Monday, December 20, 2010

Systematic Theology

I've often complained about Systematic Theology, and perhaps I'm not alone in this.  This week, I've been checking out a new-to-me blog called The Naked Bible. This quote from the blog's author,  Dr. Michael Heiser, sums up my thoughts about Systematic Theology very well near perfectly. I will be adopting his words.
I don’t really care too much about systematic theology; it’s almost always English Bible-driven and “top down.” I care about biblical theology. - From a comment in THIS DISCUSSION.
"top down" means that the System drives the understanding of the Bible not the other way around.  I believe that such systems give poor theologians false confidence in their doctrine. I also believe they all to often keep good theologians from teaching good doctrine while they correct bad doctrine. Truly talented teachers are able to do both at the same time but in my experience these men are rare and far between.

When Brother Lou was reviewing my book he reacted with grace to my stance on Systematic Theology, even though he has been a teacher of the subject himself. I almost felt bad for having this view expressed in the book. It's funny to me that out of all the things I wrote about in Fail-Safe this is the one topic that comes up most often when people criticize me.

So what are your thoughts about Systematic Theology?


Look up said...

ST is for people who like pre-thunk, pre-shrunk, microwave religion, many of whom are only attempting to out-think both others and themselves.

Wikipedia describes it well:
"Systematic theology is a discipline of Christian theology that attempts to formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith and beliefs."

The problem is that Christianity cannot always be orderly, rational and coherent, (ORC) and is often times exactly opposite of those things. If it were entirely ORC, there would be no need of the Spirit of God to daily guide believers into and out of situations. "Religions" must be ORC by nature such that they appeal to a natural man, but a life of faith by its very nature needs to be contrary to ORC.

Jan said...

Hmm. This is an issue I haven't given too much thought to. I always took systematic theology for granted as being Biblical, provided the system is reliant upon the consistent grammatical historical interpretation of the Bible. Actually, I think that may be the really important thing. If that kind of interpretation reveals a system then that system should be held. If not, then it doesn't matter as a system is not necessary for correct Bible interpretation. I certainly don't think systems for systems' sake is valuable, and any systems that take the word and divide it piece meal are going to be very confused. That is what Thomas Ice calls "the theological tail wagging the Biblical dog." (I love that phrase.)

In support of systematic theology, I see that God works "systematically" most of the time in nature. We have very reliable events that follow a certain unalienable pattern, i.e.- seasons, day and night, etc. There are, of course, those times when God has chosen to override the system, though that type of override seems to be mainly in a corrective direction of "flaws" in the system brought on by sin, i.e.- healing and resurrection. If you see what I mean. Though I guess He also overrides the system in judgment too. He certainly will violate the established systems en mass when He judges the world during the Tribulation.

Not to mention, God is a God of order. And we get along best in life when we use order and systems in our societies and personal lives.

So I don't think I would necessarily discount systems of thought from Him regarding His word and how it is organized.

I realize that is kind of a rational/philosophical perspective of the issue so I am certainly open to other ideas. I think I will check out that web site, Kev.


bobfromchicago said...

Kev, you're killin' me. You can't NOT have a systematic theology. Your "biblical" theology comes from a PREmise: namely, you consider the Bible worth studying. And, apparently you'll have rules (a system) for studying it. And, as you study the Bible, you will inevitably place concepts into categories. A systematic theology will be the inevitable outcome. If you don't believe me, try to explain the Trinity without a systematic theology. People who reinvent the theological wheel tend to be curmugeonly iconoclasts. Don't be that guy.
Your brother, Bob.

Kevl said...


I will try to respond shortly but I'm very busy working on my resume right now. :)

One note to Bob - I had to look this up!





Look up said...


“try to explain the Trinity without a systematic theology.”

Tell me when you find someone who actually explains the Trinity with a systematic theology. All attempts I have ever seen have fallen severely short. They can barely ever get to the “what”, but have never gotten to the how, the why etc.

The what:
One God three co-existant, co-eternal, persons. At best, we can proclaim this, because the Bible proclaims it, but we can’t understand it till the Spirit explains it. Without that, all attempts at explanation and systematic development end in vain.

How is there a Trinity?
Only answer: Because there is.

