Studies in Theology: Clarifying The Central Structures of Systematic Theology

Fall 2001
Westminster Seminary
Tim Black
(These papers may be viewed online at

Primary Project:

Derivative Projects:


The four papers included in this compilation are an attempt to clarify some of the central structures in systematic theology in a biblical, orthodox manner, in line with the central development of the best of reformed theology to date, and toward its further development into the future. These studies try to show how we can continue to improve our systematic theology as a whole by attempting to trace these central structures more programmatically and more consciously as we treat the more specific, detailed, and less central issues in systematics.1 My intent has been to attempt to follow the pattern of scripture more closely than others have in the past, in order to enable others in the future to do so even better than I have been able. As much as I am able, I am doing this in the service of the church, and to the glory of God.

Let me just introduce the papers, then try to explain something of where I wouldn't mind people running with these ideas if they are going to run with them. : )

The papers

1) The first paper, God's Glory in the Covenant, argues that God's glory is central to all theology, even provides the core of the content and structure of all theology, and is expressed in scripture in a way that follows the structure of the covenant. I am saying that God's glory is coextensive with the covenant. I am also saying that God's glory is primary, and the covenant is secondary, and that from one perspective at least, there is nothing else in theology other than God's glory in the covenant. The effect for systematics is this: this paper places God's glory and the covenant at the very center of theology, and attempts to say that all theology fits within the structure they provide. This has been said before, but has it been done?2

2) The second paper, The Structure of Teaching Authority, from Trinity to Church to Family: The Reason for Male Teaching Eldership, may seem like it treats too specific an issue to be of value for my general project. But its argument is that the structure of the trinity--especially in regard to the nature and relation of universality and particularity in the Godhead--provides the central pattern for all aspects of creation. This pattern has to be fleshed out with content; systematic theology does this in an infinite number of ways, but nevertheless, if it is biblical, and thereby if it is truly orthodox theology, it manifests the pattern of the trinity throughout. Orthodoxy is trinitarian orthodoxy from start (theology proper!) to finish (eschatology!), or it is no orthodoxy at all. This provides the most powerful of arguments, and methods of arguments, against unbiblical theology, and the most conceptually clear of formulations of the pattern of orthodoxy.

This paper is intended to utilize this sort of method to "put the axe to the root," to use a friend's apt phrase, of the tendency here at the seminary and in the church at large to go against the teaching of scripture regarding men's and women's (wonderful, fulfilling, extensive, and excellent!!) roles in the family and the church.

A combination of the approaches of the two papers above is attempted in The Trinity and God's Glory in Salvation: A Biblical-Theological Examination of Revelation 21:22-24, an exegetical/biblical-theological paper which finds the structure of the trinity and of God's glory combined in the glory of the New Jerusalem of Rev. 21.

3) & 4) The third and fourth papers are two halves of one project. They were both written during the same semester, and I intended them to go together. Their titles are The Ten Commandments and the Covenant: Life According to God, and Let Us Be Perfect, As Our Heavenly Father Is Perfect: An Exegesis of The Last Three Petitions of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew. Their goal is to demonstrate what the systematic (but also historical--though I didn't emphasize that so much) structure of the covenant is, and to do so on the basis of exegesis. Covenant theology is still in need of much further work. Systematics can benefit greatly from understanding this structure in a more careful and systematic fashion, because it is constantly utilizing the concepts and interacting with the organization which I present in these two papers. However, no one, so far as I can determine, has outlined the organization of these concepts in the way I have in these two papers. These papers organize the covenant in the same way that the paper on the glory of God does, and assume throughout the pattern of the trinity (the relation of universality and particularity) especially in the way the papers present the relations between commitment and requirement, word and deed, and sovereign administration and responsible reception. These are relations of universality and particularity; to get them right you have to understand them to be patterned after the same pattern found in the trinity. Covenant theology needs this trinitarian influence to continue to grow more carefully, systematically, and structurally orthodox!

Other papers which argue for this same general pattern are one on John Owen's treatise on Spiritual Understanding (his outline of his hermeneutical method), and An Analysis of His Biblical Theology, which is his summary of theology and the study of theology.

