We Should Study Systematic Theology for Ourselves (cont.)

Theological Formulation

In order to test our theory that studying Systematic Theology will help us know God better, let’s take a look at the doctrine of the Trinity.

The word “Trinity” cannot be found in the Bible but is a concept that many other religions critique, debate, and deny. Should we simply take it out as a stumbling block to others or is the Trinity essential to the faith? Most people have only heard an occasional sermon that mentions the Trinity at any length and rarely has the average church attender studied the Trinity at great depth. But a thorough systematic study of the entire Bible reveals that the doctrine of the Trinity rests on a rock-solid foundation. The doctrine of the Trinity emerges from a plain reading of the Bible and forms an essential element of the Christian faith. Systematic Theology helps us look at what the whole of Scripture says about the Trinity.

You would start in the Old Testament with hints like the plural pronouns:

Gen. 1:26, “Let Us make man in Our image after Our likeness” or Isaiah 6:8, “”Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Both of these verses use the first person plural (Our and Us). [See also Gen 3:22, 11:7 and many other verses]

Next, you would look at the Shema Israel in Deut 6:4 which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Two Hebrew words could have been used for “one.” The first, libad, has the connotation of an isolated unit. The other word, ehad, implies the idea of uniqueness more than isolation—a complex unity. The word ehad is the same word used in Gen. 2:24 where the man and woman will become one flesh.

You would also look at potential implications from the “majestic plural or plural of majesty.” The plural word Elohim used for the name of God almost always takes a singular verb or adjective. This is known as the majestic plural or plural of majesty and it is debated whether this indicates anything special about the Trinity.

You wouldn’t stay in the Old Testament in order to understand the Trinity, but you would also want to look at the New Testament. Perhaps the clearest expression is with the baptism of Jesus in Matt. 3:16-17,

Matt. 3:16-17 “And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, [and] coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

You would find other verses in the New Testament that prove the Trinity. The following represent only a few of the possibilities to consider:

1 Cor. 13:4-6 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all [persons].

Notice how all three members of the Trinity receive mention. And again:

2 Cor. 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

And other places with similar theological implication because of the mention of all three members of the Trinity.

Gal. 4:6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

Eph. 4:4-6 [There is] one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

And somewhere in that systematic study you would demonstrate that Jesus is God through miracles, claims, actions, and verses like John 20:28.

John 20:28-30 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.

Surely Jesus would have corrected Thomas had he not been claiming to be God. Instead Jesus accepted the worship and the statement, “My Lord and my God!”

Perhaps you would look at John 14:15, which says the Spirit is “another of the same kind of comforter” an “allos” and not a “heteros” comforter. This verse teaches both that the Holy Spirit is a separate member of the Trinity and also that the Holy Spirit is of the “allos” kind, which means the same kind, affirming the deity of the Spirit.

And of course you would look at Acts 5:3-4,

Acts 5:3-4 “But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? “While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” This verse clearly equates the Holy Spirit with God.”

Finally, in 1 Cor. 3:16 we learn that the temple of God is the temple of the Holy Spirit:

1 Cor. 3:16 Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

You would not receive this type of information presented in this way from a sermon on a specific text, but through a systematic study, you would clearly see that our description of God as Trinity flows from Scripture to help us understand God. I hope you have already begun to conclude that systematic study of the Bible should supplement text-driven preaching.

Editor's Note: This is post 4 in a series of 12.
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4 Comments

Filed under Southwestern Seminary, systematic videos, Why You Should Study Systematic Theology

4 responses to “We Should Study Systematic Theology for Ourselves (cont.)

  1. rhwoodman

    Thomas,
    Good post.

    The doctrine of the Trinity emerges from a plain reading of the Bible and forms an essential element of the Christian faith.

    What exactly constitutes “a plain reading”? I have seen more instances than I can remember where two or more people tackle a passage of Scripture, and each person interprets the passage differently. Moreover, “plain reading” of a translated passage is fraught with its own difficulties, since the translated passage inevitably suffers from “translator bias”.

    When people ask me how to read a passage in the Bible, I tell them (only half jokingly) “go back to the original language.” I realize that is beyond the ability or interest of most Christians, let alone most non-believers, but it seems to me that “a plain reading of the Bible” is quite difficult without resort to the original language.

    Also, I have a nit to pick. “One” in the sense of uniqueness is אחד not אהד. Therefore, it is far preferable to transliterate אחד as echad rather than as ehad. My Biblical Hebrew text says to use h with a dot underneath to transliterate, but I haven’t found a way to do that on the Web, so I use “ch” to stand for the gutteral ח.

    Anyway, aside from the nit, I’d like you to elaborate on what you mean by “a plain reading of the Bible.”

    Thanks,

    Robert

  2. Robert,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. By plain reading, I mean that I believe if someone took the Bible and read it through praying for guidance from the Holy Spirit without studying the original languages, they would still recognize that God has revealed himself as a trinity. They may not know how to express it, but I think they would see it. I believe in clarity or perspicuity of Scripture.

    At the same time, I do recognize what you are saying. The analogy I use is that of the ocean. I swimmer in the ocean will still enjoy the beauty of the creation. This is a plain reading. If, however, you go snorkeling, then you see that just below the surface lies creatures that you never knew existed. This would be an introduction to the original languages so that you could use the tools. But, if you scuba dive, then you find an entirely new world to explore, and that would be a useful knowledge of the original languages. While I like to scuba dive, I also want to encourage the average person. If you have the Holy Spirit living within you, and the Bible in your hand, then you can read and understand much. The Gospel is so easy a child can understand it, and yet so deep that theologians cannot fully explain it. At any rate, that’s my two cents worth.

