The Importance of Categories

Dear Church Family,

In our Officers’ Training Class on Monday nights, we have been going through and studying the Westminster Confession of Faith. As such, I have been reminded once again of the importance of having “good categories” for the proper understanding, interpretation, and application of the Scriptures. As a confessional church, we believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.

I’ve written before about the importance of confessions. While some Christians and denominations eschew and deride creeds and confessions, the truth is that everyone has an interpretive grid or categories through which they interpret the Scriptures (or anything that they read or encounter, for that matter). And, while our interpretive grid must always be checked against Scripture itself, without proper, systematic categories believers may miss much what the Bible teaches, or alternatively, misinterpret and misapply what the Bible teaches.

In fact, our Confession of Faith teaches this very thing: “All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (WCF 31:4). The Bible is the “norming norm;” the confessional standards are the “normed norms” of the church. Speaking about the importance of catechetical instruction, I once heard Sinclair Ferguson remark that due to a lack of being catechized, many Christians don’t understand the Bible or the preaching that they hear – the Word of God is like rain falling on their heads and the catechism gives them cups in which they may catch it.

Just as I have been reminded of the importance of proper categories for interpreting the Bible and theological thinking in our class on Monday nights, I have also been reminded of late about the importance of proper categories for practical living. Too often, we may tend to believe that systematic theology and understanding right doctrine is only for seminarians, professors, and maybe pastors and elders. But, having and keeping proper categories in theology and biblical interpretation has very ‘real world’ application. Here are just three examples.

1. Parenting

Recently, I was greatly saddened to read of the death of a child in Washington state. The excruciatingly sad part of the story is that her death was reportedly due to her parents’ application of parenting principles that they had learned from a “Christian” parenting book. The book is called, “To Train Up a Child” by Michael and Debi Pearl. This is not the first time that this book and these authors have been at the center of this sort of controversy and accusations.

Of course, the parents who abused and even murdered their children are guilty of the sin and crimes that they committed – as far as I know, the authors are not prosecutable in a court of law – we still do have the freedom of speech in this country. At the same time, having only read the first chapter of this book in what is available online at Amazon, it is apparent to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the author’s parenting advice that is rooted in the misapplying or blurring of theological categories. No doubt, there is some good advice for parenting in this book; however, if the root of a teaching is rotten, we ought to be especially wary of the branches and fruit.

In the first chapter of “To Train Up a Child,” the Pearls look to God’s command to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) as the paradigm for training children in the home. And so, they recommend that parents place “bait” (their word) around in the home – items that are easily accessible to young children, but which have also been designated as things which are forbidden to touch.

The problem here is that the authors don’t take into account the unique status of Adam and Eve in redemptive history (a status which we do not share): they were in a state of innocence in the garden (Genesis 1:26-27, 31) and Adam stood as the covenant head of all humanity in the covenant of works (Romans 5:12-20; WCF 7:2). Unlike Adam in the Garden, we are no longer in a state of innocence (Romans 3:23; WCF 7:3), and parents most certainly do not relate to their children by way of a covenant of works. Rather, the paradigm for parenting is the covenant of grace (Hebrews 12:4ff).

In the Garden of Eden, God demanded perfect and personal obedience. He still does, but we have all failed. Since the Fall, our holy God only accepts us through the perfect obedience of Christ and nothing more (Galatians 2:16; Hebrews 10:10-14). Thus, believers now relate to God no longer through Adam, but through Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22). In Christ, God is our Father and He disciplines us as His accepted, yet still sinful and rebellious, children (Proverbs 13:24; Hebrews 12:6; WCF 5:5).

Even though there may be some good advice in the book, the premise behind the teaching of “Train Up a Child” is a false one. It is a false one (and problematic) because the authors confuse and misapply categories of systematic theology. They blur the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (Romans 5:12-20; WCF 7) and they do not take into account the historic teaching of the church concerning the four-fold state of man (WCF 9). They impute the things that the Scriptures teach about redemptive history to parenting, looking for parenting principles in parts of the Bible that were not intended to, nor have anything to do with, parenting.

2. Marriage

In his book “Federal Husband,” Doug Wilson makes a similar error. Again, there is no doubt that there is some good advice on how to be a better husband in the book. But despite the caveats that Wilson employs, the main premise of his book is: “Because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church (Eph. 5:23), the love offered will be the love of a federal head” (p 12).

What Doug Wilson is doing is taking the categories of the federal headship of Adam or Christ which are clearly taught in Scripture (again, Romans 5:12-20) and in the Westminster Confession (WCF 7:2; 19:1; 25:1, 6; 26:1) and erroneously applying the concept of “federal” to Paul’s teaching concerning the headship of the husband in Ephesians 5:22-33. In this passage, the Bible clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the Church, but theologians have historically only applied the descriptor “federal” to the headship of Adam or Christ. The word “federal” as used in systematic theology, is derived from the Latin foedus, meaning covenant or pact and is only applied, in this sense, to how a person is either federally “in Adam” or federally “in Christ.”

To apply our understanding of being federally (or covenantally) in Christ to the headship relationship of a husband to his wife is a blurring of theological categories. This categorical mistake will potentially lead to all sorts of problems. Though I’m pretty sure that Doug Wilson would never say this, it would not be too difficult to extend the implications of the concept of “federal husband” to arrive at the conclusion that a wife’s salvation is based upon the obedience or disobedience of her husband. After all, that’s actually how we rightfully understand the federal headship of Adam or Christ.

3. The Bride of Christ

One last example of categorical confusion. In a recent article, R.C. Sproul Jr. makes this statement with regard to the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church: “The church is the bride of Christ, called to be a help suitable to the second Adam as He fulfills the dominion mandate, bringing all things under submission.”

As we’ve already noted above, the Bible does speak of the Church as the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:23ff). And, yes, Jesus is called the “second Adam” (Romans 5:15-21; WLC 31). Yet, it does not necessarily follow (and neither the Bible nor our Confession ever says), that the Church as the bride of Christ is His “helper” as Eve was Adam’s helper in the Garden (Genesis 2:18-20). Again, though R.C. Sproul Jr. would probably never say this, to confuse these categories is to move toward the teaching that the Church is co-redemptrix with Christ.

The problem here is that R.C. Sproul Jr. imputes the teaching of Scripture in one category (the woman as the suitable helper to her husband) to the teaching of Scripture in another category (the Church as the bride of Christ). Certainly there are parallels – that’s why Paul uses the metaphor in Ephesians 5 – but the relationship between husband and wife ought never to be thought of as exactly the same as the relationship between Christ and the Church (this is the same categorical mistake that Wilson makes above, just in the opposite direction).

Conclusion

These are just three examples of how the right understanding and distinctions in the categories of systematic theology are very important on a practical level. Bookstores are awash with publications that propose to be “God’s way” of going something, or “the Scriptural teaching” on some practical matter. Some are better than others, and some are based on theological categorical mistakes. Knowing what you believe and why you believe it is very important. Knowing the categories of systematic theology and how they relate to one another – or don’t relate to one another, as the case may be – is essential for understanding, interpreting, and applying the Bible rightly.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch