Historical Theology, An Introduction To Christian Doctrine

A number of years ago, we reviewed Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, by Wayne Grudem. Here are some comments that were included in the review. “This systematic theology follows a period of drought on the subject… while good theology must reflect a biblical faithfulness and a historic perspective regarding what has done before us, we must use our theology disciplines to communicate God’s truth to our generation. The author has done just that.” We pointed out thatthe book reflects his intentional faithfulness to Scripture and historic theology but expressed with a contemporary freshness that models for us how to communicate biblically reformed theology today. I have referred to it many times since its publication in 1994.

Gregg R. Allison has written a companion to Grudem’s systematics. Allison deals with the formulation and development of 32 major doctrines of the Christian faith. Grudem in his forward best describes the book, “Every chapter provides a fascinating story that is hard to put down because it shows how God has worked in Christians’ lives over the centuries to allow one heresy after another to challenge the church, then to raise up courageous, wise teachers and writers to respond to the wrong teaching with a new and deeper understanding, resulting in even stronger faith in God and his Word.” He then reminds us of two mistakes that are often made regarding church history. One is to ignore it and another is to idolize it.

In my own schedule I try to regularly read church history. It is the story of how God has lead the church over the centuries to both understand and apply biblical truth and the mistakes, errors, and heresies that have arisen because of the lack of understanding. Often we forget that while God’s special revelation has ceased with the last verse of Revelation, God has continued to work in the life of his creation and redemptive community to accomplish his purpose.

We are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus that because of lack of doctrinal knowledge and understanding, people can be and are tossed about by every wind of doctrine. And if the church needs to come to grips with biblical truth, today is that day when almost anything is acceptable.

As reflected in the table of contents, and as stated by the author, “unlike the vast majority of other historical theology and church history books, which are organized chronologically, my book is organized topically.” At least first it is a topical arrangement and then chronological, as much as is possible. My contention and experience as a pastor and Christian educator, one of the best ways to teach our people good sound doctrine is to help them understand how and why this or that is a “major” doctrine vitally important to the Christian faith, as well as our own lives. This is really the heart of the discipleship assigned to the church, “…teaching to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded,” said Jesus.

I remember a conversation with Dr. Robert Rayburn, then president of Covenant Theological Seminary about worship. He said, regarding the Apostles’ Creed, “Do people realize that expressing our faith through the Apostles’ Creed, that we are standing with the church through all the ages in confessing those major doctrines?” He asked a good question. Christianity is no fly-by-night religion, nor is it one that is built on whatever we want to believe. God has revealed his truth and has given us the Holy Spirit, as John wrote down Jesus’ words, to lead us into all truth.

While we usually think of theology and especially something like systematics as an academic exercise, and while that thinking, taken out of context, has greatly weakened the church’s commitment to biblical authority, we must heed God’s instruction to teach the truth, that which is in accord with sound doctrine. And, we must do that clearly, unapologetically, and with passion. After all, Peter did instruct us to be able to give a reason for why we believe what we believe. This includes being able to distinguish truth from heresy. Churches, pastors and teachers must not shy away from such instruction. While our Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us that our final authority for all truth is Scripture, the late Kenneth Kanzter, well known to evangelicals has said something to the effect that while studying church history and its development of doctrines are not infallible, they do and can reflect God’s guidance in the study, understanding, and application of God’s truth throughout history.

As far as truth is concerned, we are not free to believe whatever we may choose, if we want to please God. He is the truth and determiner of truth. And truth is about God. Using this book along with Grudem’s Systematic Theology will serve you well in your preaching, teaching, and application of God’s truth.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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