Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Is Systematic Theology Bad?

Some in the emerging circles denigrate systematic theology. They (more or less) correctly point out that God gave us a story not a systematic theology. They also correctly point out a danger of systematic theology – some use it to reduce true religion to a set of propositions or facts to be believed.

The Christian religion is certainly more than a set of facts. It is a relationship with a person. It is a role in a grand story. But there are facts that need to be kept straight.

Yes, God gave us a story, but that story contains truths. He also gave us pastors and teachers and prophets; He gives some tremendous faith, others a special charity, and others a knack for administration. God likes variety, and His Church is full of variety. So we shouldn’t be afraid of a little variety in our dealing with the Bible.

Systematic theology has it’s dangers, but it also has a very useful purpose. Systematic theology takes the story and collects all of the facts that appear in it and tries to make sense of them. This is important because when we read part of the story, we can forget that it’s part of a larger whole.


When you’re buried deep in the Torah, it’s easy to focus on God’s justice at the expense of His mercy. When you’re buried in the Gospels, it’s easy to focus on God’s mercy at the expense of His justice.

Some parts of the Bible can, in isolation, cause confusion about the nature of Christ. Others can cause confusion about the nature of the Church.

The theologian gives us a tool to fight that error. When you’re reading Exodus, you’re reminded that the God who said “I am that I am” was the triune God. When you’re reading Luke, you’re reminded that the Shepherd who will leave the 99 is the same God who said, “I will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” When you read in Acts about the believers holding everything in common, you’re reminded that “if a man will not work, he shall not eat.”


Systematic theology, like biblical theology and historical theology, like pastoral counseling and evangelism training, is a tool created by flawed, God-loving Christians for the service of the saints to the glory of God. It’s an important tool in the Christian faith, and its occasional misuse should not deter us from its regular use.

9 comments:

Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't know. Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and I John seem pretty systematic to me.

Also, much of the Bible isn't narrative. The reduction of the Bible to narrative is as bad as the reduction of the Bible to systematic theology.

ChrisB said...

Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and I John seem pretty systematic to me.
They're fairly systematic -- or maybe I'd say orderly, carefully reasoned -- but a full systematic theology they're not.

much of the Bible isn't narrative
Hence my "(more or less)." There is more narrative than didactic (of course, I'm not sure how to classify the prophets in this discussion), but I think their point is that what we're given is a large overarching story (and this from people who dislike "metanarratives") not a theology textbook.

Do they take their ideas to excess? Yeah. Like many others. Hence the rest of the post.

John Frye said...

Jeremy and ChrisB,
"Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, and I John seem pretty systematic to me. They're fairly systematic -- or maybe I'd say orderly, carefully reasoned -- but a full systematic theology they're not."

The author of these books, however, was deeply shaped by and lived in the Story of God unfolded in biblical narrative. We've imposed systematic categories on, let's say, Romans, rather than hear the Story resonating through Paul's orderly structure of the book. You cannot escape the Exodus story booming through chapter 6 of Romans for example.

Anonymous said...

The danger of systematic theology is not with trying to balance God's justice/mercy. Only a poor student of God's word would forget about that. The danger of systematic theology is based on how one set of doctrines dictates other viewpoints.

Many people allow their firm believe in one issue/doctrine to overrule every other believe/doctrine. They blindly accept the second believe, because they have too...if they are going to hold to their first view.

As far as Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews,etc being systematic--that is not the case at all. Paul is trying to communicate a point--a point of theology/living yes...but we dissect his thoughts to basic theology 101. This is our fault. We teach systematically (well, some do--and maybe I shouldn't say we).

paul maurice martin said...

Although I've read a lot of theology, the more systematic it was, the less useful I found it - for example, Tillich's Systematics vs. his Courage To Be.

For me, the worst was Alfred North Whitehead - some huge volume I had to read in div school. This mathematician turned theologian seemed to believe that he had it all figured out - and I mean all. From the least subatomic particle to the mind of God, and, unfortunately, everything in between, which is why it took him like 700 pages to say it, lol.

I favor theologians who stick close to lived experience rather than doing modern day equivalents of counting how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.

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