Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Hidden Theological Treasure and His Neglected Treasury

Morton H. Smith. Systematic Theology. Greenville, SC: GPTS Press, 1994. Two volumes. 850 pp. 

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

This is not a recent work (1994), but it deserves a much wider readership than it has received. Countless times I have met people who simultaneously did not know that Dr. Smith had written a Systematic Theology, and then did not know where to find a copy. The only place where I have seen these volumes for sale is from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which also published the work. This means that a large portion of the Reformed church has bypassed a great treasure that ought to commend itself, both by the quality of its contents as well as of its author.

Dr. Morton Howison Smith is one of the patriarchs of the Presbyterian Church in America. He has spent most of his adult life laboring to maintain and promote old school Southern Presbyterian theology. He studied for the ministry at Westminster Theological Seminary under such great men as John Murray and Cornelius Van Til, whose influence is readily apparent in Smith’s teaching. He earned his Th.D. in Southern Presbyterian Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam under G. C. Berkhower. In class he recounted that he was required to read Berkhower’s studies in Dogmatics as they were published, and that the most refreshing part of his course was reading Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (on one occasion, Dr. Smith noted that it was worth learning the Dutch language if only to read Bavinck in the original). His background placed Dr. Smith in a unique position to combine the best of American Presbyterianism and Dutch Reformed Theology in his teaching and writing. In one lecture, he noted that John Murray served as a model for teaching Systematic Theology, since Professor Murray would always begin by asking, “What does the Bible say?” before he turned to the Reformed creeds, confessions, and catechisms. 

These two volumes follow the standard major divisions found in most works on Systematic Theology. In each chapter, Smith ordinarily begins with the Scriptural terms related to his topic. His work is filled with significant exegesis of vital passages of Scripture relating to the subject at hand. After making a sound biblical case for each doctrine, Smith turned to the Reformed standards. He displays a thorough familiarity with the Reformed confessional tradition far beyond his own ecclesiastical context. One of the best features of the work is that it serves as a compendium of the best Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed literature. This provides the introductory student or lay reader with a window into a broad range of Reformed authors and theological positions. The greatest strength of Dr. Smith’s work does not lie in original or new theological formulations, but in collecting and synthesizing the best of historic Reformed theology and in presenting the doctrines of the Reformed confessions in light of their strongest arguments that have both stood the test and benefited from the refinements of time. In one class lecture, Dr. Smith mentioned a family who possessed a well-worn and well-loved copy of Dabney’s Theological Lectures that sat on their coffee table. In a similar manner, Smith intended his work to be an introduction to students that would serve as a popular and readable resource for church members as well. 

In addition to its general features, this work has many particular strengths. The “Prolegomena” section includes a careful analysis of what Scripture itself says about its own authority and the manner in which that authority should be defended and established. Smith’s experience in teaching Apologetics shines through in this section, which reflects a combination of the influence of Bavinck’s theology as well as Van Til’s transcendental argument for the Christian world-view. The section on communion with each Person of the Godhead in prayer, which is a distillation of B. M. Palmer’s Theology of Prayer, is highly useful for its devotional quality (707-719). As a rule, Smith also preferred to avoid speculation in favor of biblical simplicity, which is evident in his discussion of supra and infralapsarianism (173-175. In class, he cited Dabney as asserting that this was a question that should never have been asked). The work as a whole is not as rigidly logical and systematized in structure as it is textual and exegetical. This adds to the simplicity of the work and its resultant accessibility to readers of every level. 

The only “complaint” that I have about this work is the section treating the Ten Commandments (617-653). It is not that Smith’s conclusions are unsound or unorthodox, but that his argumentation is not developed as thoroughly as in other portions of the work. With few exceptions, the Westminster Shorter Catechism is virtually the only secondary source cited in this section. However, to be fair, Dr. Smith wrote these lectures for use in his classes at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary under the assumption that the Ten Commandments would be expounded at great length in the Ethics course via the Westminster Larger Catechism

God has used Dr. Smith to disciple pastors, professors, and even seminary presidents. He has taught theology at Belhaven College and Westminster Seminary. He was a member of the first faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as the founding professor of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is one of the founding fathers of a denomination, has moderated the PCA General Assembly, and had served as its Stated Clerk for many years. Only those who have been privileged to know Dr. Smith personally and to ask him questions will truly be able to appreciate the extent of his learning. He is one of the greatest (if under appreciated) theologians of our time, and he is one of the humblest men I have ever known. Smith’s loyalty to Jesus Christ and to His Word is evident on every page of his Systematic Theology, which makes his wholehearted commitment to the Westminster Standards stand forth more powerfully and convincingly. Read this book with delight and spread the word that it exists.
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This review was first published in the Puritan Reformed Journal.