Historical Theology for Systematic Theology

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Over the course of the last several months, I’ve been engaging in a friendly dialogue about the proper posture that Christians should adopt toward the Holy Spirit. My conversation partner maintains that, whereas the third Person of the Trinity is fully and truly God, co-equal with the first Person and second Person, in no place does Scripture explicitly reveal a believer giving glory, honor, prayer, thanksgiving, and worship to the Holy Spirit. My friend’s conclusion is that, lacking such biblical warrant for an adoring posture in relationship to the Spirit, Christians should not worship and glorify him. Importantly, my friend posits that whereas the Spirit is entitled to such adoration, he foregoes it in favor of the other two divine Persons who, together with the third Person, have decided that glory should be directed toward them—the Father and the Son—and not toward the Holy Spirit. 

Part of my discussion has been to refer to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed[1] through which the Christian church has historically confessed its belief “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” Not only does this creedal article affirm the full deity of the Spirit (who is called “the Lord” and who, as “Giver of Life,” is engaged in creation and recreation, both of which are divine activities), but it explicitly confesses that he, together with the Father and the Son, is revered. That is, the co-eminence of the third Person with the first Person and the second Person means that the praise, honor, adoration, thanksgiving, and glory that we direct to the Spirit does not differ in essence from those same activities directed toward the Father and the Son. My contention is that this affirmation of the Spirit’s worthiness of worship is an excellent summary of Scripture and, having passed the test of time without being overturned, should direct our posture toward the Holy Spirit today.

1. With the additional filioque” (“and the Son”) clause, per the Synod of Toledo (Spain) in 589.

What was my friend’s response to my appeal? He explained that this creed, which is a human, non-inspired confession of faith, when tested by Scripture, does not pass the test, does not excellently summarize Scripture, and thus should not and cannot direct us to worship and glorify the Holy Spirit along with the Father and the Son.

Two Approaches to Theology

This conversation illustrates two approaches to doing theology (in this specific case, pneumatology). The first approach, which my friend represents, insists that unless Scripture explicitly reveals some truth or explicitly commands/prohibits some action, then we Christians today are not to believe that truth or give heed to that command/prohibition.[2] The second approach, which I represent, also insists on biblical warrant for everything that we are to believe and do, but it adds another element: truths and commands/prohibitions that are entailed by Scripture and/or theologically constructed from the whole Bible also direct us Christians today.[3] In this specific case, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed’s article on the Holy Spirit, interpreted as a strongly supported entailment of Scripture and constructed from many biblical passages about his person and work, not only may direct us Christians today, but must direct us in our posture toward the Holy Spirit.

2. Some theologians would nuance this position by incorporating truths and commands/prohibitions that are implicitly revealed in Scripture, not just explicitly so.

3. By entailed, I mean those truths that must follow as a good and necessary consequence to the truths revealed in Scripture, whether those truths are revealed implicitly or explicitly.

So as not to be misunderstood, I am not saying that historical theology, represented by this early creed, possesses and wields the same authority as Scripture in the process of doing systematic theology. As Protestants, our rallying cry is sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture is our ultimate authority. But our Protestant motto does not mean that we do theology with our only reference being the Bible, ignoring everything else (such as creeds). If historical theology offers us wisdom from the past in terms of right biblical interpretations and sound theological constructions,[4] we can derive great benefit from it; even more, we ignore it to our bane. I maintain that historical theology—representing the consensus theologicum of the church—possesses and wields presumptive authority in doing systematic theology.[5] In more detail, given the long-established nature of creedal confessions and the unlikelihood that they will ever prove to be in error, the church should consider these affirmations as true and commendable, offering wisdom for its contemporary theological formulations.

4. For example, Augustine’s formulation of the double procession of the Holy Spirit in On the Trinity, 15.17/29; NPNF1 3:216.

5. Gregg R. Allison, “The Corpus Theologicum of the Church and Presumptive Authority,” in Derek Tidball, Brian Harris, and Jason S. Sexton, eds., Revisioning, Renewing, and Rediscovering the Triune Center: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. Grenz (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Conclusion

To conclude, I endorse Carl Trueman’s explanation: “Creeds and confessions at their best present the church with beautiful summaries of biblical teaching, which are designed not simply to preserve the faith but also to be part of the very life of the worshipping community. . . . [T]here is a doxological element in creeds and confessions.”[6] This doxological element is at the heart of my friendly disagreement about the proper posture toward the Holy Spirit. What is more, it is a disagreement that not only represents two different approaches to the relationship between historical theology and systematic theology, but also leads to two different and weighty liturgical practices: a church that worships and glorifies the Holy Spirit together with the Father and the Son, and one that does not, going against the grain of the consensus theologicum et liturgicum of the church.

6. Carl R. Trueman, Crisis of Confidence: Reclaiming Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2024), 172.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Gregg Allison

    Gregg R. Allison is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society and a theological advisor for Harbor Network and Upstream Sending. He is author of five major works: Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 2011), Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012), Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Crossway, 2014), 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith: A Guide to Understanding and Teaching Theology (Baker, 2018), and with Andreas Köstenberger, The Holy Spirit (B&H Academic, 2020). He and his wife Nora live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they attend Sojourn Church Carlisle. They have three adult children and 11 grandchildren.

Gregg Allison

Gregg Allison

Gregg R. Allison is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society and a theological advisor for Harbor Network and Upstream Sending. He is author of five major works: Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 2011), Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012), Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Crossway, 2014), 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith: A Guide to Understanding and Teaching Theology (Baker, 2018), and with Andreas Köstenberger, The Holy Spirit (B&H Academic, 2020). He and his wife Nora live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they attend Sojourn Church Carlisle. They have three adult children and 11 grandchildren.