Systematic Theology vs. Theology

This post is part of a dialogue that began here. It has been continued by my friend Art Boulet. I would highly recommend you read both of those blog entries, as well as the comments on the former.

Now, allow me to get down to business. First, I have to say that I don’t disagree with too much of what Art posted on his blog. Actually, quite the opposite – I agree with much of it! So then, I’m faced with the question, “What’s the problem?” After a brief discussion with Mandy I believe I understand, at least partially, what the issue is. The general “Anti-theology” crowd on Dr. Snyder’s blog is not so much Anti-theology as we are anti-systematic-theology.

I agree with Art that the Bible is Theology. At its heart the Bible is a finite book meant to communicate an infinite God to his people. God is incomprehensible, yet he is knowable. I would disagree with those who simply say, “Live Jesus” since things are slightly more difficult than that. “No creed but Christ” is a great rallying call (and one I agree with as far as establishing what other churches a church should fellowship with), but it does not take into account the whole revelation of God. On the whole, theology is a good thing.

But, let me now interject that Systematic Theology is NOT a good thing. Ah! Now perhaps we will have some disagreement. I say that theology is good, but systematic theology is not. Let me put it another way, “No Creed but the Bible.” My fear is that systematic theology goes too far. I will explain this in more detail and with an example or two below. But for now let me quote another friend of mine,

I don’t know alot about “Systems Theory” (a field of study that finds its origins in the 1950’s) but I do know that systems exists as entities seeking equilibrium. The problem with God as a system is that he nowhere expresses a concern for personal equilibrium. Enter Systematic Theologians. How do we explain doctrines (pick your favorite) that possess little Scriptural support? Systematic Theologians are concerned about a system. They are concerned about equilibrium within that system. Does God have this concern?

As Will Hall said so perfectly, systematic theology seeks equilibrium that, I think, is not sought by God. God is concerned with communicating himself to his people, but that is often messy and does not lend itself easily to a system. Before I go on, let me say that I do not think John Calvin, Augustine, Hodge, or even (GASP!) Barackman intends to put God in a box within any of their writings. The problem however is as they seek to systematize (might I make a leap and say, westernize?) the Bible they invariably put God in a box that the Bible does not. God has created a bit of a box by communicating himself in a finite manner, but I’d rather stick with the God created box (ie, the Bible – Biblical Theology) than with the man created box (systematic theology). Some my disagree with the dichotomy that I’ve created here…but humor me.

Now, for an example of what I mean. The Bible says clearly that God is one, and that he is above all beings. However, enter Psalm 82 – “I said you are gods…nevertheless, like men you shall die.” Now this brings in a problem for systematic theology. Sys. Theo. looks at various passages that talk about the gods being wood or stone, and having no power and comes up with the idea that – indeed – there are no other gods. Afterall, we are monotheistic (well, trinitarian monotheistic – but that’s another entry). So, because of this there being gods that are subserviant to the Most High does not enter into the vast majority of Systematic Theology texts. Why not? Because if something breaks the systems (removes the equilibrium) it does not fit – therefore there must be another explanation. Yet, what about diversity within scripture? What about allowing the Bible to be a messy, unsystematized book that creates headaches and forces you to stay up at night? There is an excellent scene from a Sci-Fi show that I love. The show’s name is Firefly. In one episode, the Shepherd and River are on Serenity. River has the Shepherd’s Bible and she is attempting to “fix it,” (in about ten minutes she’s already identified nine seperate creation myths in Genesis 1-3 that have to be reconciled). The whole time River is mumbling, “It doesn’t make sense! I have to fix it! It doesn’t make sense,” until Shepherd says, “It doesn’t need to make sense! You don’t fix faith River…” I am struck even now with the potency of that quote. You don’t fix faith, you don’t fix the Bible. Yet that is what, at least to some extent, systematic theology (by definition!) attempts to do.

