Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (8): What Roles Do Philosophical Theology and Systematic Theology Play?

For many Christians, the words “philosophical” and “systematic” do not have the best of connotations. “Philosophy” reminds them, perhaps, of certain philosophers who have mocked Christianity, such as Nietzsche or several of the New Atheists. Likewise, “systematic” might conjure up images of theologians whose “system” subverts or overrides the biblical testimony, or whose books are so dense and technical that one wonders who could possibly understand them. And while these negative impressions might sometimes have been earned by practitioners of these two disciplines, I think that both disciplines can be helpful tools in a theologian’s toolbox, if treated appropriately. I will give you a hint: I am going to suggest that it will be helpful for the church if professional theologians will do systematic theology in such a manner that they move a step or two away from philosophical theology and step or two toward biblical theology.

The Nature and Legitimacy of Philosophical Theology

There are various ways of conceiving the task of philosophical theology, but it will suffice here to say that philosophical theology is the appropriation of philosophical tools for the task of theology. Such appropriation has been evident since the earliest days of church history, in which the church found itself needing to interact with a language and a Greco-Roman framework of thought that were not designed with the needs of Christian theology in mind. McGrath writes, “On the one hand, it was necessary to go beyond the insights of scripture in order to meet the new intellectual challenges faced by the Christian communities; on the other, it was necessary to ensure that these extensions of the scriptural vocabulary and conceptual framework were consonant with its central insights.”[1] Indeed theologians in the present era wrestle with the same challenge, acknowledge that some level of philosophical theology is unavoidable, and find appropriate ways to draw upon his context’s conceptual languages and frameworks.

The Nature and Legitimacy of Systematic Theology

As with biblical and philosophical theology, there are more than a few ways to conceive systematic theology. For the purpose of this chapter, we will define systematic theology as a discipline which draws upon the biblical narrative in order to conceptualize and articulate the biblical faith in a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified manner for a particular cultural context.[2] Because it is done for a particular context, it often conceptualizes and articulates the biblical faith in relation to questions that arise outside of the text, and with categories that are not explicitly found in the text. It is “systematic,” by nature of the fact that it is organized based upon a set of presuppositions, and also on the basis of pedagogical and presentational concerns. A faithfully biblical systematic theology will be “systematic” without flouting the biblical ordering, lopping off awkward biblical data, or otherwise relegating Scripture to a secondary status. It will seek to construct systematic conceptions of the biblical material that arise comfortably from the biblical narrative, resonate with its core teachings, take into account all of the biblical data, and recognize its own secondary status in relation to Scripture. Further, we note that faithful theologians will not read the Bible in order to construct “great systematic theologies.” Rather we construct systematic theologies that help us read the Bible better, systems that lead us to deeper and richer exegesis. Scripture is primary, while systematic renderings of it are secondary.

The Relationship of Systematic Theology to Philosophical Theology and Biblical Theology.

Evangelical systematic theologians generally sustain conversation, at some level, with both biblical theologians and philosophical theologians. Systematic theologians are sometimes dependent upon philosophical theology for certain concepts with which to articulate the Christian message. Rational representation of the Christian message requires concepts, which are abstractions of the more concrete and historical biblical narrative(s). Philosophical theology provides those concepts, and has done so throughout church history. For example, the early church fathers spoke of Christ as being homoousios with (or, “of the same essence as”) the Father. They did so in order to speak clearly and in a common language within their cultural context. Philosophical concepts can function as a sort of intellectual shorthand which allows for more direct apprehension than can be had from the sprawling narrative of Scripture, composed as it is of narrative, poetry, prose, and other genres.

