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The Necessity for Systematic Theology

By R. J. Rushdoony
March 27, 2014

Last Saturday, while travelling to Los Angeles, I listened on my car radio to an evangelist broadcasting from the other end of the country. While claiming to preach the word of God as a Bible-believing Christian, he preached a faith I could not recognize as Scriptural, nor the God I hear speak in the Bible. This man assured his converted and unconverted listeners that "God is always on your side." He also spoke of God as our "Daddy" in heaven, rich in resources and eager and anxious to help us if we only would allow Him to do so. I could not recognize in what he preached the sovereign God of Scripture nor anything that resembled His commanding word, the Bible. The evangelist was a humanist who was using, or trying to use, God as the greatest possible resource available to man; central to his thinking was man and man's needs. He lacked any systematic theology of God; instead, there were traces in his brief message of a theology of man as the true center and the god of things.

Very briefly, systematic theology says that God is God. It declares that, because God is sovereign, omnipotent, all-wise, all-holy, and knows from eternity all that He ordains and decrees, therefore there is no hidden possibility or potentiality in God, but that God is both fully self-conscious and totally self-consistent. Only with such a God is systematic theology possible. Wherever faith in the sovereignty of God declines, there too systematic theology goes into an eclipse.

The word systematic in systematic theology means, among other things, first, that it is a comprehensive, unified statement of what Scripture as a whole teaches about God. The revelation of God in Scripture is brought together in summary and comprehensive form, and the results of Biblical theology, the exegesis and analysis of Scripture and its meaning, are organized and set forth.

Second, the word systematic means that the totally sovereign God, who does not change (Mal. 3:6), is truly knowable. He is always the same. Men change character, grow and regress, but God is always the same, totally self-consistent and absolutely sovereign. Only about such a God is a systematic word possible. This is why modern theology cannot produce systematics. Karl Barth's position was a denial of the possibility of systematics. Thus, he wrote,

But it is not "the Almighty" who is God; we cannot understand from the standpoint of a supreme concept of power, who God is. And the man who calls "the Almighty" God misses God in the most terrible way. For the "Almighty" is bad, as "power in itself" is bad. The "Almighty" means Chaos, Evil, the Devil. We could not better describe and define the Devil than by trying to think this idea of a self-based, free, sovereign ability....God and "power in itself" are mutually exclusive. God is the essence of the possible; but "power in itself" is the essence of the impossible.1

Barth's God is not the God of Scripture who declares, "I am the Almighty God" (Gen. 17:1). Barth's God is a limiting concept, the product of a man's imagination. Barth gives us only a systematic exposition of his unbelief; he cannot give us a systematic theology of the God of Scripture.

Similarly, Haroutunian held that systematic theology was impossible, because such a doctrine of God cannot do "justice to the complexities of human life."2 The center of Haroutunian's theology is human life: the God of Scripture cannot in any degree nor in any sense impinge on the sovereignty of autonomous man. Hence, for him systematic theology is an illusion,3 because the God of systematic theology is by definition excluded from all consideration.

Third, systematic means that the presupposition of theology is not the mind of autonomous man but the sovereign God of Scripture. Systematics, no more than apologetics, seeks to prove God and His existence; rather, it presupposes the triune God as the only ground and means of reasoning and proof. As Van Til has so excellently demonstrated, "All the disciplines must presuppose God, but at the same time presupposition is the best proof."4 On any other presupposition, if logically applied, no proof is at all possible, because all reality is reduced to brute factuality, as Van Til has shown.5 Instead of brute and meaningless factuality, all the universe gives us God-created factuality only, and hence the necessary presupposition of all thinking is the triune God.

Fourth, as Van Til has always stressed, systematics denies the concept of neutrality. There are no neutral facts, no neutral thoughts, no neutral man nor reason. All men, facts, and thinking either begin with the sovereign and triune God, or they begin with rebellion against Him. Systematics affirms that God; the denial of systematics is a denial of God.

Fifth, systematics is necessary if men are to think intelligently and logically. Without the concept of systematics and the God it sets forth, we cannot hold to a rational and understandable universe nor to any meaningful order therein. Unregenerate man's reason and logic operate against the background of chaos and a meaningless void, so that reason and logic are in essence more than irrational: they are absurd. Systematics not only makes reason reasonable, but it declares that there is a necessary and meaningful connection between all facts, because all facts are the creation of the sovereign and omnipotent God and are thus revelations of His purpose and order. The idea of preaching the whole counsel of God is only a possibility if systematics is a reality. Otherwise, there is no necessary and real connection and unity in the word of God, and we have instead a developing, changing word and plan under different dispensations. We have then a fragmented word, not a whole counsel which is a necessary and authoritative unity.

Thus, without systematics there is no word of God, and, indeed, no such God as His revelation in Scripture sets forth. We have then another god with an occasional word which is made up of flashes of insight, and of superior powers to man, but no absolute, almighty, and sovereign God whose every word is infallible, and whose revelation manifests the only possible system of truth. This living God declares, "I am God, and there is none else" (Isa. 46:9). There is no other God, no other truth, no other possibility, system, or meaning outside of Him. He is God the Lord.

(Taken from Systematic Theology in Two Volumes, pgs. 59-61)

1. Karl Barth: Dogmatics in Outline. (New York, N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1949). p. 48.

2. Joseph Haroutunian: First Essay in Reflective Theology. (Chicago, IL: McCormick Theo­logical Seminary, 1943). p. 10.

3. Idem.

4. Cornelius Van Til: An Introduction to Theology, vol. I. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1947). p. 3.

5. See R. J. Rushdoony: By What Standard? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til. Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, (1958) 1974); and R. J. Rushdoony: The Word of Flux. (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1975).


Topics: Reformed Thought, Theology, R. J. Rushdoony, Culture

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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