Implications and Prospects

One implication of this general project is that it begins to show how scripture truly does present a Christian philosophy. Van Til criticized Dooyeweerd's philosophy in that it didn't attempt to gain its most important categories and organization from the categories and concepts presented in the message of scripture. Over against Dooyeweerd's somewhat speculative attempt at a Christian, and Reformed, philosophy, Van Til advocated a "Biblical Dimensionalism," which he could only begin to flesh out, and which he hoped others would work on developing in the future. The "dimensions" Van Til sought for his successors to outline were in his view, specifically, the categories of scripture's message, and explicitly not the categories of pagan philosophy. When Van Til references "dimensionalism," he often does so negatively, criticizing modern, Kantian "dimensionalism." He has in view here the way that Kant and modern philosophy, as well as ancient and medieval philosophy, tend to speak of two--yes, only two--dimensions. Or, they group sets of dimensions or aspects of reality into two general categories. Van Til used various terms to describe the characteristics of these two categories (logic-fact, rationalism-irrationalism, one-many, unity-diversity, necessity-contingency, absolute-personality, universal-concrete, phenomenal-noumenal, form-matter, grace-nature, etc.), but at the core of what he meant is precisely what I mean by the terms "universality" and "particularity." Van Til criticized the way unbelieving thought attempted to relate these two categories of dimensions, but he nevertheless was in full support of retaining a two-fold structure to organizing our sets of dimensions. Van Til was saying that we should seek to fill our biblically-based philosophy with all of scripture's concepts, in all their unique differences and arrangements, but also at the same time pay careful regard to the way that the central issues of philosophy are concerned with the relations of relatively "universal" things (dimensions) to relatively "particular" things. He was emphasizing that we should speak of universality and particularity, and of their relation, in the way scripture speaks of them. When I sound philosophical in these papers, this is precisely what I am doing. I am trying to do this exegetically. I made a foray into doing this with Dooyeweerd's system in a paper titled A Transcendental Analysis and Critique of Dooyeweerd’s Distinction between Na´ve and Theoretical Thought. (The paper needs some more research, and is not so exegetical and systematic as it is philosophical. I recognize it is very weak in these regards.)

God's glory, the covenant, and the pattern of the trinity, then provide the central structures and content of a biblical philosophy. I'd like to see more productive work done developing analyses of philosophical structures and issues, critiques of unbiblical philosophy, and cogent, convincing arguments in support of the biblical system (in some of the aspects I've outlined here) over against philosophical systems. A place to begin would be to write a Reformed history of philosophy. Any takers? : ) Dooyeweerd and Van Til have set a good foundation for that; Krabbendam has written some brief outlines of it which I consider excellent, but where's the book? : )

Another implication of these papers is that the structure of scripture's message is both systematic and historical in nature, and that to understand the one aspect of its message you must at the same time be understanding the other. I would like to see this done more often. Biblical theology (studying the history of revelation and redemption) is used by some to destroy systematics, and vice versa, but it was not so from the beginning! Let's not let it be in the end, either. After all, it won't be. : )

