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“So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds . . . for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated” ~ G. K. Chesterton

Introduction
As of late, I have been intrigued by the renewed interest in Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval. In this post, then, I’d like to (1) define these terms and then (2) share with you why I appreciate, support, and adopt dogmatics and theological retrieval as my method for doing theology and carrying out my work as a preacher and teacher of God’s Word.

Christian Dogmatics
The late theologian John Webster (1955–2016) laid out three different approaches to the discipline of theology—Christian doctrine, systematic theology, and dogmatics. According to Webster, Christian doctrine is a general term, describing an investigation into what Christianity teaches while making no judgments on its stated beliefs and morals.

Systematic theology, by contrast, is a comprehensive study involving normative judgments regarding not only what the Bible teaches on every major doctrine but of the whole of reality[1]: “All things are considered in the light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point.”[2]

Christian dogmatics differs from the above approaches by narrowing its focus to the exposition of the public, official, and authoritative pronouncements made by an official church body.[3] This mode of doing theology does not employ the term dogma in the same manner as the Roman Catholic Church, where it can refer to teachings not derived from the Bible. Rather, the Protestant deployment of the term envisions a summary or comprehensive statement of beliefs handed down from a competent church body based upon the teachings of Holy Scripture.[4]

Theological Retrieval
Humbly taking its seat in the classroom of the saints, theological retrieval is marked by a deference to the creedal tradition of the church, along with an embrace of the values and interpretive instincts of the patristic fathers, medieval doctors, and luminaries of the Protestant Reformation.[5]

With these thoughts in place, here are my reasons for embracing and practicing dogmatics and theological retrieval.

Why I Love Christian Dogmatics and Theological Retrieval
Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval unashamedly operate out of a Trinitarian worldview and a posture of Biblical faith. Since the modern period, conservative theologians have devoted their energies to defending the authority of Scripture and demonstrating the rationality of the Christian faith. While helpful in many ways, these efforts typically operate according to a specific understanding of human rationality known as foundationalism, which treats unaided human reason as an independent source and norm of Christian theology.[6] In my judgment, this construal of the human person and his or her cognitive abilities neglects to account for the effects of the fall on the human intellect as depicted in Romans 1:18–32 and 1 Corinthians 2:14, and is therefore not sufficiently chastened by God’s self-revelation.

Without discounting the role apologetics play in articulating and defending the Christian worldview, Christian dogmatics encourages theologians to presuppose the veracity of the Bible and enthusiastically ransack the premodern sources of theology. John Webster called this “theological theology.”[7] This is theology with muscle and grit, unapologetic about Scripture’s contents, unashamed of churchly grammar and ecclesial methods of reasoning.[8]

Since this dogmatic approach cleaves to the witness of the prophets and apostles, it is consequently unwilling to cede authority to the methods and procedures adopted by those hostile to, or suspicious of, the biblical text. Additionally, because its proponents embrace sacred Scripture and the creedal deliverances of the undivided church as their point of departure for all matters under consideration, they refuse to adopt a “naturalist metaphysics of inquiry”[9]—that is, they do not adopt a non-biblical, non-Trinitarian way of viewing the world even while they engage with those who hold different views.[10] After all, why would we? Those who repudiate our faith and worldview neither determine our first principles nor dictate what we are allowed to confess concerning God and all things in relation to him.

This leads me to my next point.

Operating out of a Trinitarian worldview and a posture of biblical faith entails reading the Bible from within the conceptual framework provided by the inspired authors. At least part of the reason conservative theologians assumed a defensive stance in their theological work was due to the rise of the historical-critical method. This approach to biblical studies begins with a posture of doubt and harbors an anti-supernaturalistic bias. In his rather clinical study of the topic, Edgar Krentz describes this method as “secular,” a “child of the Enlightenment,” and “modeled on experimental science.”[11] This kind of methodological naturalism precludes one from reading the Bible on its own terms.

Given the hostile environment in which conservatives did their work, they felt the need to meet their theological opponents on their own turf and show that the Bible could withstand intense scrutiny. Despite their valiant efforts, their foes still found the Bible wanting.

