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The Poverty of Systematic Theology

I come from a religious tradition that really values Systematic Theology. And I have to admit, I really like systematic theology. So why am I then writing about the poverty of systematic theology?

A few years ago, I had an experience that got me thinking about this issue. When I was heading the art department at an SBC affiliated liberal arts college, we were protested by an organization that challenges schools that they feel are discriminating against homosexual students. The response from the administration was to keep the organization off-campus. Many of our students were wondering how this was a response that showed Christian love.

I went to the administration the next day- first the Dean of Chapel then, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and finally the President. My basic point was that we weren’t dealing with the questions and concerns of the students. I thought we should. The group had protested on Wednesday. These discussions took place Thursday afternoon. I advocated for an open session where students could interact with a panel of faculty and administrators about the issues. My hope was for it to happen quickly, maybe even the next day but no later than the following week. When I left the meetings that is exactly what I thought was going to happen. We needed to show we were responsive to student concerns while considering the attention span of the student body.

Instead, the session was put off for two weeks. Even at that, it was well attended. However, rather than an open discussion, there were faculty and administration presenters arguing the case against homosexuality and explaining why the college had done what it did. There was no discussion. The only opportunity the students had to interact was when 3×5 cards were passed out for students to write down a question. Then two weeks later, the group reconvened to answer the questions on the 3×5 cards, at least the ones that the administration decided they were willing to.

It was a horribly disappointing response. First, it took a month for the entire process to play out. Second, it did not address the heart of our more thoughtful students’ question, “How does this show the love of Christ?” Finally, for the bigoted students (and yes there were plenty) it just reinforced the idea that “We don’t like them gays.”

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What does this have to do with Systematic Theology?

I started calling the college’s response a Systematic Theology response. The response sought to isolate a particular issue for study and illumination. This is exactly what Systematic Theology does. It isolates particular issues and seeks to understand all we can know about that particular issue. Systematic Theology is a useful tool to help us understand theological points many of which are very important. But, it can also be a way of avoiding the messiness of what it means to be human. That is the poverty of Systematic Theology. There is a lot of ambiguity and messiness in this human existence. Too often, we are afraid of that messiness.

I support Systematic Theology but only as a tool. God could have chosen to deliver his Word to us as a treatise in Systematic Theology. He could have said on Subject #1 you should believe A, B, C, & D and only A, B, C, & D. And he could have enumerated it very clearly. But, he didn’t. He delivered to us a book, or rather a compilation of many books, that is approximately 75% narrative, 15% poetic, and only 10% propositional.

God knows the struggle that it is to be human. He wrote to us in a way that speaks not just to the facts of the matter but to the very heart and soul of our humanity. If God did not see fit to reduce his words to Systematic Theology, we need to be careful about doing so. Make no mistake, it is a reduction. God’s Word is so much more full, vibrant, challenging, and nuanced than we get when we simplify it to our Systematic Theologies. Those theologies are good tools to help us begin to unwrap the depths of God’s word but we cannot let them limit us. We cannot avoid the ambiguity and the messiness of Scripture for the clarity of Systematic Theology.

So, study theology, systematic, biblical, philosophic, natural, etc. but remember these are only tools to help us begin to seek to comprehend the God who is beyond our comprehension.

This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today. This piece was first published on May 18, 2016, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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