However, these concepts can undermine the Bible unless the theologian defines those concepts biblically, filling them with Christian meaning drawn from the biblical narrative. In his seminal article on this topic, Michael Williams writes, “I want to argue this precise point: the biblical narrative structure, the story of God’s relationship with his creation-from Adam to Christ crucified and resurrected to Christ triumphant in the restoration of all things in the kingdom of God-forms the regulative principle and interpretive key for systematic theology no less than it does for biblical theology. This suggests that a systematic theology that is oriented to the biblical narrative and scriptural ways of knowing ought to be redemptively-historically grounded rather than ordered to a cultural convention of rationality or an extra-biblical conception of system.”[3]

If the concepts drawn from philosophical theology are ever “cut free” from the narrative and allowed to “float” on their own, the result will be a distortion or subversion of the biblical teaching. For example, Christian theologians have drawn upon Aristotelian philosophy in order to conceive and articulate God’s attributes in terms of God’s “pure actuality,” “simplicity,” “aseity,” “necessity,” and so forth. But if God is described merely in those terms, without those terms being defined by the biblical witness about God and his mighty acts in history, we have not understood who God is. We have contemplated some abstractions about a purported deity, but we have not understood or embraced the God of Israel who alone can save. For this reason, we affirm that biblical theology, rather than any culturally conditioned philosophical framework, is the home environment of systematic theology.

Theology’s often inappropriate relationship with philosophical theology began in the patristic period, but gained steam in the medieval period, as the scholastic method fostered an impulse toward abstraction. Theology became an exercise in abstract, metaphysical knowledge of God divorced from the concrete particularity of the historical narrative. In fact, the Reformers sought to reform theology on this exact point. Luther’s “theology of the cross” was an attempt to assert the priority of the narrative over metaphysics. “Luther’s fundamental point . . . is that the narrative of the crucified Christ must be interpreted on the basis of a framework established by that narrative itself, rather than upon the basis of an imposed alien framework.”[4] The theologian of the cross is the one who allows his conceptual framework to arise naturally from the biblical narrative rather than vice-versa, interpreting the biblical narrative on the basis of a preconceived system.


[1] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 6

[2] This definition draws upon, but modifies and expands, the definition given by John Webster, that “systematic theology aims at a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified conceptual representation of Christian teaching.” Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,”12.

[3] Michael Williams, “Systematic Theology as a Biblical Discipline,” in All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary, ed. Robert A. Peterson and Sean Michael Lucas (Fearn, Tain, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 167-196.

[4] McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 65.wordstat google

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (6): Who Cares About History and Tradition?

Oddly enough, early on in my Christian life, I was not remotely interested in church history. (I’ll never forget the first day of seminary when I saw the 1200 page reading list for my Church History course, including Justo Gonzales’ 2-volume tome, The Story of Christianity. I remember thinking I’d rather wake up with my head stapled to the carpet than read that many pages of history.) I think I devalued church history and historical theology and sought to escape it because I saw it as uninteresting and even stifling. Fortunately, I no longer think or feel the same way. I think church history and historical theology are profoundly helpful in more ways than I can elucidate in this brief blog post.

But before addressing church history and historical theology in particular, let’s step back for a minute to make a bigger point: the task of theology is complex and multi-faceted, bringing together several disciplines and sub-disciplines. The theologian may draw upon church history, historical theology, biblical studies, biblical theology, systematic theology, philosophical theology, apologetics, practical theology, and other disciplines. As I see it, a healthy theological method seeks to unite and integrate these disciplines into a unified and coherent whole. In other words, the task of theology is integrative in nature. For this reason, the next few installments of the present blog series will treat these disciplines under five headings, and attempt to show their fruitful integration. First, we treat the historical disciplines.

Christian theology is written, not in a vacuum, but in a particular cultural context and a specific point in time. Church history and historical theology are the disciplines that help the theologian understand the historical development of Christianity, its creeds, confessions, doctrines, and theologies. Church history helps the theologian understand the historical development of Christianity in general. “To deal with the history of the church,” McGrath writes, “is to study cultural, social, political, and institutional factors which have shaped the development of the church down the ages. It is to study the emergence of institutions . . . and movements . . . . Christianity is set within the flux of history, and church history aims to explore the particular place of Christian ideas, individuals and institutions within that flux. The influence is two-way: Christianity both influences and is influenced by culture.”[1] Building upon church history, historical theology helps the theologian understand the historical development of Christian doctrine in particular. As John Behr notes, “the theological reflection of the writers of antiquity cannot be divorced, as pure dogmatic speculation, from the ecclesial, social, and political situations and struggles in which they were immersed.”[2] Historical theology therefore seeks to show the connection between theology and cultural context, showing the factors which have been significant in shaping both the questions and the answers of Christian theology.

