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9 Pitfalls of Too Much Systematic Theology

Now, before everyone hates me: I don’t hate systematic theology.

But I’m nervous when people get really, really, really excited about it. Like, SO excited about it. Like, “I’ve just figured out God for the first time, and you should too” type excitement. I do, really and truly, I DO appreciate systematic theology. I’ve read a few of them, and I’ve gained much from my reading.

My point in this post is: there is a place for systematic theology. And it’s not at the center. Here’s why:

1. Systematic Theology Re-scrambles Scripture.

God didn’t give us a neatly categorized book. He gave us stories. This is how HE chose to reveal Himself, and we are always in danger when we step away from that organization for something new. I think it’s naive at best to say that we can change the presentation of a message without changing the message itself. Systematic theology does indeed re-scramble the order of scripture – and in that way, it doesn’t say quite the same thing.

2. Systematic Theology Keeps Things Abstract.

I think the “trinity” was probably a useful term we coined. But the Bible doesn’t say “Trinity”: it says, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” When we turn from these concrete images (did you even remember that this was a familial analogy?) to “trinity”, we lose something: we’ve just taken one step away from reality. In the same way, using a term like “omniscience” or “omnipresence” isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but these concepts were originally found in the midst of stories containing concrete realities. When we reduce them to abstract categories, they become intrinsically less meaningful.

3. Systematic Theology Doesn’t Address the Whole Person.

Stories engage my heart, my strength, my soul, my will…Categories do not. Let me ask you what’s more likely to make a difference in your life – the statement “God is sovereign”, or the retelling of the story of Joseph, with all of its horrors and glories, climaxing in the simple statement: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”?

Michael Horton, in his Systematic Theology (which I read, underlined, highlighted, and enjoyed) says several times: “The dogma is the drama”. With all due respect – no it’s not. Yes, the drama defines the drama. But the dogma is NOT the drama. The drama is the drama.

4. Systematic Theology is a Late Invention.

Don’t shoot me, but a lot of systematic theology flows from a Aristotelian and Platonic thinking – these men separated God into different categories, and analyzed Him as such. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but it’s not necessarily a biblical thing, either.

5. Systematic Theology can be a Deceptive Spirituality.

Stories are addressed to people. Categories, while helpful at times, are only really capable of giving us bones – not flesh. Stories are meant for the flesh part. And that’s because God is not a dissected pickled frog. We cannot lay him out on a table, and analyze all of His parts, and put him back together again. He is a Person. He interacts with us. He speaks back.

What I’m saying is: it’s possible to master systematic theology, and never have a regenerated heart – just dry bones.

6. Systematic Theology Separates Theology from Praxis.

Tell me how to apply Christology, as such, to my life. Go. You might be able to come up with something, but likely you’re going to have to dip into Biblical Theology (studying the unfolding storyline of scripture) to do so. This is another reason why Systematic Theology can be a deceptive theology – it gives us knowledge, without necessarily calling for a response.

7. Systematic Theology Encourages Proof-Texting.

With all due respect to my baptist friends – really, and sincerely – I’m often frustrated by the argument that goes something like: “Show me where a baby is baptized”. Now – there are many baptists who don’t do this. They look at the whole storyline of scripture, and they say, “You know, it makes sense to me that everyone who is baptized in the New Covenant is regenerated.” I get that, I really do. But the “Show me a baby being baptized” – I don’t. It’s the evidence of a proof-texting culture.

In order to think through baptism, or any other issue, it’s not enough to collect the relevant texts, compile them, and come to a conclusion. That’s a pretty stinky way to do theology. No – we look at the whole STORYLINE of scripture, and we see how it progresses, and we find where baptism fits into that story. Of course, we use particular scriptures – but they’re never isolated units, devoid of story.

8. Systematic Theology can Give us a False Perception of our Knowledge.

Many people, myself included, are tempted to think that once they’ve read sufficient numbers of systematic theological treaties, they’ve sufficiently comprehended all there is to comprehend about God. But this is a perversion of the truth of scripture – we know God as He acts in history, and as he describes those actions. But we know, really, almost nothing about Him, as He is. We can never even scratch the surface. He is, as R.C. Sproul once wrote: “completely other.” 

9. Systematic Theology isn’t Christ-Centered. 

I suppose there is some convoluted way in which I could make the doctrines of angelology center on Christ. But there’s no clear, biblical connection anymore when, rather then focusing on the story leading up to Christ, I take angels as their own category to be studied. I’ve lost the story, and so I’ve lost the climax, and so I’ve lost Jesus.

What I love about Systematic Theology.

Here’s what I love about systematic theology: it’s like having a really thorough dictionary. It’s necessary to read literary classics with a dictionary – it enhances my reading, and enables me to understand and see clearly what the original author is saying.

But if someone tells me they just bought the latest dictionary, and they’re really, really jacked about it, and everyone needs to read it…I start to get worried. Is this a lover of literature, or is this a lover of scientific definitions? This doesn’t sound like someone who wants to get lost in a great story – it sounds like someone who likes to wrap their mind around things.

I don’t think God calls us to wrap our minds around Him. He calls us to be wrapped up in His story. And so long as Systematic Theology aids us toward that end, it is a great and glorious thing indeed.

 An Addendum: For those who would whip out “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” as a systematic theology that doesn’t fall into these pitfalls…Yes, I agree. But I also think The Institutes doesn’t set out to be a systematic theology, as such. It’s an apologetic against the Roman Catholic Church, and the points made are done with brilliant biblical theological gusto. It grew out of pastoral/societal concerns, unlike the Systematics we see coming from high-up academic types today.

Furthermore, unlike other systematic theologies, Calvin’s actually causes me to worship.


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Long Chapters Vs. Short Chapters.

It’s in vogue these days to write quick, punchy chapters.

I’m on the fence as to whether I like this. Suzanne Collins used it brilliantly in The Hunger Games series, and I think the books lend themselves to it. Or did the short chapters recreate the story? I don’t know.

All I know is, as I sat down to write the other day, I decided to extend the length of my chapters. And, to be honest, I liked it. I liked it a LOT.

The reason I liked it is this: I was able to settle in, without being “woken up”. You know what I mean. It’s no fun to be constantly awoken in the middle of the night (let’s see, that would be FOUR times last night I was jolted awake by a 4-year old asking for toilet paper and a 2-year old asking for…well, we still don’t know). We need, as I mentioned last week, to go through a full “sleep cycle” before we’re ready to wake up.

Books with short chapters sometimes feel like a series of 20-minute naps, rather than a long night’s rest. Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t know. It certainly creates interest. But it also may ruin the spell of the story.

What do you think?


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Breakfast Blend 01.22.15

Leo Tolstoy’s Diary – This is a fascinating look at Tolstoy’s intensive journal. He considers himself a sissy.

The Value of Happily Ever After - Liz Cottrill makes a case for Fairy Tales.

Steven Pressfield on Beautiful Art - I find this insight by Steven Pressfield absolutely fascinating. He’s talking about the internal sense we have that art can’t just be ugly – it needs to show us something beautiful. Why, he says, he doesn’t know – but it’s true. Read this and consider Romans 1.

40 Brilliant Idioms That Simply Can’t be Translated Literally – My NEW new year’s resolution is to use some of these.

If God is in Control, Why Does Bad Stuff Keep Happening? An interview with N.T. Wright.

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Breakfast Blend 01.21.15

When Books Taste Like Vegetables – This interview with Gloria Furman, Rosaria Butterfield and Kathleen Nielson is so epic. My favorite line: “When I was teaching, I didn’t ever have a student come up to me and say: ‘I like Shakespeare pretty well, but he’s so hard to read. I expect more from him.'”

Darell Bock Responds to Newsweek’s Bogus Article – Newsweek recently did a horribly researched piece of trash article on the Bible. Darrell Bock straightens things out.

How to Give Constructive Writing Criticism – You know, the kind that actually helps.

“Dad, Look!” T. Wax on the invitation to share in your kids’ imagination.

Marshmallow and Other Common Spelling Traps - It’s not a wheelbarrel, folks.


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Three Reactions to Old Testament Law.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the role of OT law in the NT.

And while there aren’t any simple answers, I think I can broadly outline three reactions Paul was dealing with in his own ministry:

1. A legalistic view of the law, exacerbated by the coming of Christ. When Paul is addressing the Judaizers in Galatia, he isn’t addressing devout Jews. He’s addressing the kin of the legalists Jesus addressed in his own ministry: those who follow the letter of the law, but not the Spirit.  These Judaizers, who insist on circumcision, failed in the past to see that the law does not replace God’s covenant with Abraham – it builds upon it (Galatians 3:17).

