Wednesday, September 7, 2016

McGraw Delivers Inaugural Lecture Tying Historical Theology to Contemporary Application

It was a provocative title, as it's author acknowledged: "Gisbertus Voetius, Presbyterianism, and Smart Phones."

Dr. Ryan McGraw attached it to his inaugural address as Greenville Seminary's new professor of systematic theology, saying the church needs a systematic theology, based on the timeless truths of the past, expressed in a contemporary context but without transforming them. The lecture was delivered on Aug. 23rd at Covenant Community Church (OPC), Taylors, S.C.

Basing his lecture on I Timothy 6:3-10, Dr. McGraw acknowledged that his title may have had his audience scratching their heads and perhaps even chuckling.

"Basically what I want to do is use each of those strange headings as a springboard into a general topic that pushes forward this address," he said. "Gisbertus Voetius is a model for wedding theology with piety. Presbyterianism is doing things through the church and for the church. 'Smart phones' is contemporary application," he said.

He said that, as a professor of systematic theology, he believes today's church and students of theology need to bring doctrine, faith, piety and practice together and apply classic Reformed theology to a contemporary context.


Gisbertus Voetius was a 16th and 17th century Dutch theologian who emphasized the practical nature of Reformed scholasticism.

"We need ministers in our age who are able to wed doctrine and piety," he said. "Theology is the doctrine of living to God or living to God specifically through Christ."

For Voetius, whether in the pew or in the classroom or in the pulpit, "the idea was that all of God's people teaching and listening were to walk in fellowship with the Triune God. Theology was doctrinal, it was something we learned, something we teach, but it was also something personal and something that applied to our souls."

"I'm standing here inaugurated as a professor of systematic theology and what does that mean?" he asked. "...[O]ften we lose sight of the fact that as Reformed people, when we take the name Reformed upon ourselves, we're not simply making a statement of what we think the Bible says, but we're making a statement about history."

He said that by taking the name Reformed upon ourselves we are identifying with "a certain way of understanding Scripture, and we cannot take the name Reformed without having some historical content. Yes, we are subject to Scripture and Scripture alone, but the term has to mean something historically or it means nothing."

"Perhaps the thing that strikes me the most is if you look at our forefathers and the Reformed faith, one of the things that they wanted to inculcate in systematic theology was preaching and piety," he continued. "Many of these systems were actually written to teach men how to preach better and many people read systems today and wonder how they can have anything to do with ... preaching at all. You see, there's a different model, an integration of Scripture, an integration of history, an integration of scholastic distinctions, an integration of piety, an aim at the hearts of men who are going to aim at the hearts of God's people in the church; a wedding together of things that ought not to be separated, in other words, in these historical models."

He said historic Reformed systems of theology were designed to inculcate personal godliness. "The idea was that theology, even scholastic theology, should not be dry and sterile. It ought to cause us to love Jesus Christ more clearly and because more clearly, more fervently and zealously, and so these men always aimed at the heart," he said.


Turning to Presbyterianism, Dr. McGraw said, "We need godly and learned men..., but we also need men who serve through the church and who serve Christ in the church, who serve the church of the Lord Jesus Christ; and, in my mind, the term 'Presbyterianism' encapsulates this the best way."

"Basically if everything I've just said about historic Reformed theology promotes a unity and a catholicity with the entire Christian tradition and interacting with the best that Jesus Christ has revealed through the church, well, Presbyterianism builds upon that theme by creating a catholicity and unity now," he said.

The individual congregation is not the only sense in which the New Testament speaks of the church, he said, noting that the word often encompassed whole regions.

"When men were ordained to the ministry, whether an apostle in Acts 1 or a deacon in Acts 6 or an elder in Acts 14, we see the same pattern. The people in the congregation vote and approve of the men who come, and we also see the group of men called presbyters, elders in a broader church connection laying on hands and approving men," he said.

"In a Presbyterian seminary in particular, we want to reflect the structures that Jesus Christ has put in the church himself. We want to labor through the church, we want to labor for the church. Historically, say in the days of Voetius, there was a transition back and forth many times between the pastorate and the university — the pastorate, or as we would call it now, the seminary. And the idea was that the professor was a minister of the Gospel and his job was not simply to be an academic but to train pastors; to wed doctrine and piety himself but also to know how to shepherd the church of God."

