Gospel Theology – Moving beyond Systematics

gospel-theology.gif There is often something quite arrogant about Calvinists.  I think many people gag against the 'know-it-all-ism' that exudes from these (often) academic theologians who seem to have God in a nice neat little box.  Personally, I often warn people of the dangers of reformed theology, because like a kid with a new sword they end up hurting more Christians swinging this new sharp blade without any skill.  In many circles, this season can last a lifetime before their reformed theology truly helps them worship God for the grace that was shown them, accept their new identity, be transformed by the gospel and sent on mission.  I believe a major stumbling block in diving into reformed theology is that it typically begins with systematic theology.

The danger is systematics are a normative expression of theology.  That is, it is true but often misses how we should absorb the information.  For example, it is true to say, "God elects" but this defines God, we are the benefactor of God's grace which changes us in many ways.  This is the challenge, systematics usually leave out the full gospel picture of how this God's grace works it's way out in our life. This is what Francis Schaeffer saw as the great spiritual crisis in his book True Spirituality.  Schaeffer saw that many people who claimed to uphold orthodox theology had very little true spirituality.  Schaeffer realized he too, although he had the doctrines down, lacked spiritual transformation.  For all his knowledge, Schaeffer began to see true spirituality is not just a matter of the mind, but a matter of the heart.

This is where I found a great chart in the GCA Church Manual from Steven Childers.  In this chart, The Radical Grace of God in the Gospel: The Whole Gospel for the Whole Person! (pdf) Childers outlines systematic 'precepts' in a more complete gospel picture.  I'd encourage you to download it and check it out.  Here is one example:

The Predicament

The Problem

The Provision

The Promise

The Precept

The Picture

Alienation: You Were Alienated

Shame, Alienation

Christ was Alienated

You Are Chosen


A New Security

It is in this type of presentation, theology goes beyond systematics.  A whole gospel picture begins to emerge as we begin to talk about things like election and justification.  Rather than jumping into TULIP, a conversation that deals with the predicament, problem, provision, promise, precept and new picture would provide the listener a greater understanding of who God is, how He works and His great love and grace.  This is the grand story that people can see through redemptive history as told in the Bible.

  • sacred vapor

    February 7, 2007, 7:25 pm

    would you say that a narrative approach is more in-line with how Jesus, and hence the early followers portrayed the Gospel? I do, and I always wonder why I don’t see it in reformed circles as much.


  • D. Goodmanson

    February 7, 2007, 8:24 pm

    I’d say that you need to look at the gospel normative/situational/existential aspect of all text in a redemptive historical view. I think doing this in a narrative format is helpful for people to see the both the particular theological doctrine and how it fits into the grand narrative of the Bible.

  • Rick

    February 10, 2007, 8:56 pm

    diachronically – as I believe Keller described it at R&R last year. looking at the gospel through a, as you call it, “redemptive historical view.”

  • iCalvinist

    February 11, 2007, 11:57 pm

    Good blog! I come from that Reformed tradition, but I couldn’t agree more. Systematic Theology, although helpful, is not organic to scripture (there is no book of systematics in the bible). I am a strong proponent of Biblical Theology which takes a more “Emmaus Road” approach (finding organic connections)to theology, seeing every text in its Redemptive Historical context.
    I had a question that I sent to John Frame (RTS) awhile ago about the relation of BT over ST (Systematic Theol.) in preaching. I was troubled by a recent over-emphasis on a particular form of Systematics in Preaching (an abstract Lutheran Law/Gospel imposition in preaching) at the Seminary he used to teach at (WTSC). He gave an unexpected answer which relates to what you mentioned about the way we “absorb information.”

    Here was his response….
    “I like BT preaching very much. But I cannot impose that model (or any other, including law/gospel) as law (!). The only NT reference to preaching-teaching in the context of a worship service is 1 Cor. 14:26, which refers to a ‚Äúlesson‚Äù (didache). ‚ÄúPreaching,‚Äù with all the heralding theology behind it, is not done in Christian worship services, but in synagogues and marketplaces. It is distinctly evangelistic. But a ‚Äúlesson,‚Äù in my judgment, can be almost anything biblical. It‚Äôs a very vague, open term. I suppose it could be a biblico-theological ‚Äúpreaching of Christ,‚Äù or a law/gospel exhortation, or any number of other things. It can be governed by BT, or ST, or just verse-by-verse exegesis. The important thing is that it should be clear, biblical, and interesting.”

