Interview with Rolland McCune on Systematic Theology

Note: This article has been cross-posted on Andy Naselli’s blog. It appears here verbatim.

Relatively few people agree with every single position taken in any comprehensive systematic theology, but it is valuable to consult a large number and wide variety of systematic theologies in order to understand how others correlate God’s revealed truth. For this (secondary) reason alone, a new multi-volume systematic theology by veteran seminary professor Rolland McCune is definitely worth adding to one’s ST collection.

About Rolland McCune

Rolland McCuneRolland McCune (b. 1934) is former president and current professor of systematic theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1981. He is the author of Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism.

Dr. McCune had a massive influence on me in college and beyond. In my review of Promise Unfulfilled (to which McCune kindly responded), I noted this:

In the summers of 2000 and 2001 (following my sophomore and junior years of college), I was privileged to take two seminary classes at DBTS from McCune. I stocked up on his lengthy course syllabi and devoured them (about 900 pages on systematic theology as well as lectures on hermeneutics, apologetics, and the like). I have listened to dozens of his audio lectures and sermons, read his journal articles, interacted with former students (including one of my former pastors) who esteem him as their mentor, and interacted directly with him a bit (e.g., I interviewed him for my dissertation on Keswick theology). His thinking is rigidly logical, his conclusions firm, his commitment to God and His word immovable, and his character unquestionably above reproach.

I slowly and thoroughly read through McCune’s 900 pages of systematic theology notes at least three times in college and early seminary. I knew his positions so well that my friend Matt Hoskinson used to call me “McCune,” and when we were taking theology classes together, he’d ask me during class discussions, “So what does McCune say?”

About Rolland McCune’s Systematic Theology

Systematic TheologyNow McCune’s systematic theology syllabi are being published in a more polished form, and the first of three or four volumes is hot off the press.

Rolland McCune. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity. Vol. 1. Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009. xiii + 443 pp. [desk copies available]

The book is much better documented than his syllabi (though the footnotes are unusually small and I miss the syllabi’s numbered headings). Two endorsements appear on the back cover:

This is the systematic theology set for which many of us—especially those of us who had the privilege of studying under Dr. Rolland McCune—have been waiting. Rolland McCune is one of the clearest thinkers in the theological world today, and in this set he systematically combines the interpretations of Scripture that many of us have wished to find in a single theology set. Highlights include a presuppositional apologetic, a single source (Scripture) as the only rule for theology, cessationism [sic] of the miraculous gifts, pretribulational premillennialism in eschatology, a dispensational structure of God’s progressive revelation, recent creationism, and a Calvinist soteriology. In addition, McCune has gained a comprehensive knowledge of evangelical theological works in his lifetime, and hundreds of footnotes saturate the pages of this work. It is highly recommended.

Larry Pettegrew, Th.D.
Vice President of Professor of Theology
Shepherds Theological Seminary, Cary, North Carolina

Rolland McCune’s Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity is written for pastors and preachers by a theologian with a heart for pastors. Concise yet thorough, academic yet pastoral, simple yet profound, Dr. McCune has managed to provide a much needed theological resource that will be of immense value to both pastors and academicians. His balanced, biblical approach is refreshing. Careful scholarship and thorough research are evident on every page. This will be a tool that serious students of the Bible will find themselves turning to again and again.

Sam Horn, Ph.D.
Senior Pastor, Brookside Baptist Church
Vice-President for Ministerial Training and Graduate Studies,
Northland Baptist Bible College

An Interview with Rolland McCune on Systematic Theology

1. How many years have you taught systematic theology on the seminary level? About how many semester-long or block systematic theology (ST) classes (not courses) have you taught?

I have taught for 42 years in the general field of ST: 14 years at the Central Baptist Seminary of Minneapolis (1967–1981) and 28 years at DBTS (1981–2009). I taught elective theologies (e.g., dispensationalism, Kingdom of God, and OT theology) while a prof of OT for 11 or 12 years, and ST and Apologetics almost exclusively for the remainder.

I would confess that my theological class hours in seminary studies and in teaching are beyond my present abilities to calculate, or even estimate.

