Thinking Systematically about Theology

Richard Lints
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
Jan/Feb 2003

Today, especially in academic settings, it is regularly assumed that the Christian Scriptures can no longer be taken at face value, as they were for the first eighteen hundred years of the church's life. For many, it seems obvious that something about our contemporary experience prohibits us from reading the Bible straightforwardly as a faithful and true witness to God's redemptive work in history.

We find it less obvious to discern what it is about our experience that prohibits us from reading the Bible in this way. The fact that there are multiple communities of faith, all with different sacred texts, is increasingly seen as a "defeater" for this earlier way of reading Scripture. And then there is the fact that there are increasingly diverse ways of reading the Bible within the Christian churches themselves.

No matter what keeps us from taking Scripture at face value, the fact that we no longer do so is momentous. It signals the end for a systematic biblical theology. The Bible may still contain theologies but no unified theology. The sheer diversity of biblical material is taken to prohibit any talk of the Bible's containing one theological system. And since theological opinion about God and the Scriptures is now so divided, how could anyone claim to have the final truth about either?

Although this attitude is especially prevalent in academic circles, it has worked its way into the life of local congregations. It is often hard in individual churches to discover or to develop a common mind on what is or is not essential in Scripture. Consequently, very little of theological substance holds many local churches-let alone denominations-together. In too many churches, opinions about Christian faith are both pluralized and polarized. What earlier eras called the sensus fidelium-a sturdy and stable doctrinal account of our faith-no longer exists.

In the past, the church's sensus fidelium consisted of a robust creedal core defined along Trinitarian and redemptive lines. Its content, Christians believed, had been discovered in times of crisis; and they were willing to die for it. Today, too few Christians believe in anything they would die for, least of all some fine points of biblical doctrine. To our contemporaries, the idea of dying for some fine point of biblical doctrine is ridiculous precisely because they believe that Scripture can be legitimately interpreted in a plurality of conflicting ways. So for evangelicals as well as for liberals, a theology that attempts to be a full systematic expression of biblical truth is virtually unimaginable.

As a means of responding to the challenge of pluralized readings of Scripture and, thus, of defending the possibility of a systematic biblical theology, I want to examine the pluralist impulse. This is the now taken-for-granted assumption that we cannot read the Bible straightforwardly and systematically but must allow it to be read in countlessly diverse ways that are grounded in countlessly diverse religious experiences. In particular, I want to suggest a way of understanding and reading the Bible that both accounts for that pluralist impulse and goes some of the way toward explaining why it is not finally satisfactory. I want to explain, in other words, why the church still needs systematic theology.

The Pluralist Impulse and the Loss of Systematic Theology

In academic circles, there is a lot of talk about "postmodernism." Postmodernism is a contemporary intellectual movement that reacts against traditional ways of thinking about our world and ourselves. Many postmodernists are skeptical about the commonsense assumption that there is a world "out there" that is best described as a set of facts, for instance, "There is a tree," "There is a person," and "There are moral standards that apply to everyone." Reality, for these postmoderns, is not something out there that we bump into like a brick wall. Rather, reality is simply an interpretation to which a particular community commits itself. Reality is thus more like a written text than a brick wall. It involves more how we take things to be than how they "really" are. One well-known postmodern theologian, David Tracy, writes, "Reality is constituted by the interaction between a text, whether book or world, and a questioning interpreter." Diverse interpretations thus "make" diverse realities. Of course, there may be more or less adequate interpretations, but there are no "fixed" interpretations-no interpretations that are right for everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Above all, no interpretation describes the world "as it really is."

These postmoderns view the Bible as just one possible way of interpreting things, a way that displays certain profound truths about human communities, but a way that can and ought to be corrected by the diverse insights of different communities. Scripture then becomes malleable under the pressure of these diverse communities who "see" different things in its text. Moreover, these communities not only influence how the text is read; they also determine which texts-for instance, the Bible, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads-are read as "Scripture" and how these texts will affect their lives.

Thus for postmoderns, both liberal and conservative, a particular reader's vantage point, as shaped by his or her community, indicates what he or she will "find" in the Bible,-and, according to postmodernism, there is nothing wrong with this. Conservative evangelical readers may garb this practice in an appeal to the peculiar illumination brought by the Holy Spirit in their unique reading of the text. More likely, they simply assume that their own experience gives them the best way to get at Scripture's meaning. Those at the other end of the theological spectrum justify their practice by declaring that "dominant" (or traditional) readings need to be overturned in favor of egalitarian renderings-or some such thing. Both the conservatives and the liberals assume that diverse perspectives will result in diverse readings, and diverse readings will result in diverse theologies. The resulting sad truth is that today's reader exercises more control over God's Word than God's Word does over the reader.

