“The only theology which the Bible knows—the Reformed faith.” That trenchant statement is made by Dr. J. I. Packer, English Calvinist of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, in an article in this issue on Calvinism in England: Its Status and Prospects.
Let us give some thought to Dr. Packer’s pointed utterance.
WHAT IS THEOLOGY?
First, it reminds us that the Bible is the source of our theology. The word “theology” means literally the science or knowledge of God. Dabney states that theology “describes the whole science of God’s being and nature, and relations to the creature.”
The only source of the knowledge of God is divine revelation. We know God only because he has revealed himself to man. That divine self-revelation is given in nature (including the course of human events) and in Scripture.
We may speak of Natural Theology and Biblical Theology; but it should be well understood that the knowledge of God derived from Scripture is far superior in clarity and range to that derived from nature; moreover, we cannot rightly read God’s thoughts in nature except in the light of Scripture. After the Psalmist exclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth forth his handiwork” he begins to speak about the revelation of God in the Word. The implication of his statements concerning it is that it is superior to God’s revelation in nature: “The law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul: the testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart.”
Moreover, all that nature teaches us about God is taught also in Scripture. Nature proclaims his existence, power, wisdom, and goodness. These and many more things about God are taught us in the Bible. It does not follow that it is unnecessary to study the handiwork of God as long as we study his Word. For nature has its own peculiar way of telling us about God. It appeals to our senses and gives us a graphic, vivid representation of the glory of the Creator and therefore has its own peculiar value. Think, for example, of the amazing wisdom of God as manifested in the almost incredible intricacy of the human body. God’s works should be the object of earnest study on the part of the Christian and a source of ceaseless wonder and admiration. Nevertheless, there is a still greater revelation of God’s wisdom, power, and love in what the Bible teaches about the plan of salvation. It also discloses divine attributes which are not seen in his works of creation and providence. And so we may say that theology is the science, the organized knowledge, of God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.
Theology is a system of revealed truths concerning God. There are some who say that man’s reasoning, logical mind provides the system for this knowledge. This is not correct, strictly speaking. Not only the truths concerning God but also the system, the interrelation, of those truths has its basis in the Bible. Because man is endowed with reason he is able to extract, distill, that system from Scripture. To be sure, there is no systematic treatise anywhere in the Bible of, let us say, the doctrine of God, or man, or Christ, or salvation. Yet, the very content of those doctrines indicates in what relation they stand to one another. The truths themselves suggest the framework in which they are to be placed and related to one another.
Let us use a familiar example. We speak of all the doctrines of the Bible which pertain to the application of the blessings of salvation to the hearts of God’s chosen people by the Holy Spirit as soteriology. We place what Scripture teaches about applied salvation under various heads: regeneration, calling, faith, justification, conversion, sanctification, and glorification. There is room for some difference in this order; nevertheless, the clearer our understanding is of what the Bible teaches on these various activities in the work of salvation the more certainty we shall have about their proper order and the relation which they sustain to one another.
REFORMED THEOLOGY AND THE BIBLE
There are various systems of theology and these systems do not fully agree; in fact, some differ widely from others, since there is no agreement on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture or on its proper interpretation. We speak of Rom a n Catholic theology, Lutheran theology, Reformed theology, Arminian theology, Modern or Liberal theology, etc.
Now, Dr. Packer makes the bold statement in his article in this issue of TORCH AND TRUMPET that the only theology which the Bible knows is the Reformed faith. Is that unpardonable bigotry or sober truth? We believe it to be a true statement and everyone who really understands and believes the Reformed faith will agree. Let it be remembered. however, that the statement is no denial of the fact that much of what is taught, for example by Lutheran or Fundamentalist theologians—if we may speak of a Fundamentalist theology—is in accord with Holy Writ. Hence when we say that the Reformed faith is the only theology which the Bible knows we are not by any means condemning all that is taught by other evangelicals. There is much which all orthodox theologies have in common. For example, all teach the self-existence, eternity, and infinity of God, the trinity, the deity of Christ, the vicarious nature of the atonement, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the literal return of Christ in glory, and many other precious doctrines of Scripture. There are important doctrines on which even true Protestants and Roman Catholics agree.