2. Dozens of ST books are available. What is distinct about yours?

All theologies have their chief, if not unique, motifs. Mine would probably include the following:
  • traditional dispensationalism (vis-à-vis covenant theology and/or the current revisionist, progressive approach)
  • a recurring emphasis on the unity of the human personality as the biblical psychology of humans rather than a strict dichotomy/trichotomy configuration
  • the cognitive and reasoning abilities via the image of God for humans, including the debilitations of noetic sin
  • a decidedly presuppositional (Van Tilian) approach to Christian philosophy and apologetics
  • a strong emphasis on the structure, polity, and ideology of the local NT (Baptist) church
  • a more Calvinistic approach to soteriology and related doctrines
  • a ST that is biblically/exegetically based

Some of my students would probably suggest a few others. My milieu for the past 50 years and more has been Baptist fundamentalism, and that is surely reflected more than I probably realize.

3. How do you define biblical theology and systematic theology? What is the proper relationship between BT and ST? Are BT conclusions more firm than ST conclusions? Do you favor ST over BT?

ST is the correlation of truths found in Scripture alone, i.e., the 66 books of the Protestant canon. BT is historically oriented to the flow of divine revelation. I favor ST over BT because BT is at least one step short of seeing the Bible’s big picture in its systemic, unified doctrinal relationships of themes and topics. ST of necessity incorporates BT in the final analysis. BT sometimes ends in disparate “theologies” rather than a correlated whole. BT conclusions are not, in my judgment, more firm than ST. ST is exegetically based, as is BT, and BT is no less “man made” (to use a term often applied to ST) than ST allegedly is.

4. How long did you teach Old Testament on the seminary level before transitioning to ST? How did that contribute to your ST?

Having majored in OT and ST in seminary, I taught mainly OT for 11 or 12 years (Genesis, History of Israel, OT historical books, major and minor prophets) before I switched to ST and Apologetics, but continued a few OT courses for about 30 more years. OT studies (including OT theology) is probably the best background and spade work for NT studies and ST. The NT writers were saturated with OT (Hebrew) thought and the revealed religion and theology of the OT revelation, and this is the proper background, in my opinion, for understanding the NT. I have told my classes as shorthand for this fact that the NT authors wrote in Greek but they thought in Hebrew. Very few doctrines or theological tenets in the NT are purely Greek or Graeco-Roman in thought. Examples of such concepts include the ekklesia as well as the testament (diatheke) in Heb 9; theological adoption is more Graeco-Roman since Mosaism made no adoption provisions for infertile couples. But a mind well-stocked with OT thought is better background than, say, philosophy or classical Greek, for purposes of a more thorough ST.

5. What is your favorite Bible doctrine? Why?

My favorite Bible doctrine is the Kingdom of God because it ultimately unifies the whole Bible as no other doctrine or principle can. Unmistakably grounded in the religion and thought of OT theology, God’s rule of loving sovereignty over and fellowship with his image-bearers, is, as I understand it, the unifying center for all of God’s activity external to Himself. This is also the unifying principle of the Scriptures. It began with the Creation Mandate and carries through to the eschaton—the Millennial, Mediatorial Kingdom of God and its transition to the Eternal Kingdom of God on the new earth. (I develop this on pp. 135-54 of STBC.)

6. How has your mentor, Alva J. McClain, influenced your ST?

The influence of my mentor, Dr. Alva J. McClain, is tremendous. His grasp of the idea of the Kingdom of God was influenced by George N. H. Peters’s massive 3-volume The Theocratic Kingdom. McClain was a master-teacher and a careful, thorough, biblical and theological scholar. He was quite lucid in his thinking so that a Bible student as well as the average person in civil society could understand him. Very few will not comprehend the biblical, theological development of his magnum opus, The Greatness of the Kingdom. (Interestingly, George Ladd wrote a very negative review [Evangelical Quarterly 32 (1960): 48—50], fundamentally because McClain often cited nineteenth-century sources and not the current Continental scholarship and because he did not embrace the already/not yet notion of the Kingdom of God.) The clarity of Dr. McClain would apply equally to anyone listening to his lectures and sermons.

