Topsy-Turvy Joy From “Down Under” (2)

In the September 1 issue we examined Dr. Runia’s alleged example of what the calls a “static-ontological” method of theologizing and also his counter-example of what he chooses to call a “dynamic-relational” method of theologizing. And we found that by following the latter method and applying it to the truth of God’s immutability Dr. Runia turns theology upside-down, changing God’s unchangeability into changeableness. Hence, we concluded that his “joy of systematic theology” is a topsy-turvy joy. 

But there are deep and fundamental differences with respect to the method of dogmatics, and, I fear, with respect to the very definition of dogmatics, which lie at the basis of Runia’s illustration. In his article in “The Banner” Dr. Runia apparently tries to soften the impact of what he writes by see-sawing somewhat between the two methods, hesitating to choose forthrightly for one or the other. Yet, in the first place, he in effect chooses the so-called “dynamic-relational” method, and with dire consequences, in his illustration. In the second place, he puts the so-called “static-ontological” method in a bad light. And, in the third place, while he apparently refuses to draw an absolute contrast and prefers to speak of a difference of emphasis, he himself states that “we must immediately add that this difference in emphasis makes all the difference in the systematic theology which is the outcome.” With the fact that there is a difference in the systematic theology which is the outcome of these methods I certainly agree. I would warn that there is a vast difference. This is plain from the illustration which, we discussed last time. And I would warn that Reformed theologians should by all means avoid the methodology of Runia: for it will, if followed to its ultimate consequences, mean the certain death of Reformed theology. Moreover, I suspect that in the article referred to Dr. Runia gives voice to ideas which are rather widely held in the Reformed community, both here and in the Netherlands. I recognize no little similarity, for example, between Dr. Runia’s ideas and those of Dr. Henry Stob, who in connection with the so-called “Dekker Case” proposed what I dubbed an “anti-abstract theological method.” Some of these same thoughts are voiced, too, by representatives of the Association for the Advancement of Christian Studies (formerly ARSS). And I recognize in Runia’s thoughts a striking similarity to the thinking of men like Berkouwer and Pohnan, for whose ideas on the Canons of Dordrecht, and particularly on election and reprobation, Dr. Runia shows no little sympathy in his chapter in the bookCrisis in the Reformed Churches. Hence, this question of method and of one’s whole outlook on dogmatics is an important one. It goes to the very heart of Reformed theology. And it is worthwhile to point out some of the serious flaws in what Dr. Runia proposes. 

Faulty Method 

Any analysis of Dr. Runia’s ideas about systematic theology (dogmatics) necessarily is made difficult by the fact that Dr. Runia continually vacillates between what he conceives to be the two possible-methods of theologizing, as well as by the fact that he is altogether vague in his descriptions and lacking in definition. This is not good: one of the prime requisites of a good theologian is clarity and conciseness, the ability to say what he means and to mean what he says. But let us try to determine what the doctor is trying to tell us, and then to put it to the test. 

In the first place, he speaks of a “static-ontological” method. He fails to define this alleged method. But he furnishes a description which is, to my mind, calculated utterly to discredit the method. For one thing, he claims that it views the Bible as “a storehouse of revealed truths.” For another, he does what so many try to do in our time, that is, shove the old-style Reformed theology into the shoes of “medieval scholasticism.” Another element of caricature in his description is that of abstractness. And in this same connection he speaks of “rational speculation.” Then, too, there is his use of the term static. Now Dr. Runia fails to say what he means by this term. I gather, however, that he does not use it in a favorable sense: for he uses it in contrast todynamic. Hence, it appears that he uses it in the dictionary’s connotation of “characterized by, a lack of movement, animation, or progression,”—in other words, dead, and therefore, as he suggests, dull and boring and uninspiring. Now if there is such a theology and theological method as Runia here describes, I would surely agree with his rejection thereof. But do not forget that he uses as a prime example of this alleged method the “Reformed Dogmatics” of Herman Hoeksema. And then I object that Dr. Runia creates a caricature, a straw man, that he proceeds to tear down that straw man, thinking that he is actually tearing down the genuine product, and thereby casting aspersions upon that genuine product. Let me point out in this connection the following: 

1) That no soundly Reformed theology (Herman Hoeksema’s included) views the Bible as “a storehouse of revealed truths,” but as the living revelation of the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ, Whom to know is life eternal. 

