Systematic Theology and Exegesis

Ask any Evangelical what influence Systematic Theology should have on exegesis, and the immediate answer will be, ‘None!’  In the words of the 19th century commentator, Leopold Rückert, the exegete of the New Testament, as an exegete, has no system, and must not have one.  He is neither orthodox nor heterodox, neither supernaturalist nor rationalist nor pantheist, nor any other ist there may be![1]

But this is impossible.  There is, of course, a very real danger that dogmatic prejudice will distort our exegesis.  C. E. B. Cranfield even goes so far as to lay this charge very directly at John Murray’s Commentary on Romans, which, he says, conveys the impression that the author ‘did not offer very serious resistance’ to the temptation to conduct his enquiries with his mind already made up that the answers would confirm his own presuppositions.[2]

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Does Systematic Theology need ‘Prolegomena’?

Before we enter the domain of Systematic Theology and proceed to address the great doctrines of Christianity, are there certain Prolegomena that must be addressed first?  There is certainly a tradition to that effect.  Bavinck, for example, devotes the whole of the first volume of his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics to Prolegomena,[1] and Barth likewise concerns himself with ‘The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics’ at the very beginning of his Church Dogmatics.[2]  Barth is acutely conscious, however, that the term is ambiguous.  At one level ‘Prolegomena’ means what theology has to say first.  It pauses to introduce itself, declares its presuppositions, announces its intentions, identifies its sources and lays down its norms.  But at the same time it makes clear that it is beholden to no other discipline, and rests firmly on its own foundation and its own first principles.  In such Prolegomena the method itself is theological.  The existence of God, for example, and the authority of scripture, are not first established on philosophical grounds and only then explored theologically.  Instead, theology proceeds on its own foundation, taking its very first step on the basis of faith in divine revelation.

Truths of reason?

It is in this sense that both Bavinck and Barth speak of Prolegomena.  But the word can also bear another meaning: ‘that which must be spoken before theology can be allowed to speak’.  Read More »

Computers, and why past levels of service cannot be maintained

There appears to be some evidence that once, like me, you’re over forty, your brain begins to deteriorate, though not at the same rate as your eyes, ears, reflexes, knees and hips.  I can vouch for it.  In the last few months there seems to have been a dramatic rise in the number of things I’m unable to understand.  When I was young (at the age of six, for example) they were no problem.  But now I’m old, they’re a real puzzle.

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What a pity, having a child like this!

‘What a pity it is, a young couple like you having a child like this!  Do you want to put her in a home?’

Such, forty-three years ago, were the words of a paediatrician meeting for the first time the parents of a Down’s syndrome child.  It was only by accident, and only gradually, they had discovered that their new baby was different.  The day they left the hospital the nurse who accompanied them to the car had parted with the words, ‘’If you need help in any way, don’t hesitate to call us.’  The tone of voice, they had thought, was odd, even ominous.  Then a friend mentioned to another friend how sad it was about Annie Mary’s baby, and so the story spread, until one day yet another friend called to express her sympathy.

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Brian Wilson and the Free Press

Most of the pieces posted on this blog began life as pieces in my ‘Footnotes’ column in the West Highland Free Press.  The whole world now knows that that column is no more; and thanks to Brian Wilson, they also know the reason why.  Via a phone-call from the Editor, the paper’s owners (its staff) put me on a warning.  I had crossed a line, and there must be no repeat.  There was little point in writing if I couldn’t say what I thought, and so, with only as much hesitation as was decent, I gave it up.

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North African migrants and the future of Europe

The flow of migrants from North Africa into southern Europe is no new thing.  It has been going on for decades, but now it’s become the stuff of tragedy as thousands cram into tiny vessels scarcely fit for a mill-pond and head off across two hundred miles of treacherous sea.

Europe is suddenly caught in a dilemma.  Will it rage against illegal immigrants, or weep over the loss of thousands of lives?   But behind the dilemma there is also guilt.  For centuries we Europeans shamelessly took advantage of freedom of movement to turn up unbidden and unwelcome on other shores, killing native inhabitants, destroying their culture and plundering their treasures.

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The Cry of Dereliction

‘And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’

Up to this point the narrative of the crucifixion has focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus: the flogging, the crown of thorns, and his immolation on the cross.  Six hours have now passed since the nails were driven home.  The crowd have jeered, darkness has covered the land, and now, suddenly, after a long silence, comes this anguished cry from the depths of the Saviour’s soul.

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Defending jihadists


Britain’s Muslims have us all living on a knife-edge, desperately trying to find a compromise between saying it as we see it on the one hand, and avoiding offence to the followers of the Prophet on the other.  The BBC, clearly terrified of being accused of bias, seems to assign every terrorist-related story to a Muslim member of staff, conveying the impression that at least half the population are of this persuasion; and whether appearing on screen or before a Parliamentary Committee every Muslim family has to be accompanied by a lawyer of their own faith, presumably to intimidate interviewers (and send out signals to their co-religionists).

It gladdened the heart, then, to hear Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, tell Muslims to stop apologising for jihadists.  It was an appropriate response to those who, a few days before, had been blaming the security services for turning that nice boy, Mohammed Emwazi, into the brutal executioner, Jihadi John.  The police and MI5 clearly had good grounds for keeping him under surveillance and, with hindsight, the only complaint must be that they did not harass him enough.  In any case, could any personal grievance justify a man gloating on camera as he hacks-off an aid-worker’s head with a bread-knife?  This is a man whom every self-respecting Muslim will disown without hesitation or qualification.

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Scottish theologians and the doctrine of the church (1): Presbyterianism

The area which above all others captured the attention of Scotland’s Reformed theologians was the doctrine of the church.  This was especially true of the 17th century, but the 19th century also produced a voluminous literature, including James MacPherson’s splendid overview, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology.  It is here, too, that Scottish theology achieves its greatest international significance.  Calvinism as a world movement has two great branches, the Dutch and the Scottish, the former represented by the Dutch Reformed family, the latter by the Presbyterian.  Today, the Presbyterian family is thoroughly established in North America,Australia,New Zealand, Africa,Korea,Japan and indeed wherever the gospel has been carried by the missionary advance of the last two centuries.  Inevitably, the children no longer cling to their mother’s apron-strings, yet all acknowledge that their roots are in the Scottish Reformation and that they inherited their principles, more or less complete, from their Scoto-Irish spiritual forebears.

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The cross: God’s altar

Every believer has some theology of the atonement.  Faith, after all, is trust in a crucified Saviour, and without some understanding such faith is impossible.  Faith knows from the beginning who died on the cross, and it knows, too, why he died.  He died for our sins.

But faith can never be content with such elementary knowledge.  It wants to live its whole life at the foot of the cross, seeking with every passing day to understand it better.

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