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What is christian systematic theology, and what does it have to do with being the church?
Systematic theology1 has a long and venerable past, and at times enjoyed a privileged position amongst society and academia.2 As society has become increasingly secularised, systematics has fallen from the public eye. Sadly however, this same trend is witnessed in the church. Systematics has been labelled as impractical, western, or modernist, and thus of little or no use to the contemporary christian, let alone a contemporary world.3 In this essay, I seek to expound a view of systematics that is of immense significance and use to the contemporary church and world.
Orthodoxy forms Orthopraxy
By far the biggest use for systematics to a contemporary world and church is the fact that orthodoxy will dictate and shape orthopraxy. Put another way: what you believe will shape how you live, either consciously or unconsciously. As the maxim goes, “show me what you do, and I’l tell you what you believe”. In fact James says “I will show you my faith by what I do”.4 This is because an individual’s core beliefs, values, and how they see the world works itself out in their actions. As C.B Kruger has put it, “We live from the inside out”.5
Thus it is imperative that a Christian’s “inner circle of being”6 is – at the least – theologically informed, but far better, is theologically orthodox. As already noted, James exhorts the believer to demonstrate their faith (belief, theology) by what they do, and thus calls for orthopraxy. However it seems that in James’s mind, this is impossible without first having an orthodox worldview from which to operate.
Thus systematics, when approached correctly, should not become ‘impractical’,7 but immensely practical. Thus the role of the theologian is not that of a monk in an ivory tower, but instead, someone who is deeply involved in community,8 culture,9 and the ‘Theodrama’ of God.10 It is their role to expound the drama in such a way as to generate a correct (orthodox) understanding of the characters, the plot, and the stage in the hearers, so that they may play their part in the drama with accuracy (orthopraxy). Furthermore, the actors must study their script themselves if they are to carry the part with accuracy.11
Providing answers to life’s questions
One of the benefits and uses of systematics is found in its ability to provide answers to many of the tough questions in life. Questions such as ‘do infants go to heaven’, are decidedly theological questions, but also decidedly systematic. In fact, many (most?) of life’s questions must be answered from a theological standpoint because scripture does not readily speak explicitly to today’s questions, challenges, and ethical dilemmas. Theology is also not just for Sunday.12 We are reliant upon theology (and theologians) to faithfully summarise13 the message of scripture, to enable us to discern how God would have us act, think, or respond to the circumstance. This also needs to be a consistent response, therefore, the theology needs to be systematic.14 However, Anselm’s definition of theology, “Fides quarens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding) can be applied more broadly to the church as a whole, who, because they have faith, personally seek to understand how their faith works itself out in daily life. Healy calls this ‘ordinary theology’,15 and notes that this is usually related to some ‘cognitive dissonance’ we have encountered, such as a different interpretation of scripture, or a new church.16 Ultimately this leads both the ‘professional’ theologian, and the ‘ordinary’ theologian back to the Bible, back to the tradition, and back to reason and experience to discern for themselves what to do with this new information.
Thus, ‘theology is the ministry of the Word to the World – the application of the Bible to all areas of life’.17 Fiddes calls this a ‘connectional theology’,18 which is a helpful concept for pastors and theologians alike.
In addition, systematics also provides answers to many of the difficult questions of faith itself, (e.g – ‘how can Christ be 100% man and 100% divine?’). This is useful because it demonstrates that faith and belief are not without reason, logic, or intellect – in fact, the very opposite – and thus provides a solid grounding for apologetics and discussion with those from other faiths.
Lastly, systematics is an essential and useful tool to the exegete. Many (most?) texts in the Bible are ‘open’ texts, which necessitate that the reader must interpret them, in light of some larger picture.19 As an island, any text can ‘say’ any number of things, and thus to be coherent, must be interpreted with a guiding system or theme. Although a two-way street,20 the exegete’s theological system that they bring to the exegesis will be highly influential in how they understand and interpret the text.
Teaching and Instruction
The third use of systematics for the church is its benefit for teaching. Teaching is something that the church is exhorted to do (Eph 4:11-14,21 also Matt 28:19-20) as it is a means of God’s self revelation through those whom he gifts as teachers. Clearly, Paul places a high level of import on teaching, ‘So that the body of Christ may be built up’, and also so that “we will no longer be… tossed back and forth…and blown here and there”. It is obvious that in Paul’s mind, and in the minds of the church Fathers, that solid biblical teaching was necessary for a solid faith. Grenz notes that teaching new believers the fundamentals of the faith is especially important,22 but the author of Hebrews also urges the readers to move on from ‘spiritual milk’ to ‘solid food’, so that they ‘can distinguish good from evil’.23 The author knows that a diet of milk cannot sustain long term. Thus solid teaching is imperative within the church, and thus must have a biblical backbone to it. This in turn requires exegetical understanding and, as argued earlier, this requires a theological interpretation. This interpretation needs to be consistent, so as to not become hypocritical, thus requires a systematic understanding. Webster argues that what we think, say, and do ‘strive[s] for coherence and consistency’, and thus “any complex and comprehensive set of beliefs and practices is required to articulate itself in systematic form”.24
A perimeter fence of safety
The fourth use of systematics to the contemporary church is as a ‘fence’ around the perimeter of what is considered orthodox, trustworthy, and correct, in the form of the early church creeds.25 This fence functions to continually guide the church and theologians as they progress into new days and new ways. In fact, the church has worked hard over the last 2000 years to maintain this ‘fence’ around orthodoxy as it provides a wide arena to think, to imagine, to critique, and to synthesise, whilst all the while remaining within the borders of what has been considered correct.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, since orthodoxy should lead to orthopraxy, the opposite is also true – unorthodoxy can lead to unorthopraxy. Thus the early church fathers were well aware that certain departations from orthodoxy could lead to some very negative outcomes. Therefore the role of the theologian, the pastor, and the church leader is to continue to maintain this fence around their flock, who can be easily lead astray, and who also often need to be guided to safe pastures.26 As Bishop Victoria Matthews so deftly put it – “Not knowing the story of salvation, any critique of it is convincing”.27
Doing it anyway
The final importance of systematics for the church is largely a pragmatic reason – many (most?) christians are doing it anyway. The question is whether they are doing it well. Kathryn Tanner has noted that “everyone is likely to do some theology if they are a believer and if they think about their faith at all”.28 I would contend that they need not to have thought about their faith per se, but rather about life, to be ‘doing some theology’. As Christians walk through life and make decisions, pray, worship, and serve, it is all motivated, directed and influenced by their theology (whether they know it or not). As has been mentioned earlier, we ‘live from the inside out’,29 and so our actions will be shaped by our beliefs. Thus the reason that systematics is important to the church is because, although everyone is acting out their ‘theology’, is it correct? Thus systematics is essential to the church to continually critique and inform our decisions (both private and congregational), our practices (both private and congregational), and our lives (both private and congregational).
In this essay, I have shown that systematics plays an integral role in the development and sustenance of a healthy church – both visible and invisible. Systematics provides the framework for the ‘actors’ to understand the script, and to act accordingly. Systematics keeps the church grounded in what has been understood as correct and true for 2000 years. Systematics gives us hope and clarity for dealing with the ‘rough and tumble’ of daily life. Systematics keeps us growing, stronger in our faith and deeper in our relationship with God. And finally, systematics helps us always critique and modify our private and communal practices. This is what keeps the body together. Without these integral threads, parts of the church have become wayward and ceased to be Christ’s body. Thus systematics is immensely useful to the church, as it keeps us faithful to our calling and the reason for our existence.
Beeley, C. A. ‘Theology and Pastoral Leadership.’ Anglican Theological Review 91:1 (1992): 11-31.
Fiddes, P. S. ‘Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 3-23.
Grenz, S. J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 2000.
Healy, N. M. ‘What is Systematic Theology?’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 24-39.
Kruger, C. B. God is For Us. Jackson, MS, Perichoresis Press, 2000.
McGrath, A. E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford, Blackwell, 2001.
Vanhoozer, K. J. ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World’. In Always Reforming. Edited by A. T. B. McGowan. Downers Grove, IVP, 2006,
Vanhoozer, K. J. ‘A Readers Guide: How to use this book’. In Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. Edited by K. J. Vanhoozer, C. A. Anderson and M. J. Sleasman. Grand Rapids, Michagan, Baker Academic, 2007,
Webster, J. ‘Principles of Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 56-71.
1 Hereafter referred to as ‘Systematics’
2 For example, the Doctor of Theology was the highest qualification (from Wikipedia). Also see A. E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 139.
3 K. J. Vanhoozer, ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.’ In Always Reforming, Ed. A.T.B McGowan (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 181.
4 James 2:18bβ
5 C. B. Kruger, God is For Us. (Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2000), 59.
6 A phrase borrowed from Kruger. Ibid.,
7 Often referred to as ‘wissenschaftlich’
8 Grenz states: “Theology is a community act”. In S. J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 5.
9 Vanhoozer, ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.’ 163.
10 Ibid. 181.
11 Ibid. 181..
12 K. J. Vanhoozer, ‘A Readers Guide: How to use this book.’ In Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, Eds. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson and Michael J. Sleasman (Grand Rapids, Michagan: Baker Academic, 2007), 7.
13 Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 6
14 J. Webster, ‘Principles of Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 66.
15 As distinct from ‘Professional Theology’. See N. M. Healy, ‘What is Systematic Theology?’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 28.
16 Ibid. 29.
17 Vanhoozer, ‘Everyday Theology.’ 7.
18 P. S. Fiddes, ‘Concept, Image and Story in Systematic Theology.’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 11:1 (2009): 4.
19 T. Fretheim, ‘Guidelines for Interpreting Scripture’, Pacifica Synod, Accessed on 20/10/10 at http://www.pacificasynod.org/TerryFretheim_DOTR.pdf
20 That is, the text should also critique and shed light on the interpretation and understanding of the theological system.
21 (11) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, (12) to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (13) until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (14) Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
22 Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 6.
23 Hebrews 5: (13) Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. (14) But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
24 Webster, ‘Principles.’ 66.
25 The apostles Creed, the Nicean Creed of 325, and the Contantinople-Nicean Creed of 381.
26 Grenz calls this “Choosing in the context of alternatives”. See Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 6. Also, Beeley points out that for the early church, the rise and fall of a bishop was based entirely on the truth of their doctrine. Thus the bishop was, by necessity, also a theologian. In C. A. Beeley, ‘Theology and Pastoral Leadership.’ Anglican Theological Review 91:1 (1992): 19.
27 Victoria Matthews, cited in Ibid. 14.
28 Cited in Healy, %