Wolfhart Pannenberg on why we need systematic theology

“The task of theology is not only to investigate the origin and the original content of the Christian faith and of the doctrine of the church, or the changes they underwent in the course of history, but also to determine the truth which is contained in that tradition. All theological disciplines share in this task, but undoubtedly it is the special task of systematic theology, and to the degree that the question of the truth content in the documents of the Christian tradition is dealt with in biblical exegesis and in church history, those disciplines share in the special task of systematic theology.
The content of truth that is inherent in the documents of the tradition has to be determined again and again, because in each historical situation a new effort is needed to distinguish the truth of the gospel and of the dogma of the church from the evanescent forms of language and thought that at one time served to express such abiding truth. To make that distinction is possible only in terms of one’s own thought and language, rooted in a contemporary setting. Therefore, the task of distinguishing in a particular traditional assertion the core of truth from the passing forms of language and thought arises again and again. In each historical epoch, systematic theology has to be done all over again. And yet, the task is always the same, and the truth which systematic theology tries to reformulate should recognizably be the same truth that had been intended under different forms of language and thought in the great theological systems of the past and in the teaching of the church throughout the ages.
The task of the theologian in relation to the traditional language of Christian teaching is a critical one as well as a systematic one. It has to be critical, because the distinction has to be made between what is historically relative in the traditional teaching and what is its abiding core. This task arises even in biblical exegesis, because the biblical writings are also historical documents. Therefore, time and again the substantial content of the biblical witness has to be reformulated. But the truth content of traditional teaching cannot be determined in dealing with details only. It needs systematic presentation. Systematic presentation is itself a test of the truth claims of each of the specific assertions that enter into a comprehensive account. The reason is that truth itself is systematic, because coherence belongs to the nature of truth. Therefore, the attempt at systematic presentation is intimately related to the concern for the truth that is searched for in the investigation of traditional teaching.” (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 6–8)

It seems to me that there is a lot to like about this account. There are some worries, to be sure. I am not quite comfortable with the way Pannenberg speaks of Scripture. I think the way in which Scripture depends upon and is consequently limited by historically contingent language forms needs to be more carefully specified, though I take the basic point. But what I like about this is the honest acknowledgement that we need theology because we need to see how Scripture, and the gospel, are true. We know that they are; but we don’t always see how they are. Seeing how they are, though, does indeed involve expressing this truth in language and ideas that make sense today. This is why we cannot simply retain one exposition from the past but need, as Pannenberg says, to again and again restate it.

In my view, it is meaningful to speak of our time as a different historical epoch from, say, the post reformation period. This is why I think that we cannot be content with the way the gospel was articulated then, though we may and must be respectful of it. But we need to express it in our own time as well. Otherwise, we will struggle to see the truth of the gospel and will be weaker for it. Just before this Pannenberg writes of this weakness:

“If theology does not properly face its particular task regarding the truth claims of the Christian tradition, then it easily happens that the clergy of the church are the first to become insecure and evasive about the message they are supposed to preach. When they become doubtful about the truth of the gospel, they will tend to replace it by other ’causes’, and the believers will be disturbed, because they no longer get to hear in church what they rightfully expect to be taught there.”

Could theological liberalism and liberal church practice, then, indeed be rooted in a failure of Protestant systematics to “move with the times”? Not in the sense of changing the content of the gospel to fit the assumptions and attitudes of the day (God spare us); but in the sense of failing to adequately reärticulate the same gospel in the new historical epoch.

From faith to sight: Three sermons on the faith of Abraham

Here are the links to three sermons I recently preached on Abraham’s faith. The theme of the series, which only really came clear at the end, was “From faith to sight”. They have been important sermons for me and, in my opinion, some of my best (although it’s all relative). I hope you like them.

1. Genesis 18:1–15: “Faith and the impossible promise of God”

2. Genesis 18:16–19:26: “Faith and the terrible judgment of God”

3. Genesis 22:1–18: “Faith and the unfathomable command of God”



On putting the apostle’s creed to music (updated)

Update: I have pulled the original version of this post because I think it was a bit unhelpful. It wasn’t a particularly strong criticism, but I have been led to believe I made a couple of mistakes. Essentially, I argued that I had some concerns about the idea of putting the Apostle’s Creed to music. I was worried (a) that the change of form changed the kind of thing it was, making it a less vulnerable confession; (b) that putting it to song made it vulnerable to becoming dated; and (c) that as it seemed to be potentially offering an alternative to saying the creed, it was a big mistake to have changed the words even a little.

Although I still think there is something to these criticisms, I have been persuaded that they are not fair. Criticism (c) in particular, is probably attacking a straw man, as the writers, I am led to believe, never intended the song to replace the creed in churches. As such, I felt that making these criticisms at this point was not fruitful. Sorry for the mix up. These arguments might need to be made one day, but probably not now. I feel I spoke too quickly on this and regret it.