These papers work out many of the assumptions and foundations of my senior project at Covenant College, The Biblical Hermeneutics of Geerhardus Vos: An Analysis, Critique, and Reconstruction, which tried to (sympathetically!) analyze, critique, and reconstruct Geerhardus Vos's hermeneutics from a Van Tillian perspective, with an emphasis on the implications of the structure of the covenant and of the trinitarian relation of universality and particularity, presented however briefly in these papers. The central concerns I had with Vos were 1) that his view of history and progress borrows too much from 19th Century German Historicism, and 2) that he tends to relate the relatively "heavenly" and "earthly" throughout his writings in a relatively "particularistic" and "universalistic" manner, a construction which is in some ways similar to the Freedom-Nature dialectical polarity Dooyeweerd and Van Til find in modern thought. As such he realizes the centrality of treating universality and particularity (unity and diversity, being and flux) as they come to expression in the way historical progress and development work, but does not deal as biblically, carefully, and systematically with those issues as he could. In both cases I see problematic parallels between his thought and modern philosophy. The central problem is that both Vos's thought and the history of unbelieving thought have a tendency to construe universality and particularity to be related in a dialectical manner, such that they simultaneously mutually presuppose and mutually exclude each other. In the final analysis this is a denial of the trinity, and spells the death of any system of thought. (But I have the greatest appreciation for Vos's work of bringing the discipline of biblical theology into Reformed academia!) Even if my analysis and critique of Vos are misplaced, they nonetheless apply to other hermeneutical systems out there which go by the name of biblical theology, and as such, a careful Van Tillian critique and reconstruction would go far toward helping the church appropriate the good in the (still young and developing) field of biblical theology and sift out the bad. To properly understand universality and particularity as they are found throughout biblical theology, we must more faithfully trace the pattern of the trinity (synchronically) in the systematic structure of the covenant at every stage of the history of the covenant, and (diachronically) in the way that the covenant develops progressively over time.

I'd like to do (or see) some more work on the implications these papers have for theological and hermeneutical method, and not just content and structure. Van Til set the course I am following, and I believe my work has followed very much the center of his concerns, method, and system of thought, but it has tried to go beyond him in some ways. What does this imply for our method? I'm not interested in doing something different than Van Til so much as seeing if this can give more specificity and focus to his kind of methodology. The pattern of the trinity has quite powerful implications for how we should argue. The structure of the covenant shows some of the relations of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and of their own central structures, which I think have some implications for our method which I already began to work out in the papers.

I am not alone in this attempt, nor am I independent of the work of others; rather, I am following Dr. Henry Krabbendam, who follows Van Til. My dependence upon Van Til is by way of dependence upon the teaching and writing of Dr. Krabbendam. More specifically, the emphasis in these papers on the trinitarian relation of universality and particularity and its implications is drawn from Dr. Van Til through Dr. Krabbendam's development of Van Til's thought. Most of the rest of what is found in these papers is either a summary and clarification of prolegomenary issues central to the fabric of Dr. Krabbendam's thought, or is a development and reformulation of the content of Dr. Krabbendam's thought. I believe that where these papers say something Dr. Krabbendam has not said, he would nevertheless heartily agree that they remain in line with his central and controlling concerns. Over the past few years, it has become clear to me that there is hardly any significant aspect of Dr. Krabbendam's thought which is not similarly a dependent, faithful development of Dr. Van Til's thought. Dr. Van Til likewise is developing the center of Reformed theology, as well as of orthodox Christian theology. As such, I consider these papers to be a faithful clarification and development of the central structures of Reformed, and orthodox Christian, theology. These papers are an attempt to improve the whole of Christian theology, by improving its theological prolegomena. These papers, then, are about theological prolegomena.

Here are some examples of issues and methodological concerns for which the structure of the covenant could provide some benefit: The priority of word-revelation over deed-revelation must be maintained in our personal lives, our corporate worship, but also in our doing theology, even in doing biblical theology: Which comes first, the text or the event? It depends on whether you're talking about them in regard to metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics. Events as (metaphysical) "beings" ("the indicative") come before events as (epistemological) objects of knowledge, in regard to metaphysics. Also in regard to metaphysics, events as rooted in God's commitments ("the indicative") come first, and verbal commands as rooted in God's requirements ("the imperative") come second. Yet in regard to the order of epistemology, events as referents (still, "the indicative"--indicates the problem of equivocation here) come second to words as the things which refer to the referents ("the imperative"), due to the nature of predication: words are predicated of deeds. We need to distinguish our epistemological concern with events as referents from our metaphysical concern with events as "beings" or entities. Metaphysics (which involves events) retains a priority over epistemology (which involves words), yet words retain an epistemological priority over deed-events. Similarly, which comes first, law or grace, law or promise, faith or repentance/obedience? The structure of the covenant gives more than one answer, depending on what parts of the covenant the question has in view. Similar comments could be made about every aspect of the ordo salutis. Being clear to distinguish the aspects of the covenant in the way I have done goes a long way toward resolving the debates in these and other issues. Covenant theology can benefit greatly from these considerations, as well; the relations of promise-law, sovereignty-responsibility, blessing-curse, and unconditionality-conditionality all follow the pattern of the relation of universality and particularity; this must be understood to understand the covenant as it is presented in scripture. Further, the historical relations of earlier and later, beginning and end (Alpha and Omega, protos and eschatos, arche and telos), initiation and outflow/continuation, promise and fulfillment, and unity and diversity over time follow this pattern as well; again, it is imperative that biblical theology as well as covenant theology carefully understand the relations of universality and particularity so central to their subject matter, in order to fully honor the scriptures, and bring full glory to the trinitarian God whose word they are!