7. Who are a few of your favorite dead and living theologians? Why?left2.jpg

In addition to Dr. McClain, who died in 1968, I found A. H. Strong of great help. His Systematic Theology was pretty much the standard text in Baptist seminaries and other institutions until the appearance of Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology. Strong had his quirks, to say the least, such as ethical monism, postmillennialism, et al., but his format of developing the doctrines I found valuable.

I appreciate the efforts of the older Reformed theologies, especially in the areas of God, Christ, scripture and salvation. Herman Bavinck and W. G. T. Shedd particularly come to mind, as well as B. B. Warfield and the Hodges. Those nearest to my thinking, especially in ecclesiology, pneumatology, and eschatology, would be Lewis Sperry Chafer, John F. Walvoord, and Charles C. Ryrie.

There have been significant contributions made rather recently by Wayne Grudem, Millard J. Erickson, John Frame, Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Robert D. Culver, and Robert L. Reymond. The one-volume put out by Broadman (Theology and the Church, ed. Daniel Akin), as well as that of Dallas Seminary (Understanding Christian Theology, ed. Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck), are noteworthy. I’m sure I have overlooked many others, some of whom contributed single volumes on various doctrines (such as the Contours of Christian Theology series by IVP).

8. What would you like to see emphasized more in contemporary systematics? Why?

I think more emphasis should be placed on exegeting and understanding the Scriptures themselves. I base this largely on the fact that the Bible, after all, was meant to be understood by God’s image-bearers (i.e., humans). I do not believe that there is an inherent opacity to Scripture. Rather, all the Scriptures are essentially perspicuous and unmistakably so regarding the central message (creation, fall, redemption, and consummation in the eschaton). For that reason itself, one must limit the source of ST material to the Protestant canon alone and not include—among other invalid sources—autonomous, independent philosophical thinking that is free from God, Christ, and the Bible (pp. 12-27 in STBC).

9. Why does volume 1 of your ST begin with the doctrine of Scripture rather than God?

In light of the above exclusivity of the Bible as the source of ST, one would begin with the doctrine of the special revelation of God in Scripture. The older view among dogmaticians (reflected currently especially by Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, 4 vols.; see p. 12 of STBC) is that there are certain preconditions to doing ST, mainly philosophical, logical, and apologetical, about God and truth. For example, theism in general must be independently established and rationally validated before coming to biblical/Christian theism. The truth is that the possibility and necessity of God and divine revelation are themselves matters of propositional revelation in Scripture. Scripture itself teaches us the priority of Scripture in theological matters. For some this is circular and unacceptable, but one either starts the theological enterprise with God or man and continues the circle from there, eventually arriving and one’s starting point. The testimony of Scripture is that only God can validate Himself and His revelation, and so I start with His self-attesting book.

10. If some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, how do you determine what is essential and what is not? How, then, do you determine the relative importance of non-essential doctrines?

Essentials and non-essentials pose a monumental difficulty from the human perspective. One of the basics of theology is the pervasive Creator-creature distinction, i.e., nothing exists in man as it does in God. Confusing this principle via human autonomy is the fundamental basis of sin (to worship the creature rather than the Creator, Rom 1:25); it is a controlling rubric of all thinking about God and truth. This distinction between the Creator and the creature puts the two in totally unmixed categories. The chasm between them can be bridged only by the Creator, from the top down, and thankfully has been crossed, for example, in the incarnation of the God-man and the divine message of the Bible in purely human languages.

That being the case, a two-tiered approach is mandated for all the difficulties of theology that involve the compatibility of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, including the essential and non-essential. On the one hand, there is no non-essential proposition, datum, or doctrine in God’s mind. Being omniscient, for example, all truth in God is infinitely exhaustive and interlocking, and anything lacking or in any way diminished therefrom denies the person of God, especially His simplicity as well as His “intellectual attributes.” God does not have attributes as such; He is what His attributes are. In that case there are no non-essentials in the Bible and theology.

