I love systematic theology. In fact, I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to systematic theology. Some of my favorites are De Doctrina Christiana by Augustine and Peter Lombard’s Sentences. I can hardly resist them. Aquinas, Barth, Bavinck, Berkhof, Brakel, Brown, Dabney, Dagg, Erickson, Frame, Gill, Hodge, Horton, Turretin, Reymond, Vos, Warfield, and the like fill my selves. And, with my love for systematic theology, I am excited to add Greg Nichols’ set to my collection.
With so many systematic theologies, one may wonder why there is a need for a new one. One could argue that Nichols has something unique to offer as a Reformed Baptist. This is true. Since Reformed Baptists have so few representatives in the systematic theology department, we can be thankful for the release of this new multi-volume set.
Yet, I would argue that there is something even more unique about Nichols’ systematic theology—it’s a systematic theology and a topical Bible in one. I don’t know of anything else like it.
Of all my systematic theologies, I love Calvin’s Institutes the most. However, moving forward in my day-to-day studies and sermon preparation I can see myself referencing Nichols’ Systematic Theology as much, if not more, than any of the others. The reason it will never be too far out of reach is because it provides an exhaustive catalog of verses that are systematically arranged.
The value of these Scriptural references are not merely that they are so easy accessible, for we have Nave’s Topical Bible for that. Rather, the value is that they show the reader that Scripture alone is the authority of systematic theology. Nichols subjugates every branch (loci) of theology to the full Biblical witness (and not just two or three isolated proof texts). What does the Bible say about the nature of God? What does the Bible say about creation, providence, and sin? We simply cannot answer these questions by going to a single chapter of a single book of the Bible. Rather, we must search Genesis to Revelation to uncover God’s complete answer to these questions. And Nichols has spent years doing just that, and, now, with the release of these books, we have all his vast research of the Scriptures at our finger tips. For instance, page 59, on The Scope of Divine Providence, Nichols neatly gathers the important verses on the meticulous government of God over every little detail of history:
Scripture stresses that God’s preservation of reality and government of history are meticulous. His providence includes even the minutest creature and even the most seemingly insignificant event in nature and in the lives of men. He personally counts the hairs on every head and controls the flight of every bird. Truly, such mental capacity and capability to accomplish things are incomprehensible. Consider a sample of the biblical witness to the scope of divine providence. I simply tabulate these ten passages in the order of their occurrence in Scripture:
1. God governs every illness and death: Deut. 32:39: See now that I, even I, am he: And there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal; And there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
2. God governs every rejection of good advice by lost men: 1 Sam. 2:24-25: Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: you make Jehovah's people to transgress. If one man sin against another, God shall judge him; but if a man sin against Jehovah, who shall entreat for him? Notwithstanding, they hearkened not unto the voice of their father, because Jehovah was minded to slay them; 2 Sam. 17:14: And Absalom and all the men of Israel said: The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel. For Jehovah had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, to the intent that Jehovah might bring evil upon Absalom.
3. God governs chance, every random event: 1 Kings 22:28, 34: And Micaiah said, If you return at all in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me. And he said, Hearken, O people, every one of you . . . And a certain man drew a bow at a venture, and smote the king of Israel between the joints of the harness; Prov. 16:33: The lot is cast into the lap; But the whole disposing thereof is of Jehovah
4. God governs every household event and childbirth: Ps. 127:1-3: Except Jehovah build the house, they labor in vain that build it: Except Jehovah keep the city, the watchman wakes but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to take rest late, to eat the bread of toil; For so he gives unto his beloved sleep. Lo, children are a heritage of Jehovah; and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
5. God governs every romance and marriage: Prov. 19:14: House and riches are an inheritance from fathers; But a prudent wife is from Jehovah.
6. God governs every war and conflict: Prov. 21:31: The horse is prepared against the day of battle; but victory is of Jehovah.
7. God governs every race and competition: Eccles. 9:11: I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.
8. God governs the appointment of every government official: Dan. 4:32: until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever he will.
9. God governs every event in the inanimate universe: Matt. 5:45: that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.
10. God governs the salvation or damnation of every person: Rom. 9:16-19: So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that has mercy. For the scripture says unto Pharaoh: For this very purpose did I raise you up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be published abroad in all the earth. So then he has mercy on whom he will, and whom he will be hardens. You will say then unto me: Why does he still find fault? For who withstands his will?
But this is more than just a Scripture reference tool that is systematically arranged, it is a true systematic theology that is based on Biblical exegesis. It is vital that our theology be derived and governed by the exegesis of Scripture, and by the exegesis of Scripture alone. Sadly, some systematics are more influenced by Greek philosophy than by God’s Word. It is abundantly evident, however, that Nichols has no interest in syncretizing Athens with Jerusalem. In fact, according to Nichols, “We must subject every pronouncement of dogmatic theology to the scrutiny of Scripture…Scripture is the final judge of man’s dogma. The final question is always, ‘What say the Scriptures?’” (257). Natural and speculative theology do not lead man to the Trinitarian God of the Bible, nor even to a cohesive system of thought. Aristotle is of no help when it comes to understanding special revelation. We should interpret natural revelation through the lens of special revelation, and not the other way around. Thus, without the assistance of natural and speculative theology, Nichols shows how the truths contained within the canon of Scripture are sufficient in themselves to bring us to a cohesive system of thought and a full understanding of all the branches of theology. Like John Calvin, Nichols believes that divine revelation can by systematized without help of natural theology.
