Berkhofian systematic theology offers us a snapshot of the cognitive framework of the faith. In that sense what is asserts is timeless, even though, as with all fallible human endeavours, it is always open to revision. The snapshot can be brought into clearer focus, or given a wider angle. For some people, one source of the unease with Berkhofism is that it is not ‘dynamic’ enough. But in fact it is not dynamic at all. It is avowedly ‘static’. In the interests of promoting ‘dynamism’ efforts are currently made to integrate systematic theology and biblical theology. But nothing but confusion can arise from such attempts.
According to Geerhardus Vos ’Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.’ (Biblical Theology, 5) Intrinsic to this definition is the idea of process, of temporal sequence. So there will be trouble if we attempt to conflate Berkhofism with Vosism. A ‘dynamic’ or a ‘theodramatic’ approach to systematic theology conveys a strong desire to conflate them, to merge a concern for logical consistency and difference and implication with the flow of particular narratives. But it is doomed to failure.
What happens is that in this effort to combine a narrative and a logical approach to theology the narrative approach invariably wins out. Stories are so much more fun than logical deductions and discriminations. The result is : it is impossible to combine the narrative and logical approaches in this way. It can’t be done. That’s why ‘narrative theology’ of whatever stripe can never take the place of systematic theology, nor revamp it, and current attempts to make the one supplant (or ‘energise’) the other are simply misguided, and dangerous in their consequences.
Of course systematic theology deals with temporal sequences - with the entire drama of redemption - and with sequences within that grand sequence, such as conversion, and the nature of the Christian life. But it does not treat these sequences simply or chiefly as sequences, but seeks to integrate their essential features with other aspects of God's revelation which are not temporally sequential, aspects which have to do (in the old language which makes some people shudder), with essences and natures, such as the existence and nature of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with human nature, prelapsarian, lapsed, redeemed and glorified. With the nature of faith, and the nature of sin.
Vos himself was fully at ease with the distinction between systematic theology and biblical theology, and with the legitimacy of each, being somewhat Berkhofish in his own right. (He was the author of a multi-volume systematic theology in Dutch). His view of the relation between the two is worth noting.
There is no difference in that one would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this, that the one transforms the Biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principles by which the transformation is effected differ. In Biblical Theology the principle is one of historical, in Systematic Theology it is one of logical construction. Biblical Theology draws a line of development. Systematic Theology draws a circle. (15-16)The insoluble problem that those who favour some kind of integration between biblical and systematic theology face is that they overlook this fundamental point: that logical distinctions do not necessarily correspond with temporal sequences, and that temporal sequences may have non-temporal aspects, or presuppose what is non-temporal.
Let us take an illustration. The ordo salutis (Rom 8.28 etc.) is a sequence, part of the grand narrative of redemption. But the concepts introduced into our understanding of that sequence, and the distinctions between them, between regeneration, conviction of sin, penitence, faith, assured faith, the external call, effectual calling, justification and sanctification etc. are logical distinctions. Do they all also record temporal distinctions as well? Is justification an event? And is sanctification another, coupled to the carriage of justification and pulled along by it? Is the carriage of justification in turn pulled along by the carriage of faith? Where does adoption fit in? Has it to be squeezed in somewhere between regeneration and faith? Or between faith and justification? Or is adoption simply another description of one or more of these elements? And what about union with Christ: is this also part of the temporal sequence of separately-identifiable occurrences? If so, can we find a gap for it, a spare carriage for it to occupy? Is the decree of God, eternally foreknowing the redeemed, also an event?
Systematic theology in the Berkhofian sense has its eye on distinctions and discriminations in an effort to link one area of biblical revelation consistently with all the others, to integrate the whole. Hence Vos's figure of a circle. Some of these distinctions are temporal, one thing following in time after another, some are causal, one thing bringing about the other, while others are purely logical, one thing being distinct from another. But biblical theology in the Vosian sense has its eye on the temporal unfolding of the one redemptive-historical sequence. It is a line.
The logical distinctions inherent in systematic theology, and which we may be inclined to dismiss as 'academic', are vital. If we remain for the moment in the area of the ordo salutis then we need to be able think clearly about what goes on, and the significance of what goes on, when men and women are called by grace. Systematic theologians do this by formulating distinctions in an effort to discriminate the various elements in conversion as these are revealed to us in Scripture, and to protect them as far as possible from misunderstanding. So an understanding of conversion in which regeneration (logically) precedes faith is importantly different from one in which faith logically precedes regeneration, even though these two elements – regeneration, faith – may be temporally simultaneous, and may be partly hidden from public view in every narrative account of conversion that Scripture gives us. These two understandings of conversion are importantly different because of what each of these understandings implies about the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion. These discriminations are thus not made for merely ‘academic’ purposes. They are not mere logic chapping. Following one, and not the other, has ramifications which reverberate across the whole fabric of theology.
Part of the fruit of achieving a degree of understanding of conversion, say, is that it is possible to attempt the integration of the various elements that divine revelation discloses about conversion, including of course reports of conversion in Scripture, part of its narrative, with the teaching of other areas of revelation, for example, with the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the fruits of Christ’s redemption, and the nature of human sin. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the systematic theologian must make the various discriminations of the elements within effectual calling with an eye that is fixed at the same time on the biblical teaching on, for example, the work of the Holy Spirit.
Take the conversion narratives of Lydia, or Zaccheus, or Saul of Tarsus, or the Ethiopian eunuch, or…..Could one formulate an adequate doctrine of conversion by making a generalisation from an induction of these cases? Obviously not. The differences between them are fascinating and important. But what is conversion? Are these all cases of conversion? And what of Nathanael, of Judas, of Ananias and Sapphira? So how is a theology of conversion to be established? By taking the biblical narratives of conversion (real or apparent) as one datum, the biblical teaching on human sin as another datum, its teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit as another, and so on. How are these to be brought together? That’s work for the systematic theologian.
Even where there is a temporal sequence, it does not follow that each element in the sequence is an event which brings about, in a causally efficacious way, the next element in the sequence. Regeneration may cause faith, but does faith cause justification? How are we to understand the 'he alsos' of Romans 8.28 etc.? Does Paul imply, in that passage, that faith causes justification? Yes and no, as the later proposal that faith is to be regarded as the instrumental cause of justification indicates. Does justification cause glorification? That would be confused. Though justification is logically prior to sanctification, it is neither temporally prior to sanctification, nor does it cause it, and it does not cause everything that follows, like one moving carriage may shunt the next one.
It has been said that it is a mistake to think of the elements in the ordo salutis as a series of acts. That is a helpful remark, except that we need to reflect further about an ‘act’. Is the Coronation Service one act, or many? Does the act that is the crowning of the Monarch include within it other acts? It would seem so. Is effectual calling one act, or many? Is it an act that has many elements? Is union with Christ an act? If David enrols at Eton College the expected male child that his wife Maureen is carrying, is the child already in the school?
As Bishop Butler once observed, everything is what it is and not another thing. Logical sequence is not necessarily temporal sequence. Temporal sequence is not necessarily causal sequence. Systematic Theology cannot be Biblical Theology. It cannot be theodrama either.