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.
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.