Thursday, April 19, 2007

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 2

Systematic Theology and Biblical Revelation

After setting out his basic definition of systematic theology and discussing the role of natural theology in the field of systematics, Murray turns his attention to Biblical revelation. Here, Murray shows that he was cognisant with the theological developments of his time (the original article was written in 1963). He takes issue with Emil Brunner and Karl Barth's view that the Bible is a witness to revelation, rather than the revealed Word of God. He quotes from the latter's Church Dogmatics I/2,
"we call the Bible a witness of divine revelation...we distinguish the Bible from such revelation. A witness is not absolutely identical to that to which it witnesses."
John Murray disagrees with this view. For him, the principal source of revelation is Holy Scripture,
"Systematic Theology when it is true to its task must regard Scripture as that which Scripture claims for itself, namely, that it is the Word of God." (p. 2).
Murray does not take issue with Barth's point that Scripture is a witness. But he regards the Bible's witness as itself revelatory, "Scripture is God's own witness to us, borne through the instrumentality of men but borne by such a unique mode that the witness of men is God's own witness." (p. 3) God does not speak to us through Scripture so that the Bible becomes the Word of God. God reveals himself to us in the witness of the written Word.
This account of Biblical revelation does not compromise the status of Christ as the supreme revelation of God,
"Christ himself is the supreme revelation of God. He is the image of the invisible God, the effulgence of his glory and the transcript of his being (cf. Col 1:15, Heb 1:3). Scripture is not to be identified with him in this unique identity that is his. But it is apparent that we need more than the revelation which Christ is, and we can have no knowledge of, or encounter with, the revelation that he is except through Scripture." (p. 2)
The identity of Scripture as God's revealed Word is of great importance for the discipline of systematic theology,
"When we properly weigh the proposition that the Scriptures are the deposit of special revelation, that they are the oracles of God, that in them God encounters us and addresses us, discloses to us his incomprehensible majesty, summons us to the knowledge and fulfilment of his will, unveils to us the mystery of his counsel, and unfolds the purposes of his grace, then systematic theology, of all sciences and disciplines, is seen to be the most noble, not one of cold, impassioned reflection but one that stirs adoring wonder and claims the most consecrated exercise of all our powers." (p. 4)
Murray's account of Scripture incorporates both the propositional and personal aspects of Biblical revelation. God encounters us in and by his written Word. This encounter is redemptive. Scripture gives us the history of God's redemptive acts and interprets them for us. But more than that, we experience God's redemptive work through the witness of the Spirit to the Word. Natural revelation has its place in the study of theology. But natural revelation is not salvific. That distinction belongs to the special revelation of Scripture. The true theologian will have experienced the saving power of God for himself,
"it is a travesty for a man not knowing the power of revelation to pose as an expositor of it." (p. 5).
Systematic theology must be enriched by the findings of the other theological disciplines. It will draw upon the resources of exegetical, biblical and historical theology in order to bring forth the riches of the whole counsel of God. In a future post I will reflect on what Murray has to say about the interplay of the different theological disciplines in relation to systematics.
Murray's teaching on systematic theology and Scripture helps Reformed dogmatics to respond to the oft repeated Barthian charge that viewing the Bible as revelation supplants the supremacy of Christ. But more than that, his dynamic account of Scripture as the redemptive medium of our encounter with God by the Spirit, delivers systematic theology from dry propositionalism. God uses his written Word to describe, interpret and advance the great drama of redemption. Systematic theology when done properly will help the people of God to play their Biblically scripted roles in the theo-drama.
All page references are to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 4: Studies in Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982.

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