The Dogmatic Impulse within Scripture

Geerhardus Vos wisely observed that “on the line of historical progress there is at several points already a beginning of correlation among elements of truth in which the beginnings of the systematizing process can be discerned.”[i] In other words, within the text of Scripture itself there appears a logical ordering of the facts of revelation. The impulse that leads to dogmatic or systematic theology is not exclusively post-canonical, but is found already with the inspired authors of Scripture themselves.

One text where the instinct for logical systematization reveals itself is 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14. Indeed, James Denney spoke of these verses as “a system of theology in miniature.”[ii] This is something of an overstatement, to be sure, for Paul’s interest here is concerned with the way in which salvation is applied. Yet the remark usefully highlights the unmistakeable nature of Paul’s impulse towards dogmatic theology. These statements naturally draw strong interest for the content of what Paul affirms here. My purpose here is more narrowly formal, however, limited to exploring the systematizing instinct in this passage, quoted from the NKJV:

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 2:13–14).

Paul has in mind the source, process, and culmination of salvation. Salvation takes its rise from God’s choice, is carried on through sanctification and belief (to which the Thessalonians were introduced by the gospel call), and reaches its goal in glory. It is quite clear, then, that the materials of the doctrine of salvation are being coherently correlated. There is thus an indication on the surface of this text of what could be called Paul’s “proto-dogmatics.”

Though it is apparent on the surface, it is far from superficial. Here Paul’s thought reflects a Trinitarian organizing principle. He speaks of God, the Spirit, and the Lord Jesus Christ, each of whom are particularly associated with an aspect of the Thessalonians’ salvation. Thus it is God (meaning especially the Father, as is usual in Paul) who has chosen them for salvation; that salvation is enjoyed through sanctification by the Spirit; and it culminates in obtaining the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This organizing principle is quite significant, for it shows that different loci in Paul’s dogmatics, to speak anachronistically, are inter-connected. Paul’s theology proper is basic for his conception of soteriology. It is quite likely the case that it was through God’s saving acts that Paul came to understand the nature of God,[iii] but that understanding of God then structured the way he spoke of salvation. Paul’s soteriology (and indeed, all of his doctrine) is profoundly theocentric and Trinitarian.

Yet this is no way created a rigid pattern capable of no versatility. On the contrary, one of the striking things about this short passage is precisely the place accorded to Christ. His saving work is not explicitly mentioned, but presupposed. Here Paul does not speak of Christ as the believer’s righteousness, or of Christ delivering us from wrath, or as dying for our sins, as he does in other texts. In this passage, Christ is rather held out as the goal which salvation ultimately reaches. The Thessalonians were chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and called by the Gospel for the great end of obtaining the glory of Jesus Christ. The expression of Paul’s dogmatic impulse, then, reveals flexibility as well as form.

Notice, moreover, the perspective from which soteriology is viewed. Paul can explain the aspects of salvation from the standpoint of what the Thessalonians are experiencing. God’s choice of them for salvation has come to expression in the Spirit’s work and their belief of the truth. Those realities entered their lives through the calling received by means of the gospel (which in practical terms refers to the proclamation of the gospel message). Whereas in Romans 8:29–30 Paul would lay down the golden chain of an ordo salutis proceeding in a logical order of means and ends, here his materials are treated somewhat differently. Again, the dogmatic impulse is not a straitjacket, but allows appropriate variety.

Finally, it should be noticed that Paul’s dogmatic impulse does not reflect a tendency to improper abstraction or merely theoretical concerns. Paul begins his miniature system of applied soteriology expressing his obligation to give thanks to the Lord. The materials of dogmatic theology led him to praise. There is no sense here that one could divorce ideas about God and his work from worship of him. Furthermore, the soteriology is followed up with a strikingly appropriate exhortation in v.15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The doctrine of salvation undergirds and leads to the call for steadfastness. From this, as well as from the contextual contrast between Thessalonian believers and followers of the “lawless one” (v.8), it is clear that Paul expected doctrine to provide comfort also to believers. To be taught and developed properly, the enterprise of systematic theology should be undertaken for the strengthening of believers and out of love to the church.

It is true that Scripture itself does not offer us a systematic theology. But in 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14 and similar passages one sees the inevitable necessity of a coherent dogmatics, as well as many desiderata for the execution of the dogmatic task. Scripture does not give us a systematic theology, per se: but Scripture drives us to logically systematize the materials it gives, in a worshipful spirit, out of love, unto edification, and carrying out in practice the implications of the truths we coherently confess.

For Further Reading

Those interested in more about the need and place for systematic theology can consult, in addition to the various introductory sections to systematic or dogmatic theologies, two articles by B.B. Warfield, both found in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol 2 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1973):

[i] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), 16.

[ii] James Denney, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1892), 342.

[iii] Cf. the general argument to this effect by B.B. Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 2: Biblical Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), 133–172, esp. 143–147.

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2 Responses

  1. Daniel Ragusa

    Great article, Ruben! I came across this comment by John Murray regarding Romans 3:10-18, which got me thinking about what you wrote. Murray said, “The quotation in verses 10-18 is not derived from any one place in the Old Testament. The apostle places together various passages which when thus combined provide a unified summary of the witness of the Old Testament to the pervasive sinfulness of mankind” (The Epistle to the Romans, 102). I think even here you see Paul systematizing Old Testament revelation by unifying various parts around a particular doctrine. He’ll go on to draw conclusions not from a single, isolated passage, but from the combined witness of special revelation. In a way, he starts with the biblical-theological “line” to make a systematic-theological “circle.”

    1. Interesting point, Dan. I do think the whole process of “inner-biblical exegesis” (to cite Fishbane) is a major thread drawing us to correlate and summarize, and that is at least the first step in systematizing. When you add also the way John gives a propositional conclusion from historical events (1 John 1:5), there’s certainly warrant for deriving a systematic theology that is genuinely “ex Scriptura repetita” by a Biblically-motivated transformation of the Scriptural materials.

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