when a new theory replaces an old one, just as Newtonian physics replaced earlier physics, and then Einstein came along and created a whole new revolution, and we had to adjust our understanding of physics. Now, what about paradigm shifts in theology? Well, before I answer that question, let me ask, what is it that provokes paradigm shifts? Well, what usually provokes paradigm shifts in the natural sciences is the presence of anomalies.

An anomaly is something, it's a detail or a minor point, that doesn't fit into the theory, that the theory can't account for it. And maybe you have, let's just be arbitrary for a second, ten thousand details that you're trying to fit together into a coherent picture, like a ten thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, and you come up with a scientific theory that can account for, let's say, nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine of those details. If that happens and there's just one little dangling piece that doesn't appear to fit, most scientists are going to say, we have a pretty good paradigm here.

We have a pretty good model. This structure, the way we're using it now, will make sense of and account for almost every data bit of experience that we ever explore. But suppose you have a scientific theory where you have ten thousand data bits that you have to account for, and nine thousand of them can be accounted for by the theory, and a thousand don't fit. That's too many anomalies. That's too many parts to the puzzle that won't fit no matter how hard you try to move them around and turn them on edge. You've got a bad puzzle.

You need a new picture on the front of your puzzle book because this one isn't working. When anomalies become too many or too important and too pressing, it forces the scientist to go back to the drawing board to challenge the assumptions of previous generations and to construct a new model that will now make sense of the new discoveries or the new pieces of information. And that's one of the reasons why you see this constant change and shift and many times serious and significant progress in these other sciences.

Now when it comes to understanding the Bible, there's something a little bit different here. We're working with the same information that scholars have been working on for two thousand years. It's pretty unlikely that you're going to have a dramatic paradigm shift coming down the street suddenly at the end of the twentieth century. Now it's true that we do gain new nuggets of precise understanding of a nuance of a Greek word or of a Hebrew word that maybe earlier generations of scholars didn't have at their disposal. But most of the shifts that you see in theology today are not driven by new discoveries from archaeology or from ancient language. They're usually driven by new philosophies that appear in the secular world and new attempts to achieve a synthesis between that modern philosophy and the ancient religion that is revealed in sacred Scripture. That's why I tend to be very conservative as a theologian and say I doubt if I will ever come up with a new insight in my lifetime that hasn't been already worked over in great detail by greater minds than I have myself. I'm not interested in novelty in theology. If I were in physics, I would be trying constantly to come up with new theories to satisfy these nagging anomalies. And one of the problems in our academic arena is to write a doctoral dissertation in most institutions.

You have to come up with something new and creative. And I remember a man who received his doctor's degree at Manchester in England several years ago, and his doctoral dissertation was to prove the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth was the founder of a phallic mushroom cult. And he was awarded the highest degree of the university, a doctorate on the basis of his thesis.

Well, I'll say this for the thesis. It was novel. It was as new as it was absurd. But there is this fascination with coming up with something new and different, the kind of fascination that Paul encountered among the philosophers at Mars Hill and Athens who couldn't wait to come up with something new. So we do want progress in our knowledge and growth in our understanding, but we have to be very careful not to be lured into the temptation to come up with the novelty just to be new. And that's why I think it's unlikely that you'll ever get a new and original insight from me, because I keep poring over a manuscript that's been before greater minds than mine for so many centuries. Well, what are the sources of systematic theology? Well, when we talk about the sources of systematic theology, I've already said that the chief and principal source of systematic theology is the Bible.

And we make a distinction and a division even in the seminary between what we call three spheres, or among three spheres of disciplines. One is called biblical theology. Another one is called historical theology. And the third one is called systematic theology.

Now, how do they differ? Well, in biblical theology, we'll take, say, a concept like the word salvation, and the biblical scholar will go through the Scriptures and study minutely every use of the term salvation or the verb to save and see how the concept of salvation is expressed in the New Testament, how is it expressed in the Old Testament. And so the Old Testament scholars will put a searchlight on that specific concept like salvation and restrict himself, not to what church councils have said in the past, but simply the question of the data, I should say, of Scripture itself with respect to that question. That is the task of biblical theology.

And as I said in our first lecture, that the systematician is dependent upon the biblical scholars for that information, for the details. Now, one of the problems that we find in the seminaries today is a method of dealing with biblical theology that has become not only dangerous but devastating to the Christian faith. And that is the onslaught of what we call atomism, where the concern is so pointed to a particular point in Scripture that somebody will say, all I'm going to do is study Paul's doctrine of salvation in his letter to the Ephesians.

And that's all I'm going to look at. And some other person who's an expert on Galatians will say, I am going to study Paul's doctrine of salvation that he writes in Galatians. And then we hear these two scholars standing up and saying that there are two different views of salvation, one in Galatians, one in Ephesians.

But that's okay. We have no need to seek a harmonious understanding of the two because every little atom of Scripture stands alone. Now, what is presupposed in that approach? What is presupposed is that Paul is not inspired, and what is presupposed is that there is not an overarching unity and coherency to the Word of God. And it has been in vogue in recent years to say, not only do you find a different theology in the early Paul and in the late Paul, but you see as many theologies in the Bible as you have authors. There's Peter's theology, there's John's theology, there's Paul's theology, there's Luke's theology, and they don't fit together. Well, that's a very negative view of the coherency of Scripture.