But if we back up just a minute, it is no wonder conservatives and liberals came to different conclusions regarding the authority of the Bible and the truthfulness of the events it records since their disagreements are at the presuppositional level.[12]

Liberal theologian Paul E. Capetz, for example, argues that employing the historical-critical method is central to undermining classical Christianity. Why? He answers: “[O]nly a fully historicized[13] approach both to the biblical authors and exegetes of the Bible allows us to raise the question of ideological biases reflecting their social and cultural locations.” Denying the truthfulness of Scripture, Capetz continues, allows readers to regard it as “a human document subject to all the possibilities of ideological distortion we detect in other ancient texts.”[14]

So there you have it. According to Capetz, reading the Bible on its own terms precludes one from raising “the question of ideological biases,” which is what Capetz and his ilk want to do. But note: The presuppositions that govern Capetz’s approach to the Bible are not shared by the biblical writers and therefore should not determine how evangelicals read the Bible.[15]

A Nonmanipulative Reading and Heeding of God’s Word
A biblically robust methodology entails approaching the Bible as created yet fallen and dependent beings. This means we are not permitted to reason from our presuppositions to the Bible. Why? Because when it comes to Holy Scripture fallen human reason is not directive, but directed.[16] Insofar as dogmatics is learning how to think and speak well of God, it is not free speech.[17] Dogmatics is thought and speech disciplined, chastened, and restrained by the Word of God and the Great Tradition. Doing this well involves intellectual and moral repentance, having our false presuppositions eviscerated, recalibrated, and properly catechized.

Intellectual and moral contrition are necessary in order to expunge unworthy and idolatrous thoughts of God. By nature we do not bow in humble submission and heartfelt thanks to God’s glorious and gracious self-disclosure, but opt for the prison of our self-constructed definitions of the good life, preferring self over the sinless Savior who, through his substitutionary life and death, has claimed us as his own. Living in perceptional darkness, we unwittingly choose self-destruction rather than self-denial, viewing any encroachment on our freedom as a summons to death, rather than the pathway to liberation. Our inward erosion ensures that we not only fail to have the right answers, but that we are often not even posing the right questions. Such is our blindness that, believing we see, we are unable to see: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains,” Jesus declared (Jn. 9:41).

Seeing well requires a new heart (Ezek. 36:25–27; cf. Deut. 30:6)—a transplant that we cannot bring about on our own, but is a consequence of the unilateral work of God whereby he overthrows our innate opposition to his kingly reign. As created, sustained, and redeemed image-bearers, then, the proper way to approach God is as listeners: “One of the great dangers we face in doing theology is our desire to do all the talking.”[18]

Given that God communicates with a view to communing with his creatures, and that the mission of his Son was to rescue and create a new humanity, we can safely conclude that the company of the redeemed is a company of readers (Eph. 2:19; 3:6). God calls his sanctified people to sit before him and ponder his sacred oracles (Ps. 119). This requires slow, quiet, attentive, and communal reading.

Reading the Bible with the Church
Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval adopts a ruled reading of Scripture. Merging together the corporate dimension to God’s revelation with the Son’s mission to rescue a people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9), means that he did not intend for us to meditate on his Word all by our lonesome. The Word of God creates the church. The people of God receive the Word and read the Word together. The history of the church informs us that doing this well requires following certain protocols.

After the ascension of Christ and the death of the apostles, the early church formulated summaries of Scripture with the aim of instructing baptismal candidates in the rudiments of the faith. Grouping together passages like the Shema (Deut. 6:4–5), and the “Christological elaboration”[19] of the Shema (1 Cor. 8:6), along with highlighting the threefold name into which Christians are baptized (Matt. 28:18–20) and through whom they are blessed (2 Cor. 13:14), disciples are provided with the requisite framework—or “Rule of Faith”—to properly interpret the Bible.

Not only did this Rule assist in catechizing new believers, but it also served as a standard against which to measure heretical groups like the Gnostics, Arians, and Nestorians. Unsurprisingly, each of these sects appealed to the apostolic writings in order to support their theological conclusions. The church fathers Irenaeus (130–202), Tertullian (155–240), Basil of Caesarea (330–379), and Gregory of Nazianzen (329–390)—to list only a few—countered, however, by insisting that while they quoted the apostles and employed Christian language, they reinterpreted their meanings in ways out of accord with the apostolic tradition.[20]

The church fathers realized that heresy was a result of reading the Bible the wrong way. In light of this, their conflicts with either the Gnostics, Arians, or Nestorians were hermeneutical (that is, interpretive) debates. Due to the multiplicity of ways one might misread the Bible, the Rule of Faith provided a “road map” for how to properly read Scripture.[21] With only a few minor differences, the Rule of Faith mirrors the Apostles’ Creed. As a result of the work of the pro-Nicene theologians, however, this eventually expanded to the Nicene Creed.[22]

Why should you care about this?

