By Nick Batzig
I have several friends who share the same anecdote with me over and over again. Sometimes, I lovingly remind them that they have already told me whatever it is they’ve shared ten times. Sometimes I just listen to them so as not to take away the joy they seem to be experiencing when conveying the story to me for the tenth time. I am sure that I too have repeated the same story to the same person on numerous occasions. It may be that many simply have bad short term memories; or, as I suspect, it may reveal how desperately we want to be heard and to share our experiences with others. There does, however, seem to be another component to it–namely, the fact that everyone package knowledge. The preacher who finds an illustration and uses it repeatedly must surely find it to be the best wrapping for truth. The theologian who popularizes a pithy saying does so in order to package the essence of some biblical doctrine. The novelist who reintroduces a theme throughout his or her writing is convinced that it is the best wrapping with which to package a narrative. The innate urge in each of us to package knowledge simultaneously reveals our finitude and that we are seeking an all-encompassing idea.
For pastors and theologians, the propensity to package knowledge gives shape to the overarching emphasis of their ministries. R.C. Sproul flew the sovereignty of God flag. Cornelius Van Til painted with the Creator/Creature distinction brush. John Piper beats the joy drum. This is not to say that each of these men did not faithfully seek to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that each of them taught biblical and systematic theological knowledge in the wrapping of what they deemed to be the really important truth about God. The propensity to package knowledge belongs within the realm of systematizing truth.
We want to encourage careful systematic theology, especially in our late-modern society. Ligon Duncan once said, “Whenever someone criticizes a systematic theological reading of Scripture, watch out–they’re about to slide their system underneath your door.” It is admirable for pastors and people to love and promote sound systematic theology. This is one of the reasons why we so highly value our historic creeds and confessions of faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith is an ecumenical systematic-theological document. In so far as it articulates the historic Protestant systematization of biblical truth, it finds its place among the greatest of theological treatments in the history of the church. We should spend our time reading the great Reformed systematic theological works of John Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, etc. The works of these men are unsurpassed in their biblical care and analytical precision.
It is possible, of course, to impose a reductionistic systematic theological emphasis onto ever passage and into every conversation. That’s where finitude kicks in. Many of us have sat under a minister who has recently come to embrace the doctrines of grace. The five points of Calvinism somehow manage to become the five points of whatever sermon he preaches. The danger with this is, of course, that the repetitious runs the risk of becoming the mundane and the text is not allowed to speak for itself. A secondary teaching of the text becomes the major emphasis and the major point of the passage remains neglected.
The opposite danger is to seek to be so innovative and creative that one either passes off something that deviates from the biblical pattern of truth or so obscures it that it becomes confusing to others. Our inclination to package knowledge belongs within the realm of conceptual creativity. Not everyone is comfortable with the way in which John Piper has presented truth in the wrapping of what he has called “Christian Hedonism;” however, that is the way in which he has sought to frame what he believes to be an overlooked aspect of God’s revelation. Critiques of Piper’s creative repackaging of systematic truth may have legitimacy to them, but the critiques are also, I suspect, partially due to the subjective creativity of the packaging of the concept itself. Every artist–no matter how applauded–has also been dismissed on account of the subjective nature of their style. When creativity enters into our packaging of knowledge, we should expect to be misunderstood or unappreciated.
So, how are finite creatures like ourselves to faithfully package the truth of God’s word in the pulpit, in our writing and in our conversations without becoming overly repetitious or unhelpfully creative? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Stay in God’s Word. The Apostle Paul charged Timothy to “give heed to reading, exhortation and doctrine so that your progress may be evident to all” (1 Tim. 4:3). God’s word is the source of all true knowledge. The revelation of God in Scripture is that which we are to love, read, meditate upon and appropriate into our lives more than anything else. We will never exhaust the riches of God’s grace in Christ that are set forth in Scripture. We will never outgrow our need to learn from the living God as He has revealed Himself in His word. Additionally, we will never learn to discern the actions of men so well as we do when we are in God’s word. The Proverbs, for instance, are the plumb line of all of the thoughts, words and actions of men in this world. If we want to become people who discerningly package truth then we must know all the truth that we can about God and men from the Scriptures.
This principles also has bearing on how ministers preach the word of God. There has been a wonderful re-appropriation of expository preaching in our day. This is, in my opinion, one of the most welcomed shifts in our churches. Ideally, expository preaching allows a man to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God over a lifetime of ministry. The great upside to an expository ministry is that God’s word speaks for itself and the minister never runs out of material on which to preach. There is always new material to be packaged for the souls and spiritual well-being of the people of God.
2. Focus on Christ. The center of all of God’s revelation in His word is Christ. The Bible was written, the Apostle Peter tells us, in order to set forth “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:10-11). Jesus himself taught that truth when he opened the Scriptures to the two on the road to Emmaus and showed them all the things about himself from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. Every systematic theological truth that we seek to present to the people of God is related to and dependent on the person and work of Christ. When the Apostle Paul corrects the sinful issues that arise in the church in Corinth, he does so by reminding the people of God about some particular aspect of the redeeming work of Jesus. We never want to take our eyes off of Christ and the significance of His life, death, resurrection, reign and return.
3. Analyze Others. As we already noted, Scripture give us all the wisdom principles we need for this life. The wisdom of God is both necessary for ourselves and for our need to live as discerning members of His Kingdom. If we are to learn to package knowledge carefully, then we must learn to analyze others well. This has a bearing on ministers who preach to men and women on a weekly basis; but, it also has a bearing on how we all interact with others around us and how we digest what we hear and read from others. There is almost nothing lacking so much in our day as that precious gift of discernment. The more we are in the Scriptures and the more we are keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, the more discerning we will be in our analysis of others and their teaching.
4. Learn from Others. To a large extent we all become products of our own surroundings. All of us package knowledge, in part, on account of the influence of others. None of us learns in a vacuum. We should be in a constant state of learning. Charles Spurgeon once said, “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.”
5. Develop Ideas. Once we discern that something someone has said is within the realm of sound doctrine or common grace truth, we should take whatever we have learned, turn it over in our minds, repackage it and make it our own. J. W. Alexander once put it in the following way:
“Dwell on good thoughts…Think it out. If it occurs in reading, pause, raise your eyes from the book, and follow it out. Thoughts which come up first are naturally trite. This is especially so of illustration. If one occurs, pursue it, follow it into the particular parts of the resemblance. If a metaphor or similitude, carry it forth in all its lesser resemblances…All these processes of thought will be useful at some other time, for our good trains of thought are seldom entirely lost. No man could ever speak extempore, if every thing he said was literally the fruit of the moment. No; in many instances by some association, a whole train of thoughts which had been forgotten for years will be brought up.”
5. Know Yourself. Some would insist on starting with this principle. I end with it because it is possible to so focus on yourself that you become stuck in a rut of self-complacency or self-justification. When we remain in God’s word, focus on Christ, analyze and learn from others, we will be in the best position possible to scrutinize, critique and improve ourselves. If, in my own thinking, I am the measure of man then I will only be measured by myself. If, however, I desire to learn everything that I can from God’s word, see that Jesus is the measure of a man, and am seeking to discerningly learn from others, I will be in the best position possible to know my own weaknesses and unhelpful packaging of knowledge. By God’s grace, as we give ourselves to these things, we can become men and women who better understand our own packaging of knowledge against the truth of God’s word and the way in which others package it.
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