The one thing I will still say, though, is I think we should notice if it does turn out to be the case that we are able to sing this song but not say the creed, and to wonder why that is and what it says about our churches.

Why do the sacraments matter? Because justification is by faith alone.

Poort onder Rijksmuseum te Amsterdam. Jaren 30.

In my circles, it is often implied, and occasionally stated outright, that a ministry that regards the sacraments as important runs the risk of jeopardising the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It introduces other things into the equation, things that add to just believing the gospel word and so undermining the sufficiency of Christ’s work.

There is an appealing surface logic to this, yet I am convinced it is badly mistaken. More than this, I believe it is much harder to maintain and defend the doctrine of justification by faith for those in our care, if the sacraments are neglected. Why?

As I have articulated in this sermon and this sermon, the sacraments are God-given ways of expressing faith in Jesus Christ. This is important because of course, faith in Jesus is always expressed in some way or other. It involves, for example, “confessing with your lips”; it also frequently expresses itself in prayer. Prayer is the form of expression we usually resort to as a baseline — it is a form of expression that seems empty, and minimal. This is why, I suspect, we often rely on it in evangelism as the basic form of responding to God. There is no danger, we feel, of prayer compromising the idea that justification is all God’s gift.

Yet are we in danger of being misled here? Because of course, prayer can turn into a religious work as easily as anything (cf. Matthew 6). There is no guarantee, that is, that relying on prayer as your fundamental expression of faith will keep you from compromising your confidence that justification is by faith alone. In fact, could it be that it easier for faith to remain alone when it is expressed in more carefully formed ways.


Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are more elaborate forms of expressing faith. Yet from beginning to end, their aim is to cultivate and express trust in the saving work of Jesus and nothing else. This is what they are all about. And if they are indeed gifts given by Jesus for us to respond to him, perhaps we should assume that he knew that this was the kind of response required in order to sustain a faith based on his work alone. Certainly there is a danger with the form being turned into a religious work that is relied on; but is there perhaps an equally worrying danger in ignoring them, and so forcing people to rely on more minimalist expressions of faith that may catch the heart of the gospel less adequately?

I believe that this is indeed the case, and that an aversion to the sacraments on the basis that they add something to the gospel is a false step — indeed, a danger. The sacraments, done rightly and in the context of an evangelical ministry, are a profound, perhaps the best, way to help people depend on Christ’s work alone for their salvation.

Robert Spaemann on Love

My favourite German Catholic philosopher – and there are several fine possibilities – has a great essay called “The Paradoxes of Love” in this book. In it, he argues that although we commonly experience a distinction between love-as-benevolence, i.e. a will to do good to someone, and love-as-desire, i.e. a feeling of attraction to them that concerns our own well-being and fulfilment, the two are not ultimately at odds. Love means, as Leibnitz famously expressed it, “Delight in the happiness of another” (when happiness is understood in a rich, substantive sense, as what is truly good for them). He concludes:

The exclusive amor amicitiae (love between friends) does not in fact stand in competition with the commandment to love my neighbour, which regards everyone who through circumstances becomes my neighbour. It rather gives this love of neighbour its depth. For everyone has a claim to be recognised as real, and real as this unique person. What everyone is becomes a real experience for us in one person, in the exclusive relation of friendship. It becomes an experience only for that one who enters into this relationship with one person and unites his destiny, for better or for worse, with that of the other. The amor amicitiae leaves behind the opposition between desire and benevolence; both are inseparable for it. He who truly wishes another well with all his heart will let him feel that he, the lover, also needs him, the beloved. He who only wants to be the giver does not give enough. Christianity teaches that the ultimate gift of God is that he makes himself into a receiver with regard to us… The amor benevolentiae (benevolent love) is love only if it is also amor concupiscentiae (desirous love). And the same is true vice versa. Someone who really desires the other can only obtain what he desires if he is willing to give.

To Aberdeen – An Announcement


Yesterday at church we announced that, our Lord permitting, Lauren and I and the kids will be leaving in February next year to move to Scotland. I have accepted a scholarship from the University of Aberdeen to do a PhD in divinity, studying Christian ethics. I will be working with Dr Brian Brock and focussing, broadly speaking, on how the biblical concept of wisdom informs our understanding of the way in which “nature” functions in Christian ethics. At least, this is the plan for now.

For those who want a bit more of a glimpse of the kind of thinking I’m talking about, can I recommend my piece that is currently on ABC online Religion and Ethics here.

This will be a big move for us. We are still a fair way from knowing how it will come together, practically, financially, and so on. We would really appreciate your prayers that God would provide. But even more than this, we’d appreciate your prayers that, assuming it all comes together, God would make it fruitful.

I also want to say how very sad I am about the prospect of leaving Newtown : Erskineville Anglican Church. I have the most wonderful ministry job at the moment – great colleagues, great part of the world, and most of all, a beautiful, interesting, generous, godly congregation, full of exciting work to do. May God continue and bless this work and these people after we leave.