In my conversations with Christians throughout the years, some have stated that all one needs to interpret Scripture rightly is a Bible and the Holy Spirit. However, since all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, doctrinal disputes are not resolved by simply regurgitating Bible verses. We have to assess hermeneutical approaches. We must determine doctrinal preunderstandings. We must uncover presuppositional lenses.[23]

The early church fathers said the Rule of Faith was to be a Christian’s presupposition and guide in theology.[24] With the Rule as our baseline, we can then move from Scriptural citation to dogmatic formulation more wisely and with an eye toward catholicity.

Conclusion
Christian dogmatics and theological retrieval operate out of a particular set of judgments. We receive the Bible as a gift from God, not merely an artifact of the ancient Near Eastern culture. We enlist the church’s creeds and confessions as a matter of first principle, elevating the church’s theological heritage, embracing its grammar, and affirming its judgments.

Since contemporary evangelicals often muddle the doctrine of God and conceptualize the person of Christ in unorthodox ways, sitting at the feet of those who have provided the church with its “linguistic-conceptual apparatus”[25] for these precious doctrines is its own reward.[26] In my view, the premodern sources of theology are a rich harvest waiting for evangelicals to both read and retrieve for our personal and communal lives.

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[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook on Systematic Theology, eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1; Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 81.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 29, cf. 474.

[3] Glenn R. Kreider and Michael J. Svigel, A Practical Primer on Theological Method: Table Manners for Discussing God, His Works, and His Ways (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 81, insist that these official pronouncements should be in accord with the undivided church.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 19.

[5] See further Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton: IL: Crossway, 2019), 71.

[6] Andrew Moore, “Reason,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, 396.

[7] John Webster, “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God: Essays on Christian Dogmatics II 2nd ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2016), 11–31.

[8] Language borrowed from Douglas Farrow, Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 172.

[9] Here I borrow another phrase from John Webster. On which see Michael Allen, “Toward Theological Theology: Tracing the Methodological Principles of John Webster,” Themelios 41:2 (2016): 217–237. See esp. 231.

[10] Lewis Ayers argues that pro-Nicene theology has a specific metaphysic, epistemology, and spirituality that brings with it a certain habitus. See his Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 244 et. al.

[11] Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1975), 48, 55, 58.

[12] For more on this line of thinking, I highly recommend reading Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Some Epistemological Reflections on 1 Cor 2:6–16,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 103–124.

[13] Historicism is a “restriction of reality to what can be demonstrated inside the closed continuum of cause and effect.” See Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method, 56n2.

[14] Paul E. Capetz, “Theology and the Historical-Critical Study of the Bible,” Harvard Theological Review 104:4 (2011): 469. For a helpful rebuttal to Capetz’s theological method, see Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy, Ch. 16, esp. 384–410, 414–424. Additionally, yes, I am aware that some evangelical theologians employ the historical-critical methods, albeit without adopting its presuppositions hook, line, and sinker. For a scholarly and nuanced treatment, see D. A. Carson, “Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool,” in Collected Writings on Scripture, comp. Andrew David Naselli (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), Ch. 4.

[15] See further Murray Rae, “Theological Interpretation and Historical Criticism,” in A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, eds. Craig C. Bartholomew and Heath A. Thomas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 94–109; John M. Frame, “Inerrancy: A Place to Live,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57:1 (2014): 29–39. See esp. 37.

[16] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 61.

[17] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 2.

[18] Lints, Fabric of Theology, 82.

[19] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 107.

[20] Bruce L. Shelley, By What Authority? The Standards of Truth in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 85–86.

[21] Paul Hartog, “The ‘Rule of Faith’ and Patristic Biblical Exegesis,” Trinity Journal 28:1 (Spring 2007): 65–86.

[22] R. R. Reno, “The Return of the Fathers,” First Things (November 2006): 17. Cf. Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy, 420.

[23] Rhyne R. Putman, When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 83.

[24] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1, Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 35, 36.

[25] Michael A. Wilkinson, “SBJT Forum,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 23:2 (2019): 152.

[26] On the Trinity, see Ayers, Nicaea and Its Legacy. On the person of Christ see Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016). To see the connection between classical Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, see Brian E. Daley, “‘One Thing and Another’: The Persons in God and the Person of Christ in Patristic Theology,” Pro Ecclesia 15 (2006): 17–46. For further development on the person of Christ, I highly recommend Dennis Michael Ferrara’s insightful article “‘Hypostatized in the Logos’: Leontius of Byzantium, Leontius of Jerusalem, and the Unfinished Business of the Council of Chalcedon,” Louvain Studies 22:4 (1997): 312–327.