Thursday 29 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...


::aaron g:: said...

Thanks. I'm going to read the Ryan article soon.

michael jensen said...

In about three weeks you'll be standing in front of a bunch of blankly staring first years trying to explain what systematic theology is... what'll you tell 'em?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Michael: good question! Believe me, I've worried about little else over the past couple of months...

Anonymous said...

Actually Ryan's concerns about theology and sanctification at least resonate with Ayres' challenge to the culture of contemporary systematic theology, particulary in its tactical raids on premodern systematics in ways that are inattentive to the theological cultures in which they have their own locations, to wit, the pro-Nicene assumption and insistance that theology is itself a sacred site of the drama of redemption and the transformation of the Christian.

Otherwise, though it is no doubt well known, Tennyson's verse from In Memoriam is always worth a quote:

Our litle systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

Richard Beck said...

Of course, being a psychologist, I have no idea what I'm talking about but what you've abstracted from Williams' article is how I've thought about it.

Systematic theology is less about constructing a system than about being systematic. Which, to my mind, means being consistent across all the domains that have to be tied together in the theological enterprise, from morality to science to politics to ontology to epistemology to the life of the church to the bible and on and on. Granted, few can take on the whole enterprise, so bits and pieces are worked on (puzzle-solving or "normal theology" to use a Kuhnian notion). But big paradigm shifts (to stay with Kuhn) seem to occur, big ideas that reshuffle the cards to create greater parsimony and explanatory scope. But the goal is the same: Extend the range while ferreting out inconsistencies, contradictions, and gaps.

Anonymous said...


As long as you can keep the game to one deck of cards.

Anonymous said...

Ben, here are some comments on systematic theology and experiential theology which you may find of interest. They're from the "Introductory Preface" of my book on Berkouwer: "The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G C Berkouwer".
"With the writings of G C Berkouwer providing its focal-point, this study may be regarded as a study in systematic theology .... attention is drawn to both the use and abuse of systematic thinking in theological reflection. This study seeks to understand the relationships between different aspects of Christian truth. Care is taken to avoid imposing a 'system' on Christian truth, which does not permit the Gospel to be understood and proclaimed in the fulness of its Biblical perspectives" (p. xi)
" ... this study could (also) be regarded as a study in experiential theology. There is, throughout this study, a concern with the relationship between Christian experience and Christian doctrine. There is a concern to speak of both 'the Christian faith' and 'Christian faith' without the definite article (note: "Berkouwer uses both expressions in "A Half Century of Theology, Movements and Motives", pp. 186-187)"). The aim is to draw attention to both the uniqueness of of the revealing and reconciling activity of God in Jesus Christ and the necessity of faith to be a 'life response of the total person, at the depths of his being, to the summons and opportunity of the Gospel' (This quotation is taken from L B Smedes' article on "G C Berkouwer" in "Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology")" (p. xiii).

Anonymous said...

