The four authors, joined by Piper, Sproul, MacArthur, and Anyabwile, powerfully elaborate on the essence of pastoral ministry and the necessity of proclaiming a fully biblical theology.
About the Author
Mark Dever (PhD, Cambridge University) is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and president of 9Marks (9Marks.org). Dever has authored over a dozen books and speaks at conferences nationwide.
Ligon Duncan (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the chancellor & CEO and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously served as the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, for seventeen years. He is a cofounder of Together for the Gospel, a senior fellow of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and was the president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals from 2004-2012. Duncan has edited, written, or contributed to numerous books. Ligon and his wife, Anne, have two children and live in Jackson, Mississippi.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.(PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as the ninth president and the Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology of Southern Seminary. Considered a leader among American evangelicals byTimeandChristianity Todaymagazines,Dr. Mohler hosts two programs: The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview, and Thinking in Public, a series of conversations with today’s leading thinkers. He also writes a popular blog and a regular commentary on moral, cultural, and theological issues.
C. J. Mahaney is the senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. He has written, edited and contributed to numerous books, including Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology; Don't Waste Your Sports; and Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God. C. J. and his wife, Carolyn, are the parents of three married daughters and one son, and the happy grandparents to twelve grandchildren.
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.organd the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God;Don’t Waste Your Life;This Momentary Marriage;A Peculiar Glory;andReading the Bible Supernaturally.
R. C. Sproul (1939–2017) was founder of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian discipleship organization located near Orlando, Florida. He was also founding pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor ofTabletalk magazine. His radio program, Renewing Your Mind, is still broadcast daily on hundreds of radio stations around the world and can also be heard online. Sproul contributed dozens of articles to national evangelical publications, spoke at conferences, churches, colleges, and seminaries around the world, and wrote more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of God, Chosen by God, and Everyone’s a Theologian. He also served as general editor of the Reformation Study Bible.
John MacArthuris thepastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, where he has served since 1969. He is known around the world for his verse-by-verse expository preaching and his pulpit ministry via his daily radio program, Grace to You.He has also written or edited nearly four hundred books and study guides. MacArthur serves as the president of the Master's Seminary and Master's University. He and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California and have four grown children.
Thabiti M. Anyabwile (MS, North Carolina State University) serves as a pastor at Anacostia River Church in Washington, DC, and is the author of numerous books. He serves as a council member of the Gospel Coalition, is a lead writer for 9Marks Ministries, and regularly blogs at The Front Porch and Pure Church. He and his wife, Kristie, have three children.
Read an Excerpt
SOUND DOCTRINE: ESSENTIAL TO FAITHFUL PASTORAL MINISTRY
A Joyful Defense and Declaration of the Necessity and Practicality of Systematic Theology for the Life and Ministry of the Church
J. Ligon Duncan III
We live and minister in an anti-doctrinal age or, at least, an age that thinks it's anti-doctrinal. We live and minister in an age that is anti-theological, or at least it claims to be anti-theological. By that, I mean that it is now the zeitgeist to claim to be suspicious of doctrine, doctrinal systems, and systematic theology all the while holding to one's own cherished doctrines and system emphatically, if unwittingly and inchoately. But this spirit of our age gets us started down the wrong track in discussing doctrine and the Christian life, and systematic theology and ministry. This outlook gets us into a debate about whether we ought to be doctrinal in our ministry, or whether we ought to be less confident in our doctrine, or whether we ought to be more biblical and less doctrinal, or whether we ought to be more "narratival" or "storied" and less didactic and systematic.
Why Dubiety of Doctrine Doesn't Work
There are at least three problems with starting the discussion this way. It misdiagnoses our culture, our problem, and the relation of Scripture to theology. First, it assumes that our culture is non- or anti-doctrinal. It isn't. It just thinks it is. You will find its vehement doctrines hidden in its ethics and narratives. Touch its ethics, and you will find how very quickly it will get doctrinal (try this out on a "non-doctrinal" member of NARAL, and then see how quickly the doctrine of "a woman's right to choose" comes up). Second, it locates our problem in the very concepts of doctrine and systematic theology, as if one could be doctrine-less or system-less. You can't. Everyone has doctrine and everyone has a system, especially those who howl most loudly that they don't and that they don't like propositions and systems. Third, it assumes that you can choose to approach the Scripture in a way that is exegetical and nondoctrinal, or narratival and non-systematic. You can't. Scripture itself explicitly asserts theological propositions and necessarily entails doctrinal formulation and systematic theology. So to even start the discussion of doctrine and pastoral ministry in a "postmodern" way is mostly unhelpful.
