Yes, You Should Impose a Theological System on the Bible (Just Be Sure It’s a Biblical One) – Justin Dillehay

“How can you believe in eternal security? Haven’t you read Hebrews 6?! It seems pretty clear that it’s possible to taste of the heavenly gift and share in the Holy Spirit and then fall away beyond hope of renewal. Things would be a lot simpler if you just believed the Bible instead of trying to force it into a theological system.”

I’ve had various conversations like this. In fact, I’ve been on both sides of this particular one. Earlier in life I was making the objection; later I was receiving it. It’s not unusual to hear Christians say “I don’t have a theology; I just believe the Bible.”

But this statement shows a misunderstanding of theology—at least good theology. It assumes people who disagree with your interpretation must not have read their Bible carefully. It also assumes you can avoid theological system-building in favor of pure biblicism, when you actually can’t. So let’s think for a moment about how theology works and how to do it honestly, using eternal security as a test case.

Where Good Theology Begins

Good theology doesn’t start by creating a system and then forcing the Bible into it. Good theology starts by listening to God’s Word—by attending carefully and prayerfully to the text itself. When you do that, you’ll notice that not all Scripture sounds the same. There are passages (like Hebrews 6) that seem to say saints can fall away, and there are others (like Romans 8) that seem to say saints are eternally secure. Because good theology approaches Scripture as God’s Word, it trusts there must be some underlying consistency to both sets of passages.

And that’s where theological system-building comes in. Theological systems shouldn’t be something we bring to Scripture (at least not initially), but something we draw from Scripture. Theological systems are what we construct in our attempt to understand how Hebrews 6 fits with Romans 8. They’re our attempt to say yes to all of God’s Word, rather than privileging our favorite passages.

Theological systems are what we construct in our attempt to understand how Hebrews 6 fits with Romans 8. They’re our attempt to say yes to all of God’s Word, rather than privileging our favorite passages.

As British theologian Stephen Holmes once said, “Theology is . . . the task of trying to imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true.” (This includes ideas that are assumed or “necessarily contained” in Scripture without being made explicit.) In other words, good theology trusts that God’s Word contains an internal consistency. Otherwise, why not simply conclude that the author of Hebrews believed we could lose our salvation while the apostle Paul did not?

Before we can formulate a solution, though, we must honestly recognize that Scripture contains both kinds of texts. A lot of Calvinist-Arminian arguments would be less heated if both sides simply acknowledged that the Bible contains passages that are easier for the other side to explain.

How Good Theology Proceeds

So theology is unavoidable. And if you believe the Bible is internally consistent, you’ll patiently seek an interpretation of this text that harmonizes with that text.

If you believe the Bible is internally consistent, you’ll patiently seek an interpretation of this text that harmonizes with that text.

The challenge lies in constructing a system that is itself biblical. Because if we impose an unbiblical system on the Bible, we’ll end up straining out and twisting verses that “don’t fit.” An unbiblical system will silence “problem texts,” whereas a biblical system will allow each text to speak with its own distinct voice—while also guarding it from silencing other biblical truths. Voices can harmonize without sounding exactly alike.

To tweak the analogy, texts are like tools—there’s no contradiction between a hammer and a screwdriver; they’re just designed to do different things. Some texts are designed to comfort, while others are meant to exhort—and they should be read for what they are. The reader who concludes that Romans 8 teaches eternal security can still acknowledge that Hebrews 6 and similar passages teach the necessity of perseverance and the need to “take heed lest we fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

Voices can harmonize without sounding exactly alike.

A further challenge lies in recognizing that doctrines are an interconnected web. Eternal security is connected to one’s view of divine sovereignty. A Christian who disagrees with you about whether Hebrews 6 refutes eternal security will usually be someone who has reached different conclusions (or has different assumptions) about divine sovereignty and human free will. So rather than charging, “You’re just saying that because you’re an Arminian/Calvinist,” it would be more honest to recognize deeper disagreements and try to address those.

How to Reach Theological Conclusions

Honest Calvinists and Arminians, then, should gladly acknowledge that Scripture contains verses that seem to support the other side. But the question everyone must ask is, “Which verses are clearer and less open to other interpretations?” At some point, each interpreter has to decide this passage is so clear that it can’t mean anything else, and therefore passages that seem to say something else must be interpreted in light of this one. This is the age-old principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture, and allowing clearer passages to interpret foggier ones.

Good theology doesn’t start by creating a system and then forcing the Bible into it. Good theology starts by listening to God’s Word.

Admittedly this isn’t always easy, as people often disagree about which verses are clearer. But on the issue of eternal security, I eventually concluded that passages like Romans 8:28–30, John 6:37–40, and 1 John 2:19 were more decisive than Hebrews 6. And mainly because all of them contain structured arguments. These texts aren’t simply making general observations—they’re making claims and then supporting those claims with reasons. Some interpretations are closed off, then, because they destroy the very argument the author is trying to make.

Take 1 John 2:19. Here is John’s argument laid out in logical form:

Claim: “They went out from us, but they were not of us . . .”

Reason: “. . . for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”

Conclusion: “But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

Here’s why this verse became problematic for me as an Arminian, and why I came to regard it as decisive for eternal security: because the reason John gives to support his claim was a reason I couldn’t have given. Why not? Because the central claim of my Arminian position was that you can be truly “of us” without continuing with us. My view of free will meant there was no guarantee that true believers would continue believing until the end. But such a claim destroys John’s entire argument, which expressly asserts that those truly “of us” will continue with us.

In this vein, here are two good questions to ask: “Would the writer have said this if he agreed with my theology?” and “What would the Bible have to say to falsify my position?”

In short, not all texts are equally clear, but some are clear enough to be decisive. Just as a mouse-trap is irreducibly complex (you can’t remove any of its parts without destroying its function), some passages of Scripture are irreducibly complex (you can’t interpret their parts differently without destroying the argument they’re making). And these sorts of passages have to be given priority when building a theological system.

Keep On Building

I said earlier that theological systems are something we should draw from Scripture rather than bring to Scripture. But if you’ve concluded that 1 John 2:19 is decisive for eternal security, it’s perfectly legitimate to allow it to control how you interpret other passages. Indeed, it would be wrong not to. Because at this point you’ve decided that 1 John 2:19 is conclusive enough to establish eternal security as a non-negotiable in your theology.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can never reconsider the question in light of future study. We should always be open to the possibility we might be wrong! We’re not infallible interpreters, after all. But some doctrines are more central than others, and not every conclusion should be so easily changed. In the meantime, be content to treat certain theological conclusions as what Don Carson calls “functional non-negotiables.” Not set in stone, perhaps, but carefully constructed and not easily dislodged.

We’re all theologians, whether we like it or not. But with God’s help, we can learn to become honest ones.

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