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.