By Ryan M. McGraw
Questioning the Academic Model
An Apostolic Model for Theological Writing
The best place to turn for a model of theological writing is to the ultimate source of true theology, namely, the Scriptures themselves. In particular, the epistles of Paul serve as an excellent model for theological writing. On their very surface, Paul’s epistles are filled with doxologies (Rom. 11:36; Eph. 1:3; etc.), benedictions (1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 6:18; etc.), indicative statements of truth (throughout), probing questions (Rom. 10:14-17; 2 Cor. 11:7, 11, 22-23, 12:17-18; Gal. 3:1-5; etc.), direct exhortations (Phil. 4:1-9; 1 Thess. 5:14-27; etc.), passionate pleas (2 Cor. 5:29-6:1; etc.), compassion (1 Tim. 5:23; etc.), sorrow (2 Cor. 2; etc.), joy (Phil. 4:10; etc.), and direct commands to respond to the truth (1 Tim. 6:11-14; etc.).
One feature of Paul’s writing that should not be overlooked is his underlying Trinitarianism. How often does Paul praise all three Persons of the Godhead in his letters? How often does he begin with thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Is not his primary aim always to bring his readers to a deeper fellowship with the Father through the Son? Does he not root his all of his ethical teaching in union with the Lord Jesus Christ and dependence upon the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit? Is not all communion with God through the instrumentality of the Spirit? In all of these instructions, however, Paul placed a premium upon the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He purposed in his heart to make nothing known to the Churches other than Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5) and it was Christ himself who was speaking through Paul’s ministry (2 Cor. 13:3). As Calvin wrote, “his whole doctrine was summed up in a simple acquaintance with Christ alone, as in reality the whole gospel is included in it.” If more of us took Paul as our model for preaching and writing, perhaps we would see the Lord Jesus Christ set forth from our pulpits and from the press with greater force and power. We would also see our ministers, and consequently our Churches, think and act as self-conscious Trinitarians who are actively dependent upon all three Persons in the Godhead.
However, this does not mean that you must write exactly like Paul. There is diversity even among the inspired authors of Holy Scripture, yet all of the biblical authors hold in common the general characteristics of Paul’s writing. In Particular, the driving aim of the biblical authors is to urge their readers to call upon God as Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, so that their readers, with themselves, may worship and serve the Triune God throughout eternity. As with a preacher, a writer shall always express himself according to his own personality. This is a part of his genuineness or earnestness. Paul is not Peter and Peter is not John and none of them are Jude or Matthew. Yet they all wrote as men who were instructed by the Holy Spirit for the personal holiness of both themselves and those who heard them. In short, Paul’s exhortation that Timothy should aim to promote his own salvation as well as that of those who heard him should apply to every aspect of Christian ministry, including theological writing (1 Tim. 4:16). Men such as John Owen and Wilhelmus a Brakel provide historical examples of how to write theology in a manner that honors Scripture. Both men (especially Owen) address the heart and the mind at the same time throughout their writings, while demonstrating great learning and scholarship.
The manner of theological writing should ultimately be contemplated in light of the Reformed doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The fact that the Scriptures are sufficient for all matters concerning faith and practice has always been designed to give Scripture exclusive rights in matters of faith and practice. That the Scriptures are sufficient to teach us how to worship God implies that we may not add to or take away from the elements and forms of worship prescribed in the Scriptures (see Deut. 12:29-32, etc.). The consciences of believers are thus free from the doctrines and commandments of men in matters of faith and worship (WCF 20.2). The Scriptures are sufficient for salvation in Christ, for Church government, for biblical interpretation, for counseling, and for determining the content and the form of preaching. How can Scripture, which exhaustively supplies the content of theology, fail to serve as a model for communicating theology in writing? What better model is there? Where is the so-called “academic” model in Holy Scripture? What right does the academy have to exclude the apostles and prophets as models for theological writing, when their writings form the basis of our theology? Is the mode of communicating the truth incidental to the truth itself? Do not our methods of communication inevitably shape our message? Much attention has been given to this question with regard to preaching, but very little has been directed to theological writing? Is it any surprise that our preaching has suffered so greatly when the literature that preachers are reading is not in itself conducive to the preaching of the Word of God?