In fact, God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt depends on God’s graceful promise to Abraham (Exodus 13:11).

And yet, the Judaizers, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and others like Paul before his conversion, insist that the law is an end of itself – a means of meriting grace. When Christ comes, this tension between the real intent of the law and their idolatrous aims clash clearly at the cross (Acts 2:23). This makes the perversion of the law even more perverse – the Judaizers are now standing in the clear light of day, and refusing to see.

2. A legalistic view of the law, transformed by the coming of Christ. On the other hand, you have Paul. Paul, a devout Pharisee, is converted upon his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. Here is a man who had a perverted view of the law, whose view of the law is transformed by the coming of Christ. This is why Paul can say Jesus is “the end of the law” (Romans 10:4) – this isn’t to say that “the unworkable law-system is done, and now we have Christ”, but rather to say: “The end – the aim – the goal of the law is now fulfilled in Jesus.”

Some like Paul, when the light of day fully shines in Christ, see clearly in retrospect that the law was not meant for legalistic purposes, but to point forward to the Messiah.

3. A grace-based view of the law, consummated by the coming of Christ. Finally, at the coming of Jesus there would also have been those who did understand the intent of the law, even before Christ. Moses, David and the patriarchs understood that the law was not a means toward winning favor with God. The prophets affirm that God is not satisfied with the fat of rams, or the sacrificial system, over and again (Hosea 6:6). Rather, the law was the shadowy revelation of God’s spoken moral will for His covenant people. This covenant was based on God’s gracious promises to Abraham, and obedience to the law is the condition of enjoying the covenant.

John the baptist, and those coming to receive the baptism of repentance, would fall under this category: they already have faith in the God of the covenant, and they readily throw off the old form of clothing – the law – for the new form, in Christ. But the New Testament refers to those who had faith in the God of the covenants in the Old Testament as “a remnant” – a sparse number of Israelites. This, at least, is a key difference between the Old covenant and the New – with the coming of Christ, Abraham’s children truly begin to multiply like sands on the seashore.

That’s an overview that seems helpful to me, but I’ve never heard it framed that way, so maybe it’s flawed. I’d love to hear insights from you, below.

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Breakfast Blend 01.20.15

Successful Queries – This is a really helpful series from Writer’s Digest.

7 Things We Learn About Atonement in Romans 8 – Derek Rishmawy with some killer analysis.

Why Traditionally Publish? Again, you’ll have to wade through some extreme vulgarity…but this is really helpful.

The Art of War - A beautifully written excerpt from Andrew Wilson’s “Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said about the Word of God.”

5 Key Elements to Successful Short Stories – I think these apply pretty well to long stories, too.

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Okay “Writer” – Just Start Something.

I’m the kind of person who likes to have my ducks in a row.

Scratch that. I like my ducks to be in a neatly filed line, dug into a trench, with a steel molding poured over them so they can’t budge. I don’t like when things are imperfect. And so often, that keeps me from starting something. “It’s not ready,” I tell myself. “I need it to stew longer. I need to think. I need to LEARN more about it, before I begin.”

The problem, I’ve found, is this: I don’t really learn when I’m not DOING.

So, I read a whole lot about blogging before I began blogging. But that didn’t do diddley-squat to my writer’s education in comparison to how much I’ve learned AFTER I’ve started. I had no way to see what actually worked. I had no way to see what actually worked for ME. I took everything in as an abstract concept – I couldn’t apply it, implement it, and remember it.

So long as I wasn’t doing, I wasn’t learning.

If you call yourself a writer, you need to, at some point, start trying. Start doing something. You don’t even have to show it to the world, like I’ve chosen to do, straight from the get go. And yes, that will be painful. You’ll create things you don’t like. They won’t be perfect.

But the only road to perfection is imperfection (actually…there’s no road to “perfection”, but it sounded catchy, okay?) I’ll be honest: I don’t like a lot of what I do. I can think of 10 improvements (literally, I could whip out a list) I want to make to my blog right now. And I don’t have time. And I don’t have money. And it would be much better if I’d started off in a different way.

But I’m glad I started. Because if I had never started, I would be a million miles behind where I am now. So – writer: start writing. Start creating. Start platform-building, even if it STINKS. Because you’re not doing yourself diddley-squat sitting there and learning from the stadium stands.