Why is there a Trinity?
Only answer: Because there is

We cannot explain it in an organized, rational, coherent mannner, so at best all we are left with is to proclaim the “what” that the Bible has already proclaimed.

Same with faith. We can proclaim a salvation by faith, but the minute we try to explain what saving faith is, where it comes from, or how it is evidenced, we always fall short or invent some new rule. We can proclaim “the just shall live by faith”, but without the witness of the Spirit of God in this matter, further explanation is pointless.

Same with eternity. When the best definition of eternity gets to its end, it will only have just begun.

Same with [fill in the blank].

A curmudgeoned iconoclast, :-)

Jan said...

We can proclaim “the just shall live by faith”, but without the witness of the Spirit of God in this matter, further explanation is pointless.

Look up-

I think you might be on to something here. Could you elaborate on this?


Kevl said...

Hi Jan,

You said provided the system is reliant upon the consistent grammatical historical interpretation of the Bible.

Most obviously I believe in a systematic approach to study, obeying the plain reading of the Scriptures - a consistent gramatical historical interpretation (hermeneutic).

It is a system of theology that I cannot deal with... even a system that points to all the "right" truths still makes the follower dependant on the system and not the Scriptures.

I'm systematic about my study, and I hold hard and fast to the gramatical historical hermeneutic - but I don't hold to any system of theology. That's why I'm hesitant to call myself "free grace" or "dispensational" though I do hold the founding truths of these systems to be true representations of what the Scriptures say.

You also noted that God is a God of order - I fully heartedly agree!! I do not see the Scriptures as irrational or disorderly at all. In fact, many (most?) systems of theology explain away things in the scriptures that don't agree with the system as being about "tension" instead of invalidating the system.

No doctrine should be established by a single verse, but no doctrine can be true if it violates even a single verse as read in context using the gramatical historical hermeneutic.


Kevl said...


I wouldn't use a systematic theology to explain the Trinity, or to defend the doctrine. I would explain the Trinity as part of the nature of God Almighty as described and demonstrated in the Scriptures but never explained.

I would defend the doctrine by pointing to the demonstrations and descriptions of the Trinity in the Bible.

I would never have to use a system of theology to do any of this. I would however have to use the gramatical historical hermeneutic.


Kevl said...

Look Up,

Don't miss Jan's post to you - a few posts up.


Jan said...

OK Kev. Help me understand this. (Remember I have not really thought about this systematic thing at all.)

If you study the Scriptures systematically and you find that type of study tends toward agreement with one particular system (i.e.- Dispensationalism) more than with an other system, how is that different from systematic theology? I think most theologians would say they approach the Scriptures in a systematic fashion too.

I'm not sure if my question makes sense. Maybe it would be better to take each part separately. 1) How does systematic study of Scripture differ from systematic theology (maybe I don't know what systematic theology actually is); and 2) if such an approach to study tends to favor a particular systematic view, why should the concept be discarded?

Now, I do get what you are saying about systems resulting in false "tensions." That does indeed happen. But I am not sure throwing out systematic theology because of that is not akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. I think what needs to happen in such cases is to tweak the existing system, or discard it in favor of another one. In other words, what needs to be determined is whether the issue is with the system itself or is it an intra-system issue that can be corrected without having to discard the system entirely. And then, if the system does prove to be fundamentally erroneous, is that because it is a system per se, or is it because it is the wrong way of organizing the information- the wrong system?

And anyway, I'm not sure even discarding the whole concept of systematic theology does not just land you right into another one- the system of the non-system.

I'm not sure systematizing Scripture can be gotten away from, really. Maybe the current systems that have been developed can be, but the concept and practice of systematic theology I'm not sure can. I think if you (generic) are going to study the Scriptures systematically then they are going to reveal some kind of organization of thought and action on God's part: the system He is using to accomplish His purposes in history.

Unless I just don't actually know what systematic theology really is, which is entirely possible.


Kevl said...

Hi Jan,

You asked how is that different from systematic theology?

When a "systematic theologian" finds the Scriptures conflict with his system he will say - this can't mean this because that would mean ________.