Church history and historical theology assist the theologian in his task in several ways. First, the historical disciplines help us to recognize the ways in which inherited theological traditions have shaped the questions we ask and the answers we give. We recognize why certain issues occupy a central place in our structure of thought, and other issues occupy only a peripheral place. We notice how certain conceptual categories and forms of thought have been bequeathed to us by theologians of a different era. We realize that we do not come to the text of Scripture with virgin eyes; we come to the text having been influenced by the past. Second, the historical disciplines help us to preserve the integrity of tradition, while at the same time not allowing tradition to control us. Third, the historical disciplines allow us, in humility, to transcend our own era and location by learning from the great theologians and church traditions of the past. Indeed, as we will see in a later section of this chapter, theologians must continually beware of how their theological formulations may be contaminated by the idolatry of their own cultural context; historical theology helps to break free from being beholden to our own era and culture.


[1] McGrath, Historical Theology, 9.

[2] Behr, Way to Nicaea, 4.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (5): Theology Has Everything To Do with Reason, Culture, Experience, and Tradition.

This blog series is based upon the conviction that God can be known. But this conviction raises the question: If we believe that God can be known in a true, trustworthy, and sufficient manner (albeit not comprehensively or univocally), where do we look for such knowledge and how do we speak in such a manner? Upon what sources does a theologian draw when looking for raw material about God? And if there is more than one source for such material, how do we order the sources in priority? “Judgements about sources,” John Webster writes, “go hand-in-hand with acceptance of norms, that is, criteria by which decisions may be reached about which sources furnish the most authentic, reliable, and persuasive Christian teaching.”[1] This post argues that we look first and foremost to Scripture, but always also draw upon reason, experience, culture, and tradition.

Scripture:

As we will note repeatedly throughout this series, faithful Christian theology is built on Christian Scripture as the primary source for theology and the norm above all norms. If Scripture is indeed the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16-17), and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, we would denigrate Scripture only at the expense of losing theology’s goal altogether. We reject any view of theology that explicitly or implicitly allows tradition (Roman Catholicism), experience (Liberalism), reason (Modernism), or culture (Postmodernism) to subvert the authority and primacy of Scripture. However, our recognition of Scripture’s primacy does not somehow deny the significance of tradition, experience, reason, or culture, each of which is essential to the task of theology.

Reason:

Most theologians agree that reason plays a significant role in the task of theology. However, exactly what type of role is up for debate. David Clark clarifies three senses in which we employ a concept of “reason.”[2] First, one can speak of reason in the sense of autonomous reason, reason which insists on living independently of God. Gerhard von Rad describes this type of reason: “Man has taken leave of the relation of dependence. He has refused to obey and has willed to make himself independent. No longer is obedience the guiding principle of his life, but his autonomous knowledge and will.”[3] Second, one can speak of reason as the totality of our knowledge capacities. In this use, reason denotes the ability to think about anything at all. Third, one can speak of reason in order to denote one facet of our knowledge capacities, the aspect which we use to make valid arguments. Of the three senses of reason, we reject only the first, autonomous reason, because this type of reason subverts sound theology in its attempt to be independent of God (thus subverting God). The second two senses, however, we affirm, as theologians certainly must rely on their God-given rational faculties in order to reflect upon God’s self-revelation in a disciplined manner.

Culture:

Theology is necessarily conceived in a cultural context and articulated in cultural forms. Indeed, one’s culture provides the language, conceptual categories, media, artifacts, and environment in which theology is done.[4] In fact, God’s act of creation explains the God-givenness of culture. God created his imagers to interact with his good creation, tilling the soil, naming the animals, and otherwise practicing loving dominion over his good creation. The result of such interaction is human culture. The theologian cannot escape his cultural context, nor should he want to. Instead, the theologian works hard to properly leverage his cultural context for the task of theology. Proper leverage flows from lashing one’s theology to the Scriptures, conceptualizing and expressing it in appropriate cultural forms (language, conceptual categories, etc.), and continually bringing the results back to Scripture for correction in light of its transcultural authority.[5] Further, culture directly affects the theologian’s use of other sources of theology, in that it affects one’s manner of reasoning and it provides the linguistic categories within which one conceives and articulates one’s experience.[6]

