Friday, August 7, 2009

Theological Systems, Fellowship & Cordiality

This evening I finished reading chapter three, "Two Evangelical Systems of Biblical Theology," in Larry Helyer's The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology (courtesy of IVP Academic). I recommend this chapter to those interested in an up-to-date, well-documented introduction, comparison, critique and evaluation of the two primary, Evangelical theological systems: Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology. For me, reading this chapter in a book on Biblical Theology rather than Eschatology makes the consideration of this subject far more interesting. I say this because every book on eschatology that I have read has been necessarily rooted in a particular theological system. Helyer has the advantage here of attempting to be as objective as possible. (Obviously, pure objectivity is an impossibility. However, Helyer does a fine job of weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each system.)

In this chapter, Helyer presents the history of the development of each system (beginning with Covenant Theology, the older of the two), compares and contrasts the two systems showing how debate and dialogue has benefited both, and concludes by critiquing the two systems suggesting a mediating approach.

Here is an outline of the chapter:
  • History of Covenant Theology
  • Distinctives of Covenant Theology
  • Contemporary Covenant Theology
  • Classical (Traditional) Dispensationalism: Its History
  • Distinctives of Classical (Traditional) Dispensationalism
  • Revised Dispensationalism
  • Progressive Dispensationalism (1970s-Present)
  • A Comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism
  • An Evaluation and Critique of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism
The chapter concludes with questions for further discussion and an excellent bibliography for further reading.

Here are a few statements that caught my attention:

Calvin's fundamentally structured not around the concept of covenant, but rather the Trinity. Covenant theology, or "federal theology," as it is sometimes called, is really a post-Calvin development. (Helyer's footnote here acknowledges that "some covenant theologians would take strong exception to this statement.") (p. 85)

This is a reminder that theology is never done in a vacuum. Ideas 'in the air' often find their way into theological discussion and systems. Consequently, biblical theologians must be vigilant lest alien ideas force biblical teaching into a straitjacket. (p. 88)

Within covenant theology there are at least three different eschatological stances, each of which is compatible with the overarching framework of covenant theology. (p. 91)

Dispensationalism is exclusively premillennial as dictated by its mode of biblical interpretation for prophecy and the dictum that Israel and the church are utterly distinct. (p. 108)

Robert Saucy correctly notes that one of the major factors in the modification of both systems has been the discipline of biblical theology. The way forward entails a better job of hearing the original authors and seeking to explicate their theological understandings, not imposing our own theological categories and schemes. Both systems have been guilty to some degree of doing precisely that. Surely this highlights the importance of becoming proficient in biblical theology and the prospect of more agreement among evangelicals in the future. There is, of course, no guarantee of unanimity--that remains for the new Jerusalem! (p. 113)

My misgivings about both classical systems arise from the conviction that neither produces a completely satisfactory biblical theology. (p. 113)
I love the sentiment of this last statement, but it seems to imply that systematic theology could ever produce a biblical theology. Isn't this anachronistic? Rather, and this is Helyer's point, a sound biblical theology will produce a greater balance within or between the systems.

Finally, Helyer concludes that for all the progress made between the two systems,

The real sticking point centers on the future of ethnic Israel. How one answers that question, however, should neither be accorded the status of a cardinal doctrine nor determine fellowship and cordiality. Both sides need to be less dogmatic about what God's future for the Jewish people might be. Dialogue must continue on this important issue. We still 'see in a mirror, dimly' (1 Cor 13:12). (p. 117)
What a vision!

Author Bio - For twenty nine years Larry R. Helyer was professor of biblical studies at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. Now retired, he continues to write on theological topics and serve as an adjunct professor in the United States and abroad. He is the author of Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period.