How, then, can it be true that the only theology which the Bible knows is the Reformed faith? The answer is that the peculiar approach and emphasis characteristic of the Reformed faith is precisely the approach and emphasis of Scripture. It is the only theology which does full justice to the most basic of all truths: that God is God—the self-contained, self-sufficient, absolutely sovereign God who works all things after the counsel of his will; who is supreme over all, has the right to do in his world and with man as he pleases; whose “dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation…who doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Daniel 4:34, 35). Reformed theology, like Scripture, takes its starting point not in Christ but in the triune God, from whom, through whom, and un t a whom are all things.
Again, just because of that emphasis on God as God, Reformed theology is the only theology which does justice to the kingship of Christ. The liberals too speak much about the lordship of Christ but it is a lordship detached from his mediatorial, priestly task. Christ can be acknowledged and served as Lord in every area of life only by those whom he has redeemed and renewed.
Reformed theology is the only theology which does justice to the work of the Holy Spirit in the unsaved, in whom he checks the full development of their sin. Common grace is one of the unique teachings of the Reformed faith. But this faith stresses in particular the Spirit’s work in the elect, teaching that salvation is from beginning to end the sovereign work of God. It spurns the Arminian view that sinful, depraved man can believe before he is regenerated, emphasizing that faith as well as salvation is the gift of God; in fact that faith is part of the salvation which Christ has earned and the Holy Spirit applies.
The Reformed faith, with all its emphasis on God’s work in salvation, does not fail to proclaim human responsibility. It does not seek to solve the problem of the apparent contradiction between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Like the Bible, it preaches both and does not attempt to explain how it is possible for God to work in and upon man in such a way that his divine plan is always executed while man remains a free and responsible agent. As one of our seminary professors used to say, at every point where God and man touch there is a mystery which we cannot solve.
Does not the Bible likewise stress, on the one hand, both the divine decree and God’s priority in the work of redemption and, on the other hand, man’s responsibility for his sin and the necessity of spiritual activity on his part? In regard to the former thought, Peter binds both truths upon the hearts of his hearers on the day of Pentecost: “Him (Christ), being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay.” And in regard to the latter he exhorts the Philippian Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.” Show me a theology, other than the Reformed, which does not shrink from a full, unconditional acceptance of all the implications of these two remarkable passages!
THE FIVE POINTS OF CALVINISM
The Reformed faith achieves its finest affirmation of divine sovereignty in the work of salvation in the Canons of Dort. The five doctrines which it expounds and defends over against Arminian heresy—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints—are often called the five points of Calvinism. We err if we think or speak of them as a dry-as-dust, scholastic formulation of the Reformed faith. They present to us a penetrating analysis of the most fundamental teachings of the gospel. Those who read them carefully and often will agree with us, if they are consistently Reformed in their thinking, that these articles are not only heart-searching but also heart-warming and comforting, and at the same time replete wit h instruction concerning God’s gracious as well as just dealings with sinful men.
THE REFORMED FAITH IN A WIDER SENSE
The Reformed faith is more than a Scriptural presentation of the way of salvation. It is much wider than the five points of the Canons of Dort. It conceals in its bosom a whole world and life view. It comprehends what the Bible teaches, directly or by implication, concerning the family, education, social problems, the origin and function of civil government, the value, nature, and purpose of the arts, and many other legitimate areas of human life. There is no antagonism between the Reformed faith and culture. On the contrary, it furnishes the basic principles for a culture which is Christian and demands that the whole of life shall be devoted to the service of God and to his glorification. In this way religion becomes the warp and woof of our daily life, the underlying motive for all our actions, the unfailing fountain of all our aspirations, the goal of all our striving.
ROOM FOR ALL TRUTH
It may be asked whether there are no truths in other theologies than the Reformed faith which are ignored or neglected by Calvinists and for which there is no room in our faith. We answer no. The Reformed system of theology is so broad in its framework that it has room for every single truth in the Bible.
There may be truths which Reformed theologians have neglected. But that is not the fault of Reformed theology. This theology resembles the expanding universe about which the scientists speak. It is so broad and deep in its most basic conceptions that no matter what new light may break forth from the Scripture, it will only add to the beauty and perfection of the Reformed faith.
It is a pitiful sight to see the effort of some who claim to be Reformed to combine it with the perversions and the half-truths that are current in a particular age. The Reformed faith has the power to separate the chaff from the wheat in the realm of doctrine, to reject all that is false and absorb all that is true.
Thank God for the Reformed faith. As Dr. Packer says, it is the only theology which the Bible knows. It is the theology of Jesus, of the prophets and the apostles. May we understand it increasingly better and love it most intensely as error multiplies in this closing age of the world’s history.