A Review of Lectures in Systematic Theology, Volume 1
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Review of Lectures in Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of God
by Greg Nichols, edited by Rob Ventura
Reviewer: Brian Borgman, founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Minden, NV, author of Feelings and Faith (Crossway, 2009), After They’re Yours: The Grace and Grit of Adoption (Cruciform, 2014) and co-author of Spiritual Warfare (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) with Rob Ventura.
It has been my pleasure to know Greg Nichols for several years now. Greg is first and foremost a pastor, he is a preacher of the first order, with a unique style. Greg has also taught Systematic Theology since the late 1970s. He has taught classes for Trinity Ministerial Academy and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has taught in the Far East, the Dominican Republic, Philippines, Northern Ireland and throughout the United States.
Nichols has an astute theological mind. His approach to Systematics has been deeply shaped by Professor John Murray. He does not simply state propositions and then list proof texts, rather he exegetes the “epitomizing texts” that relate to each topic. Nichols has the conviction that there is a proper way to conduct Systematic Theology, it is through biblical exegesis and historical theology. He is immersed in the masters of Reformed theology and as a Confessional Baptist he seeks to stress the doctrinal distinctiveness of the Second London Confession, but this theology is not simply a historical theology for Reformed Baptists. Nichols commitment is first and foremost the authority of Scripture and biblical exegesis is the engine that drives this theology. I believe that Nichols has achieved a wonderful balance of historical theology as the servant to exegesis. He also has combined a fine analytical mind with a warm, God-exalting heart. As one comes to The Doctrine of God, one is treated to a feast. This book is marvelously pastoral and practical, deeply theological and consistently exegetical.
There are several features of this Systematic Theology that I appreciated. First, the formatting makes the book very easy to use. It is orderly and well-outlined. As many pastors know, a Systematic Theology can be a great reference resource, but only if it is easy to locate topics and clearly follow the flow and development of the subject. Nichols excels in this, no doubt, due to his pedagogical instincts. One short-coming however, in this area, is that there is no Scripture index. Admittedly, if there was a Scripture index it would need to be its own volume since there are thousands of Scripture references!
Another feature that I greatly appreciated was the introduction. Nichols effectively shows that systematics are practical and applicable. He states, “We must labor to present a systematic theology that passes through the sieve of usefulness, practicality, and applicability to everyday Christianity” (17). For pastors and laymen, in particular, this section is edifying. Nichols sets forth the goals of the lectures and has a special emphasis on reaching the people in the pews, not with arid doctrinal musings, but rather with the application of a comprehensive exposition of the Scriptures.
Another feature that was encouraging was his mandate for systematic theology. This mandate comes “After long wrestling over how to establish the biblical grounds for systematic theology” (31). Again, Nichols shows his commitment to Scripture. Is there a Scriptural mandate to do Systematics? Nichols answers in the affirmative with an explanation of three epitomizing texts.
He concludes with a “Summary of the Biblical Warrant for Systematics.”
Therefore, let us not be ashamed of systematics, or shaken by the attacks leveled upon it. On the other hand, let us always conduct topical studies in such a way as to be free from just reproach. Let us avoid unprofitable speculations and vain reasoning. Let us not impose man-made doctrines on God’s Word. O that the Lord would establish our hearts firmly in commitment to be true to the faith, and arouse our appreciation for the tremendous value of systematic theology so that we would study it with hunger, enthusiasm, and diligence. We turn now to the content and development of systematic theology (69).
For Nichols, the conclusion to systematics is ethics (78). As he wraps up his introductory material, he sets forth “A vision for Systematic Theology” (78). Again, this is a fresh approach to the practical nature of systematics for churches, pastors, and individual Christians. “Every church, pastor, and Christian needs systematic theology, even if relatively few realize the superlative value of sound doctrine. Therefore, I aim to inoculate you against insidious attacks on systematics that may threaten your minds and hearts. I aim to establish you in the Christian faith. My hope and prayer is that love for systematics will burn in your hearts as it does in mine, to the end that God will receive greater glory in the church and in Christ in every generation until Jesus comes” (80).
