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What is Systematic Theology?- Prolegomena (prologue/prefatory remarks)

When meeting new people we’re often asked what it is that we do or what our occupation is. And for the most part we all have simple answers– Nurse, Police Officer, Mayor, Engineer, Pastor, etc. But people often get a puzzled look on their faces when I tell them that I’m a student, or that I study Systematic Theology. They often ask what exactly is that. This is the response I usually give.

The simple answer is that Systematic Theology is the discipline that asks the question “What does the (whole) Bible teach us about _______ today?” (fill in the blank)[1] But there is more to Systematic Theology than just summarising the Bible’s teaching, although it certainly does that, it also seeks to ‘iron out’ the proverbial wrinkles created by our limited and fallible understanding of the things of God. That is to say when we speak of one doctrine we invariably speak of other doctrines. Each doctrine is both informed by and informs other doctrines. Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich likened Systematic Theology to a circle in this respect.[2] Theology is a circular discipline. Let me illustrate by way of analogy.

Think about a verse of scripture as yielding certain theological insights. Take John 3.16 for instance. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The theologian asks the question of the text what does this teach us about God (or some other topic, like Christ, humanity, etc.)? A Biblical Theologian (a specific discipline in itself) or an Old/New Testament Scholar is the one who harvests these insights. So in our example of Jn 3.16, if we ask what that particular verse teaches us about God; we see a few things, namely, God loves, God has a Son, God gives for our salvation. These insights are coupled with the insights from all the other verses and pericopes (pronounced per-ih-coh-pees– a theological word for a distinct full section of a text) on the same topic to form the ‘Doctrine of God.’ (This is the summarising aspect that Grudem refers to.) All of these insights fit together like puzzle pieces that give us a ‘full picture’ of God, Christ, Sin, the Church, Salvation or whatever the topic may be. This is progressively done for all the topics on all of the relevant passages. These are called doctrinal loci (latin term for locations) or the main theological topics which the Bible refers. Secondary loci are subsumed under these main categories and tertiary loci are deduced from both main loci and secondary loci. The main doctrinal loci are as follows:

  • Doctrine of Scripture
  • Theology Proper -Doctrine of God
  • Christology -Doctrine of Christ
  • Pnuematology -Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
  • Theological Anthropology -Doctrine of Humanity
  • Hamartiology -Doctrine of Sin
  • Soteriology -Doctrine of Salvation
  • Ecclesiology -Doctrine of the Church
  • Eschatology -Doctrine of the Last Things

Each of these 9 doctrinal loci are mosaics made up of insights. Together they form a grand mosaic that is the whole of the Christian faith. I like the metaphor of mosaic because of the individuality of the insights as well as the unity of their cumulative picture. But even more than being a mosaic I like the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle. Each puzzle piece has a part of the whole picture and is useful to that end but also dependent upon the other pieces for its ultimate intelligibility.

As I mentioned earlier, our limited and fallible understandings create wrinkles but the specific occasional nature of the Biblical texts creates holes in the doctrines as well. When we read the Bible and interpret it, we inevitably supply some of what we get out of it. This is called eisegesis or reading a meaning into the text. For instance in the example of John 3.16 above, we stated that we learn that God loves the world. When we read that and understand it, we understand terms such as ‘love’ and ‘world’ in a profoundly 21st century way, and a profoundly different way from how 1st century Roman or Jewish Christians would have understood those terms. Eisegesis can be minimised but never completely avoided, as the saying goes, “there is no view from nowhere.” Only God has a God’s-eye-view. Since we supply meanings to the text and miss intended connotations, the puzzle pieces and are distorted. The tabs and blanks are either augmented or diminished. This distortion creates conflicts in understanding of the doctrines. The pieces don’t fit together as neatly as they should. A Systematic Theologian analyses these points of conflict in the case of augmented tabs overlapping and the wholes created by diminished blanks and attempts to ‘smooth it out’ by diagnosing it as an addition or seeks to recover ‘lost connotations’ to get a more accurate and coherent picture of how the pieces fit together.

This process takes place both at the level of the insights that make up doctrines and between the doctrines themselves.

At this point I should distinguish between the orders of discourse in theology. There are at least three orders of discourse. First order discourse is the process of harvesting all the insights, and making all the pieces fit on your own. A second order discourse is a study of how someone else did a first order discourse. Finally a third order discourse is concerned with an interpretation of someone else’s second order discourse. The process could go on, but its utility becomes severely questionable. Here is an example of what I am talking about with the orders of discourse they are numbered as follows.

My study of:

  1. The Doctrine of Christ
  2. Augustine’s Doctrine of Christ
  3. Calvin’s understanding/interpretation/appropriation of Augustine’s Doctrine of Christ

Next, I’ll post on the ‘why’ of systematic theology followed by the ‘how’ or process of theologising.

Endnotes

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 21.

[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), Vol. 1. Intro B.3.

Resources for Further Reading


Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology Chapter 1

John Frame’s Systematic Theology Chapter 1

Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology Vol 1, Introduction

Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I.1 §1-7

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Chapter 1

William G.T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, Part 1

Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 1: Prolegomena

Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, Part 1

The Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology- Introduction by John Webster

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