Monday, 1 March 2010

Systematic Theology: Queen or cinderella (3) ?

More reasons for doing systematic theology(ST).

Fourth, the nature of the gospel demands it. Not only does preaching require a systematising of Scripture, but we must obey the command of the Lord Jesus to go into the world, discipling all nations, teaching them all that Jesus has commanded...( Matt 28:16f). Such an endeavour demands that the whole word of Christ, the whole counsel of God, be communicated in thorough, accurate form, the parts in relation to the whole. As Wayne Grudem points out, such an exercise, (i) helps to overcome our wrong thinking and confronts us with the truth of Scripture; (ii) helps us to make better decisions in the future with regard to teachings that arise and need to assessed for consistency with Scripture; and (iii) makes us better disciples and helps spiritual growth. ST also helps preachers to think theologically and preach in a balanced, thorough way.

Fifth (and finally), the nature of the church demands it. There has been much discomfort in recent years about ST as traditionally done, basically because it is seen as too 'propositional' in content, too much influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions and methods and therefore dry, dull and remote from the daily life of the church. One articulate proponent of such criticism but from within the evangelical camp is Kevin Vanhoozer. Having not read his works but only read about him I tread cautiously, and will happily be corrected, but it seems fairly clear that he develops the idea of the dramatic nature of the Christian story. In his scenario, God is the playwright, the drama is the history of redemption, the script is Scripture, the dramaturge (who works on the script and interprets it for the actors) is the theologian (therefore theology is dramaturgy), the director is the Holy Spirit and pastors under him, and the actors are all believers. Doctrine is the fruit of dramaturgy, becoming direction for the actors - Christians - in wise living, in playing their part to the full in the drama of redemption.

Vanhoozer is obviously concerned that doctrine is seen as abstract and unrelated to the lives of ordinary Christians, too fond of presenting the Bible as a deposit of revealed truths and propositions whereas in fact God speaks to us in promises, warnings, comfort, commands etc. Vanhoozer has in his sight particularly Charles Hodge and Carl Henry and their ilk. (Hodge has been ably defended on this score by Paul Helm).

Now you may like me already be thinking in terms of 'caricature' not to mention 'straw man' which always helps to give a new way of looking at things a certain plausibility. A lot of what is said ties up with 'speech act ' theory (on which Vanhoozer has written fully in the past) and the idea of the Bible and preaching as narrative etc. But his 2005 book 'The Drama of Doctrine' has worked it out more fully than most.

What can be said? Some questions would be: does the dramaturge have such a role in the Bible? Who are these theologians who mediate the Bible for the pastors and people to follow? Should not each pastor and congregation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit be their own 'dramaturges' within the received traditions of the church? And what of the purpose of the Script? Is not the Bible a letter from God to his people? Is it not to bring his people into relationship with him? Does not the idea of God as a playwright (who may be totally unknown to the actors of a play - usually dead!) make him seem horribly remote and almost irrelevant once one has the script - and those dramaturges? What actor wants to enter into a personal relationship with the playwright?

Perhaps I am being unfair to Vanhoozer. But overall the whole presupposition of his thesis seems rather flimsy - that doctrine in the form of propositions is (i) unrepresentative of the intent and nature of Scripture; (of course there is more to Scripture but haven't theologians always known that? and are not promises, commands etc the very stuff of doctrine?); and (ii) unhelpful to the church. Relevance to the church however has been the burden of true systematic theologians throughout history. Listen to Calvin:

'Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely , like other branches of learning, but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart...To doctrine in which our religion is contained, we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful' (Insts. And so would say Hodge and Henry we can be sure.

Moreover Warfield quotes Auguste Sabatier: 'The promulgation of each dogma has been imposed on the church by some practical necessity' ('The Idea of Systematic Theology'; p 81 in Studies in Theology). That is, it is not an ivory tower discipline but carved out in the stuff of history.

So where do we go to make sure doctrine is relevant to the church and to Christian lives? We could look to a use of ST which helps the church to state its beliefs for the encouragement of its own faith, the proclamation of the gospel and the glory of God. We could look to the use of ST to help the church define what it believes clearly, to be memorised if need be, to instruct one another, young and old, and to witness to the outside world. We could see where ST has been hammered out on the forge of history to unite the true church in its fundamental beliefs, to help it to discern error and to know how and in what respects different branches of the church may unite and have fellowship with one another. We could even begin it with a personal, pastoral question like: 'What is your only comfort, in life and in death?' and answer: 'That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself but to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ...' (Heidelberg Catechism, Q1).

In fact we could call it something like 'Confessional Theology'. Dramatic enough? Those who hammered out the confessions and creeds of the past would have thought so. And millions of Christians have thought so ever since. 'Dogma' they call it - hence Dogmatic Theology, a synonym for ST but with the added punch of being explicitly conducted within the discipline of the church.

(The relationship between confessions and ST is an interesting one - but suffice it to say that the confessions are the result of a lot of hard work in ST and they remain theoretically subject to the possibility of development in the light of further work in ST - though improvements are not often seen!)

To close - a quote from HCG Moule in Warfield (op cit p 86): '[All saving truth a believer enjoys is doctrine]; it is made to live in the heart by the Holy Ghost given to him. But it is itself creed, not life. It is revealed information'.

Maybe what we need is not the reconfiguring of doctrine to make it more dramatic, but more of the Holy Spirit to make it live.

No comments:

Post a Comment