Once Nichols gets to the doctrine proper, he begins with the existence of God. This is strikingly fresh since Nichols does not waver from his exegetical approach. He does not wander into natural theology and the traditional “evidences” for the existence of God. He stays grounded in the Scriptures and deals with God’s existence. But this is not merely a fideistic approach. There is excellent apologetic value in this section as well. His biblical assessment of atheism is outstanding.
As Nichols progresses, he stays within the boundaries of traditional systematics, covering the knowledge of God, the nature of God, the names of God and the decree of God. But this is not simply a regurgitation of systematicians who have gone before. There is continual freshness and clarity and application. The application really is one of the noteworthy features of this work. This pastor highly appreciated Nichols’s efforts at applying the doctrines he expounded.
Nichols touches on areas often overlooked in the standard systematics. For instance, when he is writing on immutability he has a section on how immutability relates to the incarnation (254, 262-263). He is also not afraid to use different nomenclature for his categories, e.g., the ideality of God, the vivacity of God, the emotivity of God, God’s self-esteem. The different terminology is not an attempt to be novel, it reflects a fresh approach. Alongside this, he continually demonstrates a deftness in handling difficult categories. For instance, he has a section under God’s sovereignty on “The Seeming Contradiction Associated with God’s Supreme Will” (358ff). He tackles God’s sovereignty over sin, sovereign grace and the free offer of the Gospel, and the Resolution of this Seeming Contradiction. When he comes to God’s holiness, he wrestles with “Seeming Contradictions Associated with God’s Holiness” (496). He writes for the pastor but also the man in the pew who may struggle with certain apparent tensions in doctrine.
Of special note is Nichols’s section on “The Emotivity of God” (369). Considering certain recent controversies, this unit is very interesting. For many years now I have gone back to this subject in his lecture notes and later article ( Reformed Baptist Theological Review, 1 no/ 2, July 2004). Nichols opens this topic with these words, “We now consider God’s supreme capacity to feel, his ‘emotivity.’ Our texts epitomize God’s supreme affections” (369). Nichols exhibits humility when he says, “When I define God’s supreme capacity to feel, I am in uncharted water. Although Reformed theologians acknowledge that God feels, they do not pay as much attention to this faculty as to his mind or will. Thus, defining God’s emotivity precisely involves greater difficulty. Thus, I offer my definition with fear and trembling” (369). Nichols willingness to go into “unchartered waters” yields an extremely edifying portion in this volume. This is not just an edifying section, it is a worshipful section. Who cannot rejoice when reading about the eternal joy of the Trinity!
His treatment of the Trinity (551ff) does not go into some of the details raised by the recent Trinitarian debates, but his handling of the subject is robust, faithfully Nicene and confessional.
Another example of Nichols’s fresh approach is his treatment of “God’s Self-Esteem,” in which he says, “We hear a lot today about self-esteem. We hear that people need greater esteem for themselves. In truth we need greater esteem for God and his moral virtues…
Accordingly, I offer the following definition of God’s assessment of his own virtue: God’s self-esteem is his moral self-awareness, his infallible perception and infinite esteem of his own supreme virtue” (545).
Nichols studies the names of God. He is so detailed that he provides a series of Appendices on The Relative Frequency and Use of God’s Names. It is impressive, to say the least. This is excellent material and could easily serve as the basis for a Bible study or Sunday School series.
Finally, on God’s decree, he gives an excellent presentation of the lapsarian positions, with potential dangers and the biblical evidence for both. Spoiler alert: “Some may wonder what to call my position. You can call me an infra-supralapsarian” (676).
As I came to the end, these are descriptions that easily came to my mind: articulate, insightful, warm, reverent, fresh, worshipful, exhaustive, soaked in Scripture and the great writings of the Reformed tradition. There is a uniqueness to this work. Nichols includes incredibly helpful appendices that provide lexical information. He labors to show the practical applications of the subjects. This is systematic theology at its finest. It is executed with exegetical and pastoral acuity.
My study library is probably like yours; after commentaries, systematic theologies take up the most space. This systematic theology does not merely deserve space on your shelf, it deserves to be read and placed alongside the most used theologies on your shelf.