By benefiting from the wonder of online connectability, theology online—on FaceBook or blogs such as this one—is able to meet a number of important contemporary needs. Using such platforms, Christian writers are able to respond instantly to just about anything of interest to the church. We can open dialogue, defend a particular view, call other Christians to attention, appeal to the general public, articulate a biblical approach or critique, and exchange ideas freely, on any issue at any time.
Another virtue of digital theology is its ability to engage readers who for one reason or another are otherwise difficult to reach. In China, for example, where public Christian teaching and the publication of Christian literature are touchy undertakings, many social media platforms, being virtually impossible to regulate, deliver loads of Christian content where otherwise little or none would be available.
One thing the online format does not do is evoke worthwhile original content. Significant, enduring theology doesn’t find a natural home online. The best rapid responses to contemporary issues are those that excel merely in selecting from the trove of historical theological teaching the best effective, faithful word at the right time—like queuing up the right song for the right occasion. And think of it this way: if I were just handed control of English Literature 101 at the local university, what would you think if I decided to require the class to read all and only my own short stories? Only deluded self-obsession could be behind that strategy. How much more if all of the sudden I could reach a million eager readers—or even just one—who had until that moment minimal exposure to Christian thought and I simply overlooked the teaching of Augustine, Calvin, and the great teachers that the Lord Himself has provided for his church. In fact, the very best I can do as a communicator, one who is supposed to be faithful to the sole head of the church, is to deliver as effectively as possible to a given audience the doctrinal reaches Christ Himself has delivered through His teachers throughout the ages. One might say it this way: a theologian’s first job is to do no harm to the theological heritage entrusted to him. Can we change anything? No doubt; but in most cases change should be by patient, extended scrutiny of doctrine in light of Scripture, and that as an ecclesiastically self-conscience exercise (not on one’s own).
The medium—the online vehicle—should be just that, the medium; it should not be mistaken for the point and purpose. Many folks who write online seem to have mistaken opportunity and means for merit. If microphones and amplifiers go on sale at Emart or Target, that does not mean that everyone who makes the purchase must have something important to say. It just means that the neighborhood is about to get really noisy. All the more reason for the Christian whose words and deeds belong to Christ and His church to be judicious in his use of the spiffy new medium. The last thing the church needs is increased dogmatic noise.
In light of all that, in this post I’ll introduce an essay by B. B. Warfield. Based on what I’ve read of Warfield, I would expect that there are very few pages of his vast output that alone are not both more beautifully written and more biblically and theologically profound than any or every bit of theology I have or will produce in my modest contribution to our common cause. This particular essay, titled “The Indispensableness of Systematic Theology for the Preacher,” is exemplary as a piece of historical theology (it was published in 1897) that is significant, biblically faithful, and though somewhat aged still as relevant as the day Warfield wrote it; and it is masterful, beautiful English prose, if you’re into that sort of thing. You’ll also notice that the contemporary issue which Warfield addresses in this essay is still a live one, the same as that which as I just noted ails the online theological culture: swapping the medium or the method for the substance, majoring in style and personality instead of substance. Warfield saw this problem in the pulpits in the late 19th century, just as we can see it on the blogs—and in the pulpits, too—still today.
Click here to download a pdf of Warfield’s article; and here is a brief synopsis:
Warfield’s thesis is, no secret, that systematic theology is indispensable for the preacher, or for preaching. Let me expand it somewhat: systematic theology, properly understood, is essential for good preaching and faithful ministry. The problem, Warfield notes right from the beginning, is that much preaching and many preachers during Warfield’s time lacked theological substance; preachers were more concerned with all the mechanics of dynamic and authentic delivery than they were with the actual content of preaching. Some had even gone so far as to claim that doctrine was rather unimportant for preaching as compared to sincerity and passion—cold, wooden doctrine was no gospel; what we need is love for Jesus. Something like that. Warfield says it this way:
It has been argued that the business of the preacher is to make Christians, not theologians; and that for this he needs not a thorough systematic knowledge of the whole circle of what is called Christian doctrine, but chiefly a firm faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and a warm love toward him as Lord. His function is a practical, not a theoretical one; and it matters little how ignorant he may be or may leave his hearers, so only he communicates to them the faith and love that burn in his own heart. Not learning but fervor is what is required . . .
Again, this is the view that Warfield disagrees with. Here he presents the view he will challenge.
Warfield emphasizes the fact that even if a preacher claims to value a pure and biblically faithful gospel, still oftentimes in preaching other emphases eclipse biblical truth. Doctrine may be disregarded for the sake of authenticity or devalued for the sake of emotive display; doctrine is loosely or haphazardly dashed off while something winsome but dangerously undefined or misrepresented takes center stage—something like ‘unconditional love’.
Warfield says that some preachers claim that doctrine is not important; they openly deride doctrine, waving the distortion just mentioned: heartless theory vs real love. This strategy is rather naïve, reckless, and self-centered. He also argues, pretty much, that accidental, well-intended, neglect of doctrine—a more forgivable naivete, perhaps—is effectively just as deleterious, if not as self-centered. Warfield says that even if a preacher doesn’t articulate doctrine, still he will convey doctrine; he will teach it without stating it explicitly. So it is best to teach good doctrine. Pastor A openly rejects doctrinal clarity; pastor B doesn’t know or doesn’t make a self-conscious point to preach any doctrine. The point is that pastor B isn’t doing any better for his congregation than pastor A. Warfield says:
It cannot be a matter of indifference, therefore, what doctrines we preach or whether we preach any doctrines at all. We cannot preach at all without preaching doctrine; and the type of religious life which grows up under our preaching will be determined by the nature of the doctrines which we preach.
Later he adds:
A mutilated gospel produces mutilated lives, and mutilated lives are positive evils.
But anyway, this is the issue that caught Warfield’s attention and which is the subject of his essay. It is not for no reason that he has decided to defend the indispensableness of systematic theology for preaching; doctrine is life.
As one might hope, Warfield tells us what he means by systematic theology:
Systematic Theology is nothing other than the saving truth of God presented in systematic form.
It must be mentioned that Warfield’s thesis—that systematic theology is indispensable for the preacher—and every component of his argument assume this definition, that theology is nothing but the gospel in its full biblical richness analyzed and presented in an organized fashion. If, on the other hand, someone’s theology contains heavy portions of human imagination or of autonomous speculation or of religious syncretism or corrupt doctrine whatever—it is no longer indispensable or even useful; it is corrosive and harmful. Sadly, theology is often taught this way. Systematic theology in some corners has a bad reputation of being impractical. There are two explanations for this: people simply say it is impractical; or it actually is. But if systematic theology is the science of the gospel of the Christ of the Bible, it is the most practical thing in the world.
The more I write the more of the reader’s time I take; and that time is better spent on Warfield.
“The Indispensableness of Systematic Theology to the Preacher” was first published in the Homiletic Review (February 1897): 99-105. It was republished as follows:
Warfield, Benjamin B. “The Indispensableness of Systematic Theology to the Preacher.” In Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield—II. 2 volumes. Edited by John E. Meeter, 2:280–88. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980.