Friday, 30 January 2009

What is systematic theology?

The latest issues of the International Journal of Systematic Theology and Irish Theological Quarterly contain a great pile of essays exploring the nature of systematic theology from Catholic and Protestant perspectives. Interestingly, a couple of the articles refer to Lewis Ayres’ polemical call for “a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology as such, an uncovering of the conditions that make it possible, and a sketch of the sort of theological culture that would enable a deeper and more attentive engagement [with historical sources]” – but none of the articles really attempts to respond to this remarkable challenge. Anyway, here’s a list of the articles, with a few remarks about each one:

Nicholas M. Healy, “What Is Systematic Theology?”
This is one of the most interesting and stimulating of all the essays. Healy distinguishes between “official theology” (the production of church institutions), “ordinary theology” (the reflection of virtually all believers), and “professional-academic theology.” The purpose of academic theology is to mediate constructively and critically between the other two kinds of theology. In order to do this, academic theology must maintain a certain distance from both church and academy; “systematic theology must necessarily be a bit of an outsider in both the church and the university if it is to contribute fruitfully to the quest for greater understanding of the Christian faith.” Professional-academic theology suffers if it is accommodated too much to the demands of the university, or if it is “required to serve the church rather too directly, either by teaching the official theology or working to support it.” On the whole, Healy argues that the university provides the best environment for this kind of academic theology, provided it always stays in close relation to both “ordinary” and “official” theology. Thus theology can work “as a constructively unsettling element in both places,” the church and the university.

Fáinche Ryan, “Theology as a Road to Sanctification?”
I think this is by far the most important and most challenging essay. Ryan opens with this: “In an article entitled ‘Théologie et sainteté’, written in 1948, Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that for a long tract of Christian history the great theologians were also the great saints, but that this no longer seems to be the case.” She thus raises pointed questions about the kinds of people who are responsible for teaching theology: “Is God truly the subject of this ‘academic’ theology? Do theologians, indeed does the Catholic Church, expect students to become formed and transformed through the doing of theology? … Who might teach this discipline which seems to pertain to the sacramental life of the Church?” Through a close reading of Aquinas, Ryan argues that theology should be regarded as “a sanctifying activity”, indeed that it is a kind of sacrament – or at least a “quasi-sacrament.” Prayer and contemplation are of the essence of a theologian’s life; and “like true prayer, authentic theology leads to transformation, it leads towards God, towards holiness, and in this way may be seen as pertaining to the sacramental life of the Church.”

John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology”
A defence of the contemplative nature of systematic theology. Theology’s rationality is made possible by the trinitarian relations; the Father and Son “open to creatures a share in the divine knowledge.” The article provides an interesting window on how Webster’s current work is being shaped by his ever-deeper immersion in the world of Reformed scholasticism (so that the influence of Reformed orthodoxy appears to be eclipsing that of Barth). He says things like this: “The first material object of systematic theology is God considered in himself.” And this: “It must be emphasised: theology is possible; there is a proportion between theologia in se (the divine knowledge) and theologia nostra (creaturely knowledge).” And this: “Systematic intelligence is fitting, and it is appropriate to attempt a consistent overall presentation of Christian teaching, in which the infinite divine archetype is echoed in finite ectypal modes of intelligence.”

Paul S. Fiddes, “Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology?”
An argument for the importance of an “aesthetic theology” which utilises extra-biblical novels and poetry as theological source materials. Fiddes responds to Francesca Murphy’s book, God Is Not a Story. He agrees that systematic theology is concerned with concepts and realities, not merely narratives; but he concludes: “God is indeed a story, but a story that is more actual than anything in the world about which the story is told. To say this is ‘poetic’, but it is also a matter of sheer realism.”

Neil Ormerod, “What Is the Goal of Systematic Theology?”
A critique of the residual Kantianism of contemporary systematic theology, and an argument (via Lonergan) for the role of judgment in systematic theology: “if we acknowledge the constitutive role of judgment in knowing truth, then … dogmas are essentially ecclesially constituted judgments of truth, not reinterpretations of interpretations of experience. They seek to express in precise and concise terms truths presented to us in the Scriptures.”

A. N. Williams, “What Is Systematic Theology?”
An argument that “systematicity – the fact of being systematic, of expressing connections between doctrines – is of the essence of theology.” The subject-matter of systematic theology is the relationality within the Trinity and the relations between God and the world; this means that theology is always concerned with the “system” of these relations and connections.

In conclusion, this is a very interesting range of essays, including a couple of first-rate articles: but all this talk of “systems” has given me a sudden urge to go read some Rowan Williams...


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