Thursday, May 1, 2008

Systematic theology run amok

"[Biblical theology] fences off from the Scriptures all the speculations, all the dogmatic elaborations, all the doctrinal adaptations that have been made in the history of doctrine in the Church. It does not deny their importance, but it insists upon the three-fold distinction as necessary to truth and theological honesty, that the theology of the Bible is one thing, the only infallible authority; the theology of the creeds is another thing, having simply ecclesiastical authority; and the theology of the theologians or Dogmatic Theology, is a third thing, which has no more authority than any other system of human construction. It is well known that until quite recent times, and even at present in some quarters, the creeds have lorded it over the Scriptures, and the dogmaticians have lorded it over the creeds, so that in its last analysis the authority in the Church has been, too often, the authority of certain theologians." (Charles Augustus Briggs, The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address, 5)

When does systematics over step its bounds and become the authority of the church? When does it get too big for its britches and usurp the authority of scripture? In my book, I claim that this has happened with regard to inerrancy, where inerrancy has been mandated among evangelicals by inerrantist theologians precisely on the authority of the theologians under the cover of being on the authority of scripture. I identify a canonical dialectic and try to show that a doctrine like inerrancy shuts the dialectic down to the effect that what becomes authoritative for inerrantist evangelicals is the systematic offering of inerrantist theologians. This would not be so bad if the inerrantist proposal proves useful for spiritual formation. But the inerrantist offering is simply not viable; it is time to replace it with something better.