Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Noteworthy but Flawed Systematic Theology


Review by Ryan M. McGraw

Douglas F. Kelly. Systematic Theology Volume One Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in light of the Church: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity. Geanies House: Christian Focus Publications, 2008. 620 pp.

Southern Presbyterian William S. Plumer once likened different types of books to varied “shops.” The first are toyshops, in which the sole purpose is entertainment. The second are shops where “remnants” are sold. These books contain many ideas, none of which are adequately developed. The third type of shop is a rare one that sells whole pieces of raw ore. These books contain massive quantities of raw materials, which may be shaped into many useful things. Plumer asserted that scarcely one man in a century writes this sort of book. Lastly, there are books that are like shops filled with things already prepared for use. Douglas Kelly’s Systematic Theology, Volume One fits the third category, containing an almost daunting wealth of material, reflecting an author who possesses colossal learning. That being said, Kelly’s work is characterized by some significant structural and theological difficulties. My purpose in this review is to help students maneuver through this work and to evaluate its uses and limitations as a textbook of Reformed Theology.

This volume contains many noteworthy features. First place must go to Kelly’s clear and extensive expositions of Scripture. He is particularly rich in his use of the Psalms. Throughout the work is also a prevalent emphasis on the need to understand and express theology in the context of the covenant community of the Church. This is also exemplified by Kelly’s unparalleled use of extensive sources from the Church fathers, Medieval authors, and contemporary literature, transcending his own confessional tradition. Readers are exposed to such a broad range of authors, especially from the first four centuries of the Church, that they become practically acquainted with these authors.

Of nearly equal value with his emphasis on the text of Scripture is the manner in which Kelly’s theology is saturated with the doctrine of the Trinity. The Church is in desperate need of becoming more self-consciously Trinitarian in every aspect of its theology and piety. Kelly has made great strides forward in achieving this. Additionally, he has used his mastery of French to provide a translation of Louis Gaussen’s sermon on the Angel of the Lord (479-483). This is the best five-step argument that I have seen establishing that the Angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate Christ. The book closes with an appendix that navigates readers through the complex history of the “filioque” clause of the Nicene Creed in a simple, yet detailed, manner that will be difficult to improve upon.

Alongside these positive highlights, there are several features that hinder the use of this volume, some of which are cause for concern. For simplification, I have reduced criticism to seven categories:

  1. Structure and outline. The peculiar organization of this volume makes it difficult to navigate. Kelly’s nine chapters do not make the scope of his topics readily apparent, since they do not explicitly follow the traditional “loci” of theology. His reasoning is relatively easy to follow, but the path may be unfamiliar for many. The outline in the table of contents could have been much fuller and more user-friendly. There is too little detail for chapters that average sixty-plus pages each. For instance, are the topic of revelation or the attributes of Scripture addressed? Are the decrees of God included in this volume? With regard to the former, Kelly states that he shall deal with Scripture in Volume Two. Subjects such as the decrees are not dealt with at all. Yet the chapter headings as they are listed give little indication of the contents of the volume.
  1. Sources and Authors. One of Kelly’s great strengths may also prove to be a weakness. His learning is practically unfathomable, however, there is a tendency to include too many block quotes from too wide a diversity of authors. Many times Kelly proves his point adequately, only to follow up with several pages of more block quotations. This has a tendency to overkill. It raises the additional question as to when the line is blurred between Systematic Theology and Historical Theology. Though there is significant overlap between theological disciplines, in many ways, this volume at points comes closer to the latter. Kelly’s primary authors appear to be (without competition) T. F. Torrance, Novatian of Rome (who was the subject of Kelly’s doctoral dissertation), John Calvin, Dumitru Staniloae (who is Eastern Orthodox), and Karl Barth. Sometimes Kelly appears to be interested in sources for their own sake rather than for their usefulness to theology. The clearest example of this is his treatment of John Duns Scotus’s argument for the existence of God (100-118). Not only does Kelly take a form of “presuppositionalism,” in which he asserts that the Christian faith is not provable, but he states that Scotus’s argument is so complex that it makes “one wonder at its value” (102). Moreover, Kelly chose Scotus’s argument as one of only three representative theistic proofs. Scotus’s reasoning will test the limitations of even the most attentive reader. Why then has Kelly spent nineteen pages of small print and substantial research on an argument that most readers will not be able to use, and of which he doubts its value?
  1. Speculation on whether or not pagans were saved before the gospel came to their cultures. Kelly states that the limits of our knowledge would lead us to assert that there is no salvation without Holy Scripture (cites WCF 10.3). After noting that it is probably best not to speculate, he argues that there are two reasons to conclude that there have always been people who were saved before the gospel had come to their culture. “These two grounds are God’s relationship to the time and space in which he created his image-bearers to dwell” (211). Since the application of the cross is not limited by time, and because Christ’s death applied retroactively to the Old Testament saints, God may apply the cross retroactively to others apart from the covenant community. On the basis of the fact that Adam was redeemed, Kelly asserts: “[C]hosen individuals outside the covenant of the Lord with his chosen people Israel, were also somehow in saving contact with the redemptive being and activities of the Triune God. Must they not have been included in the applicatory work of Christ by the eternal Spirit, generations before Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice?” (213). The second plank of his argument is that since Christ is not constrained by spatial limitations, he is able to minister to people outside of the covenant community (218-220). It is difficult to see how Kelly’s argument proves his point. That it is possible for God to save people who were outside of the covenant community prior to the coming of Christ is beyond doubt. That it is a fact that he did so is an unwarranted logical jump. Adam’s redemption through the gospel promise was not outside of the covenant community; rather it inaugurated the covenant community. Kelly admits that if God redeemed those outside of the covenant community, this redemption must have come through supernatural revelation. Yet Psalm 147:19-20 states, “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for his judgments, they have not known them.” Concerning the Gentile world, Paul asserts “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). If Kelly’s theory were true, then it would be accurate for Paul to address only some Gentiles in this manner. Would we not be safer to abide by Paul’s exhortation: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? . . . So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14-15, 17). As a qualification, Kelly closed this section with an exhortation to fulfill the Great Commission as well as with a vehement rejection of Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” theory (221). Kelly does not believe that sinners may frame their lives according the principles of natural religion in order to be saved. His sole fault lies in extending supernatural revelation beyond the bounds set by Scripture.
  1. Unqualified references to unorthodox writers. This is particularly a problem with regard to Dumitru Staniloae and Karl Barth. With regard to Barth, Kelly often provides lengthy quotations without any caution or qualification, as though Barth was a solid representative of Reformed Orthodoxy. We tend to purchase and read books as they are recommended or used by those whom we respect. If Kelly’s citations were my only exposure to Barth, I would conclude that he was an outstanding Reformed scholar who should be recommended to my congregation. Most of the sections cited from Barth become problematic only in the portions above and below those quoted by Kelly. Since a shepherd of the Church must keep the flock from ravenous wolves, some qualification would have been immensely helpful at this point.
  1. Underdeveloped presuppositional apologetic. Kelly argues that presupposing the Triune God through faith may be a legitimate ground for knowledge, but he does not show why the God of Scripture must be the necessary presupposition for knowledge. He calls the traditional theistic proofs unnecessary (65), yet does not see anything faulty in them as they stand (99). Kelly rejects autonomous reason as a starting point for knowledge, but then accepts proofs that, to one degree or another, assume autonomous reasoning. Moreover, his “presuppositionalism” appears to come via T. F. Torrance rather than men such as Van Til. The result is that he fails to give a compelling argument for the absolute truth and necessity of the Christian worldview. Though he rejects the charge of “fideism,” his version of presuppositionalism gives the impression that he has not adequately evaded this charge. Kelly’s position is further confused by his assertion that he may “vaguely” be referred to as “a Protestant peeping Thomist” (84). How can one consistently be a presuppositionalist and a Thomist? Instead of consistently developing one apologetic method, Kelly appears to blend several seemingly incompatible systems.
  1. A Confused Covenant Theology. Kelly’s emphasis on the covenant is almost as pervasive as his emphasis on the Trinity. He upholds the basic unity of the one covenant of grace through all the stages of redemptive history, and he maintains a basic distinction between “law covenants” and “promise covenants” (388). The difficulty arises with regard to how Kelly regards Adam’s relationship to God. Kelly cites Dumbrell with approval to the effect that the one covenant of grace was instituted in Genesis 1:1 (406). This covenant is equated with the covenant of nature (392-393). A “law covenant” was added within the context of this gracious covenant, so that Adam partook of “both kinds of covenant” (395). The covenant of grace with Adam was continued after the Fall in the promise of Genesis 3:15, in which Adam and his believing descendents would be redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ. The primary difference between Adam in Genesis 2 and Genesis 3 is that grace before the Fall did not entail the forgiveness of sins. Thus God’s relationship to Adam must be viewed in terms of grace, then law, followed by grace (396). Kelly asserts that this construction was the view of the seventeenth century theologians as represented by Turretin (393) and Witsius (399). Aside from muddying theological waters, this view of God’s relationship to Adam is contrary to the Presbyterian Standards. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.3 implies that Genesis 3:15 and everything thereafter represents a “second covenant” that must be distinguished from the “covenant of works” of Genesis 2. Contrary to Kelly’s implications, this distinction appears to be equally clear in Turretin and Witsius. Confession 7.1 also asserts that this first covenant with Adam did not exist by virtue of creation, but by “some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant.” Laying aside the covenant with creation, “the first covenant made with man was a covenant of works” (WCF 7.2). This first covenant contained a gracious promise of confirmation in everlasting life, but the means of obtaining this promise was Adam’s perfect obedience. The only covenant of grace known in Scripture is one that is made in Christ, who redeems sinners through the blood of the everlasting covenant. Adam was the federal head of all mankind in the first covenant; Christ is the federal head of His elect in the second covenant. If Adam’s relationship to God in Genesis 2 and 3 are lumped into one broad category, how can Adam both be a covenant head and be subject to a covenant Head in the same economy? Would not Paul’s parallel between the first and the second Adam naturally break down in such a case? (Rom. 5:12ff). Kelly clearly maintains the imputation of Adam’s sin, and he rejects the New Perspectives on Paul (412ff); but if I have read him correctly, he has significantly altered classic Reformed covenant theology.
  1. Incipient ecumenical interest toward Eastern Orthodoxy (?). Kelly’s use of Eastern Orthodox writers is prevalent throughout the volume. Yet in his last few pages, he asserts that if the West abandoned the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed “nothing significant would be lost” as long as the Trinity is understood in light of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. If the West did this, it would “constitute healing for the entire Church” (577). Does this not overstate the case? Is the Trinity the only substantial difference between Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy? What about Soteriology? What about Ecclesiology? We must desire a deeper unity with all who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ, but we must desire unity only with those who call upon Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. Is the recent interest in Eastern Orthodoxy by some leading Protestants a potential back door to accept many of the same theological problems that are prevalent in Roman Catholicism?
The fact that the above criticisms have constituted the bulk of this review should not diminish the value of this book for those who use it well. Douglas Kelly’s Systematic Theology, Volume One is a rare compendium of substantial historical and exegetical theology. It is hoped that reading this work with knowledge of its limitations shall enable readers to profit more from its better qualities.

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This review was previously published in Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 72, No. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 193-197. Used with permission.