    On the Hebrew, you are correct. I needed a dot under the “h” and didn’t know how to do it so I just left it like it was. Good catch. You are sharp. Thanks again.

    Thomas

    • rhwoodman

      Thomas,

      Good points, but I think that more is needed. A person can have a child’s understanding of Scripture by reading through the Bible, but that child’s understanding will lack inevitably a complete understanding because of (a) translator bias and (b) interior bias.

      Think about it this way, Thomas. When I hear someone say something to me with which I disagree because it is contrary to the way I have been raised and taught to believe and think, my first mental reaction is to reject the disagreeable message (I hope I never reject the person) and begin formulating arguments against that message. The person who said the disagreeable thing to me may be entirely correct, but I am automatically in defensive mode because he or she disagrees with my biased position or way of thinking.

      In the Church, I have seen situations where two people studying the same passage of Scripture use different translations of the Bible, come to different conclusions (even after having prayed for the Holy Spirit’s guidance), and end up in disagreement over not only the conclusions reached but also over the quality of the Bible translations. I’ve seen churches lose or gain members on the basis of which translation of the Bible is used. I’ve heard pastors and lay persons pronounce imprecations against people who use certain translations or paraphrases. We even have the phenomenon of having churches who pride themselves on using “The 1611 Version of the King James Bible”, despite the fact that scarcely any members could read or comprehend an actual 1611 KJV. This problem is caused by both translator bias and personal (interior) bias.

      Many times, church folks who don’t want to leave a particular church or fellowship of believers but also don’t want to be in conflict with their brothers and sisters end up trying to elide their differences or patch them over with religious talk or pop psychobabble. Here are a few examples of what I’ve heard over the years:

      “Let’s just agree to disagree until the Holy Spirit enlightens us.” (Translation: God’s going to make you smart enough to see my position some day.)
      “You have your beliefs; I have mine. As long as we just confess the Lord Jesus Christ, we can fellowship.” (Translation: Getting along is more important than understanding the truth of God’s Word.)
      “We don’t need to agree exactly on this passage. It isn’t central to our salvation.” (Translation: I’m going to ignore the truth of this passage so that I can continue doing what I’ve always done.)

      Many Bible Study groups of which I have been a member tend to dumb down the theological implications of a passage of Scripture and encourage everyone to “say what you feel about this passage.” Theology cannot be reduced to feeling! When our understanding of the Word of God is reduced to “what I feel about this passage of Scripture”, we teeter on the brink of religious and spiritual confusion! I can almost detect the miasma of burning brimstone in such a situation.

      I think that we do our brothers and sisters in Christ a great disservice when we encourage them merely to read the Bible plainly in their favorite translation. (Note: I have no favorite translation; all of them are biased, some more than others, in various directions according to the translators’ own interior biases.) We must school them in identifying their biases, overcoming their biases, and working through and past their biases. If they will not attempt to read from the original languages (and I know how difficult that is to do; I’m neither a brainiac nor a saint in this regard), then they should at least be encouraged to engage in deep word study through the use of multiple vernacular translations, multiple concordances, and multiple commentaries. Studying the Bible is not the same as reading the Bible. Studying the Bible is hard work that demands commitment of time, commitment to prayer, and commitment to study. Studying the Bible in this way is part of what Jesus meant when he said that we should “Love the Lord your God with … all your mind” Luke 10:27.

      I think that “a plain reading of the Bible” makes systematic theology sound too easy, and it certainly (in my experience) can lead to misunderstandings, disagreements, church fights, church splits, and/or doctrinal compromises. Certainly, your analogy of swimming in the ocean, snorkeling in the ocean, and scuba diving in the ocean is well taken. But you had to take lessons to learn to swim, and those lessons were hard (at least for me they were hard; as a young child, I failed YMCA swimming twice before I got the hang of it). It was easier to learn to snorkel, but it still took me time and effort to get the hang of controlling my breathing, getting the mask on correctly, and watching out for the jellyfish. I’ve never been scuba diving, but I know that it also would take me time and effort to learn.

      Teaching the study of systematic theology to our brothers and sisters in Christ requires that we and they be committed to giving time and energy to deep study, not merely reading, but engaging the Word of God on a deeper level than most people ever consider. Even if we limit our study to using vernacular language, it still requires a serious commitment of time and energy.

      I hope I don’t come across as too critical in my reply, Thomas. I am thoroughly enjoying this series of posts, and I look forward to the rest. I do appreciate engaging you on the topic, and I hope you don’t mind my responses.

      In Christ,

      Robert

  3. Robert,

    I don’t mind your responses. That’s why I keep the comments turned on. I may not always have the time to interact, but I always have the desire to do so.

    One thing I would ask for your help with is that I want everyone to feel like they can comment or just ask a quick question. I would love to develop of community of interaction that encourages spiritual growth especially for those who may not have good mentors around them. If your comment is too long or overly academic, then it might intimidate someone else from commenting. If you think that may be the case, then feel free to email me your interaction instead. My email address is jthomaswhite@gmail.com Again, I welcome the interaction, and you are obviously a very intelligent person. I pray God’s blessings upon all you are doing for His kingdom. Thanks.

    Thomas

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