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Can I Judge Other Believers By Their Works?

You know the old joke – we see a guy with a black eye. He hobbles into the room, and someone asks:

“What happened to you?”

He replies:

“You think I’m bad? You should see the other guy.”

Sometimes I wonder about whether other people are as sanctified as they ought to be. Sometimes I’m discouraged about my own sanctification: “How can I possibly be a light to these people with all of my failure?”

But C.S. Lewis makes the point, in one of his essays, that it’s impossible for any of us to judge one another based on “how sanctified” we are. Why? Because none of us know who we might have been without Christ. Yes, I might have a temper as a believer, but I might have been an axe murderer without Him. We never know, he says, just how much work Christ has done in a person.

Which is as much as to repeat the old joke. “You think I’m bad?” says the believer. “You should see the other guy.”



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Breakfast Blend 01.19.15

Get Rid of On-The-Nose Dialogue – I’m really liking K.M. Weiland’s stuff. Check out her take on writing dialogue here.

Duke Vs. Franklin Graham - CT magazine has a bit more balanced perspective on the Muslim call to prayer in Duke’s chapel.

Write What You Wish – A nice quote from Virginia Woolf.

4 Differences Between the Telephone Game and the Transmission of the New Testament. Ever heard this one? “The New Testament texts are totally corrupted. They were copied thousands of times.” Here’s a great and simple answer.

Faithful Expository Preaching is Christ-Centered Preaching – David E. Prince pushes back against the “faithful to the text” crowd a bit.

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15 Surprising Secrets to Waking Up Early.

Waking up early is a consistent mark of the people whose work I admire. Having experienced bouts of success and failure in my own life, I can see why: when I wake up early, I have uninterrupted time to think and focus on the most important things in my life without interruption. Most beginning writers wake up in the wee hours of the night out of necessity – there’s no other time to work.

This photo courtesy of lampelina at:

This photo courtesy of lampelina at:

But I’ve always had a hard time waking up early. I mean: a really, REALLY hard time.

Yet, over the last few years, I’ve found increasing success. I’ve learned from my own experiences, and those of others, and found some things that seem to work really well for me. I normally wake up around 5:00 AM these days, and not only that – I feel pretty great when I do.

Here are the surprising secrets I’ve picked up that enable me to do so:

1. Sleep in cycles, not hours.

Your body works in sleep “cycles”, which last for about 1.5 hours each. So, it’s good to sleep for 7.5 hours, or 9 hours…but not 8 or 8.5. When you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle, you feel like your eyelids are gigantic boulders. I usually shoot for 7.5 hours, or, if I’m off, 6 hours with a 20 minute nap during the day.

2. Use the power of light.

Here in MA, getting up at 5 AM half the year means getting up in pitch black. I’ve found that nearly impossible, since our bodies naturally respond to light to bring us slowly and pleasantly out of sleep. Without that, I don’t stand a chance.

So, I manufacture it. I have this wonderful app called “Wake Up Light”, which turns my computer black with a red-clock background at night. In the morning, it simulates a slow sunrise from 5:00-5:30, and fades my alarm in (which is set to “forest”, which is pretty pleasant). Waking up with this app has really been a game changer for me: I wake up more consistently, and happier as well.

3. Work in inches.

If you’re just starting to wake up early, don’t jump from a 7:30 wakeup to 4:30. I suggest working in inches – wakeup 15 minutes earlier tomorrow, and then the next day, and so on.

Or, you can use the “hiccup” method, which I’ll explain in the next point.

4. Nap if you need to, don’t if you don’t.

If you’re getting less than 7 hours of sleep, you need to take a 20 minute nap during the day. Maybe I’m a diva, but if I have less than 7.5 hours of rest, I find I work at about half the pace I normally do…which ruins the point of waking up, for me.

But if I’m way out of whack, I do a little trick I’ll call “The hiccup method.” And the trick is this: rather than inching my way back into my routine, I cut my sleep at night from 7.5 hours straight to 6 (since it’s at the end of my sleep cycle, it’s easy for me to wakeup). Then, the next day I take a 20 minute nap in the afternoon. This, according to most studies, is roughly the equivalent of a 7.5 hour sleep.

