I will never forget my first sermon proposal at seminary. I was in my second year and petrified of the outcome. Our homiletics professor had a reputation for brutal sermon critiques. The students in the other years comforted me with the fact that no one did well: “If you get a 72%, that’s basically as good as anyone has ever gotten. Most of us score in the mid-60s. No one ever scores lower than 60.” That only made me feel more rotten when I got my mark and it just scraped past 50%! The sermon proposal was a mess. I soon learned why. The fundamental problem was that I missed an important theological distinction in the background of the text. By missing that distinction, everything else went off the rails in the sermon. This was when I learned that the medieval theologians were right when they said that the one who would teach well must learn to distinguish well.
Good distinctions are at the heart of sound theology. Moreover, as has often been pointed out, all Christians are theologians. No, not in the sense of academics who study and teach full time, but in the sense of reflecting on God and his Word (see, I just made a distinction!). Since we should all be striving to be better theologians, we also all need to learn to make good distinctions. In this series of blog posts, I want to lay out several important Reformed theological distinctions.
Before we get to those, however, it would be good to comment a bit further on the importance of theological distinctions.
The Biblical Basis for Making Distinctions
Not surprisingly, distinctions are found throughout the Bible. Let me just mention three examples. In Psalm 1, two men are distinguished from one another. One is like a tree planted by streams of water, the other is like chaff in the wind. In Mark 4, our Saviour tells the parable of the sower. In that parable, Jesus distinguishes between four different types of soil. This represents a distinction between four types of people who hear the gospel. Finally, in James 1, the apostle distinguishes between those who merely listen to the Word and those who both listen to the Word and do what it says.
It’s not surprising that distinctions are found in Scripture because distinctions are foundational to human communication and existence. No one can function in this world apart from distinctions. For instance, if you don’t distinguish yourself as separate from the people around you, you’ll soon find yourself facing squinty-eyed looks from other folks. As another example, if you can’t distinguish between past, present, and future tense in your speaking, it will definitely hinder your communication abilities. To be human is to distinguish.
The Necessity for Making Sound Distinctions
History has proven that sound distinctions are necessary in theology. While the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed in Scripture, it took the early church several years to make the distinctions necessary to properly describe and defend this doctrine. So, for instance, the Athanasian Creed distinguishes between the persons and the substance of the Triune God. If one doesn’t uphold such a time-tested distinction, one always runs the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, if not the outright heresies.
To take another example, Scripture teaches us to distinguish between the Creator and the creature (Isaiah 29:16 and other places). If we fail to make a fundamental distinction like that, it has enormous consequences. You run the risk of becoming an idolater. You need to make sound distinctions in theology such as that between the Creator and the creature.
The Obligation to Make Biblical Distinctions
When we make distinctions in theology, they must be biblical distinctions. By “biblical,” I mean that they must be defensible from Scripture. Some Reformed theological distinctions are obviously and explicitly taught in certain passages. Other distinctions are derived from a number of passages or the teaching of Scripture taken as a whole. It is not necessarily the case that you have to be able to point to one specific Bible passage as a “proof-text” for a particular distinction. The important thing is that our distinctions are based on or deducted from Scripture.
In the history of theology, not all distinctions have been biblically defensible. As a classic example, when it came to worship, the medieval Catholic church distinguished between latria, doulia, and hyper-doulia. They recognized and acknowledged the First Commandment – worship God alone. But they said that was only speaking of latria, worship properly understood. There is another type of worship which we can also offer to saints: doulia, which is honour. There is also another type of worship which we offer to Mary the Mother of God, hyper-doulia or veneration. However, Reformers like John Calvin pointed out that this distinction was biblically indefensible. The Reformers had a name for this type of distinguishing: sophistry. Sophistry is using clever arguments to rationalize something that can’t properly be defended. Rather than that, we want our distinctions to be biblically grounded – indeed, they must be.
If you were to survey Reformed theology textbooks (like Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology), you would find theological distinctions absolutely everywhere. They’re also throughout the Three Forms of Unity – in Lord’s Day 13, for example, the eternal natural Son of God is distinguished from the children of God by adoption. To be faithful and true in our understanding of who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do, all believers need to make sound distinctions. Over the next while, we’ll explore some of those together and see if we can sharpen our theology.