Dr. McGraw said that the seminary faculty covets the prayers and support of the people in Christ's church.

"When my brothers and I are laboring here at the seminary, we may be called to stand in the classroom and do the teaching; but I'd love all of you to think of this as your work as well. When you're on your knees in prayer, you're laboring to spread the Gospel through Greenville Seminary. I hope you do so even more preeminently through your local churches, through your local pastors and sessions, for we must recognize that prayer is part of the labor of the kingdom in spreading the Gospel, and we deeply covet your prayers, that we might do the things that I'm discussing here."

Smart Phones

 "We live in a contemporary world," Dr. McGraw went on to say. "I use smart phones here. I've got a smart watch hidden under my long shirt here, and we have all kinds of new things facing us in the new world. Where do we stand as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? Where do we stand as a seminary in teaching theology?"

Dr. McGraw said the church and schools of theology need to wisely address a new generation with old truth.

"I don't believe that we should dress like Voetius. I don't believe that I should simply start lecturing in Latin as Voetius did.... I don't believe that I should simply regurgitate his system of theology or any of these other men and push it upon a present generation. I believe we need to learn. We need to apply. We need to adapt and adopt, but at the same time, there's also a danger of running far afield."

He said that some wishing desperately to be relevant to today's generations wind up incorporating modern and post-modern philosophies. These are pagan philosophies, faulty views with theology superimposed, distorting the whole system, he said.

Other men come up with new perspectives on classic doctrines but in the process change "virtually every part of the entire system," he said.

"Smart phones, ministering to people in a contemporary world. I'm not going to talk here about how to use technology, though I do that," he said. "I'm not going to talk about how to reach the contemporary man; particularly what I am going to talk about is this: in a contemporary context we need to do several things, we need to learn to apply the past without simply repristinating the past.

"We're not Puritans. We don't live in that day and age. We learn from them; we should love them; but we're here now and that doesn't mean we need a new system of theology or a new confession of faith; and you won't find from me a quest to come up with a new method of organizing the system taught in the Bible; but what we need to do is go back to our forefathers. We need earlier models. We need to realize that it's possible to have a doctrine that accords with godliness; that it's possible to have a precise and careful Reformed theology that is historically informed, that is still relevant to people, that you can teach to children in your congregation. But we need to know what it is, and we need to step out of our context perhaps in order to minister to our context and learn from the past and minister to the present."

The other danger is applying the past, but transforming it, Dr. McGraw said. 

"We need to learn to benefit from classic biblical doctrine expressed through the Reformed faith and to communicate with people that don't have a Latin theological vocabulary and that aren't reading Charles Hodge, let alone Gisbertus Voetius. But at the same time, we need to learn to apply, sometimes expand, our description of biblical teaching without transforming it. That's a problem. That's what we often see. ... And there is a danger sometimes to think that we've solved the present problems and applied the past while we're really transforming it into something else."

"The other thing is that we need to apply these things with fresh affection in a new generation," he said. "We need to love the truths of God's word. We need to humble ourselves and lay aside our arrogance in acting as though the truth began with us and people do this in presbyteries all the time. ...

"Do we believe that Jesus Christ has spoken to the church and through the church? We don't believe the church is infallible. We don't place our faith in the church, but we also dishonor Christ if we ignore what the church has to say. But it also means, especially in men preparing for the ministry and my brothers in the ministry, that we need to learn these truths with fresh affection."

"What is missing at the present time?" Dr. McGraw asked in conclusion. "Do we not desperately need men in the seminary, in the pulpit, in the pew, who approach the knowledge of God as the truth that accords with godliness? Do we not need men who are well educated, not for the sake of being well educated, but to be well informed, to be discerning and to have the tools they need to be more fervent lovers of Christ and preachers of him, and who know how to take these things and then to translate them and apply them and to preach them to people today? 

"My dear friends, that is what I'm praying for for myself as a professor here at Greenville Seminary, what I'm studying to do; that's what I'm praying for for all of you students who are here and those who are not, for my brothers on the faculty, for every board member we have, for all the pastors here and for every church member in every church that I've ever been in. May the Lord grant that he would send such men through this institution and not only through us, but through others, even until Jesus Christ returns in glory."