Instead, we need to look to the Scriptures to learn how doctrine informs, is necessary to, and is essential for faithful pastoral ministry if we are going to respond effectively to the anti-doctrinal, anti-theological spirit of the age in our gospel proclamation, and if we are going to edify the church with the meat of the Word. We need to understand the objections of our time, to be sure. We need to understand the doctrinal shortcomings of the past and present, yes. We need to hear the doubts of the postmoderns and understand them, but then we need to give a better diagnosis and prescription than they themselves have offered.
A Threefold Discussion
For the sake of clarity, allow me to tell you ahead of time what I want to argue in this chapter. First, I want to argue that the very ideas of doctrine, theology, and systematic theology are under great duress in our time. There are many people (even people who call themselves evangelical) who call into question the legitimacy of the whole project of systematic theology, who are dubious about the importance and nature of theology and wonder about the usefulness of doctrine in the life of the church. As faithful Bible-believing Christians and shepherds, we need to resist to the death falling under the influence of this mind-set. It is soul-killing and ministry-killing.
Yes, some are saying we need to meet postmodernism by embracing postmodern vagueness and uncertainty, but I want to suggest to you that, instead, we need to meet this mood, this trend, by celebrating truth, doctrine, and systematic theology. I want to suggest that your preaching needs to be both deliberately expositional and profoundly theological (John Piper and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones provide two very different but equally helpful examples of this). I want to urge you to be joyfully and emphatically doctrinal and theological in your faith, life, and ministry.
Second, I want to show you from Scripture that systematic theology is necessary, important, and, in fact, unavoidable. This is significant because many believe that systematic theology (in addition to being an unbiblical, philosophical exercise) is unnecessary and unimportant and ought to be avoided at all costs. I want to convince you that everyone is a systematic theologian (whether they admit it or not — especially those who protest most loudly that they don't believe in systematic theology). The only question is whether we will be biblical in our systematic theology or make it up as we go along. And I want you to see the value of systematic theology. I want you to see that your life is an extension of your systematic theology and doctrine. You are what you believe. If your life does not adorn your biblical doctrine, it suggests not that the Bible's doctrine is untrue but that at some profound level, that truth has not taken hold of you yet. It ought to be our aim to out-live, out-rejoice, and out-die the critics of theology and doctrine — to adorn our doctrine with our lives.
Third, I want to identify in the Bible some things that systematic theology (in general) and doctrine (in particular) are important for. The Bible itself, in the Old Testament and the New, makes clear that doctrine is for living. The study of doctrine is not (or at least ought not to be) an arid, speculative, impractical enterprise. Doctrine is for life! If the truth does not mold the way we live and minister, if it does not inform our speech, our relationships, our prayer, our worship, and our ministry, then the truth has gone bad on us — no matter how true the truth is. Biblical truth is meant to be expressed in our experience and practice, if we truly understand and believe it.
So, that's it. That's all I want to do in this chapter: (1) to alert you to an unhealthy contemporary attitude — doctrine, theology, and systematic theology are under great suspicion in the church today; (2) to demonstrate from the Bible that systematic theology is a biblical discipline (not an alien philosophical imposition on the Bible), and that doctrine and theology are important; and (3) to look at some specific biblical examples of what doctrine is important for.
1) Doctrine under Duress
We begin, then, with the attitude that has brought the concepts and legitimacy of doctrine, theology, and systematic theology (ST) under great duress in our own time.
The very ideas of theological propositions, doctrine, and especially systematic theology, are held in great suspicion today, even in the church. We hear even evangelicals around us saying things like "Christianity is a life, not a doctrine" (perhaps not knowing that it was nineteenth-century liberals who coined that phrase). By the way, you should read J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism in which he gives an impressive biblical rejoinder to that assertion. It is one of ten books that every Protestant minister or ministerial candidate ought to read.
People versus Truth
Meanwhile, others are telling us that we need to care less about our theology and more about people. I still remember a professor of mine telling me years ago, "People are more important than truth," which is itself, by the way, a proposition or truth claim. He was responding to the kind of impetuous theological gun-slinging mode of some seminarians who upon commencement are ready to divebomb an unsuspecting local congregation with biblical truth. But the biblical correction to the pastoral problem he was addressing is never, ever to diminish the importance of truth or teaching or doctrine but to know what truth is for.
God in his love gives his truth to us for our well-being. God's truth serves not only the interests of his own glory but also his people's good. Truth is for our everlasting joy in God. Furthermore, truth worked deep down into the heart and soul and bones of a preacher and then worked out in his relationships makes him tender and humble in his dealing with the sheep and in proclaiming and explaining the Word. So, though my professor's counsel was well-meaning and prompted by a genuine and legitimate pastoral concern, it was utterly wrongheaded.
Deeds over Creeds
We hear today the motto "Deeds, not creeds." The trouble is, we are hearing that not from Unitarian universalists (who invented the slogan, as far as I can tell), but from major evangelical leaders and from seminarians and from people in the pews of ostensibly evangelical churches. It's in the air. The mood the motto represents gets expressed in various ways: "Let's stop debating the faith and start living it." "Let's stop discussing theology and start doing it." Indeed, the hidden assumption behind these assertions is that understanding the truth is unrelated (and perhaps a positive hindrance) to the practice of the truth.
Person, Not Propositions
Listen to folks talk or lurk a bit on the Internet and you'll encounter an allergy to truth expressed in propositional form. Some express this with statements like "Christianity is a person, not a proposition" (the irony of this, again, is that it's a propositional statement); "Belief in absolute, universal truth is a modernist point of view and inherently rationalistic"; "Truth is personal and relational and takes place only in community"; and "Rational and propositional argumentation water down the gospel."
Systematic Theology Is Rationalist/Modernist
Much closer to home you will find a prejudice against doctrinal systems or the very project of systematic theology. Sometimes this is done by directly challenging the legitimacy of systematic theology: "Systematic theology is just proof-texting" or "Systematic theology is embellishing and harmonizing what the Bible says and then claiming that the Bible teaches our embellishment or harmonization." Sometimes systematic theology is challenged by criticizing the way it has been done in the past and because of the philosophical influences upon systematic theologians: "The Princetonians' ST was, unbeknownst to them, influenced and compromised by enlightenment rationalism and foundationalism due to Scottish commonsense realism." I chuckle when I hear people today who are themselves urging us to embrace "postmodernism," whatever that is, indignantly dismissing the Princetonians because of their "modernism."
Biblical Theology instead of Systematic Theology
In the meantime one also encounters a suspicion of ST from those who prefer "biblical theology," by which they generally mean a redemptive-historical approach to the Scriptures rather than a synthetic, topical approach. This critique has its slogans too: "ST is unbiblical. We need a theology that's more sensitive to narrative"; "God didn't give us a doctrinal system. He told us stories"; "We need more exegesis and less theology"; and "ST squeezes the biblical text into an alien framework and makes it answer questions that it was not written to answer."
Just so you don't think I'm crying wolf, let me give you just a few examples of these tendencies.
DOING, NOT DEBATING
You'll not be surprised to hear a Unitarian universalist minister say, "Religious liberals put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds. We appreciate the biblical text, 'Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.'" But when a major evangelical figure who is otherwise orthodox says, "We need a reformation not of creeds but of deeds, so it's time to stop debating the Bible and start doing it," you know that something is in the water.
The Saturday before T4G convened in Louisville in 2008, a major daily newspaper carried a religion article by a respected Jewish rabbi entitled, "The Dangers of Theology: Jews Focus More on Deed than Creed." Here's a taste (because it so well catches the current mood): "Theology. What a tricky thing. A devious thing, sometimes. A dangerous thing, often. Perhaps that is why Jews focus so much on deed and not creed, on doing rather than believing. It doesn't mean that Jews don't have faith; our faith is found in our actions." At least three things need to be said about this quote.
(1) There is nothing unique to Judaism about this outlook; you find it everywhere in classically liberal theological circles. A liberal Catholic or Protestant — Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Congregationalist — could have said it. A wise, old, conservative Jewish professor of mine once told us with a twinkle in his eye, "A liberal Protestant, a liberal Catholic, and a liberal Jew can agree on almost everything, because they believe almost nothing!"
