Thursday, 18 February 2010

Systematic Theology: Queen or Cinderella?

Some years ago it was quite clear that systematic theology, once regarded as the 'queen' of the theological sciences, had become the 'cinderella' - the despised scullery maid of the family.

Then things changed, it seemed; some fine systematic theologies were published and it appeared that systematics was regaining something of the respect formerly accorded her.

And now? I am not so sure. Am I detecting a certain scepticism about 'system' in evangelicalism again?

Without speculating about how widespread such an attitude may be, are there reasons why suspicion, bordering on rejection, of the systematisation of theological truth, may be 'in the air'?

Let me first briefly define terms - with help from Cornelius Van Til (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p.2):

'Exegesis takes the Scriptures and analyzes each part of it in detail. Biblical theology [as a discipline - MR] takes the fruits of exegesis and organizes them into various units and traces the revelation of God in Scripture in its historical development. It brings out the theology of each part of God's Word as it has been brought to us at different stages. Systematic theology then uses the fruits of the labours of exegetical and biblical theology and brings them together into a concatenated [linked together into a continuous chain - MR] system'.

Systematic theology is therefore at the end of a process (though practical or pastoral theology follows)and is itself the process of harmonising all that the Word of God says on a given subject - on Scripture, God, Man, Sin, Salvation, etc.

So with that in place, we continue.

Some people see systematic theology (ST)as:

unspiritual. 'Only the Bible' is their watchword. Not too many may say this openly but I suspect it is a surprisingly strong undercurrent amongst evangelicals. ST worthy of the name however is always firmly rooted in sound exegesis and exposition and is always to be measured against Scripture. Only the Bible is inspired; no ST I would value claims anything else. The uniqueness of the Bible is not threatened by the proper use of ST. A secondary 'standard' or level of instruction and authority is not in itself unspiritual - as I shall try to show next time.

unnecessary. This is closely related to the above. Why create admittedly human constructs when we have all we need in the Bible? But this is naive. Theology has been necessary throughout the history of the church, because the Bible has been argued over since (not to mention during) the time of the apostles. Systems help to explain, teach and protect biblical truth. If systems are not carefully thought through and explicit, they will surely be carelessly thought through and implicit.

We cannot help systematising and if we do not systematise well we will certainly do it badly.

imposing structure artificially on Scripture. This may be true in some STs; it is certainly not essential to it. Good ST recognises, and makes explicit, connections that are in Scripture. It is a question of 'joining the dots,' not putting in dots that are not there.

expressive of an authoritarian mentality. No doubt systems of thought can be abused to stifle questioning or creative thinking; that is neither desirable nor possible. Nevertheless we need some intellectual grids which help us to identify and challenge thinking which is not orthodox. Or are we afraid of that word?

Is there a postmodern spirit in evangelicalism , sympathetic to the 'generous orthodoxy' of the emerging church, wary of and even hostile to 'metanarrative', that really is unwilling to be told what is to be believed - however biblical it is? If this is creeping into evangelicalism more generally, it is worrying.

Christianity is not authoritarian, but it certainly believes in the authority of truth. A good ST is not that truth in itself, but an essential guide to it, and attacks on ST can be a thinly veiled attack on the notion of orthodox doctrine.

placing too much trust in human reasoning. This is closely related to the above but reflects a radical scepticism about the use of reason in studying the Bible. Of course reason is only to receive truth, not create it or stand in judgment over revelation. The enlightenment turned this on its head and subjected revelation to reason. An over-reaction to this perhaps refuses to go further in theology than can be discovered on the surface of Scripture. Recent examples of areas where the cry 'but we do not see this in Scripture' is heard are 'the imputed righteousness of Christ' and 'the covenant of works'. Sometimes this is genuine scholarly conviction; sometimes it is because of unfamiliarity with a broad range of Christian doctrine.

One response to this must be careful thought about the duty and validity of using sanctified reason in the service of Scripture. The issue is to think things through energetically to their biblically justified conclusion without going beyond what Scripture warrants. It is a difficult task to accomplish but it cannot be avoided.

uses unfamiliar and non-biblical technical terms. Yes, this is true; and proponents of ST must use the best terms available and explain them as well as possible. But there is no way of avoiding 'technical shorthand' as the church from the earliest days has found. Without the word 'Trinity' how would we conduct sensible discourse?

One of the consequences of the distaste for systematic theology is a neglect of the great Confessions of the church. We are a generation which really does not like the 'i's' dotted and the 't's' crossed. We are to be 'liberated' from all that. This, however, is like being told that to leave the motorway and enter thick fog is to be liberated from knowing where you are going. Restraints on original thought the Confessions are not; without being inspired, they protect the gospel and the faith of the church, but enable creative thought. Neglecting these great statements of the past is the last thing our generation can afford to do. We are abandoning depth and embracing novelty.

Next time I shall try to put more positively a case for systematic theology.


  1. What do you make of Kevin Vanhoozer's theodramatic reconfiguration of theology?

  2. Thanks for these posts, Mostyn.

    I was horrified recently to discover that there is currently no systematic theology available in French. People recommended to me the first couple of chapters of Berkhof, on the attributes of God or Packer's "Knowing God".

    These are both excellent but neither will cover the bases that a systematic theology will.

    We now also have Calvin's Institutes - again excellent but not a systematic theology - and soon we will have Grudem's ST in translation.

    And the results of this lack are clearly visible. Lack of a firm doctrinal base produces a wonky christian mind and life.