    I believe most Calvinist are arrogant because they view knowledge in a static way. They dig up old answers that answered a particular culture’s questions in a biblical way, MEMORIZE it, and assume they have the answer to ALL modern questions. It’s simply impossible for any one culture to ask all the questions of Scripture there are, the gospel must be contextualized, this is the job of the church. The old Calvinist motto “semper reformanda” has gone by the wayside, Reformed yet always “reforming.” John Frame is a Calvinist, an uber-nerd academic, yet no one (friend or foe) would ever accuse him of arrogance. He was the one who taught me Systematics yet he also taught me the limits of academics divorced from real world use in the church (especially in Church planting). Here’s a great article he wrote on this topic. http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1978Proposal.htm
    Part of the problem is that Churches entrust theological training to academia, so why are we surprised it produces academics? Conversely the Seminaries entrust pragmatics to churches, why are they surprised when seminarians have difficulty going beyond systematics? We need more churches committed to instilling systematics married to church life.
    (Sorry Drew, please don’t ban me! Like David I tend to be long winded.)

  • Jonathan

    February 12, 2007, 11:24 am

    I’m a little confused: what’s the difference between “Biblical Theology” and “Systematic Theology”. Is it a question of topical preaching compared to expository preaching? And which do you stand on as the most effective or Godly teaching from God’s Word? Please give insight….


  • D. Goodmanson

    February 12, 2007, 1:26 pm


    Biblical Theology is a discipline within Christian theology which studies the Bible from the perspective of understanding the progressive history of God revealing himself to Man following the Fall and throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. It particularly focuses on the epochs of the Old Testament in order to understand how each part of it ultimately points forward to fulfillment in the life mission of Jesus Christ.

    Systematic Theology is the branch of theology which deals with the logical categorization of Biblical truths by tracing the self-revelation of God through the Scriptures as a whole and then carefully organized by doctrine. It answers the question, “What does the whole counsel of Scripture teach us about any given topic?”

    More reading on this: http://www.beginningwithmoses.org/articles/systematicandbiblical.htm

  • cavman

    February 15, 2007, 5:31 pm

    So, would it be safe to say that you think the real problem is not Reformed Theology, but Reformed Theology in the hands of sinners?
    Isn’t that true of any theological perspective?
    I guess I’d think you’d warn people against abusing it, instead of warning people against something you actually seem to hold to.

    I agree we need to utilize BT more, in part to take in the breadth and depth of Scripture, as well as to remember the Bible is theology in (hi)story, not just a collection of sayings or doctrinal propositions.

  • D. Goodmanson

    February 15, 2007, 5:45 pm

    No, I’m saying the real problem is how we develop people’s theological perspective. Often we start with systematics rather than providing a Biblical theology first and following up with teaching systematics while on mission. Certainly the more some grows in wisdom, the more you can teach systematics because they already have an integration point.

  • cavman

    February 15, 2007, 7:20 pm

    Oh, distracted by my daughter, I forgot to mention how Richard Pratt would remind us that we need both BT & ST. They are like 2 blades of the scissors (my illustration). Apart from the other, one becomes useless but dangerous. But BT & ST should inform and balance one another.

  • D. Goodmanson

    February 15, 2007, 8:28 pm

    Agreed, I hope my post isn’t coming across like we shouldn’t love/use systematic theology. It is more that we fit the systematics into the BT framework (and further our understanding of BT throught ST). I’ve seen too many ST-only people become TR missing the thrust of God’s redemptive plan.

  • cavman

    February 17, 2007, 1:18 pm

    Well, the intro came across that way to me.

    Sadly, there are plenty of TRs to give us bad names 🙂

    Some guys are afraid of BT, since it isn’t neat & tidy.

  • D. Goodmanson

    February 17, 2007, 6:24 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, I probably should be more clear. As I’ve thought about this it isn’t so much BT or ST but Applied Theology that I’m speaking about.

  • Mike

    April 1, 2007, 6:23 pm

    I have seen too many Arminians trade the revealed truth in the Bible for unbiblical humanism. Worst still, accuse Reformed theology of saying that God is the source of all evil. Why would one expect a Calvinist not to pull out all the stops when the very nature of God is attacked in debate?

    Rather than justifying evil here, I would like to use this to expose problems on both sides. Too many people try to score points. Calvinists are just forced to do it much more often in conversations.

    Now let’s consider what happens if Calvinism was in the majority. You would hear the same thing said about Arminians being arrogant/proud. History backs this assertion up. When 95% of Protestants were Reformed, this happened. I have read enough Puritans to know and disapprove.

    Furthermore, it is not a Calvinist/Arminian issue. It is a Christian Charity and “a Christ and Him Crucified” issue. All theology is circular. It cannot help but to lead back to the cross. This is really the only way people should learn it. Is this what you mean by applied theology??? I seem to agree with iCalvinist on the problem with academics. Spurgeon taught Calvinism with just as much force as everyone else. Yet, no one would fault him with being uncharitable or with a dead ministry.

    Next, I don’t think it is a BT or ST split. I think TULIP is a horrible teaching tool in ST. TULIP requires the ideas about God’s sovereignty and regeneration to be prexistant. Otherwise, it makes no sense. BT also tends to be more christ-centric.