In continuing our series on what the missional and confessional movements should learn from each other, I want to write about the importance of systematic theology.
Confessional churches are often accused of being narrow, rigid, dogmatic, rationalistic, and undermining sola scriptura in upholding and teaching systems of doctrine. The presentation of summarized teaching of what the Bible says about a particular topic is viewed by so-called postmodern evangelicals, emergent Christians, and others as being a product of Enlightenment epistemology. Thus, systematic theology should be tossed out the window along with its underlying classical foundationalism.
While I echo some of these concerns, I think the rhetoric is often overdone. First, I don’t see what is unChristian or unbiblical about seeking what the Bible says about a particular topic. While some may rationalize, ignore context, etc., that should not plague the entire enterprise. Indeed, potential pitfalls may be listed with biblical theology, practical theology, historical theology, exegetical theology.
Second, there is no reason to think that systematic theology is necessarily bound to epistemologies of modernity. Many scholarly evangelicals have moved closer toward a weak foundationalism after the breakthrough work of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. In addition, were the early church fathers bound to modernity as they engaged in systematic theology?
Third, I question whether systematic theology is even avoidable. As an example, let’s take eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Many see Wright as espousing a truly biblical theology without much love for systematic theology. However, Wright’s work (especially his Christian Origins and the Question of God series) is systematizing what the New and Old Testaments teach about resurrection, kingdom, law, covenant, justification, etc. In many ways, biblical theology and systematic theology overlap so that it is difficult to do one without doing the other (whether poorly or excellently).
Fourth, some of the most respected biblical theology proponents of the 20th century were positive towards systematic theology. Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, and others have all noted the importance of systematic theology. They might disagree with others on the priority of systematic theology (see John Frame), but there is no denial of the importance necessity of systematic theology.
Now, none of this is to deny that confessionalists can be short-sighted and not realize the complementary nature of biblical revelation. In my review of the recent book Engaging With Keller, I’ve noted how some of the contributors failed to see the plurality and diversity of biblical content on a particular topic. Hell is presented as both the choice of the sinner and a punishment from God. Sin is both a transgression of God’s law as well as embracing heart-idols. We should be committed to our own Christian communion as well as the universal body of Christ.
So, I encourage my missional friends to, for the moment, push aside memories of bad experiences with systematic theology and to consider how seeing the entire biblical teaching on, for example, God’s attributes might enhance the church’s worship. Consider, where we would be without the summarization of doctrines such as the Trinity and Christ’s person and work. Where would we be if the Westminster Divines didn’t beautifully distinguish between justification and sanctification or outline the offices of Christ?
Let’s not dismiss the enterprise of systematic theology. Rather, let us discuss how such an enterprise has an organic connection to biblical theology, practical theology, and exegetical theology. Let us even learn from different systems of doctrine to see the shortcomings of our own tradition and the valued insights of other traditions (including what other races, cultures, and genders have to say). Heck, maybe we should consider the benefits of a paleo-orthodox ecclesial calvinism. 🙂