The reader's control is strengthened by an affirmation of theological diversity in the Bible itself. It is here that the attack upon systematic theology becomes most pronounced. For many theologians today (present company excluded), there are too many voices in the Bible to suppose that one theology could adequately represent them all. No single way of reading the Bible can do justice to this diversity. Consequently, different readers will find different claims in Scripture that support (or challenge) their self-identity, depending on which part of the Bible they pay attention to.

The Bible thus loses its authority over the reader because its words are now being subsumed under the socialized world of the interpreter. This opens the door into a virtually new world of pluralized Scripture readings. Every reader can now bring a different "plain sense" to the Biblical text-not the plain sense of what God intended the text to mean, but the plain sense of what the reader intends.

One Theology?

Ironically, an adequate response to this postmodern challenge begins by pushing further the notion that the Bible must be understood within a framework of meaning and interpretation. But, in stark contrast to the pluralist impulse, it is the whole of Scripture itself that must be the framework of Scripture's meaning and interpretation. Biblical interpretation ought to view Scripture's own language as the proper framework for understanding the biblical text; and it must be within this framework that the interpreter and his or her social world and experience must be perceived and understood.

This way of approaching the Scriptures considers its text, not as a set of descriptions that are "out there," but rather as a world that is to be inhabited or as a story in which our lives are to be understood. As author Bruce Marshall says, the Scriptures, as God's Word, are not simply awaiting our interpretation; they absorb us into their reality. Systematic theology's task is, then, to describe the world into which we are to be absorbed.

Consonant with this way of approaching the Scriptures, it is historically an integral part of the Christian church's tradition to view the Bible as one divinely inspired Book and not merely as sixty-six books that happened to be published together in one binding. This view has not enjoyed wide acceptance in recent biblical scholarship, nor has it risen to the forefront of evangelical consciousness as evangelicals read the Bible for themselves. So it is worthwhile to ask why the church throughout its formative stages regarded the books of Scripture as organic parts of one whole, even while often being fully aware of apparent discrepancies between the Bible's various books.

In large measure, the overwhelming reason was that the church affirmed God's authorization of the Scriptures. The story narrated in and through Scripture was construed as one story held together by the fact that God was the narrator behind the story as well as its central character. As Michael Horton has stressed, the drama of redemption is the major plot to the Scriptures and the Triune God is the central actor in that drama. God authorized that the drama be written and enacted as it is recorded in the Scriptures.

God's revelation was not given all at once or in the form of a theological dictionary. It is even written in several different genres: historical narrative, wisdom literature, prophetic challenge, occasional letters, and apocalyptic visions. Yet it is one drama; and it is full of dramatic interest and comes complete with major and minor plots. Reformed theologians have often referred to the dramalike quality of the Scriptures as the redemptive-historical character of Scripture. In other words, redemption progressively unfolds on the pages of biblical history. In this way, the Scriptures have a primary concern, and that primary concern is to narrate the fact and the meaning of God's redemption of a people across time. Each book has some distinct sense of being party to the actual history of this redemption and of expressing the significance of this redemption for the people of God.

Biblical texts do not stand in isolation from each other, only later to find their correlation and linkage in a theological framework of the church. The church's theology is not the glue that holds the Bible together. Nor is the Bible simply a source from which data is provided for the later construction of alternative theological frameworks. The exposition and enactment of the redemptive plan of God is found across the entirety of Scripture, and thus the Bible is the glue that holds theology together. The Scriptures contain their own principles of organization as they narrate the past, present, and future of this history as well as its meaning as God's creation and re-creation. Put simply, the Scriptures begin at the beginning (Gen. 1-3) and end at the end (Rev. 21-22). This sense of historical progression is the glue that binds all of the books of the Bible together.

There are theological patterns that are intrinsic to Scripture even though these patterns are not always obvious. These patterns are not arbitrary creations of some interpreter, but neither are they self-evident to an "ordinary twenty-first century" reader. The intentional irony of God's wisdom is difficult to grasp but absolutely central to understanding the Bible's message: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." "The meek shall inherit the earth." "The strong shall be weak and the weak shall be strong." "Mercy is stronger than hatred." And on the list might go. The Bible's message turns our world upside down. Put baldly, God's categories do not fit into our ordinary stories, but we do fit into God's strange story of redemption. It is this story that is the center of the project referred to as "Biblical Theology," a project to which systematic theology ought to be integrally related.

Theologians often refer to the fourfold division of their craft: exegetical theology, biblical theology, systematic theology, and pastoral theology. This division supposes that exegetical theology concerns itself with the literary analysis of the biblical text, biblical theology with a historical analysis of it, systematic theology with a topical arrangement of Scripture's content, and pastoral theology with spelling out Scripture's implications for the church's life. While much ought to be said about each of these disciplines, I want to focus on systematic theology in its relation to biblical theology.