(2) What is interesting about the quote, the article, and the viewpoint is that we can find affinity for them within quadrants of evangelicalism, and not only in the more leftward leaning emergent circles.
(3) Even after eschewing theology and theologizing, the good rabbi cannot avoid doing it. Indeed, she goes on to say, "I officiated at a funeral on Sunday .. .[and] the family wanted me to speak about why bad things happen to good people. In other words, what is the cause of evil?" The rest of the article is about how she tried to answer that question, and do you know what that required her to do? That's right: theology! What do you think was the very next word she wrote? Again you are right: "Theology." Here's what she went on to say: "Theology. How does a Jew respond to theology? It is a tough question, because there is no 'theology' in Judaism; there are only multiple theologies. Who is to say which one is right and which one is wrong? In fact, who is to say that they can't all be right at the same time?"
I cannot resist pointing out that saying that there is no theology but rather multiple theologies in Judaism is itself a definite, debatable theological assertion. The minute you've said it, even if you think you've just dissed theology, you've in fact engaged in it, albeit poorly. Here's how she goes about tackling the issue of "why bad things happen to good people":
So what do Jewish theologies say about the problem of evil? (Besides the fact that it is a problem?) Nothing satisfactory.... I tend to borrow a little from one philosopher here and another one there, as I build my own "recipe" for theology. Jews are allowed to do this, as long as we stay within particular theological boundaries — strict monotheism being one of them, the idea that the Messiah has not yet come being the other.
THE SELF-CONTRADICTIVE CRITIQUE
The confusions and contradictions here leave my head spinning. Seventeen simultaneous thoughts explode in my mind, but let me share just three of them. First, having previously asserted an utter theological relativism, the rabbi now admits two unquestionable and essential theological propositions without the slightest attempt to justify them on her own terms (and without the least sense of embarrassment).
Second, it apparently does not cross her mind that her admission of the existence of absolute theological boundary markers in her community and even her own ad-libbed attempt to answer the grieving family's question jointly call into question the very point she is making in the article.
Third, reading this reminded me of the story that Mark Dever tells in his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, in the second chapter on biblical theology. Mark was leading a seminar at an evangelical seminary, and after he had given a scriptural exposition of the doctrine of God, a classmate, Bill, objected and said that he likes to think of God rather differently. Mark writes, "For several minutes, Bill painted a picture for us of a very friendly deity. He liked to think of God as being wise, but not meddling; compassionate, but never overpowering; ever so resourceful, but never interrupting. 'This,' Bill said in conclusion, 'is how I like to think of God.'" Then Mark replied, "Thank you, Bill, for telling us so much about yourself, but we are concerned to know what God is really like, not simply about our own desires." However, I digress.
What's Behind the Allergy?
It would be very easy for us to pillory and caricature what Rabbi Cohen wrote, but we ought first to read her argument sympathetically and attempt to understand why Cohen and so many other modern Jews (not to mention deconstructionists, in general) feel this way about theology. It is, at least in part, because they have seen bad theology kill. They understand that truth, or at least what is purported to be truth, can kill. And so they have gone the route of rejecting and relativizing truth. They have made the very understandable maneuver of reducing theology to the level of opinion in order to render it benign. Six million Jews lost their lives in Germany to the Nazis' bad theology. We could say the same of Stalin's and Mao's victims. And, on a different level, we can think of the discrimination and alienation that American Jews have experienced in our own culture.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology"
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Table of Contents
1 Sound Doctrine: Essential to Faithful Pastoral Ministry A Joyful Defense and Declaration of the Necessity and Practicality of Systematic Theology for the Life and Ministry of the Church J. Ligon Duncan III,
2 Bearing the Image Thabiti Anyabwile,
3 The Sinner Neither Willing nor Able John MacArthur,
4 Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology (or) Questioning Five Common Deceits Mark Dever,
Addendum: What Is the Gospel? Greg Gilbert,
5 The Curse Motif of the Atonement R. C. Sproul,
6 Why They Hate It So: The Denial of Substitutionary Atonement in Recent Theology R. Albert Mohler Jr.,
7 How Does the Supremacy of Christ Create Radical Christian Sacrifice? A Mediation on the Book of Hebrews John Piper,
8 Sustaining the Pastor's Soul C. J. Mahaney,