Friday, October 10, 2014

Systematics for God’s Glory: God, creation, decrees and providence by Jonathan Bayes

Systematic Theology 1:
Systematics for God’s Glory: God, creation, decrees and providence
by Jonathan Bayes, Carey Printing Press, 2013 edition, 256pp

It is vital for all Christians not simply to be familiar with the stories of the Bible and its basic plot-line, but also to understand the teachings of Holy Scripture in a logical and systematic way. That is the purpose of systematic theology. Preachers especially need a solid grasp of the way in which biblical revelation hangs together as a coherent whole. Having that will better enable them to preach ‘the whole counsel of God’. Some works of systematic theology are forbiddingly large, dry and technical, but Jonathan Bayes has succeeded on producing a systematic theology for the people of God.

This is the first contribution to a projected three volume set of systematics. As the subtitle suggests, the author covers the subjects of God, creation, decrees and providence. His method throughout is first to grapple with the biblical teaching on the topic in hand, second to draw on the insights of the creeds and confessions of the church, third to chart key historical developments of the doctrine, and finally to conclude with some words of personal reflection and application. This approach can seem a little formulaic by the end of the book. It has its uses, but there are also limitations. For instance in the chapter on the Doctrine of God, the author's exploration of the biblical material is almost exclusively concerned with God's mercy. Discussion of God's oneness, power, spirituality, eternality and omniscience is divided between the creedal and historical sections of the chapter. It might have better had study of those attributes been rooted in the explicit witness of Scripture rather than the teachings of the church, however valuable. The approach works better in the chapter on the Doctrine of the Trinity, where the creeds and confessions use extrabiblical language in order to safeguard important biblical truths over and against heretical views. The writer also helpfully  charts the important contributions made to the church's understanding of this great doctrine by Augustine and Calvin. 

Bayes sees systematics as 'an attempt to have a tidy faith'.p. xi. That seems to imply  that the truths of Bible are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion and it is the task of the theologian to arrange the jumbled pieces of the jigsaw to form a clear picture. But that is to do disservice to God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture. Biblical revelation is historical and progressive in character, but that does not mean that it is untidy or disjointed. There is more to systematics than a tidying up exercise. Theology is an endeavour to think God's thoughts after him and articulate God's talk after him. Systematic theology is faith seeking understanding of what Scripture as a whole has to say on key doctrinal topics set out in a logical order. In addition, theology is meant to be practical. According to John Frame, "Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." (Salvation Belongs to the Lord by John Frame, P&R, 2006, p. 79). Happily, as mentioned above, Bayes' practice is better than his stated approach. His systematics is a work of holy reason that is intended to promote holy living. 

In some instances systematic theology can seem like a sequence of logically ordered doctrinal statements backed up by a long string of proof texts. Bayes very helpfully avoids that pitfall by giving careful attention to  key Bible texts and tracing the development of biblical themes in the course of the Scripture's unfolding story. Biblical theology is thus placed at the service of systematic theology, which is as it should be. The writer’s handling of the biblical material is fresh and insightful. He is evidently familiar with the original Scripture languages and draws on a range of commentators to help unfold the meaning of the texts he draws to our attention. But all this is done with a light touch that does not envelop the reader in thickets of abstruse scholarly exegesis.  

The creedal and historical aspects of the work are a useful reminder that we are not the first generation of believers to approach the Bible and inquire as to its meaning. We have much to learn from the thoughts of those who have gone before us. The creeds and confessions of the church serve as helpful summaries of the biblical doctrine, often written against a background of intense theological controversy. Knowledge of these documents can help us to detect and reject old errors that often present themselves in new clothing. While Bayes gives welcome attention to the theological heritage of the church, he also interacts with present day concerns, tackling issues such as biblical inerrancy and ‘Open Theism’. However, Bayes is sometimes content to summarise the teaching of creedal and confessional statements in his own words, or to cite commentaries on the these documents rather than taking us back to the sources themselves. That is especially the case in the chapter on the Doctrine of Providence, which is a shame given the rich teaching on providence found in the words of the great Reformed Confessions and Catechisms (see here). Ad fontes, please Dr. Bayes. Having said that, a number of ancient creeds are reproduced in full in the book's appendices, which is good to see.

The author’s stance is unashamedly Reformed, but there is no sense that he is attempting to foist a prefabricated system onto the Bible. Rather, he shows that Reformed theology accords with the Word of God and is consistent with the best insights of church history. Biblical doctrine is meant to stir the soul to faith, action and worship. Bayes’ handling of the themes covered in this book is practical in its orientation and doxological in its goal. Reading it reflectively and prayerfully will help enable the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of God’s redeeming grace.

This series is especially aimed at preachers. It will be of special benefit for 'lay preachers' who may have had little theological training. Pastors will also find it helpful, but this is an entry level systematics that is no substitute for larger works such as The Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck. Any Christian who wishes to deepen their understanding of the great doctrines of the Bible will do well to pursue what looks from the first volume to be set of books that will enhance our vision of the glory of God.

* An edited version of this review will appear in Evangelical Times

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