Every Christian is a theologian. Because of this, Christians are called upon to grow in our understanding of theology, for it is our theological beliefs that will lead us to behave in certain ways. What should form and shape our theology is Scripture. It is Scripture alone that is authoritative, inspired, and inerrant.
God has graciously given his Word to his people. It is a complex work, divinely originated, but humanly penned. Not everything in the Scripture is easy to understand or simple to apply. Should we expect a divinely inspired book to be such that humans can perfectly wrap their heads around every nuance of it? Should we not, rather, expect that there are going to be aspects of it that are difficult for us to harmonize, synthesize, or systematize? After all, God’s mind is infinitely wiser than ours.
Yet, throughout the centuries, there have been attempts to organize biblical doctrinal truths into various systems of thought in order to try to make better sense of them. Sometimes these systems are more theological in nature (i.e. Calvinism, Arminianism), while others have developed into more denominational distinctions (i.e. Baptist, Presbyterian).
While these various systems can be helpful, I would suggest that adherents to them should not be so anchored to their system that they ignore or misrepresent Scripture that seems to challenge or contradict their systematic understanding. They must be wrestled with and humbly acknowledged.
For instance, Calvinists have historically believed in the idea of “limited atonement,” meaning that Jesus died only for the sins of those who are elect, based on God’s work of predestination. But the plain reading of 1 John 2:2 indicates that Jesus died not only for our (believer’s) sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. At the same time, those adherents to a more general atonement also need to understand the difficulty of that position in light of Christ’s words that he gave his life for his sheep (John 10:11) and that no one comes to the Father unless the Father draws him first (John 6:44).
Both systems seek to explain the potentially problematic verses from the vantage point of their system. However, I would contend that rather than allowing a system to dictate interpretation, it would be better to allow the plain meaning of the Scripture in its context to dictate one’s interpretation of the text. We should be okay with the fact that not every verse of Scripture aligns perfectly with our own system of theology.
Here is another example. Baptists historically practice baptism by immersion, based largely on the meaning of the Greek word baptizo which means to dunk or immerse. This is the plain meaning of the word. Yet there are instances in the book of Acts that would appear to make it difficult for a complete immersion to take place. For instance, the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) or that of the Philippian jailer and his family (Acts 16). This is not to say that dunking is not possible in those cases, but Baptists should at least recognize the difficulty those situations present. At the same time, Presbyterians who practice infant baptism need to understand that there are no clear biblical examples of infants being baptized for any reason—not for covenantal entrance, not for salvation, and not even for dedication.
I am thankful for various systems of theology, and I hold loosely to some. I am a Baptist, but with a “soft-B.” I am Calvinistic, but with a “soft-C.” We will gravitate to one system or another, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we are gracious with those who differ with us and acknowledge the difficulties with our own positions.
In the end, when we preach a text like Ephesians 1:3–14, we must emphasize the sovereignty of God in salvation, that we are predestined in Christ and set apart and sealed by the Holy Spirit of God, for the praise of God’s glory. But when we preach Romans 10:9–17, we must emphasize that wide open invitation for people to freely choose to believe the truth of the gospel that they have heard from Scripture. It should not bother us that we cannot see the place where God’s sovereignty and man’s free will meet. We don’t need to see it; we just need to trust that God is big enough to know how it all works together.
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