In connection with Dr. K. Runia’s thoughts on “The Joy of Systematic Theology” (“The Banner,” June 20, 1969, pp. 18, 19), I cannot escape the impression that underlying all that he writes is a faulty understanding of the very nature and task of dogmatics. It is true that Dr. Runia writes only very briefly,—far too briefly, in my opinion, for such an important subject. It is also true that he betrays somewhat of a tendency to vacillate and to hesitate, even to the point of contradiction at times; and this makes it somewhat difficult to grasp his precise meaning and understanding of dogmatics. It is also true that he fails utterly to give any definition of what he calls systematic theology. But both from what he writes and from what he fails to write his ideas of the nature and task of dogmatics are rendered severely suspect. At best Runia is extremely vague and ambiguous, and at worst his suggestions hint at a denial of the true character of Reformed dogmatics.
First of all, let me call attention to Dr. Runia’s reference to the alleged systematic theology of the apostle Paul. Writes he:
Perhaps the best example of this kind of systematic theology one finds in the epistles of the apostle Paul. It may be objected that Paul was not a systematic theologian but one of the organs of revelation; that in his epistles we do not have a sample of systematic theology but part of God’s revelation to his church. We fully grant this. No later theologian, not even an Augustine or a Luther or a Calvin, was on a par with Paul. In Paul’s epistles we have to do with the Word of God. But is it nevertheless not true that Paul, in his special apostolic way, was dealing with profound dogmatical questions, and may we not, from this angle, speak of his “theology” or even “systematic theology”?
Now it is true that Runia tries to maintain a distinction between systematic theology and revelation. It is also true that later he writes that “It is obvious, of course, that in our systematic theology we cannot simply imitate Paul,” and calls attention to the fact that “In our systematic theology we are dealing with all these matters in a scientific way, which necessarily means that the element of abstraction and objectivity enters into the discussion.” However, it seems rather obvious that Runia contradicts himself at this point. For although he seems to recognize a difference between Paul’s epistles and systematic theology, he nevertheless states in question form that it is proper to speak of Paul’s theology and even of his systematic theology. Not only so, but while, on the one hand, he states that we cannot simply imitate Paul in our systematic theology, on the other hand, he calls Paul’s alleged systematic theology “the best example of this kind of systematic theology,” that is, the kind of systematic theology which Dr. Runia favors. To say the least, this is strange and contradictory reasoning. Paul was not a systematic theologian and did not write systematic theology, but it is nevertheless proper to speak of his systematic theology? Paul’s alleged systematic theology is perhaps the best example of this kind of systematic theology, and yet we must not simply imitate that alleged best example? This, to me, is double talk, sheer nonsense. I repeat: it cannot but lead to a topsy-turvy joy.
The simple fact is that the Bible (whether in Paul’s epistles or any other part) is not a systematic theology, is not a book of doctrine, is not a compilation of doctrines in systematic form and expressed in dogmatic terms. It is the record of the historical revelation of, God to His people. It is revelation woven into the texture of the earthly and historical development of God’s church in the world. And it is precisely the task of dogmatics and the dogmatician not simply to repeat and imitate Scripture, nor to look for a systematics in Scripture, but to present the truth as it is in the Scripture systematically, to compare the system of dogma critically with Scripture, demonstrate its harmony with the Word of God, and by means of a study of Scripture to enrich and bring the dogma of the church to a fuller development.
In the second place, I call attention to the total lack of all mention of the confessions of the church and the total lack of all reference to the dogmas of the church catholic and the dogmas of Runia’s own denomination, i.e., the dogmas of the Reformed churches. I cannot help thinking that this is no accidental omission. Whether it is connected with the fact that Runia speaks of systematic theology rather than of dogmatics, I know not. But I am tremendously suspicious when in connection with the joy of systematic theology and a discussion of the proper method and purpose of theology there is absolutely no reference to dogmas and to the confessions. For not only would Runia have been guarded against his attack on so-called “ontological” theology if he had referred only casually to the confessions, which are replete with “ontology.” But he also renders himself suspect of being a devotee of the method of so-called Biblical theology. He completely ignores the fact that the dogmatician does not labor individualistically; does not ignore the work of the Spirit in the church of the past, but labors both as organically connected with the church throughout the ages and as a member of a particular church in the present, and. that therefore the dogmatician in the nature of the case works with dogma, with the dogmas of the church catholic as well as with the dogmas of his own denomination.
In the third place, I am not impressed favorably by Runia’s reference to theology being “existential,” especially not when he attempts to draw a contrast between this and “abstract” analysis. This contrast he draws repeatedly in his attempted demonstration of Paul’s alleged systematic theology in the epistle to the Romans. And my unfavorable impression is fortified when I read the following about Romans 9-11: “When in the next three chapters the apostle deals with the mystery of election, he again avoids all abstract reasoning about an eternal decree and the ontological problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but he discusses it as a reality in the history of Israel and in the life of God’s people.” Does Runia want merely a historical election (and reprobation, which he does not mention)? What is that “mystery of election” which Paul allegedly discusses as a reality in the history of Israel? Is it eternal? Is it a degree of God? Is it sovereign? Must, or must not, systematic theology give answers to these questions? This is the more important with respect to Dr. Runia’s understanding of dogmatics because of the clear sympathy which he evinces elsewhere for the arguments of those Reformed theologians in the Netherlands who attack the Canons of Dordrecht and especially the doctrine of reprobation.
On the other hand, if all that Runia means to emphasize is that dogmatics is related to faith, that the dogmatician can properly labor only in faith, that in his theologizing he deals with those dogmas in which he finds the purest expression of his own faith, and that dogmatics seeks to give objective expression and enrichment to the content of the Christian faith (that which it is necessary for a Christian to believe), then he could have said this in a much more explicit and unambiguous manner. And then I would agree. But I would also emphasize that the believers’ minds can only appropriate the truth of Scripture in the way of logical contemplation, and that if theology (of the dogmatician and of the church) does not present the truth of the Scriptures in objective and systematic form, the individual believer and the church stand to lose their moorings completely and to drift into the dangerous waters of a contentless faith.
I am indeed sorry that Dr. Runia does not make positively clear what he understands to be the meaning and the task of dogmatics. Does he lean in the direction of the biblical-theological method? Has he been influenced by Dr. Berkouwer’s kerugma-faith correlativity? Is there a tinge of Barthian existentialism and dialecticism in his ideas? Who can tell?
But, in conclusion, I would like to see Dr. Runia begin at the beginning if he wants to criticize the Reformed Dogmatics of Herman Hoeksema. Let him criticize this definition for a starter: “Dogmatics is that theological discipline in which the dogmatician, in organic connection with the church in the past as well as in the present, purposes to elicit from the Scriptures the true knowledge of God, to set forth the same in systematic form, and, after comparison of the existing dogmas with Scripture, to bring the knowledge of God to a higher state of development.” Personally, I find joy,—the joy of faith,—in that kind of dogmatics.