Systematic theology ought to mirror in some important way the structure of biblical theology and thus manifest the redemptive unity of the Bible as a whole. On the one hand, biblical theology has a chronological orientation and asks questions like these: What biblical themes are most important in any particular period of biblical history? and How do these themes relate across Scripture's different time periods? Systematic theology, on the other hand, looks at the Bible from the standpoint of Scripture as a completed whole. It considers Scripture's dominant themes as they are emphasized across the entire Bible and considers them less in terms of their historical development than in terms of their finished form. It is topically oriented and asks questions like these: Which biblical themes help us best to understand God? and What are the church's responsibilities in light of God's redemption?

Biblical theology and systematic theology are mutually enriching; they do not compete. Indeed, biblical theology provides the soil out of which systematic theology grows. Biblical theology manifests the inherent organic structure of the history of redemption as Scripture reveals it. It keeps a close eye on the unity of the Scriptures as they organically unfold. Systematic theology pays close attention to this organic unfolding and then presents the Scripture's unity as a completed whole. Both disciplines take seriously Scripture's unity in diversity-which is no drab uniformity-by not pitting one part of Scripture against another part, as pluralists often do.

For example, our best understanding of Christ's person and work does not come by our trying to combine the scattered details of his life and teaching as given in the four Gospels into a patchwork "harmony" of his life and teaching. We grasp Jesus' identity far more adequately by first catching Matthew's full conception of him and then Mark's and then Luke's and then John's-and then by finally combining these four theological narratives, along with what is said about Jesus in the rest of Scripture, into a well-rounded whole. In this way, systematic theology does not reach its conclusions by "picking and choosing" among separate dogmatic statements in the Scriptures but by combining those statements in their proper order and proportion as they stand in the various biblical books.

Thus, systematic theology does not import an artificial order and harmony into Scripture. The Bible's different books stand in an ordered, harmonious relation to one another because they have one divine author who has brought (and will yet bring) the facts of history into an ordered, harmonious whole. Systematic theology's unity reflects the unity of God's redemptive work in history as he reveals that work in Scripture.

The Divine Author, Theological Unity,and the Pluralist Impulse

If God has authorized the writing of the Scriptures, then the unity of redemption as it is revealed in the Bible's pages owes its reality to God's intentions. Paying attention to God's purposes across the Bible's whole breadth illuminates the danger of postmodern talk about "alternative gods" and "alternative redemptions." Far from capturing the biblical text "as it really is," pluralized readings of the Bible fail to capture the divine drama as it really is. In particular, they fail to capture the actual relation between creation and redemption as Scripture portrays it. Instead, they highlight the danger of human beings "doing what is right in their own eyes."

Scripture tells us that God created the world by speaking it into being-"And God said, 'Let there be light'"-and so forth. Thus, divine language created the world but also-and more significantly-the world is absorbed into the Word. God's active creative Word interprets the meaning of life and the destiny of history. It is the language in which the world "makes sense." Thus, the world has a theological identity granted to it simply by virtue of its being a "created thing" and its meaning and purpose depends upon its Creator.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the conviction that God is one is profoundly important. The one Creator God not only defines and interprets the world, he also repudiates rival definitions and interpretations. The created order's moral dimensions are fixed by virtue of their monotheistic origins. Here Genesis's account of the Fall plays a critical theological role in Scripture, for there we see God's prerogative to decide what is morally good and morally evil. Whatever else good and evil are, they have a theological character because they are defined by reference to God.

The created order's moral fabric is torn asunder when human beings refuse to center their identity in God. Why Adam and Eve rejected God's norms is unanswerable. Yet we know the answer to the question, What were the consequences of that rejection? It is that human beings bear moral responsibility for it-and human wisdom sharply contrasts with God's wisdom ever after.

Consequently, God removed his presence, and we experience our alienation from him in terms of unfulfilled desires. Our intrinsic desire for significance is unsatisfiable apart from God. Our restless wanderings thus become an enormous burden and one to be relieved at any cost. This search for significance finds its first climax in Genesis 11 with the tower of Babel. This episode in the divine drama begins with the collective yearnings of those on the plain of Shinar, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11:4). This leads them to attempt to build a tower that will reach to the heavens precisely because only there could a permanent home be found and enduring significance gained. God's judgment on this attempt to find significance involves not simply the destruction of the tower but, interestingly, the scattering of the peoples and a pluralizing of their language. In this early biblical episode, cultural and linguistic pluralism is part of the curse brought upon the people in consequence of their attempt to define their own significance.

