God save the queen

In Canada, this is something we sing and mean it. However, this post isn’t about her. It is rather about the “queen of the sciences”.

What is the queen of the sciences? Google it… and you will see the title claimed for either mathematics or theology. Who is the usurper here? How dare they! Which queen should we ask God to save?

Of course, you may guess that I am interested in the theological side of the question. I am doing a little reading in Warfield and thought I might muse on something he said in his essay, “The Idea of Systematic Theology”.

Warfield wrote the article in response to a somewhat sneering evaluation of the term ‘Systematic Theology’ in the 1894 Bibliotheca Sacra, where a Dr. Simon declared the term to be an “impertinent tautology”. Dr. Simon finds the tautological term offensive because it suggests that there are other departments of theology “which are not methodical.”

Dr. Warfield wrote in defense of the notion. I am just getting into this essay, I read Warfield when I have a few minutes here and there, so we will only progress on this at a snail’s pace (my favourite way). Warfield argues that the idea of systematic theology has to do with what is meant by its presentation, as a system of ideas (or a philosophy or science of theology) rather than as suggesting other types of theology are not methodological.

Now, I have been known to suggest that systematic theology is inferior to other forms of theology because it suffers a particular failing. Dr. Warfield, I find, is convincing me that I am perhaps too hasty, at least as far as the idea of systematic theology is concerned.

Warfield’s first point is that in considering Systematic Theology as a science, he means it in exactly the same way that Geology is a science.

To say that Systematic Theology is a science is to deny that it is a historical discipline, and to affirm that it seeks to discover, not what has been or is held to be true, but what is ideally true; in other words, it is to declare that it deals with absolute truth and aims at organizing into a concatenated system all the truth in its sphere. Geology is a science, and on that very account there cannot be two geologies; its matter is all the well-authenticated facts in its sphere, and its aim is to digest all these facts into one all-comprehending system.1

Essentially, Warfield is arguing there is one, and only one, theology. It comprehends all there is to know about God and his works. The expression of that theology systematically is Systematic Theology.

Now… who comprehends all there is to know about God? Is it Augustine? Calvin? Arminius? Pelagius [God forbid!]? Who?

We may also, no doubt, speak of the Pelagian and Augustinian theologies, or of the Calvinistic and Arminian theologies; but, again, we are speaking as historians and from a historical point of view. The Pelagian and Augustinian theologies are not two coordinate sciences of theology; they are rival theologies. If one is true, just so far the other is false, and there is but one theology. Thus we may identify, as an empirical fact, with either or neither; but it is at all events one, inclusive of all theological truth and exclusive of all else as false or not germane to the subject.2

What is he saying here? Warfield is saying that to hold up any of these systems is not necessarily to have in view systematic theology, but a system of theology. That is, Calvinistic theology, for example is a presentation of what some Christians historically have thought embodied systematic theology, but that they may not necessarily be correct.

Theology as a science “is inclusive of all the truth in its sphere.”3

Quite frankly, that probably means that no man has ever truly comprehended theology completely accurately. That would include Calvin, Augustine, Arminius, certainly Pelagius, and you and me. The reason for this is two-fold.

  1. All men suffer from the limitations of humanity and cannot comprehend at once all that God has revealed of himself.
  2. God has not revealed all of himself to man – just such as is necessary for life and godliness.

It is very likely that there is yet more to be known of God, and likely within human ability to understand, yet God has not seen fit (as yet) to reveal it.

So, yes, there is a great value to the Systematic Theology. Unfortunately for us, it is also a target, not a destination. We are striving to master it, but we must admit we are not (in this life) likely to hit it, at least not completely.

This ought to engender a little humility amongst us. When we see errors or dangers in a human expression of theology, it is our duty to point it out. But we also ought to be wary of huffing and puffing when someone else sees errors in our own presentation of systematic theology. None of us comprehends it all.

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Notes:

  1. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 51. []
  2. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 52. []
  3. Warfield, Works: Studies in Theology, p. 53 []