I’m very happy to chat to anyone about these plans and am grateful for the support we’ve received so far. If you’re particularly interested in supporting us in one way or another, please get in touch.


Reflections on Social Media

I have just come back on to social media after a forty day “fast” from it. I use the quotation marks because let’s not kid ourselves that this was particularly taxing; although it was more challenging than I expected. The point of this, as I explained before, was to get some perspective on the place social media had come to have in my life, in order to engage with it better. I would love to hear from others who have been doing this too; but here are some reflections to, hopefully, kick off a discussion.

1. Social Media is not simply evil. One of the things that was obvious to me was that I missed out on some good things, and on being able to use social media for some good things. I didn’t go into this thinking social media was simply wicked; but I think this is important to say. There are some genuinely good things about Facebook, for example – the connections it enables with people not otherwise connected. So far so not rocket science.

2. But, Social Media is also not “neutral”. One of the dominant myths in our day is the myth of technological neutrality – that technology is simply a tool lying neutral in our hands that we can put to whatever purpose we choose. This, however, is false. Social Media programs are tools designed by human beings – sinful ones – with a variety of better or worse purposes in mind. Like all technology, social media is infused with human intentionality from the very beginning. This makes it foolish to expect it to be neutral, and that myth will only blind us to the subtle ways in which we are being moved by this technology. It also hides the fact that the very use of social media also commits you to a whole range of things before you’ve even begun. The most important of these may be to do with our attitudes towards knowledge – our feelings about what we ought to know about and have opinions about.

3. Social Media has an impact on our attention. One of the interesting things I discovered early on was that I probably hadn’t been “wasting” heaps of time on social media (although see below). I didn’t find myself having lots of free time. I suspect the case was more that social media was filling gaps. Yet I did come to feel that this had another impact. Early on in the fast I felt a need to check Facebook and Twitter that I had to resist. This brought home to me that Social Media can be very intrusive even if we don’t have, say “push notifications”. Because we quickly internalise the need to receive notifications. Our desires become, in a way, part of the program. This need to check disappeared, however, within about two weeks. I suddenly realised I didn’t feel the need to check it anymore. I found this refreshing. We can indeed change the place Facebook has in our lives, and it doesn’t take that much will power. The biggest difference I found that this made had to do with attention. As time went on, I actually found I was able to attend to things better. I did not expect this to happen, but I actually read and listened to more substantial stuff than usual during the last weeks of the fast. This suggested to me that social media was in fact having an impact on my ability to pay attention to things.

4. Social Media can very easily create a distorted outlook. One thing that did become apparent was the potential distortions that come from having information and ideas pushed at me by sources I have selected. Media people speak about “echo chambers” – that is, a situation where groups essentially speak amongst themselves and don’t cross over much with other perspectives. I think Facebook is especially prone to this: to just creating a situation where I am only hearing from a certain set of people and I am only speaking to them. This ought to be a source of concern.

5. We need to think about what appeals to us about social media. There are, I believe, some potentially good things and good ways to use social media. It seems to me, however, that there are also some more ambiguous reasons we find it attractive. Two stand out to me. First, I think we are attracted to the idea of knowing what is going on. This is, I think, often what we mean when we speak about “being connected” – we like knowing what is going on. I think we should stop and think about this. Why does this appeal to us? Is it actually a good thing to want? The reason I think we need to be careful here is that the Bible has a more complex attitude towards knowledge. Knowledge is not necessarily a good thing – or at least, our sinful nature means that we very often fail to let it be good. Knowledge puffs up, says the Bible. Knowledge is only good insofar as it fuels and facilitates love. My question about this felt need to know, then, is, does this desire to know exceed our capacity to love, and if so, should we pursue it?

The second more ambiguous appeal of social media is this: I think social media can appeal to us because of its capacity to fill voids of time. As I said above, I think social media was largely filling gaps during my day. This, however, is worth noticing. For why do I have these gaps, and why do I need to fill them. Sometimes, perhaps, there’s no problem – waiting for a bus, whatever. But at other times I think social media allows us to distract ourselves from the fact of larger gaps. I remember one or two afternoons over the past month when I suddenly found myself sitting at my desk with – how embarrassing! – not much to do. I was shocked! In each case, after a bit of procrastinating, which made me feel awkward and guilty, I ended up doing something really useful that I hadn’t thought of before. I found myself wondering whether I would have been able to do this if I had been on social media. I think it is just as possible that I could have just spent some time on Facebook and so missed the chance to have that initially frustrating, but ultimately very fruitful, experience of having space with which to choose what to do. If you are reading this thinking, that could never happen to me because I am so busy, please know that this is what I would have said too. But that is my point. we may simply be unaware of how social media use is distorting our awareness of time.

So what have I decided? I will go back on social media, because I think there are good things about it. But I’m going to go back on in a different way. I don’t want to slide back into checking all the time. I think the only way forward is discipline about time use. So, if I’m a bit less contactable than I used to be – that’s why.