In areas where Dispensationalism is wrong, I have no problem accepting that it is a doctrine made by men.... I am not tied to the system. The system merely makes reference to many of the same truths that I see portrayed in Scripture.

Do I then have my own system? I TRY to simply let the Scriptures inform me on every point, with every verse. I do this by TRYING to never know what the Scriptures say when I read them. For example EVERY SINGLE TIME I read an LS argument I go in expecting it to be correct. I never know the argument is false before I challenge it.

Even though I do know the system of LS is wrong, I don't know that their every argument is wrong.

If I had perfect understanding of the Scriptures then my systematic study of the Scriptures would result in a good system. Yet until I have perfect knowledge my devised system can only be as good as my weakest point... my fancies... my desires....

Why trap myself into a system I KNOW cannot be as true as Scripture.

If the system is 99% true, and I know of no system that is anywhere near this, how is that system helpful to me? Is it not better to struggle through every single point of the one Document that I know is 100% true?

Systems are good for describing things.... but I do not see how they are helpful for study and growth.

You said And anyway, I'm not sure even discarding the whole concept of systematic theology does not just land you right into another one- the system of the non-system.

Et Brute? Am I to be called an Curmudgeonly Iconoclast by all of my friends??? LOL!!!!!

Yes there is that danger.... the hope is that I will simply stick my head in the Scriptures and learn from them... not to be better than anyone... but to just be learning from the only thing I know to be true.

In all seriousness, I think those who teach Systematic Theology have a MUCH higher view of the concept than I do. They intend it to be exactly what you understand of it. If it could be a higher vehicle to understanding for the masses then I would surely jump on board. However, that is not reality. In reality people take systems they barely understand and hold to them as though they are the very truth of the Gospel. They have no ability to "test all things and hold fast what is good" yet they claim to have come to their particular system by having read the Bible....

In thought (well in orderly thought) systematic theology is a good thing - in practice it is a vehicle for fallacy and religion.

Making any sense at all??


Look up said...


I will give it a go.

Faith and reason are contrary one to the other. Systems require reason, living by faith opposes reason. To systematically explain that there is a God is Deism, and leaves one no better off than Atheism. To systematically explain the concept of what the Trinity is without knowing the Trinity personally, is Romanism. To systematically explain what faith is in hopes of convincing a lost person to have it, is an attempt to create an instruction manual to emulate, rather than a connection to God through faith; this is LS.

Reason walks by sight, faith goes against sight (2Cor 5:7). IE Reason would not walk around a city 13 times in hopes of its walls coming down; reason would not be prepared to slay one’s own son expecting him to be resurrected; reason would not go after an unnumbered multitude with 300 men and expect to win; reason does not expect leprosy to be cured by washing in a river etc.. ALL of these acts are contrary to reason, and so is every other act of faith. Reason will not go where it cannot see; systems require reason and sight. What then is the cause of man going against his own reason and will? There has to be an external power, and it could be from a multitude of sources including the Spirit of God but also the enemy of God. The source is determined by how the action ultimately turns out. Since demonic victories are short lived, the key word here is ‘ultimately’.

Systematic theology will not allow one to go off the beaten path. It attempts to place faith within the confines of reason. It makes little to no allowance for acts of faith, and thereby subdues that which it tries to explain. This is why no one can ever be argued in to nor out of heaven. THIS is why the Spirit of God must enlighten the soul that will be saved, and bring the truth home to them by a personal, private, inward call.

Look up said...


"In thought (well in orderly thought) systematic theology is a good thing - in practice it is a vehicle for fallacy and religion."

That is the key right there,good comment.

Look up said...

People who walk by reason can't bear to have their sacred cows killed; people who walk by faith kill their own sacred cows.

Kevl said...

Hi Look Up,

I guess I'm having trouble with your use of the word "reason."

I don't see faith in Christ, or walking by the knowledge that God is faithful as unreasonable.

In fact I think faith is most reasonable, given the facts.

I also see walking by faith as a reasonable process - not chaotic or silly.

There is no doubt that faith goes beyond what reason is capable of.

One may not be able to comprehend how walking around a city could make it's walls fall - but that is not the issue. Because walking around the city didn't make the walls fall. God made them.

