Some Thoughts on Systematic Theology as Poor Relation, Part One

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Paideia Center Conference in Orlando, focused this year on the catholic, creedal understanding of God. I also sat on a discussion panel with Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Blair Smith and Liam Goligher, discussing the Trinity debate of 2016. Asked how it all started, Liam mentioned discussions he had had with my good friend and fellow podcaster Aimee Byrd who launched the debate by posting his writings on her blog; and my own mind went back somewhat earlier to an editorial I wrote in Themelios in the early 2000s.


Derek Rishmawy has since found the article and (in addition to using a pleasantly youthful and hirsute photograph of me) commented on it on his blog. The origin of that piece was my concern that Biblical Theology was developing in certain quarters in a manner that so emphasized economic considerations that it was marginalizing questions of ontology. Thus, in the long run it was potentially jeopardizing the categories and concepts of classic, catholic, creedal, confessional theology. Though at the time of writing I had assumed it was an Australian/British problem, in the years since it has become clear that what had alarmed me so long ago was actually part of a much wider problem.


In subsequent weeks, I want to offer some thoughts on the relationship of Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology. But in this first post I want to note briefly some aspects of the culture of contemporary Christian theology which shape the discussion.


First, it is important to note that there is an interesting practical tendency in modern evangelical Protestantism to prioritize the doctrines of scripture and salvation over that of God. In part this is bound up with matters of identity, having historical roots in the relatively recent (I.e. last 150 years) Fundamentalist-Modernist debates and the subsequent role of the doctrine of scripture as a key boundary. The same applies with soteriology: the Reformation looms large in the imagination with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith as the defining characteristic of a life-giving Christianity.


Second, to these historical reasons, we might add the simple and intuitive nature of these two doctrines. To say the Bible contains errors sounds intuitively wrong even to the person untrained in theology, and this is also true to a large extent for the claim we are justified by works and not by faith does. Anyone deviating on these two points is likely to find themselves roundly condemned in evangelical circles because the issue is, at least on the surface, something that almost any Christian thinks that they can grasp with little or no intellectual reflection.


When we come to the doctrine of God, however, the defining controversies – those of the fourth and fifth centuries -- seem long ago and far away. The issues they involved also seem somewhat arcane in their careful development of a theological grammar and vocabulary. The result (as the debates of 2016 showed) is that while Christians would of course say they affirm Nicaea, they may actually be clueless as to what Nicaea and subsequent Nicene developments really mean. The writings of the Cappadocians and then the later Christological work of men such as Cyril, the two Leontii, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus seem like so much obfuscatory jargon and pedantic hair-splitting. It is also profoundly counter-intuitive in a way that heresy on God typically is not. To say, for example, that God suffers has an apparent biblical simplicity to it in a way that to assert divine simplicity and its concomitants does not. To understand why the claim to divine passibility is deeply problematic requires a depth of reflection on theology and on the history of dogma with which the biblicism of much modern Protestantism has little or no patience and for which much Biblical Theology has little or no tolerance.


What is strange about this situation, of course, is that it is deviation on the doctrine of God, rather than on scripture, which has historically been the more common root of serious theological error in the church -- a notion which we have noted is now profoundly counter-cultural. While today it might end one’s Reformed career if one denies inerrancy or signs an ECT document, it is clear from the Trinity Debate of 2016 that such a black-and-white protocol does not apply to matters of theology proper. Mess up on scripture or salvation and you are finished. Mess up on God and there will be few, if any, consequences, professional or ecclesiastical. As long as one affirms the words of the Creed or the Westminster Confession or the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, the meaning one applies to them is neither here nor there – a liberal idea which enjoys surprisingly great currency in conservative circles on this one issue. Sadly, the doctrine of God simply does not grip the cultural imagination of conservative evangelicalism in the way that other doctrinal loci do.


And at the heart of this problem from the perspective of theological education, at least as it manifests itself in Reformed circles, is the pedagogical (and thereby metaphysical) triumph of Biblical Theology over Systematic Theology as classically understood. It is to that issue I hope to turn in my post next week.