Saturday, December 17, 2016

Crisp and Sanders on Historical and Systematic Theology

I came across this quote from material I used in teaching last year. It is from the Introduction of Crisp and Sanders, Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. It was a useful discussion starter in a unit my colleague, Katharine Massam and I taught, The Cracking of Christendom. It was semester-long course exploring the Reformation from both historical and doctrinal perspectives. It is a good summary of the issues at stake in the relationship between historical and systematic theology, in the relationship between doctrinal retrieval and constructive theology.
Theology that ignores the tradition is a thin, insipid thing. It also runs the risk of repeating mistakes that could be avoided by developing greater familiarity with the missteps of our forebears. If theologians do not attempt to dialogue with the past, retrieving the ideas of past thinkers without asset-stripping them, paying attention to the warp and weft of historic theology and the way in which the past may fructify the present, then we risk cutting off our noses to spite our respective faces. We can learn history from those who have gone before us. But they can also teach us how we ought to think, and furnish us with concepts, notions and doctrines that will ensure our theologies are much healthier than would otherwise be the case.
Systematic theology is not the same as historical theology, of course. The systematician will want to make normative, not merely descriptive judgements. But resources for such ends can be furnished by attending to theologians of the past and engaging with them in a collegial manner in order to come to normative conclusions about theology today. Theology that steps back in time only to hide there from the problems to be faced in the present ends up hidebound and moribund. Or, worse, it becomes an empty scholasticism that refuses to attend to the needs of the present, accepting only what has been hallowed by time and use, as if it is sufficient to look backward without looking forward. The constructive theological task is not identical to theological retrieval, however. One must be alive to the differences that inform theology of the past and the cultural, intellectual, and scientific changes that have occurred between then and now.

Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, "Introduction" in Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), Location 87-98, Kindle Version. 


Pamela said...

In his book of essays, "The Dyer's Hand", W H Auden said: "Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind". I'm not even sure what systematic theology actually is. If systematic is "methodical" does that describe Scripture? I hope it's more than that!

Geoff Thompson said...

Hi Pamela. For what it's worth this blog started out a couple of years ago with some posts on the nature of systematic theology. You can read them via these links if you wish: and

Brendan said...

Pamela & Geoff - seems we are all agreed the moniker 'systematic' brings a certain strangeness to theology. Given its rich heritage and in-house character there is no damage done to the minds of those patient and disciplined enough to become acquainted with how those who deploy the term cohere ideas and concepts under its canopy. The pertinent question surely is, 'can a term can be found that is more accurate and descriptive of the work done in this field? 'Systematic' does infer an 18th century Newtonian worldview that is primarily mechanistic and Pythagorean and methodologically non-reflexive. For 20 years I thought the term would be upgraded to 'systemic' theology to reflect the 20th century systems [biological and thermodynamic] scientific worldview. Then for 10 years I thought the term 'complex' theology would better reflect the 21st century's post-structuralist paradigm. Just recently I ran out of alternatives and thought 'systematic' heritage and cute. Strange indeed.