2) That it is a contradiction in terms to speak of a theology which analyzes and further develops the truth as being static, i.e., characterized by lack of movement, animation, or progression. Where there is development and enrichment, there is movement and progression. If, however, by “static” Dr. Runia should happen to mean “showing little change,” then I would warn that there are far too many disciples of change on the theological scene today, and that more than ever it is the calling of the church not to be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, but to hold fast the faith once delivered to the saints. 

3) That it is just exactly the duty of dogmatics, to use Runia’s term, to be “ontological,” to concern itself with such questions as: who and what is God? What are His attributes? What are His works? What is man? What is sin? Who is Christ? What is the covenant? etc;, etc. Further, that there can be no living, spiritual knowledge of God in Christ without an objectivecontent of that knowledge; and that, all other things being equal, the more we know and understand aboutGod, the richer and more firm our knowledge of God will be. In this same connection, let me point out that it is not the first duty of dogmatics as a theological discipline to answer the question, “What does it meanto us?” but to answer the question, ‘What does itmean?” 

4) That one must not confuse “abstract” with “objective,” nor rational (reasonable) with rationalistic. To speak of and. to set forth the truth concerning God-as-He-is-hi-Himself in the light of His Self-revelation is not to be abstract; it is simply to fulfill the task of dogmatics to set forth in systematic form the truth concerning God. 

5) That not only many Reformed theologians from the time of the Reformation under Calvin until today, but also our confessions themselves abound with the kind of theology which Dr. Runia deprecates in his “The Joy of Systematic Theology.” I am thinking, as far as the confessions are concerned, not only of the Canons (of which Dr. Runia is critical) but also of our Netherland Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. To cite but one example, think of the opening article of our Netherland Confession: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite; almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.” Talk about ontological theology! 

In the second place, Dr. Runia presents and recommends what he calls “dynamic-relational” theologizing. However, he utterly fails to define what he means by this high-sounding language. This is my first objection. Dr. Runia does indeed attempt some kind of description in the following sentences: “Here the main emphasis is on the dynamic nature of the biblical revelation. In the biblical message God addresses us, not to communicate certain truths as such, but to change our lives by the living truth of his self-revelation. Although we do not deny that in this self-revelation we are also told who God is, who Christ is, who the Holy Spirit is, (this is the element of truth in the static-ontological way of thinking), yet this ontological aspect is always seen in relation to what the message of salvation does to us.” But what does Runia mean by “dynamic” in this connection? And what does he mean by “the dynamic nature of biblical revelation?” He fails to tell us. And what does all this have to do with an alleged dynamic-relational way of theologizing? We are not told. Nor are we informed precisely what Dr. Runia means by “relational” theologizing. Does he mean, perhaps, that theology must always be construed in terms of God’s relation to men, or even His people? Or, if the latter must not characterize theology always and entirely, must this be at least themain emphasis? Then I have many and serious objections.

1) I object that this is contrary, in the first place, to the very term theology. Theology is knowledge of, or doctrine of, GOD. This is its fundamental nature always. This is not only true of that particular locus of dogmatics which we call theology and which treats the doctrine concerning God (His Being, His names and attributes, His Persons, His counsel). This is essentially true of all dogmatics. It is all, in the deepest sense of the word, theology. Also the remaining five divisions of dogmatics have to do in a very real sense with the knowledge of God! To deny or to ignore this is to deny the fundamental nature of theology. As the Rev. H. Hoeksema puts it on page 25 of his “Reformed Dogmatics”:

Anthropology is concerned with man only as a work of God and in relation to Him, both in his state of rectitude and in his fallen condition. Christology aims to set forth the knowledge of Christ as the Son of God in the flesh, the revelation of the God of our salvation, in Whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. Soteriology is indeed concerned with man’s salvation, but only as a revelation of the living God, Who not only calls the things that are not as if they were, but Who also raises the dead, calls light out of darkness, and changes shame into everlasting glory. Ecclesiology deals with the gathering, preservation, and perfecting of the church, but again as the realization of God’s eternal purpose of election, and the perfecting of His tabernacle, the house of God, where He dwells with His people in covenant fellowship forever. And Eschatology treats of the final revelation of Jesus Christ and the perfect salvation and redemption of all things, but only as the consummation and perfection of the works of God and the revelation of the perfect theodicy. Everything in the theological discipline of dogmatics, therefore, is to be viewed sub specie dei, as a revelation of the living God. And the dogmaticians of the Reformed faith properly placed the doctrine concerning God at the head of the different loci of dogmatics.

In effect, Dr. Runia wants to turn this right around, and view the knowledge of God always in relation to what “the message of salvation does to us.” Anyone who does this should no longer really speak of systematictheology: for basically he is not construing dogmatics as theology. 

2) Closely connected with the above is my second objection, namely, that Runia’s position, if followed to its consequences, makes all theology impossible. For it denies or ignores the truth that God Himself is the principle of being and the principle of knowing of all knowledge of God. God Himself is the perfect subject as well as the infinitely perfect object of His own knowledge. Also in this sense theology is indeed in the deepest sense of the word THEOLOGY, knowledge of God. This God-as-He-is-in-Himself, the knowing God, the perfect Subject and the perfect Object of His own knowledge, is the very principle of all knowledge of God in the creature. Call this ontological, if you will; or call it “metaphysical,” to use another term in current disrepute. But I insist that theology, to be true to its nature, must in no sense of the word ever forget that it is pre-eminently concerned with God’s SELF-revelation. 

3) Dr. Runia, on the other hand, wants to construe theology in terms of salvation, that is, soteriologically. According to him, the main emphasis is upon the fact that God addresses us “to change our lives by the living truth of his self-revelation.” Or, we must always view theology in terms of its relation “to what the message of salvation does to us.” Essentially,—although I am sure Dr. Runia would not want to accept this consequence,—this is humanism. Follow this through, and you will first end in the camp of Arminian universalism; and from thence you will find yourself in the camp of the modernist-humanist. And the result will be the destruction of all true theology. Or, if the transition is not via the Arminian camp, perhaps it will be a direct jump into the universalistic camp of German dialectic theology (a la Karl Barth). 

4) Although Dr. Runia uses the term “relational,” nevertheless, when I look at the example which he furnishes, in which he applies the so-called “dynamic-relational” method to the doctrine of God’s immutability, I greatly fear that he is headed in the direction of relativism. For while he desperately tries to cling somehow to the idea that God is unchangeable, yet he essentially denies the unchangeability of God in any absolute sense and makes it relative, balancing precariously on the fulcrum of human changeability, i.e., human sin and/or repentance. 

In all that I have written, I do not at all mean to say that theology is a barren, purely intellectual discipline. The knowledge of God is living, spiritual knowledge indeed. But it is always knowledge of God! Nor have I said that theology has no significance with respect to the living faith of God’s people, the gospel, the salvation of God’s people, the comfort and assurance of God’s people. But, in the first place, we must not confuse theologizing and preaching, in the latter of which the practical, spiritual significance of the truths of God’s Word must always have a place. And, in the second place, even in dogmatics itself, when the significance of the doctrine concerning God for various other aspects of the truth is made plain, this must be done in its proper place. In other words, the system of dogmatics must not be ignored. When developing the doctrine of God’s attributes, one must not, for example, diverge into the significance of all these attributes for the doctrine of salvation. This can only lead to chaotic theology, not systematic theology. 

Finally, I must say a word about Dr. Runia’s use of the terms “biblical revelation” and “biblical message.” I am not asserting that he is an adherent of the new theology with respect to Scripture; I hope he is not. But terms like this make me suspicious nowadays. They leave open the possibility that he who uses such terms is addicted to the view of a “kerygma-wrappings” distinction, the view that the Bible is not in its entirety the Word of God. The best that can be said for such language (especially when its author shows an affinity for the new theology in other respects) is that it ought to be more specific. 

I had intended to criticize Runia’s view of dogmatics also; but this will have to wait unto the next issue.