Experience:

In a broad sense, one’s “experience” is anything that arises in one’s life journey. In a more focused and theological sense, “experience” refers to our subjective feelings and emotions. In both senses, experience plays an inescapable role for the Christian theologian. In the broader sense mentioned above, our journey in life is what prepares us to understand the words of Scripture. Scripture teaches us about God, and does so analogically. It draws upon our experience of fatherhood, to teach us about God the Father; it draws upon our experience of love to teach us that God is love; and so forth. In order to understand God, one must be situated in experiential reality. Likewise, in the more focused sense mentioned above, our feelings and emotions can be helpful. They can be an impetus for the theological task in that our feelings and emotions lead us to ask questions of the Scriptures, to vigorously pursue the mind of God (e.g. the Lament Psalms, such as Ps. 42; 69). They also can be a result of the theological task in that Scripture, and its attendant evangelical doctrine, calls forth wonder, delight, fear, and other emotions.[7] In fact, as Alister McGrath and others have noted, “Christian doctrine provides the framework within which we interpret our own experience, thereby nuancing, enriching, and deepening our experience.”[8]

Tradition:

Christian theology is always and necessarily written in historical context. In particular it is written in the context of church history and the historical development of Christian theology. Christian tradition provides the context for, and is a source of, theology. But how so? Three theories vie for acceptance. First, the Catholic Church has recognized a dual-source theory of tradition, in which, “‘tradition’ was understood to be a separate and distinct source of revelation, in addition to Scripture. Scripture, it was argued, was silent on a number of points, but God had providentially arranged for a second source of revelation to supplement this deficiency: a stream of unwritten tradition.”[9] Second, some Anabaptists evidenced a rejection of tradition, arguing that we have the right to interpret Scripture however we please under the guidance of the Spirit. For example, Sebastian Franck rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ because he thought (through his private interpretation) they rested on inadequate biblical foundations.[10] Third, this chapter recognizes a single-source theory of tradition. Along with many Patristic and Reformation era theologians, we suggest that “theology is based on Scripture, and ‘tradition’ refers to a ‘traditional way of interpreting Scripture’.”[11] The early church fathers referred to the “rule of faith,” in which they recognized that there is a proper order and connection to the biblical narrative, and if this order and connection is ignored, one will misread texts of Scripture and misconstrue Christian doctrine. The rule of faith, therefore, is a safeguard against misinterpretation and self-serving construals of the text.[12]

Conclusion:

Christian Scripture is the primary source and supreme norm for Christian theology. Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). As the theologian interprets Scripture, he seeks illumination from the Christian tradition and uses his God-given rational faculties and experience in order to appropriately conceptualize and articulate an evangelical theology within a particular cultural context.


[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook for Theology (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007), 2.

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 299-301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1973), 78.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, in line with his conception of doctrine as drama, puts it this way: “Culture sets the stage, arranges the scenery, and provides the props that supply the setting for theology’s work.” Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 129.

[5] For further reading on this process of contextualization, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel and Culture,” in Bruce Riley Ashford, ed., Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 109-127.

[6] Regarding the relation of culture and reason, we note that one must distinguish between substantive and formal rationality. Formal rationality is built upon basic laws of logic which are transcultural, but substantive rationality is always rooted in a tradition. Substantive reason always operates within a worldview, and worldviews are always religiously oriented. Regarding culture and experience, we note that culture provides categories by which we experience our “experience.” At the heart of culture is language, and one’s linguistic apparatus directly and pervasively affects one’s ability to conceptualize and articulate one’s experience.

[7] This is Karl Barth’s point in his treatment of the theologian’s feelings of wonder, concern, commitment, and faith in relation to the task of theology. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 63-105.

[8] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 71.

[9] McGrath, Christian Theology, 139.

[10] McGrath, Christian Theology, 140.

[11] McGrath, Christian Theology, 138.

[12] See John Behr, Way to Nicaea, 17-48, for a helpful discussion of the rule of faith and its use by Irenaeus in arguing against the Gnostics.