Theology Discussion

Yesterday this was sitting on my twitter feed.


Link to this Podcast

I listened to it on my way home from work yesterday and then actually woke up wondering something about systematic theology but what I was trying to ask didn’t really fit into a tweet.

It was an interesting discussion. In theory, I’m in favor of the basic conclusions that the two disciplines must work together and continue a dialog.  However, on a practical level, I’m a little mad at systematic theology.  I have a degree in bible and theology from a conservative bible college. We had a full regimen of both systematic and biblical theology.  We had bible classes which covered every book of the bible, and we had theology classes, all of them, Theology proper, Christology, Pneumatology, Soteriology, Hamartiology, Angelology, Eccesiology, and Eschatology.

Even then, the theology and insights gained when expositing a passage a scripture made far more sense than the disjointed proof-texting that seemed to be going on in our theology classes.  Maybe the incoherence had more to do with the fundamental ideologies they were trying to uphold, I don’t know.

My question is: Can you redeem systematic theology for me? Are there insights that we have gained from systematic theology that we wouldn’t have otherwise? If so, what are a couple of good examples?

Thank you to anyone who would be willing to discuss this further!


4 thoughts on “Theology Discussion

  1. Hey Jen,

    Two or three quick thoughts.

    First, there is a plenty of uninspiring systematic theology, so I can’t defend all of it. Along with it, there can be disjointed proof-texting. I don’t think that’s the whole of it by a long shot, though.

    Second, my basic question is, do you like the doctrine of the Trinity? Confessing the truth that God is beautifully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? That doctrine and various corollaries are the result of systematic or dogmatic reflection on the text. It’s a “Biblical” doctrine in that it’s derived from the text and is the result of trying to understand Scripture better, but it’s still the result of trying to render the judgements of Scripture into a conceptual mode that clarifies things and prevents us from making other errors.

    Third, Systematics helps you with Biblical studies. The doctrine of Christ as the Godman as set forth in Chalcedon and later councils is the result of a long process of reflecting what we should say about Christ so that we can understand how he can do and be all the things the Scripture says he can do and be.

    This probably wasn’t that great, but I highly recommend the works of someone like Kevin Vanhoozer who makes a good case for the way systematics and biblical theology go hand in hand. Also, here are a couple of articles where I make better stabs at the question:


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I just saw this post and thought that I would give a response.

    I can quite understand your frustration with a lot of systematic theology, because I share much of it myself. However, my frustration principally arises from my awareness of what systematic theology can be at its best. It isn’t that the practice of systematic theology is bad per se—quite the opposite, in fact—but that actually existing systematic theology so consistently falls far short of the potential and the promise of the discipline.

    Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of systematic and biblical theology in terms of two forms of relation with a single territory. The Old Testament can be compared to a long itinerary that must be followed through dense woods or rocky valleys, with a beautiful terrain, but with short range of vision. This itinerary leads us to the great mountain and open terrain of the New Testament, where we find a path that steadily leads us up to a great and dizzying height, from which we can see the entirety of the path that we just walked, albeit now from a completely different perspective, spread out before us like a cloth.

    Viewed from the peak, things take on a new aspect and we are awestruck as we see the territory before us, as if for the first time. We relate the points that we see directly to our current vantage point with the immediacy of the gaze. However, in so doing, we can forget that there is a material connection between the points that we are looking at and our own vantage point in the path that we have followed. One cannot move from one to the other apart from that path, even though, once one has attained to the heights, we are enabled to see the path in a different manner.

    We need to hold together the temporal movement of the itinerary, with its patience and suspension of knowledge, with the immediacy of the dazzling vision of the mountain top. Some biblical scholars are so concerned to follow the path immediately before them that they pay little attention to the fact that the path exists to lead them to a point where the entire landscape is disclosed. Others are so caught up with the view from the top that they have a limited sense of the exact course of the path that leads to it and enables us to enjoy it. They miss something important too, as the wonder is found in no small measure in the delayed process of disclosure.

    The ancients can be great at emphasizing the importance of looking up and out from the top of the mountain of the New Testament. More modern commentators are often far more concerned with the path immediately before them, and can often fail to follow it to its destination, let alone take in the view that opens up there. Ideally, we need to bring together the best of both.

    Systematic theology tends to operate from the heights of the New Testament mountain peak. It creates a lot of boundaries, warning signs, and marks out paths carefully because, at such a height, one must mind one’s step or one could fall to one’s death. However, these boundaries—especially seen in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity—exist precisely in order that we might safely enjoy the view.

    At its best, systematic theology isn’t forgetful of the path and doesn’t just break it down into atomized points that it relates to its current position. Rather, systematic theology has the capacity visually to trace the route taken by the path from the privileged and elevated position of our new covenant vantage point. Thereby it can relate it to its current position, but not by dispensing with its temporality.

    Too many systematic theologians talk about ‘timeless’ truths in a manner reminiscent of someone who believes that you can learn everything that you need to know about a piece of music simply by looking at the score. However, the manner of temporal unfolding is intrinsic to much Christian truth. Time is not a neutral backdrop upon which timeless truths express themselves. I like Fred Sanders’ approach to this. Systematic theology is immensely important. It just needs to be done better (similar things could be said about biblical studies, but systematic theology is worse, frankly—yes, it is, Derek! 😉 ).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, thanks! Loving that illustration. My favorite line: “Time is not a neutral backdrop upon which timeless truths express themselves.” This was a good discussion, I’m glad I asked.


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