And that's the danger when one just focuses on a narrow piece without at the same time considering the whole framework of the biblical text. So, one of our sources for systematic theology is what we call biblical theology. The second one is what's called historical theology because the church has a history. And one of the frustrations for the theologians, such as myself in this day, is to see controversies break out among churches today, and in the seminaries and in the colleges today, that seem to be brand new, fresh theological disputes that the church has gone through time and time and time again in the past. And the church has met in council to settle disputes where the whole Christian world agreed on the Trinity, for example.

And we saw the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Chalcedon. And so the historical theologian looks at how doctrine has developed in the life of the church historically at the crisis points when heresies emerged and how the church responded to the heresies. So that's basically a function of a historian to look at those historical developments. And then thirdly, we have what we call systematic theology. And I said the systematician's job is to look at the source of the biblical data and also to look at the source of the historical developments in controversies and in church councils and in creeds and in confessions. And then also to examine the insights of the great minds that the church has been blessed with over the centuries. Remember that the New Testament tells us that God in His grace has given teachers to the church. And not all of us are as astute as somebody like Augustine or a Luther or a Calvin or an Edwards, some of these titans of church history, who are by no means infallible.

They do not have the authority of an apostle. But nevertheless, the sheer magnitude of their research and the depths of their understanding is something that profits the church in every age. St. Thomas Aquinas was called the Doctor Angelicus, the angelic doctor by the Roman Catholic Church. So that all Roman Catholic theology since Thomas doesn't have to repeat Thomas because they don't believe that Thomas was infallible. But no sober Roman Catholic theologian is going to ignore St. Thomas.

He's so prodigious in his insights. And so the systematician also studies the great theologians of the past, not just the creeds and the confessions of the church, but also the insights of the master teachers that God has given His church throughout history. And so that's the task of systematic theology is to look at the biblical information, to look at the historical, to look at the systematic, and so on, and bring it all together.

Well, the real question I want to look at in the time we have left today is, well, what's the value or the benefit of all of this? And how many times I hear people say to me, I almost have apoplexy when I hear it, I don't need any theology. All I need to know is Jesus.

And I say, oh, come on. As soon as I ask you who Jesus is and you say one word to me about who Jesus is, you're into theology. Theology is unavoidable for any Christian. Theology is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us. And it's not a question of whether we are going to be engaged in theology or not.

It's a question of whether our theology is going to be sound and biblical or unsound. And so, we need to know these things because in the first instance, God has taken great pains to reveal Himself to His people. He gave us a book, and that book was given not to sit on a shelf and to press dried flowers.

That book was given to us to be read, to be searched, to be digested, to be studied, and chiefly to be understood. Let me take you for a second to a very important text in the New Testament in the writings of the Apostle Paul in his second epistle to Timothy, the third chapter beginning at verse 16. We all know John 3.16. We should also know 2 Timothy 3.16. It reads as follows. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.

That's the beginning of 3.16. And that part of the verse is of crucial importance for understanding the nature of Scripture, and we'll look at it again later when we consider the whole idea of the divine inspiration of the Bible. But so often when we study that verse, that's as far as we read, and that's as far as we're concerned about to prove that the Bible is inspired by God.

But it's the rest of the text I want us to look at today. All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine. Now, let that be the end of anybody ever saying, I don't need doctrine, or that doctrine has no value, or that doctrine is useless. There is a profit from a careful studying of the Bible, and it's because the Bible is inspired by Almighty God that it gives us an asset that is valuable and profitable, and that asset is doctrine. The Bible is profitable for doctrine.

What else is it profitable for? For reproof. We spend so much time in the academic world talking about biblical criticism, or what's called higher criticism, where we put the guns of our analytical critique on the words of Scripture. The real biblical criticism that we should be engaged in is when we are not the subject of the criticism, but we're the object of it. We're not the critic.

We're the critic-ee. That is, the Bible criticizes me. When I come to the Word of God, the Word of God exposes my sin. And the biblical doctrine of man includes me. And the biblical doctrine of sin includes me. And I am reproved of my sinfulness when I come to the text of Scripture. And it is profitable to be reproved by God, because we may not listen to the criticism of our peers, but we better heed the criticism of God as it comes to us in sacred Scripture.

And it's profitable for correction, correction from false living and also from falsehood. Just the other day, I began to read a book that was number one on the best-selling charts in the New York Times that a friend of mine gave to me. He said, read this book and give me your analysis of it. It was a book written by a medium in which he explains how to be a medium and to talk to the dead. I got about halfway through the book. I had to put it down.

I felt like I was reading pornography. There was so much spiritual filth in that book, so much falsehood, that a person had even a simple understanding of the law of God in the Old Testament. They would not fall into that trap. They would have gained the profit of correction from false teaching and from false living. And finally, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God might be fully equipped. The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects, but it's to be instructed by God that we can grow up in the maturity and the fullness of obedience to Him. That's why we study theology.

You just heard R.C. Sproul on this Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind from his very popular series, Foundations. Across 60 messages, learn what Christians believe about a wide variety of topics, from creation and the will of God to miracles and the return of Christ. The special edition DVD, along with his book, Everyone's a Theologian, can be yours when you give a gift of any amount at When you do, you'll also receive lifetime streaming access to all 60 messages and the digital study guide to help you reflect on each message. Having the study guide will also help you if you choose to use this teaching series in a small group or Sunday school setting.

Give your gift today when you call us at 800 435 4343. Visit or click the link in the podcast show notes. As we pursue a study of theology, we need to consider an important question. What is it that we should be studying? Where has God revealed his truth? Join us tomorrow to find out, here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-14 02:48:12 / 2024-05-14 02:56:22 / 8

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