It would be unreasonable to walk around the city expecting that to make the walls fall. It is not unreasonable to obey God who will then, Himself, make the walls fall.

Faith goes beyond reason because it trusts a promise - but it is not unreasonable.


Jan said...

Wow gentlemen! What great thoughts!

They are going to require much more processing time than I can give them a the moment (I have rellies here for Christmas and so am playing host.) But I will say this for now:


I will have to look up "curmudgeonly iconoclast" to see if that is what I called you. :)

Look up-

I see what you are saying about reason vs. faith. (I also see what Kev says in reply.) Faith cannot always be completely divorced from reason because we do need to use our minds to assess whether a given proposition is true. However, the means of drawing that conclusion is very possibly different with faith than with cold reason alone. It is true that reasonable argument never saved anyone.

On the other hand, the Lord does say, "come, let us reason together...." And in His discourse with men He often uses reason, logic, and rational thought in His arguments. Other times He just says something and expects you to accept it as it stands. I.e.- in the beginning God.... I suspect both of you are right in ways I can't fully develop right now.

I think in the end I would say that when reason is supposed to be the basis of faith it will fail. However, where faith is already present, reason-that is to say understanding-will often be given. Reason will never be allowed to replace faith, though.

I was thinking originally about your whole paragraph where you said:

Same with faith. We can proclaim a salvation by faith, but the minute we try to explain what saving faith is, where it comes from, or how it is evidenced, we always fall short or invent some new rule. We can proclaim “the just shall live by faith”, but without the witness of the Spirit of God in this matter, further explanation is pointless.

Because it does seem to tie in to LS in trying to explain what saving faith is. I will definitely have to delve into that further later on.

For the time being I will say this. It seems to me what you are both saying, especially Kev, is what Thomas Ice says when he talks about the theological tail wagging the Biblical dog. The system never trumps the Bible and if there is a disagreement between the two then the Bible wins.


Look up said...


"One may not be able to comprehend how walking around a city could make it's walls fall - but that is not the issue. Because walking around the city didn't make the walls fall. God made them."

If one cannot comprehend something yet believe it to be true, it is no longer reason, it is faith. Faith is the opposite of reason.

When God says "let us reason together", he is not speaking to those with faith, but to those without. All they can do is reason through the problem, but can never come to the cure without faith. Similar to going to a doctor. Reason can tell me I would have a disease, because the signs are evidential and repeatable, simply, a lack of health, but to find and take the cure requires me to believe another. Reason can tell you that you are sick, but it is only by faith in the doctor that you follow his instructions to get better.

Reason and faith are opposites, and Atheists have figured this out, that is why they always hide their unbelief behind reason. With reason they can see the problems in this world, but without faith can never come to the cure. Systematic theology can have as much system as it wants but without faith it is nothing more than words on a page. Therefore the key ingredient being missing, of what value is it other than to impress others with one’s ability to reason?

Look up said...

Reason must see a clear path laid out before it, faith must NOT see, but go anyway.

2 Cor 4:18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

Rom 8:24-25 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.

2 Cor 5:7 (For we walk by faith, not by sight:)

Heb 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

John said...

My name is John. I am a teacher of
systematic theology. My theology
came from the Bible. My ability to
reason enabled me to see the Bible
systematicly. Systematic Theology
simply tries to colate all the
individual Scriptures pertaining to
subjects. My systematic theology
never replaces the Word of God!
It is derived from the Word of God.
The Theologian places Scripture at the higest point.
The "system" is the result of
a basic literal interpretation.
The Word is never twisted
to fit the system! At least not
the Biblistical Systematic Theology! Faith and reason are never in opposition for the Christian Theologian! Reason has to be able to comprehind. We must
and always use reason to exercise
faith. Without reason the individual could not follow God or
His Word. Saying that faith cannot be orderly, rational, and coherent is framing Christianity
in the limited mentality of the
unregenate! Faith that has the Holy Spirit with the Word of God
will be orderly, rational, and
coherent, simply because of the
leading of the Holy Spirit coupled with the Blessed Word of God.
Do not limit your mind by refusing the input of Biblical,
Systematic Theology. For any one to remain ignorant of these things
is the hight of lazyiness.
God bless, John G.