How to beat the system

By Roger Carswell - Armenian fables begin with the words, ‘Once there was and was not’ to suggest that fantastical tales may be real or imagined.  I am coming to the conclusion that that opening sentence is an apt way to describe many who say they believe the Bible to be the word of God, but actually put their trust in a particular system, an ism, a school of interpretation of the Bible through which they interpret it, and which they impose on Scripture. 

This was well illustrated to me by an article I read by the respected American preacher, John Piper.  He wrote about five things that encouraged him, all of which I agreed with, but what I found discouraging was that the source of his encouragement was not the Scripture itself but rather the five points of Calvinism which he had  initially explained.  Of course, Calvinism –v- Arminianism has long been a point of discussion for Christians, but my concern in this article is not only Calvinism per se, but the growing custom to place over the Bible a system – and there are many different ones - that then both determines how the Bible is interpreted, and which passages of the Bible are preferred or side-lined.  ‘System Christians’ then become blind to what is their real authority.    Systematic theology is invaluable to clarify our understanding of doctrines, but systems in themselves are very dangerous.

There is only one absolute authority

Satan’s first recorded sentence was ‘Has God said …?’ and logical argument soon replaced the word of God.  The Bible alone is to be our authority.  It alone is inerrant, infallible and sufficient for all doctrine and duty.  It is God breathed and God’s word.  2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 are key verses with crucial teaching.  Human beings devise systems to help us take hold of who God is and how He works, but God is bigger than our ability to pigeon-hole His ways and works. 

Theological systems seek to square up what is actually bigger than our finite minds can fully comprehend.  They lead people to adding ideas to the Divine revelation, consequently teaching what is not actually written.  But anything that leads us to tinkering with Scripture, so that we make it fit our system, is deadly. C.H. Spurgeon often warned of this danger.[1]  He said, “The system of truth is not one straight line, but two.  No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once.”  It is inevitable that God’s ways sometimes appear to us to be paradoxical.  He is greater and wiser than our noblest ideas.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul reflects, ‘And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God …’ We are so privileged to have God’s message to humanity, so why should we substitute its authority and total message for a human school of thought?   Prof. F.F. Bruce said, “There is a great danger, when once we have adhered to one particular school of thought or adopted one particular system of theology, of reading the Bible in the light of that school or system and finding its distinctive features in what we read … the remedy for this is to bear resolutely in mind that our systems of doctrine must be based on biblical exegisis, not imposed upon it.”

The problem with systems is that they are inadvertently influenced by our traditions, preferences, personalities, philosophies, experiences and denominational choices.    Of course, adopting a system means that we become acceptable in fellowships and friendships, and we all crave acceptance.  The Bereans shunned such peer pressure but rather, commendably, ‘examined the Scriptures every day to see if what (Paul) said was true” (Acts 17:11).  I have noticed that adherents to one system or another often exhibit:

  • a satisfied complacency that stifles humble enquiry.  Only authors and speakers from within ‘the system’ are trusted.

  • an elitist suspicion of, or a cutting off from close fellowship, those who truly love the Lord, but who not adhere to a particular system.

  • a focus on minor issues that permeate conversations and sermons, and

  • an elevation of non-essential doctrines so that they become the test of orthodoxy, and therefore become essential issues.

  • a harshness towards brothers or sisters because of minor disagreements.

  • a diminishing of the magnificence of Jesus, replacing Him with an obsessive commitment to ‘the system’.

 

All are very sad distractions from the glory of the gospel, and are far from being Christ-like. 

Only the Bible is ‘more precious than gold, than much fine gold … sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.’ (Psalm 19:10).  It is the scriptures that make us wise unto salvation.  Charles Simeon, the great evangelical leader of the late 18th and early 19th century, pleaded with his students to ‘be Bible Christians and not system Christians.’  He said he had noticed in his grandfather clock that cogs often went in opposite directions, but all to the same end, likening the truth to apparently paradoxical statements in the Bible.  Interestingly, I was once shown Simeon’s personal copy of ‘the Book of Homilies’, and noticed that above his signature he had inscribed, ‘Our Reformers were moderate Calvinists and very scripturally preached both the danger of apostasizing and the doctrine of perseverance.’ When I am asked which type of Christian I am, my reply is, ‘I am a Bible-believing Christian, who loves the Lord Jesus.’

In 1 Corinthians 1 we read Paul’s pleadings to those early Christians to not define themselves as followers of Apollos, Cephas, Paul or even self-righteously of ‘Christ’.  They were dividing themselves around false emphases.  They were guilty of making something which may have been true, but only part of the truth, the whole truth and then judging those who saw things differently.  In such, they were damaging the whole church of God.  That temptation has persisted throughout church history, and today is gathering pace amongst people who say they are Bible-believing Christians; even the world is noticing our change of emphasis.[2]  Christ is not divided and anything which breaks in upon the unity of Christ, His message and people has something in it that is wrong.

We must be people of the Bible alone.  It is to be read daily, memorised, meditated on, chatted about, and preached.  It is to be our guide, as ‘beyond the sacred page, we seek Thee Lord.’  It, and it alone, is to mould our world view.  Only the Bible is infallible and God-breathed.  We must not say we believe the Bible, but then seek to further place ourselves in a particular camp of how we interpret it.  We each should ask of ourselves, ‘Am I a system Christian or a Bible Christian?’   

Finally, let me again quote first C.H. Spurgeon:  ‘My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture.  I have a great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater.  I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God.’ 

‘I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.’ (Psalm 119:125)

[1] See, for example, his sermons on ‘I would, but you would not’ (Matt23:27) and ‘Sovereign grace and man’s responsibility (Rom 10:20-21)

[2]  See for example the New York Times Jan 3rd, 2014 which had a major article about the spread of the new wave of Calvinism in the USA.