Does doctrinal precision have a place in the life of the church? Shouldn’t citing the Bible, chapter and verse, be enough? This is another way of asking, “Do systematic theology and confessions have a place in the life of the church?” There has been a reaction against systematics in recent theological discussion. There is a “back to the Bible” movement that we are seeing. In many ways this is understandable and good. Whenever man creates a system there is always the danger that his system will trump what God’s Word says. We need men to stand up and say, “I am not sure the Scriptures actually teach that.” But when that man stands up and does that there is a subtle, but deadly assumption, that the man has no systematic theology. We think, “Here is a man who is just using the Bible without any creed or confession.” But this is false assumption. Just like every church has a liturgy, every man has a systematic theology.
I want to use I John 4:2 as an example of why systematic theology and confessions are not just necessary, but inevitable.
Here is I John 4:1-3
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
In this passage John tells his readers to make sure they do not suck down every bit of theology they hear because there are false prophets who bring false doctrine. Therefore teaching must be tested. John gives them a very specific test: Do these teachers confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?
If we ask someone do they believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh and they say, “Yes” is that enough? Have they fulfilled what John requires of true teacher? Is that as far as the testing needs to go? The answer is, “No.” A Mormon could agree with that bare statement. So could a Muslim on some level. A liberal Christian who believes that Jesus was a just a good moral example might agree with this. In fact if you paraphrased it, “Did a man named Jesus Christ live on earth 2,000 years ago” millions of people could answer in the affirmative and not be confessing what John is saying.
There must be follow up discussion. There must be a systematic discussion of who Jesus was, what it means that he came, and what it means that he came in the flesh.
Was he truly God? Was he truly man? Did he come from God? Was he created? Is he the Christ, that is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament and come to fruition in the New? Was he just a good man, a great prophet, a great moral example? One could even ask, especially in light John’s teaching, did he come to offer Himself as a sacrifice for man’s sins? For John the terms Jesus, Christ, flesh, and even came all have specific meaning that can only be filled out by using other texts of Scripture.
That is what systematic theology and confessions do. They take a topic like “Jesus” gather all the Biblical data on the subject and try to give what the Scriptures say about that topic. These systematic theologies and confessions are not God’s Word. They are not a substitute for reading and studying the Bible. They must be tested against God’s Word. But they are good, necessary, and inevitable. Anyone who rejects them and claims to be just using the “Bible” still has a systematic theology. Their’s is just not written down anywhere. It is floating around in their heads.