Wednesday, May 09, 2007

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 4

Provisionality and Progress

According to John Murray, "we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality." Systematic theology is an ongoing project and we need to beware of "stagnant traditionalism". (p. 7). Murray commends John Calvin's innovatory teaching on the Person of Christ. The Reformer did not allow his deference for tradition to stifle fresh thinking on Christology. He was unhappy with the creedal formula that Christ was "very God of very God". To Calvin, this suggested that the Son derived his deity from the Father. This notion is unacceptable. According to Calvin, the Son is autotheos. With respect to his deity he is self-existent. With this improvisation, Calvin challenged the subordinationism that is latent in Nicence Christology. The creed's insight that the Son is homoousion with the Father is brought to full expression in Calvin's trinitarian teaching.

This suggests that even the Church's revered ancient creeds are not beyond revision in the light of Scripture. "As it is true that ecclesia reformata reformanda est so also it is true that theologia reformata reformanda est". Reformed theology must not simply live on the riches of the past. Theological traditionalism will not guarantee faithfulness to the truth. Indeed such stagnation will lead only to a decline into heresy.

"When any generation is itself content to rely on its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation. The powers of darkness are never idle and in combating error each generation must fight its own battle in exposing and correcting the same. It is light that dispels darkness and in this sphere light consists in the enrichment which each generation contributes to the stores of theological knowledge." (p. 8).

Here, Murray rallies Reformed Dogmatics to face the challenge of the contemporary world. Issues such as postmodernism, religious pluralism, Open Theism and the new perspective on Paul must be faced in works of Reformed systematic theology. Robert Reymond's New Systematic Theology was first published in 1998, yet his discussion of justification by faith does not interact at all with "new perspective" thinking. When that kind of thing happens, the argument is lost by default and theological darkness begins to encroach upon the church. In the previous post in this series, I reflected on Murray's emphasis on the value of historical theology. But he was no "head-in-the-sand" traditionalist,

"A theology that does not build upon the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by the past. A theology that relies upon the past evades the demands of the present." (p. 9).

John Murray made a number of key contributions to the field of systematic theology. For now I will focus on his refinement of the doctrine of justification. In Protestant teaching, justification is defined as as a God's forensic declaration that he accepts the believing sinner as righteous in his sight on the basis of Christ's finished work. Murray proposed that justification is not merely declarative, it is also constitutive. God "constitutes what he declares to be". (Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977). God effects what he declares. The constitutive aspect of justification is carefully defined,

"It is to be noted, however, that the constitutive act that must be posited in this case is the constituting of a new judicial relation. In other words, it must be a constitutive act that will be consonant with the forensic character of justification, a constitutive act that will supply a proper and adequate ground for the pronouncement which justification involves, namely, the pronouncement or declaration that the person concerned is reckoned in God's sight as free from guilt and sustains to law and justice a relation or status whereby he is accepted as righteous." (Writings Vol 2, p. 207).


"It is, in a word, the constituting of the judicial relation which is declared to be and is such by the imputation to us of the righteousness and obedience of Christ". (Writings Vol 2, p. 215)

Murray's reformulation of justification as a constitutive declaration, may be helpful to Reformed theologians as they grapple with Roman Catholic and new perspective critiques of the older Protestant teaching. Justification is no legal fiction. When God declares a person justified, he also constitutes a new relationship with the believing sinner. This is just one example of the theologian's helpful contribution to Reformed systematics.

John Murray's proposals on provisionality and progress help to keep us from thinking that our theological systems have fully plumbed the depths of Scriptural revelation. There is no room for theological complacency or arrogance. Although we benefit from the wisdom of the past, much work still remains to be done,

"In the orthodox tradition me may never forget that there is yet much land to be possessed, and this is both the encouragement and challenge to students of the wonderful works of God and particularly of his inscripturated Word to understand that all should address themselves to a deeper understanding of these unsearchable treasures of revelation to the ends that God's glory may be made more fully manifest and his praises declared to all the earth". (p. 9)

Unless otherwise stated, page references are to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 4: Studies in Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982.

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