This article/interview was posted on by Faith online website here. Richard Dorster of By Faith magazine interviews J. Ligon Duncan III, Pastor of Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.
When We Lose Doctrine, We Lose the Gospel
RICHARD DOSTER, ISSUE NUMBER 27, APRIL 2010
Proclaiming A Cross-Centered Theology is a book of essays composed by various theologians to help pastors understand what the Bible says about God, man, and the curse; about Christ and his substitutionary atonement; and about the call to repentance and sacrifice.
The book also equips pastors to develop and preach sound theology, because sound theology, says contributor J. Ligon Duncan, is essential to faithful ministry.
ByFaith talked with Duncan, who pastors First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Jackson, Miss., about the state of theology in the Church.
In Proclaiming A Cross-Centered Theology you argue that there are unhealthy attitudes today toward doctrine and theology. What have you seen and heard that leads you to that conclusion?
I have seen in both the general culture and in the churches attitudes that are anti-doctrinal in sentiment. People say that postmodernism is a “suspicion of meta-narratives.” I think that fits in with the suspicion of doctrine and systematic theology, that it’s seen as a meta-narrative that imposes itself on people and life, and is therefore suspicious. So, the postmodern mood can be blamed for a lot of it.
You see it in the church as well, in that so many people are suspicious of doctrine or dubious about the whole project of systematic theology. You read this in books—it’s really the majority report today, certainly in liberal theology, in moderate evangelical theology, in emergent circles, and in Pentecostal/charismatic circles. It’s really only in our neck of the woods [Reformed theological circles] that there is still a strong respect for doctrine and systematic theology—although I see the trends pressing some of our guys to be sheepish about their affirmation of the importance of doctrine and systematic theology.
In the book you write, “in days when the narrative form of biblical theology is attracting great (and deserved) attention, it is too often being pitted against systematic theology.” What’s the difference between these kinds of theology? How would they be pitted against one another?
Narrative simply refers to the form of story as the means of conveying truth. There has been a penchant for pitting story against proposition or doctrinal articulations—this has been growing for about a half century in the Protestant world.
Two more helpful terms might be biblical theology and systematic theology. If I were to define those two types of theology rather than narrative and systematic, I’d say that biblical theology looks at the Bible diachronically, that is it moves chronologically through the revelation of God’s redemptive plan. It asks: What’s the unique emphasis of that era of special revelation? It also asks: What’s the emphasis of the writer who’s being studied? That’s opposed to asking the larger question of systematic theology: What does the total deposit of special revelation say about this particular topic?
So, biblical theology [looks at the text] historically and developmentally, whereas systematic theology asks the question: What does the whole Bible say about X—whether it’s angels or predestination or humanity? Systematic theology studies the Bible synchronically as opposed to diachronically.
“To make a statement that the Bible is storied narrative is just a reductionist statement. It serves—if it’s taken as absolutely true—to buttress a false view of the Bible.”
Now, systematic theology benefits from the insights of biblical theology. And biblical theology can’t actually be done without systematic theology. Some people think that you can do biblical theology without systematic theology, but actually you can’t.
They’re sometimes pitted against one another because there’s a myth that says that systematic theology puts the Bible in a straitjacket, whereas biblical theology liberates the text; it allows the text to speak for itself. That’s a false contrast. Biblical theology done wrongly is just as confining as systematic theology done wrongly. But when they’re done correctly—and they have been, gloriously, for well over a century in our particular tradition—then they work beautifully together.
Sticking with this idea of “narrative form,” you react pretty strongly to the claim that the Bible is a “storied narrative.” Why is that a problem? How does it relate to your concerns about theology?
All you have to do is look at the second half of the second book of the Bible to put the lie to the idea that the Bible is storied narrative. There’s zippo storied narrative in this portion of Exodus: it’s a description of how to build a tabernacle. When you get to Leviticus, the lie is again put to the Bible-is-a-storied-narrative idea. Now, there’s plenty of narrative in the Bible, but the Bible was not given to us as one complex narrative. We actually have to put that together because God didn’t give us a continuous, unbroken story.