“Theology, therefore, is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.”
This statement by Charles Hodge in the first volume of his Systematic Theology (pg. 19) has proven controversial. What does Hodge mean here, especially by the phrase “proper order?” Is he implying that the canonical order of revelation in Scripture is “improper” and needs to be tidied up by theology? Is he claiming that systematic theology gives us a superior arrangement of truth than the form given by Scripture?
Hodge’s statement seems to confirm the popular perception of systematic theologians as logic-chopping rationalists who are insensitive to the organic form of Scripture, ignorant of narratival and historical considerations, and who treat the text as a mine from which nuggets of truth are extracted and arranged according to categories alien to Scripture.
My purpose is not to debate the relative merits of biblical and systematic theology, but to vindicate Hodge against the charge that he believes Scripture’s natural, organic order is inferior to the order of systematic theology. To discern Hodge’s oft-misunderstood meaning here, we must back up and ascertain his understanding of the task of theology in general (all quotations below are from the three-volume Hendrickson edition).
Hodge begins his systematic theology by observing that theology is a science, and as such, does not set out to simply restate the bare facts of Scripture, but aims to “embrace an exhibition of the internal relation of those facts, one to another, and each to all.” (pg. 1, emphasis added). Scripture itself, Hodge readily acknowledges, “is no more a system of theology, than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics… the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.” (pg. 1).
However, Scripture is not given to us in the form of a “system of theology,” so why bother to develop such a system in the first place? Is this really necessary? “Why not take the truths as God has seen fit to reveal them, and thus save ourselves the trouble of showing their relation and harmony?” (pg. 2).
There are several reasons such a task is necessary and beneficial, but one reason Hodge gives is that true knowledge involves discerning relations, causes, and so on. We shouldn’t be satisfied with “a mass of undigested facts”—whether we are studying Scripture or any other subject. It follows that “we cannot know what God has revealed in his Word unless we understand, at least in some good measure, the relation in which the separate truths therein contained stand to each other.” (pg. 2).
Furthermore, as God himself “wills that men should study his works and discover their wonderful organic relation and harmonious combination, so it is his will that we should study his Word, and learn that, like the stars, its truths are not isolated points, but systems, cycles, and epicycles, in unending harmony and grandeur.” (pg. 3).
Note that Hodge says that the truths of Scripture possess an inherent organic and harmonious relation to each another. Theology is a process of discovering the harmony already embedded in Scripture, not a process of constructing an abstract system, or pressing the truths of Scripture into an alien form. Given that Scripture contains an implicit harmony, it follows that there are improper and proper ways of arranging the truths of Scripture. Not every theology is a valid, faithful transcription of the symphony of Scripture.
How then do we arrive at a Scripturally faithful theology? Hodge examines the suitability of different theological methods, and vindicates an inductive method against mystical, rationalist, and speculative approaches (pp. 3-14). Significantly, Hodge’s basic objection to these methods is that they are fundamentally unmoored from Scripture—the speculative method with its a priori nature, and the mystical approach with its priority of experience. By contrast, true theology is inductive and thus a receptive, not constructive enterprise. The business of the theologian is “not to set forth his system of truth (that is of no account), but to ascertain and exhibit what is God’s system” (pg. 13, emphasis added).
Returning to the nature and task of theology, Hodge again compares Scripture and nature as organic entities: “as the order in which the facts of nature are arranged cannot be determined arbitrarily, but by the nature of the facts themselves, so it is with the facts of the Bible. The parts of any organic whole have a natural relation which cannot with impunity be ignored or changed… the facts or truths of the Bible… cannot be held in isolation, nor will they admit of any and every arrangement the theologian may choose to assign them. They bear a natural relation to each other, which cannot be overlooked or perverted without the facts themselves being perverted.” (pg. 18, emphasis added).
It is only after laying this careful groundwork, cautioning the theologian to “know his place,” and noting the actual impossibility of his constructing a system to “suit his fancy” in variance with the true order of things, that Hodge pens the infamous statement: “Theology, therefore, is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.” (pg. 19).
For Hodge, the “proper order and relation” of Scriptural truths that theology presents is set in contrast not to the canonical shape of Scripture, but to improper theological order which violently arranges the truths of Scripture into an unnatural shape. Far from countenancing a subordination of Scripture to systematics, Hodge envisions the task of theology as a journey of wonder and discovery, a faithful exhibition of the rich, harmonious order embedded in God’s holy word.