And abracadabra, I’m back on schedule. I’ll be sufficiently tired to go to bed on time that night, and return to my normal 7.5 hours. Also – if you ARE getting 7.5 hours of rest, stay away from long naps. 20 minute power naps are fine if you need them, but anything longer than that will keep you up at night.

5. Coffee is perfectly acceptable.

I have this amazing mechanism (not a Keurig – blagh) which sits on my counter. I set a timer for it in the morning, and before I wake up, it brews my coffee for me.

I’ve looked at the studies, and for me, coffee doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, if taken in moderation. I just find it necessary in the morning, or I fall asleep. Also – I love waking up to the smell of it with my auto-brewer.

6. Have a night-time routine.

This I picked up from Michael Hyatt’s blog, and I think it’s wise. Waking up in the morning begins the night before. I make sure I have a notepad by my bed, where I jot down projects or tasks swimming around in my brain. I have a bed-time I stick to pretty typically. I brew my coffee that night, which is more of a mental primer for me. I usually read a Psalm and pray myself to sleep. Simple, but it works for me.

7. Give yourself something to anticipate.

One of the keys for me is rewarding my wakeup time with some time doing things I both NEED to do and LOVE to do. So, I typically do my devotions in the morning, then read non-fiction for about an hour, and fiction for about an hour. I love these three hours, and I know if I don’t wake up on time, I’ll lose them.

8. No caffeine after 3:00.

If you’re a second cup kind of guy, take it before 3:00. Anything later will keep you up at night, and you’ll never feel rested in the morning.

9. Stay hydrated.

I don’t have any hard science behind this, but I know that I typically feel drowsy if I’m not hydrated enough. If I apply that logic to waking up, I know that without proper hydration my body won’t be fresh and ready to go in the morning.

More scientifically speaking, it’s been proven that a cup of water first thing in the morning with an apple is roughly the equivalent to a cup of coffee. I typically keep one by my bed, for the morning.

10. Keep your room at an ideal temperature.

Okay, I may just be the crazy one, here. But if the temperature of my bedroom is really cold, there’s no way in Anarchy that I’m getting out of my warm blankets to step into the freezing cold. By the same token, if my room is too hot at night, I won’t sleep. So – find what works for you through experimentation, Goldilocks style.

11. Have a partner.

I don’t personally do this, but I know some people find it really beneficial to have an early-morning workout partner or accountability partner to wake up with. That totally makes sense to me, since my desire not to look like a lazy dork would probably trump my desire to stay in bed.

12. Be consistent.

Once you’ve woken up at the same time every day for a week, you’ll find your body naturally settling into that rhythm. I know I’m in a good routine when my eyes open just a few minutes before my alarm starts to glow. This is a good indication that my sleep cycles are aligning with me. But I know that if I change things up, this will change as well.

By the way – if you have young kids, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do this. I know I can’t, and sometimes 4-5 wakeup calls at night means I just need to sleep in, and “hiccup” a couple of days later. That’s okay – this too will pass.

13. Don’t label yourself.

Sure, there are times in life when it’s more difficult, biologically speaking, to wake up early than others. Still, I’ve avoided labeling myself by saying, “I’m not a morning person.” No, I’m not always the best company in the morning. So no, I’m not the perky friend you want to wake up with on a camp retreat (oh wait, NO ONE likes that guy). But I do read about twice as fast in the morning as at other times.

So, am I a morning person? Well…who cares? I wake up early, because it helps me accomplish what’s important to me.

14. Avoid screens.

I make this a habit at night and in the morning. Screens at night are proven to stimulate your body into staying awake (remember the light thing?) And in the morning, screens are total time wasters, that suck the life out of everything I’d hoped to accomplish. So, to keep those moments in the morning what they should be, and to keep myself rested at night, I stay away from screens at either end.

15. Know yourself.

I don’t expect that all of these tips will mechanically work for everybody, but they work for me. Maybe your body isn’t quite on the 1.5 hour cycle. Maybe you LIKE the 6-hours plus a nap thing, and it doesn’t leave you feeling groggy. Maybe you motivate yourself differently to wake up (for example – maybe you love to write in the morning. Personally, when I write in the morning all of my characters have temper tantrums at one another).

So much of what I’ve learned about waking up early comes from my own experimentation. So, in addition to trying some of these things out, try some of your own tricks, and feel free to share what works for you below.

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