Further to my last comment, here's a bit more on "Berkouwer's Theology - Systematic and Experiential". I hope you find this helpful
For many years, G C Berkouwer (1903-1996) served as the Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Univesity of Amsterdam. He wrote many substantial books on Christian doctrine. These books are known collectively as his 'Studies in Dogmatics'.
In his work as a systematic theologian, Berkouwer emphasized that Christian faith is to be experienced. It is not simply a faith to which we must give intellectual assent.
He was very aware of the danger of attaching the wrong kind of importance to the theological system.He emphasized that, in the work of expounding Christian doctrine, we must not lose sight of its connection to Christian experience.
By drawing attention, throughout his writings, to the importance of Christian experience, he was not suggesting that we are to retreat into sheer mysticism. He was, however, emphasizing that true faith is always something which takes hold of us, something which changes us, something which leads us to give glory to God. The life-changing and God-glorifying dimensions of faith in Jesus Christ must be at the centre of any exposition of the Christian faith.
For Berkouwer, placing an appropriate emphasis on the significance of Christian experience did not involve moving away from the work of systematic theology to focus on producing devotional literature. Rather, it meant viewing our theological work as an expression of our faith, worship, witness and service.
We may give a flavour of Berkouwer's approach to theology by highlighting a few comments made by Jack Rogers in his book, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical. (An American Presbyterian, Rogers did postgraduate work at the Free University of Amsterdam under Berkouwer's supervision. His thesis - Scripture in the Westminster Confession was published by Eerdmans in 1967. He translated Berkouwer's work on Holy Scripture into English.)
(1) Berkouwer's approach to theology does not create a great distance between the professional theologian and the ordinary believer.
Commenting on a definition of theology given by Berkouwer to first-year students - 'Theology is scientific reflection on the normativity of revelation for faith' - , Rogers writes, 'The scientific theologian and the simple believer both begin from a personal faith commitment to God revealed in Jesus Christ. They both accept revelation as normative for them ... they treat the biblical data as having ultimate value and valid
application to their lives ... The professional theologian is distinguished from any other believer only in that the theologian has the training and tools for doing "scientific" reflection' (p.56).
(2) In his approach to theology, Berkouwer emphasized the importance of the sense of wonder which lies at the heart of both true worship and profound theological understanding.
Describing his first impressions of Berkouwer's theological lectures, Rogers writes, '(H)e was excited and dynamic! I began to hear certain words repeated again and again. One of them was boeiend , which means 'fascinating'. Everything about theology fascinated Berkouwer. His enthusiasm was catching. After listening to him, you wanted to grab the nearest theological book and devour it. Talking to him was even more stimulating' (p.52).
(3) In his approach to theology, Berkouwer emphasized the importance of the pastoral context within which the Word of God is to be brought to the people of God.
Describing a visit made by Berkouwer to a church in the USA, Rogers writes, 'The worshippers were disappointed by his sermon. They could
understand it! They expected the great professor to be profound (i.e. abstract, dull). Instead, he preached a simple gospel sermon of pastoral comfort and affirmation. For Berkouwer, theology is always and only the servant of the church. Theology is good only if it can be preached!' (pp. 141-142).

* Following on from these observations concerning the vital connection between theology and believing, worshipping and preaching, we must note the breadth of the context within which Berkouwer developed his systematic and experiential theology. He carefully avoided the narrowness of outlook which refuses to listen to and learn from those whose theological perspective was considerably different from his own. Alongside this listening to and learning from others, he emphasized that our highest priority is listening to and learning from God's Word.

(a) Berkouwer was willing to listen to and learn from those whose theological perspective was quite different from his own.

'In America we often do theology as if it was a game of cops and robbers. We choose ... sides, thinking that the 'good guys' (those we agree with) say and do all the good things and that the 'bad guys' (those we disagree with) say and do all the bad things. Life isn't like that. I can remember how puzzled I was when I started reading G C Berkouwer to discover him quoting Rudolf Bultmann, for instance, with great approval in one place and then a few pages later vigorously disagreeing with him. He didn't seem to need to add a footnote to remind us that Bultmann was a bad guy. He dealt with the issues instead of putting down the people' (Rogers, p.60).

(b) Berkouwer emphasized the importance of a continuing commitment to this demanding yet promising task of listening and learning.

'I believe that without genuine curiosity ... theology will not do well. I regret every sign that theologians have lost their curiosity. It happens when we are satisfied with a small territory we have created for ourselves and lose our feel for new perspectives and new opportunities for enrichment. Besides, without the tensions of curosity there is little hope for any essential corrections in one's own insights. A complacency sets in, a feeling that the gospel has been adequately thought about and understood, and that we can restfully settle down with what has already been said. A curiosity that works itself out in passionate study and serious listening to others promises surprises, clearer insight and deeper understanding - no matter from which direction they come. And so curiosity brings a certain joy as we walk through the challenging terrain' (A Half Century of Theology, pp.7-8).

(c) Berkouwer emphasized, as the most important thing of all, listening to and learning from the Word of God.

On being personally attacked because of his involvement in ecumenical affairs, Berkouwer cited 'II Tim. 2:9 ... "The word of God is not bound"', emphasizing that 'as long as we read the same Bible with conservatives or liberals, Catholics or sectarians, we can't predict the outcome. God's Spirit will work through his Word' (Rogers, p.142).

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