On the other (human) hand, I do not like to venture into the essential/non-essential briar patch. Part of the problem with this is how does one determine what is essential or non-essential to what? David’s mighty man who killed a lion in a pit on a snowy day (2 Sam 23:20) may be deemed by some as a non-essential, but to what, and why? Certainly not to God. If it is in the Bible, I must believe that everything there is essential or it wouldn’t have been put there by God via inspiration. Such a proposition or datum may well be ultimately incomprehensible to a finite mind—even forever, but it is necessary nonetheless. Which is all to say, I don’t believe finite humans have the necessary criteria or propaedeutic to declare with any certainty on this issue and others like it. This is not to say that 2 Sam 23:20 should be an article of saving faith, so in that sense would not be as essential to the kerygma in our minds, but since it is in the Word of God it must be ultimately essential and is something that the God of infinite and exhaustive truth, knowledge, wisdom, purpose, et al. cannot do without.

11. While teaching ST over the years and preparing your ST manuscript, in what areas (if any) have you changed your mind?

My mind has not essentially changed on anything substantive since seminary days. I was raised in an Arminian holiness communion and even went to college at the denominational school, but seminary training and studies changed all that. This is not to say that I adopted all the positions of my teachers on disputed issues, e.g., Dr. McClain’s gap theory of Genesis 1 or the Grace Brethren ordinances.

12. What issues have been lingering difficulties in your theological reflection?

Lingering difficulties or theological challenges mainly include integrating dispensational principles and exegetical findings into the bigger theological construct. This has been a burden of mine since seminary, especially in OT studies. I think there are still myriads of loose ends in understanding the theology of Mosaism, the governing revelation of God for the 1500 years of the dispensation of Law. To comprehend the sacrificial system and the Levitical forms that constituted the genius of OT religion has been an ongoing quest for me. For example, if there was a civil religion and an established priesthood at the central shrine where God was to be approached, and thus there was no individual priesthood of the believer before the “new and living way” (Heb 10:20), what does this mean for the theology of prayer and for the ongoing spiritual experience of the believer in the OT? When I was in seminary in the later 1950s, Dr. John C. Whitcomb opined in class that dispensationalism could take possibly two hundred years to be fully integrated into ST. Dr. Ryrie was reported to have said he thought dispensationalism was about thirty percent developed back then.

13. What is the value of ST for expository preaching?

ST is a must for expository preaching (or expositional preaching, if there is a distinction). It has been suggested that the main difference between a stately oak and a brush pile is mainly a matter of organization. ST is the great organizer in that it gathers into its domain all the fruits of exegesis, including the contributions of biblical theology. I am thankful to our great and good God that there seems to be considerably less brush-pile thinking and hog-calling in preaching and more serious handling of the authorially intended meaning of Scripture in organized, passionate, and well-delivered exposition. The efforts of many of us over the last fifty or sixty years in fundamentalism seem now to be bearing good fruit in many quarters of our movement.

14. Many thanks, Dr. McCune, for taking time to serve the readers of this blog with such thoughtful comments!

It has been my pleasure, to be sure. I should probably add that I wrote theology as I taught it through the decades. There is a level of theological understanding that I feel is crucial for today’s “pastor-theologian” that requires a seminary teacher to go beyond the traditional, eclectic, interdenominational smorgasbord approach of various options, pros and cons, et al., at least for his first seminary degree. This approach, I have observed, leaves the new preacher more confused than anything.

For myself, I came to seminary in 1957 with a brush pile of biblical data in my head and unsure of many things, such as eternal security, the dimension of the Genesis flood, sanctification and the Christian life, the purpose of God in His universe (besides saving souls and blessing your life), to name a few. And I left entirely different with my first seminary diploma (a BD in those days, 104 semester hours). And so personally today, many of the loose ends and issues in the text, history, grammar and syntax, exegesis, and theology I have for the most part left to the skills of my colleagues on the faculty. I myself have tried to impart healthy doctrine that is coherent, correlated, and unified as much as possible in the relatively short time students are sitting in front of me.
Andy NaselliAndy Naselli is currently working on a Ph.D. in Theological Studies with a concentration in New Testament Exegesis and Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he serves as D. A. Carson’s full-time research assistant. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Bob Jones University (2006), an M.A. in Bible from Bob Jones University (2003), and a B.A. in Bible from Baptist College of Ministry (2002). He and his wife Jenni and his ten-month-old daughter Kara Marie live on campus at Trinity in Deerfield, Illinois.
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