I wonder if we have missed the point of systematic theology? By God’s good providence I have the opportunity to begin to prepare a series of doctoral level systematic theology courses for Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute. As part of my preparation for those courses I have looked into the origins of systematic theology as a Christian discipline.
If you are not familiar with the term “systematic theology” it is simply an attempt to collect, arrange, explain and defend everything God has revealed about Himself and His work. Lewis Sperry Chafer defined it as “the collecting, scientifically arranging, comparing, exhibiting and defending of all facts from any and every source concerning God and His works.”1
If you pick up a work of systematic theology, and some are hard to pick up because they are so long, you will quickly find it is full of technical theological phrases and Christian jargon. This can discourage even the most avid Christian reader. To say nothing of the non-Christian who will find a work of systematic theology dauntingly and discouragingly opaque.
The fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that most systematic theologies are aimed at other systematic theologians, pastors, and Bible teachers. The writers of systematic theologies are sometimes polemic in that they are arguing for their own particular theological perspective over against the perspective of others. This is reasonable to some extent. If you are a dispensationalist then you may want your systematic theology to give other dispensationalists reasons and confidence to remain dispensationalists. You may even be trying to convince others to take a dispensational view. The same is true of covenant theologians, charismatics, pentecostals, Lutherans, and Calvinists.
This is what makes me wonder if we have missed the point. In my research into the background of systematic theology I have found that the point was originally to explain the Christian faith to the culture, not to other Christians. Now I certainly recognize the value of systematically teaching theology within the church and to the church. After all, that is why I am taking the time to prepare these courses for Tyndale. Nevertheless, systematic theology was originally rooted in explaining Christ to the culture.
Consider the earliest seminal attempts. As Christianity spread beyond Jerusalem and the synagogue the need to explain what it is all about to gentiles who were steeped in the world-views of the day became apparent. So the early theologians, the church fathers and apologists, began writing explanations of the faith in terms the culture could understand. There was danger in this. Christian beliefs could become distorted as they traveled across the bridge from Jewish to Greek and Roman culture. Philo for example so recast the faith in allegory and neoplatonism as to make it almost unrecognizable. This lead to blends of pagan and Christian belief, like gnosticism, that sticks with us to today. On the other hand, others were able to produce works that faithfully and accurately explained Christian beliefs to critics, skeptics, and persecutors.
As our western culture fragments into ethnic, political, economic, cultural, and religious tribes I wonder if it isn’t time to return to trying to explain Christianity to those outside our tribe? What, I wonder, would a systematic theology look like if it were written to explain Christianity to someone whose world-view centered in their political affiliations? How would you explain the Christian faith to someone who found their fellowship and identity in the LGBT community?
I know I run a risk of being misunderstood by raising this question. Ever since R.A. Torrey produced “The Fundamentals”, there has been a need to restate foundational Christian beliefs in order to protect them from those inside the church who would undermine it. Nevertheless, it seems to me as if the time has come to stop talking to ourselves and instead join in a conversation with the culture.
What do you think?
1 Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947–48), 1:6.