In closing, let me say that I am not really concerned for Art, or Denise, or any of my other friends and aquaintances that may disagree with me on theological issues. I am concerned for the average Christian (professing) in the pew. The one who thinks systematic theology is the Bible. The one who thinks that if someone disagrees with something that they have been taught, or something the Westminster Confession says, or whatever, that person is a heretic. Suddenly the mystery has departed and there is only the System. Art has got it right, theology is meant to be challenged and reformed as the situation demands (perhaps a new confession is in order – it has been a few hundred years). As the father in Proverbs 1-9 would encourage his son, let us learn from the mistakes (and successes) of those who have come before.

So, farewell to you. I leave you with my favorite Latin quote, that I feel is extremely relevant to the situation:

Ecclesia reformata, sed semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei


6 thoughts on “Systematic Theology vs. Theology

  1. Oh, I completely agree with you. One of my profs in Bible College called himself a “biblical theologian”. Sometimes he would get asked a question about Christ or God or something and he would respond, “That’s true, except when it isn’t.” I realized that much of what we find in the Bible must be held in tension with itself as well as other truths.

    Great post.

  2. I am concerned for the average Christian (professing) in the pew.

    It would seem to me then that church leaders should less be saying “this is it” or “that is it” (indoctrination), and more be teaching their sheep to study and make up their minds for themselves (despite the consequences of this). Now, of course, there are countless Christians that are content in not actively knowing God at a closer level. I see them missing out on a chance to become more like what God has intended them to be. It is easiest rather for a leader to say “this is it” and “that is it” and for a congregant to blindly accept those things. Overall, I really think it is the leader’s priority to encourage people to get to know God.

    Eh, this is sort of a tangent I suppose, since you are talking about systematic theology…

    There are flaws to systematic theology, undoubtedly. It is just a tool though, like logic and science. They do not work for everything. There may be quite a few unexplainable things, unorganizeable things in scripture. But there are also a lot of things in scripture that can be organized (based on the similarities found in the theologies of the different books), and let’s face it, we will organize them anyway; so it is interesting to see and read how other people have organized their studies of God, but important not to take it as gospel truth, which leads me back to my previous long paragraph.

  3. Brilliant post. One of the unfortunate side effects of my post was that it was probably interpreted as a defense of systematic theology. The only thing I was defending about systematic theology is that the men who have written them did not do so with the presupposition that they could figure God out completely. That would have been completely ignorant of them and one reason never to consult their work!
    I agree that systematics can be dangerous; but it can also be helpful to a certain extent. When I want to find where Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit or the Eucharist, I find myself consulting systematic works. I don’t always agree with their conclusions, but they are a good sort of ‘index’ to find out where people look in Scripture when they think through what the Holy Spirit is or how to rightly observe the Eucharist. However, I do not believe that the Bible was written so that we could systematize it. Like it is a jumbled mess and we have to straighten it out. I LOVE theology…I put up with systematic theology. I’m not ‘anti-systematics’ because I think that it does have its usefullness. I’m more ‘aprehensive-systematics.’
    Great post man. WTS is still accepting applications…I would love to have Mandy and yourself here…the dialogue would be fantastic!

  4. This trail is cold but I’ll post anyway! Only just found the blog…

    I’m glad that Art came back with a more positive spin (#3). Personally I regard systematics yet more positively than that. I don’t believe there is really a way of accessing the Bible in a ‘pure’ or ‘neat’ form. We rely on systematic thought when we read the Bible, in a way that’s analogous to our reliance on language translation. The latter is a very imperfect process – what exactly is our understanding of ancient Hebrew semantics, grammar, syntax, idiom etc.??? but we don’t give up on the enterprise.

    So, I love systematics, to the extent that it is an essential tool to complement biblical theology and exegesis, which can together contribute to my understanding of the Bible. If we declare that systematics is inherently bad, we should either give ourselves up to irrationalism, or else we are kidding ourselves and hiding our own systematic thought from ourselves.

    That said, I heartily accept “you don’t fix faith” and all reasonable steps to prevent the system from becoming a false god.

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