The poverty of systematic theology

I come from a religious tradition that values Systematic Theology. And I have to admit, I 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 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.

To my disappointment

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.”

Systematic theology should come from the Bible

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 is more

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 still relevant today. This piece was first published on May 18, 2016, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • I don’t agree with your view of systematic theology. I find it ridiculously simplistic. I do agree that life is messy, and the entire LGBTQ environment is difficult to navigate for Christianity…and Islam…and Judaism.

    On one side, the side you ignored, the LGBTQ culture requires all people to endorse and approve its lifestyle. If that does not happen, the person is fired, publicly humiliated, silenced or protested. Now, even in some schools and even cartoons / newest Disney movies, the smallest of children are indoctrinated to accept LGBTQ lifestyle as acceptable and welcomed. Now, in some schools teachers assist children into the LGBTQ lifestyle and keep it from their parents. Most media outlets berate those who believe that the LGBTQ lifestyle is incorrect, especially those Christians, Jews and Muslims who do so based upon Biblical grounds. Where is your article addressing this? I couldn’t help but wonder if the purpose of this article is to preach to the culture for its approval. It could certainly not be your intent but…

    Jesus was full of both Grace and Truth. (John 1:14) Your article calls upon grace. It must be there for Christians. Learning how to be kind and caring for ALL people is the lifestyle Jesus introduced to us and called us to live out. Loving others has to be the first step to reaching others with the gospel of Christ. The church today is struggling how to do that at the level Jesus did and called us to do. Many churches aren’t even trying.

    But Jesus also called us to holiness and truth. I didn’t see that in your article. Jesus said in John 15:18 “If the world hates, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” He goes on in that passage to address the sinful behavior He had called out and explaining that by doing so, He was hated by the world.

    In your articles, Jesus is full of Grace. I agree with you. We as Christ followers must possess the passion of love toward all. My struggle with your articles is that tend to ignore that Jesus was also full of Truth, or at least you just give it a wink.

    Many endorse both grace and truth but choose Grace, with a capital G and truth with a small t. As I have read your articles, they tend in that direction. That direction tends to be “a medicine bottle with no medicine in it.” At the end of the day, you have little to offer a lost world that is separated from God. Churches who are choosing this direction are pleasing to some but are not aligning with the whole Word of God. Others choose grace with a capital t Truth. That direction tends to be mean and self-righteous. They believe they are the embodiment of Jesus while forgetting that Jesus was also called, “the friend of sinners.” Churches who are choosing this direction are pleasing to some but are not aligning with the whole Word of God.

    Being a Christ follower in which both Grace and Truth are present is difficult. I think your articles are struggling to figure out how to do both, just like the rest of us. Until you can come to both, openly and thoughtfully, you are not actually bringing anyone together. You are just being self-righteous.

    You call out others who disagree with you…and actually malign them, thankfully without names. So, I am calling out you and challenging you to be a capital on both Grace and Truth.

  • Grace AND truth – we need both. Only God Almighty holds them in perfect balance. May He give us both in equal measures.

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