For these reasons, not to mention how easily it is to use and quickly reference, I highly treasure Nichols’ systematic theology.
But what I have said up to this point is true for every volume of Nichols’ systematic theology. In regards to volume two in particular, if you want to know what the Bible says about man, than I highly recommend you getting this volume—The Doctrine of Man. Volume two of Nichols’ systematic theology is as exhaustive and clear a treatment of this important question as you will find.
Nichols divides the doctrine of man into five subheadings: (1.) Formation of the Original Creation, (2.) Conservation of the Original Creation, (3.) Culmination of the Original Creation, (4.) Devastation of the Original Creation, (5.) Benevolence to the Ruined Original Creation.
What is unique is that Nichols treats creation and providence within this volume—and this makes sense, seeing that man is the culmination of creation and the special interest of divine providence. Within these subheadings, everything from marriage and earthly governments, to the Sabbath is given its due attention. It is fun opening a book that makes you excited about reading the first chapters while placing an equal eagerness on reading to the end.
My favorite section is Nichols’ treatment of Man’s Psychosomatic Constitution (pages 98-102). Nichols explains the four major positions, such as (1.) ontological dualism, (2.) trichotomy, (3.) holism, and (4.) duality in unity. He not only provides us with a chart to help distinguish the different views from each other, but he also explains the origin, basic beliefs, and ethical consequences of each view. Nichols concludes that duality in unity is the biblical view:
Scripture teaches that human nature displays diversity, cohesion, and unity. Man’s constitution is psychosomatic. It consists of two distinct entities, body and soul, which are separable in death. Yet it possesses organic unity, not radical dichotomy. I use, “duality in unity,” to express this diversity, cohesion, and unity. Thus, the other three views contain a mixture of truth and error. Greek dualism captures the truth that man’s constitution consists of two diverse elements, a material entity called body and non-material entity called soul or spirit. Trichotomy captures the truth that cohesive power unites these two elements. Holism captures the truth that man’s constitution is a unit, an organic whole. At creation God established an intricate bond that, in the absence of sin, would never have dissolved. Thus, if we reject any of these truths, or press one to an extreme at the expense of the others, we will fall from the razor’s edge of truth into error.
Though Nichols holds to a slightly different covenantal framework than this reviewer, I, nevertheless, profited from reading his position on the covenants and how they function in God’s plan of redemption. Nichols is wise in placing the doctrines of the covenants in his treatment of the doctrine of man, for it is impossible to understand the nature, purpose, and fall of man independently of God’s covenantal framework.
With this said, Nichols’ treatment of sin and the fall of man is also helpful. He does not shy away from addressing the difficult question on how man’s volitional freedom corresponds with God’s sovereignty (pages 277-281). Nichols does not seek to resolve the tension, but delicately upholds both truths without compromise:
When a sovereign God controls sinners, he controls, not wooden dummies, but free moral agents. Scripture asserts unambiguously the sovereignty of God over fallen men: “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord, and he turns it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1). Free agency does not cancel God’s sovereignty. God predestines, controls, and determines everything that happens in this world, including everything that fallen men do: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Again, Isaiah is very bold: “Ho, Assyrian, rod of mine anger, the rod in whose hand is my indignation ... Shall the axe boast itself against him that hews therewith? ... Howbeit, he means not so, but it is in his heart to destroy and to cut off people not a few.” (Isa. 10:7). Therefore, God says that when he has purged the Israelites with him, he will judge him. God held him accountable for his actions even though he was the instrument of God’s chastening judgment. He did God’s purpose even though he wasn’t aware he was doing it. He’s not a puppet: “Howbeit he means not so.” Nevertheless, God accomplished his purposes through him: “Ho, Assyrian, rod of mine anger.” The only plausible meaning of this text is that sinful man is a free moral agent accountable to a sovereign God.
Here is one of the great mysteries of Scripture, a great stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to the pride of fallen man. Somehow, an omnipotent God controls fallen men who ultimately act upon their own free moral choices.
Much more could be said about volume 2 of Nichols’ Systematic Theology, but I hope what little I have said will spur you to get your own copy. I am certain that you will be thankful that you did, as it has definitely been beneficial for me.
Reviewer: Jeffrey D. Johnson, D.Min., founding pastor of Grace Bible Church in Conway, AR, author of several books, including The Absurdity of Unbelief (Free Grace Press, 2016) and The Pursuit of Glory (Reformation Heritage Books, 2018).