Such pluralism becomes a significant thread in the pattern of the divine drama of redemption. The promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 is very ironic in this regard. God commanded Abram to separate himself from his family and clan but at the same time promised that the blessing that he would then bestow on Abram would become a blessing to all nations. So here the pattern was established that God would raise up a remnant through whom he will bring redemption to the whole world. Divine exclusivism is the method through which a divine universalism will be ushered in (see Gen. 12:1-3). But the order of this pattern is crucial: God is not first found in the richness and diversity of cultures, but rather through the redemption of a particular people. In a way foreshadowing the life and work of Jesus (see Matt. 10:34-37 with Matt. 28:16-20 and Matt. 10:5-8 with Acts 10:44-48), human community is first torn apart and only then slowly woven back together. Drab uniformity is not what God's redemptive work intends. Rather, it intends unity in diversity. In the New Testament era, cultural pluralism becomes the "carrier" of the gospel's radical claim that redemption has come even to the Gentiles.

That redemption is rooted in God's consistently commanding absolute fidelity to the worship of himself as the one true God. Yahweh's sovereign act of "re-creating" Israel by leading them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea manifested his right to speak to Israel as their God. In this way, he performed another act of creation-the act of creating the Israelites, as the people descended from Abraham, in his own image.

The Ten Commandments were the founding constitutional document of Israel's corporate existence. In them Yahweh reminded Israel that they were to have no other gods before him. This was not primarily a prohibition against polytheism, although it may have carried this connotation implicitly. Rather, it was first and foremost a diatribe against idolatry. Yahweh was to be Israel's greatest desire. They were to honor him above all else. They were not to find their fundamental significance anywhere else, for to do so is the heart and soul of idolatry. Israel's relationship with Yahweh was sacrosanct and had to be protected at all costs. The pluralist impulse could be seen in Israel's attempt to define their relationship to Yahweh not according to his categories but, rather, according to the categories used by the surrounding nations. This was to be repudiated not because there was no "common wisdom" in the nations, but because absolute religious fidelity was the correct way to respond to Yahweh's role as Israel's sole creator and redeemer.

Scripture's divine drama progresses as it records and enacts the story of redemption in Christ, which climaxes in his first advent. After his death and resurrection, Jesus' followers were no longer to be a sequestered ethnic group (see Gal. 2:11-16). It was no longer in the interests of the spreading of the gospel that cultural parameters would define the spiritual location of God's reconciling work. As cultural critic Ken Myers has noted, God's people are now to be found in all cultures, eating and drinking, enjoying music and art, and making tools with those who do not yet know the gospel. Indeed, the proclamation of the Christian message now actually helps to break down cultural barriers because it has the goal of building a human community reflective of the divine community-a unity in diversity (see Gal. 3:26-28). The dividing walls between opposing cultures were broken down by the mercy of the gospel (see Eph. 2:11-22). Now even Gentiles and Samaritans could be full members of the redeemed community.

We find ourselves in a similar situation today. The drama of divine redemption continues to unfold in the outbreaking of divine mercy across historic cultural divides. That drama, centered on the person and work of Christ, is ironically the very centrifugal force that pushes the gospel outward across the length and breadth and width of the globe. The gospel's very exclusivity (see Acts 4:12) is the foundation of its universal impulse (see 1 John 2:1, 2).

Yet this universal impulse cannot be reduced to the pluralist impulse. Christ's uniqueness prohibits our equating his gospel with many diverse readings of his truth. It is appropriate that there are culturally diverse ways of obeying this one gospel, but it is not appropriate that there are culturally diverse interpretations of it. Across all cultures, we must understand that God's power is expressed in the suffering of the cross. The universal makes sense only in light of the particular-the particular person and work of Jesus Christ.

Systematic theology finds its central identity in being a framework that encompasses the past, the present, and the future of God's redeeming work in Jesus Christ. Its unity is the unity of redemption. It attempts to give clear and thoughtful expression to that unity while also expressing the organic and ironic character of that unity across time. It strives to represent faithfully God's revelation of salvation to all nations while remembering how costly it would be to abandon the uniqueness and exclusiveness of that salvation. Theological idolatry lurks around every corner for theologians who have lost their focus.

It is thus neither arrogant nor intolerant to affirm that there is one final, systematic theology, as long as that theology faithfully represents the God who created and now re-creates human beings in his own image. At the same time, it is naive and dangerous to assume that just any theology can fulfill that function. Only systematic theology that is tethered to the theology of the Scriptures that God has authorized will faithfully represent him.

Paul said "we see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). In other times and places, it may have been crucial to remember that our eyesight is indeed poor or "dark." But in our day, we must remember that "we see." We see because God has given us eyes to see-as well as ears to hear. Contrary to the skepticism implicit in much postmodernism, truth can be apprehended precisely because God has graciously given us Scripture as a feast for our eyes and ears.

1 [ Back ] In this article, Professor Lints has referred to the following sources: David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 48. Bruce Marshall, "Absorbing the World: Christianity and the Universe of Truths," in Theology and Dialog: Essays in Conversation with George Lindbeck, Bruce Marshall, ed. (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), pp. 69-104. Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). Ken Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989).
Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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