These are some of the implications and directions in which I see these papers taking me, and in which they could take others as well. Any recommendations?

Note: This Greek and this Hebrew font will let you see the Greek and Hebrew text in some of the papers.

1Of course, I do not mean that other structures are not equally as central as the ones I treat in these papers! But these are central, and have never been formulated quite this way before.

2I have not had the chance to work this out in detail yet, but I recently realized that it seems the first 3 petitions of the Lord's prayer follow the structure of the glory of God as I have outlined it in this paper. So, here is a summary of this idea, and hopefully later I can incorporate it into these papers:

The glory of God in the covenant structures both sets of petitions. We hallow God's name in that we exalt Him as the (metaphysical) God over, above, prior to and outside of all creation. We pray for His kingdom to come because we desire His kingdom-rule to be increasingly exercised and thereby manifested throughout creation; this emphasizes the relationship God sustains to His creation--especially, His communication to His creation--whereby He (epistemologically) reveals Himself through that kingdom-rule. (Recall that the coming of the kingdom is very much the progressive and glorious revelation of God the King.) Lastly, we pray for His will to be done, as the implementation of that kingdom rule in all the ethical activity of His creatures as the outworking and most creation-ward result of God's own ethical activity; this is where the "rubber" of the hallowed God and of His kingdom-rule meet the "road" of His creation; the focus here is on the ethical implementation of God's glory throughout all creation, on earth as it is in heaven. There is in the first 3 petitions a vertical line starting with God, extending through His kingdom-rule, and ending in the implementation and results of that kingdom-rule. In these first 3 petitions we are, then, praying for God to maintain His glory throughout His own metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics as they come to expression in His covenant, through the exercise of His kingdom-rule; the focus is on God and His administration of the covenant. The last 3 petitions are then the specific ordo salutis ways and means by which God implements this kingdom-rule for His glory. The combination of the two facts that the last 3 petitions focus on the aspects of the ordo salutis (relating to man), and that they are petitions (having the character of reception), highlights that these last petitions express man's reception of God's metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. In this context, the closing doxology ("for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever") comes into sharper focus: we pray these petitions because of the full reality of (the metaphysical) God's (epistemological?) kingdom-rule, and because of the active reality of God's (ethical) power, and because from its origin in God, through the process of its implementation, to the final goal of redounding to God's praise in all things, we see that God's glory throughout all things discussed in the Lord's prayer is from Him, through Him, and to Him, so we cry at the end of the doxology, to Him be the glory forever!

The glory of God in the covenant structures the whole Lord's Prayer. In the prologue of the Prayer we His people address and call upon God as God, and our God. In the first 3 petitions we call upon Him to maintain His glory in the covenant with respect to Himself, and in the last 3 petitions we call upon Him to maintain His glory in the covenant with respect to ourselves. In the closing doxology, we base our prayer and petitions upon the certain reality that God does maintain His glory in the covenant, and we give our most hearty assent and accord with what God is doing, that His glory may be maintained forever.

The glory of God in the covenant structures the whole perspective outlined in these papers. In other words, the treatment of the doctrine of God's glory at the beginning of these studies (paper # 1) leads only to its reappearance at the end (paper # 4)--quite clearly though implicitly in the first 3 petitions of the Lord's prayer, and quite climactically and explicitly in its doxology. Theology is doxology from beginning to end!