Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Systematic theology and its strangeness (1)

As indicated in my first post, this blog has been motivated in part by the mandate in my position description to foster an understanding of ‘systematic theology’ in the wider context of the church in which I serve. My hope is that it might become - among other things - a resource for sparking some reflection and perhaps even conversation about systematic theology. So, this will be the first of two related posts about the discipline of systematic theology. Both will also take the up the theme of strangeness included in the blog’s title. Then, in the next couple of weeks, there will be posts (again in line with the blog’s purpose and name) about the Uniting Church in Australia and its strangeness, and then about the strangeness of Jesus and the church's message about him.

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Once upon a time, systematic theology did not exist. Of course, Christian thinkers who reflected and wrote about the faith systematically emerged very early in the Christian story. De Principiis by Origen of Alexandria (c184-c253) is usually taken to be the first instance of such writing. From then on, a tradition of systematic thinkers has been a prominent feature of the church. But a specific discipline which calls itself ‘systematic theology’ is a relatively new development in the church’s history. 

We are so used to the divisions of theological disciplines into, say, biblical studies, church history, pastoral theology, and systematic theology etc., that we can take them for granted and think that they always existed. They didn’t. That they do now owes much to the impact of the structure of theological study proposed by Friedrich Schleiermacher in his 1811 book, Brief Outline of the Study of Theology. Nevertheless, in dividing up the study of theology for academic purposes, ‘systematic theology’ is not, in fact, one of Schleiermacher's formal categories. But under the heading of  'dogmatics', we do see him making the point that dogmatics is sometimes referred to as ‘systematic theology’. So, that would suggest the term ‘systematic theology’ has had some currency for at least two centuries and a bit. A quick check of my own institution’s library indicates that the first volume to include ‘systematic theology’ in its title was published in 1865. Moving the discussion forward to recent decades, the late Colin Gunton once noted that it was only in the 1980s that the University of London changed the names of its courses in Christian Doctrine to those of Systematic Theology.

Is this just a name change? Gunton himself addresses this question in quite some detail. But for the purposes of this blog, let me suggest just two tendencies which are more likely to be explicitly associated with ‘systematic theology’ than they are with ‘dogmatics’ or ‘doctrine’. Rightly or wrongly, 'dogmatics' and 'doctrine' often imply static lists of what the church believes. So understood, to engage with doctrine is to learn and master such lists. To engage in systematic theology, however, entails a greater intentionality to explore, not just a list of discrete topics, but how the different doctrinal topics relate to each other systematically. For instance, a belief in the incarnation, implies something about salvation. A belief in salvation implies something about sin; a belief in sin implies something about creation and its goodness. And so on. So, that’s the first tendency more likely to be associated with systematic theology: it attends to the inter-relatedness  or ‘coherence’ of the faith. It inquires into the ways the Christian faith ‘hangs together’. 

The second tendency is what could be called the 'constructive' impulse of the discipline. If doctrine and/or dogmatics implies merely retrieval or repetition of past teachings, systematic theology goes beyond them and ventures to construct an account of the faith which engages with, and responds to, alternative world views. It does so in the conviction that the broad themes of Christian doctrine are themselves dynamic sources of wisdom generative of fresh articulations of the Christian faith. A good recent example of this would be the twentieth-century developments in the doctrine of the Trinity. These developments were provoked in the midst of Christendom’s collapse by the need for the church again to clarify on multiple intellectual and cultural fronts what it meant by ‘God’. A doctrine long-neglected became the topic of widespread constructive theological activity. 

So, ‘coherence’ and ‘construction’: two important features of systematic theology. To some extent, however, these themes are simply two sides of the one coin. A building whose internal structures don’t cohere with each other is a structure unlikely to survive much stress. This is no less true for intellectual and spiritual constructions. But why should this be a source of strangeness? 

It is strange not least because just as the gospel of Jesus Christ has an impulse towards coherence, it also has an impulse to resist it. To the extent that at least each of the gospels, if not every New Testament document, bears witness to Jesus by presenting him in the context of Israel’s hope for the redemption of itself and all creation, Christian faith confesses a drama which is about the ways of the one God with and for the one world. There is a story to be told. Yet, as again the gospels demonstrate, there is no one way of telling it. The drama of Jesus Christ is just that, a drama. As a drama it is to some extent open-ended and its proclamation is properly susceptible to diverse tellings. No less a systematic thinker than the twentieth-century's Karl Barth (who was famously wary of being overly-systematic) once put it like this: “The good news of Jesus Christ is not a dead commodity handed over to us so that we can ‘have’ it…. The gospel must ever again be explored and sought and inquired into”. 

Some of the strangeness of systematic theology emerges, therefore, as it lives between these two apparently competing impulses. To suggest one way of conceptualising this, I borrow a comment about the book of Isaiah from the biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann. Noting that Isaiah's diverse authors, diverse contexts, and correspondingly diverse themes, Brueggemann nevertheless proposes that it is held together as a unified book by a “suggestive coherence”. I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about the coherence of systematic theology. The coherence to which it aspires is grounded in the gospel it seeks to articulate. But it knows that as an intellectual construction, it is only suggestive. That is not a reason to surrender the quest for coherence, nor even a reason to hesitate in making suggestions. Rather, it is a reminder of the contingency of all systematic theology, and its proper openness to correction and revision.

In the next blog I'll reflect a little on the strangeness of the discipline which is highlighted by its unusual institutional location at the interface of the academy and the church, and it's consequent exposure to postmodern criticism.


Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline for the Study of Theology as a Field of Study 3rd edn (Lousiville: WJKP, 2011), pp. 42, 73.

Colin Gunton, "A Rose by Any Other Name? From 'Christian Doctrine' to 'Systematic Theology', International Journal of Systematic Theology 1 (1999), pp. 1-23.

Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p.19.

Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: WJKP, 2003), p.160


Kyle Moffitt said...

Hi Geoff,
I enjoyed reading your blog. You highlight two features of systematic theology: its propensity to be both constructive and cohesive within the Christian faith. Is there a tension between these two features in your opinion? For example, modern issues (such as marriage equality and the ordination of women) sometimes challenge the church and its doctrines. Responding to these issues might require imagination and creativity, as well as a dialogue with faiths, philosophies and values external to the Christian tradition. Constructing a system of theology that makes sense in the modern world might result in theologians omitting some elements, or borrowing elements from other philosophical traditions in order to maintain the coherence of their system. Do you think such constructiveness might test the cohesiveness of the Christian faith?

Geoff Thompson said...

I guess there are several terms here that I'd want to clarify before taking the conversation further. What, for instance, constitutes 'making sense in the modern world'? Does 'modern' here refer to the ideologies of the post-Enlightenment West or simply 'contemporary'? I'm also pondering whether there's a distinction between cohesiveness and coherence. Maybe it's nothing more than a gut reaction, but cohesiveness seems a tighter category than coherence. I ask these questions not to be evasive, but simply to press some of the technical demands of such discussions. In the end, however, my (short) answer to your final question is 'yes, and it might well be that Christian faith can pass such tests.