Some Questions and Qualifications
The assertions above do not mean that all theological writing should be of the same character. Printed sermons have a different quality than works on Systematic Theology. Commentaries on books of Scripture are not written with the same emphases as books on Pastoral Theology. However, the primary characteristic that all theological writing should have in common is that the writer must always seek what is good for himself and for those who hear/read him (1 Thess. 5:15). More particularly, those who write theology must pursue personal communion with God for themselves and for those who read their works in all that they write. If they do not do so then, according to the demands of Scripture, their writing is not worthy of the name theology. As John Owen wrote, “Evangelical theology has been instituted by God in order that sinners may once again enjoy communion with God himself, the All-Holy One.” Later he added, “To know him that is true – that is theology; and, if it is not, then I here declare my total ignorance of what is!”
Lessons that You will Never Learn from an Academic Model of Writing
 James McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 221.
 Ibid., 253.
 See my article entitled, “John Owen on the Study of Theology,” submitted for publication.
 Gerald Heistand, “Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology: Why We Need More of the Former,” in Reformation 21, August 2009, 3.
 While not denying progress in our understanding of theology, the comments of William Plumer are worth noting: “Beware of ‘new truths’ in theology. That which is absolutely new in theology, is absolutely worthless. If you think you have made some discovery in divinity, say little about it for a season. You yourself may soon perceive that it is not worthy of further attention. If not, write it down, and lay it aside for six or twelve months, and read it again. You will probably reject it yourself. If it still seems true and important, modestly and clearly state it to some able and judicious divines. They may soon convince you that it is some old heresy, or that it is of no great value. If so, give it up; at least spend no more thought upon it.” William S. Plumer, Hints and Helps in Pastoral Theology (orig. pub., New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1874, reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2002), 119.
 Robert Letham provides an excellent example of this in relation to the book of Ephesians. See Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 73-85.
 John Calvin, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), 136.
 See John Angel James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of our Times, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993. The material in this book is largely unique among pastoral theologies. I cannot recommend it too highly.
 See William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture (orig. pub: London, 1588, reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2005), 496-704, as an excellent representative of the historic Protestant position on the sufficiency of Scripture. For the apostles as a sufficient model for preaching, see John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002.
 See Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001; Arturo Azurdia, Spirit Empowered Preaching: Involving the Holy Spirit in Your Ministry, Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1998; and David Hall, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009 as representative treatments of this question. Reynolds provides the most penetrating analysis of the manner in which media both reflects and shapes our message that I have seen to date.
 John Owen, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ; trans. Stephen P. Westcott (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 618.
 Ibid., 637.
 Archibald Alexander, A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth, orig. pub., n.d., reprint, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2005; William S. Plumer, Theology for the People, orig. pub., New York: American Tract Society, 1875, reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2005; John Brown of Haddington, The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington, orig. pub., n.d., reprint, Geanies House, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002.
 See William Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style, New York: Penguin Books, 2008, for a useful handbook for effective communication in writing.
 Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer (orig. pub., Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1849, reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 291.
 Ibid. 300. For an outstanding defense and exposition of extemporaneous preaching, see Dr. John Carrick's inaugural lecture as professor of homilectics at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
 Plumer, Hints and Helps, 296-307.
 John Owen, Biblical Theology, 592.
 A striking example of this is illustrated in Tim Challies’ interview with Burk Parson, who was pressed to enter the entertainment industry rather than the gospel ministry.
 Carl Trueman has provided useful cautions against seeking “accountability” in academic circles, particularly in the context of PhD programs. Instead, he counsels young men to seek “accountability” by being intimately involved in serving a small Church where they can make a difference. See Carl Trueman, “A Question of Accountability,” in Themelios, 34.2 (2009): 158-161.