Saturday, June 2, 2012

1 Introduction to Systematic Theology

Review of Chapter 1
Introduction to Systematic Theology
As you would expect of an introduction, this chapter involves basic definitions, assumptions behind, rationale for, objections to, and preparations for the study of systematic theology. Grudem's definition of systematic theology is "any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?" about any given topic" (21). I personally would much rather call such things a "biblical theology" and thus think that Grudem is off to a dubious start.

Systematic theology is the organization of Christian belief into an overall system according to some ideological organizing principle. Since the Bible is not arranged ideologically, the organizing principle inevitably is governed from outside the Bible. The closest one might come to an organizing principle that correlates roughly to the biblical structure would be a narrative theology that organizes Christian belief in terms of the general flow of the biblical story as it appears to us. However even here, since the books were organized not by the biblical authors themselves but by later Jews and Christians, even this narrative organization is governed from outside the Bible itself.

Systematic theology is a broad category with different possible ideological organizing principles. I suppose the elements of a narrative can be treated ideologically, but narrative theology is probably best thought of as something different. The way Grudem speaks of philosophical theology makes it sound secular and "other" (21), although it seems that any system that is ideological will inevitably be philosophical in nature.  Nevertheless, I suppose there is use for a category that uses a philosophical organizing principle that is not traditionally Christian.  Constructive theology is similar to philosophical theology understood in this way since it especially engages and attempts to synthesize the insights and challenges of contemporary thought with traditional Christian thinking.

What I call a biblical theology can also be organized systematically, so that you have a systematic biblical theology. This is what Grudem wants to be. He also equates systematic theology with dogmatic theology (25, n.7), although I would rather say that dogmatic theology is a form of systematic theology that is organized in accordance with some Christian authority, such as the Roman Catholic Church.

Historical theology is something different, a presentation of theology in terms of his historical development. Grudem correctly relates that biblical theology is currently used in the guild of individual biblical authors: Pauline theology, Matthean theology, Lukan theology, and so forth. I prefer, however, to buck this trend and use the term biblical theology to refer to canonical theology on some level. The Bible is not one book, and thus any "biblical" theology inevitably involves a move away from the theology of individual biblical authors into some organizing principle governed from outside of the texts themselves. Accordingly, an Old or New Testament theology must inevitably move beyond the theology of individual authors and thus beyond the texts themselves.

Grudem defines a doctrine as "what the whole Bible teaches today about some particular topic" (25). Inherent in this definition are some of Grudem's fundamental confusions. The books of the Bible were not written to today but to ancient audiences. "The Bible" is thus an understanding of the individual books that someone (he, me, the church) constructs or has constructed out of diverse texts.  Hopefully this task is done in a way that respects and fits with the biblical texts themselves but it is an extra-biblical task.  Grudem's definition thus amounts to "doctrine is a Christian position on a particular topic formulated in dialog with the individual texts of the Bible with a view to living in the world today."

This reformulated definition seems a fine way of thinking of doctrine, especially if we recognize the role the church and the Spirit have played in that dialog with Scripture.  A doctrine is a Christian belief on a key topic of faith.  By calling it a "Christian belief," I'm suggesting that it is something with more weight than a specific individual and should have more weight even than a particular group at a particular point in time. When we speak of doctrine, we are hopefully dealing with central beliefs held by large numbers of Christians over some period of time. Some would go further to define a dogma as a belief that has, at the very least, been held by most Christians over most of church history.

Assumptions, Reasons, Method

Grudem identifies two assumptions behind his book: 1) the Bible is our only absolute standard of truth and 2) God exists and is who the Bible says he is. He allows for modification or deeper confirmation after pursuit of those assumptions, which at least seems to imply that he is not a pure presuppositionalist. Presumably evidence would play some role in the potential modification of his starting points. This methodology seems very sound from a standpoint of Christian faith. Why would a person with faith start anywhere else than with the presupposition of some form of faith?

His basic reason to study theology would seem to be in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Matthew 28 where Jesus tells his disciples to "teach" the things he commands. I find his exegesis here anemic, not least in the fact that the Great Commission is not a command to evangelize in the way we normally think today but a command to "make disciples," which is much more substantial than having someone sign a card or pray a prayer. It is something far more extensive than a moment in time and teaching is part of it. Of course this wasn't even Grudem's point so I'll move on.

Theology overcomes our wrong ideas.  It helps us make better decisions on new issues that arise. It helps us grow as Christians. All good stuff.

He addresses two objections to theology (or rather the form of his theology): 1) conclusions are too neat to be true and 2) the choice of topics dictates the conclusions. I suspect that these are criticisms he has heard of his approach, and I suspect I will have similar critiques of his approach, although my hunch is he has flattened out the objections. I suspect I will conclude that his theology is two-dimensional and lacks a certain profundity befitting God (which he might summarize as #1), and I suspect that there will turn out to be not a little circularity in starting with his conclusions (which he might summarize as #2).  We'll see.

His section on how to study theology is very good for the most part, from my standpoint.  Yes, we should study theology with prayer, with humility, with rejoicing and praise. One of the strengths of his book is that he ends each chapter with a hymn and verses to reflect on (even if the verses may turn out to be shallowly chosen and interpreted). Yes, we should study theology with reason and with the help of others.

As I said in my preface, I consider Grudem's book to be a systematic biblical theology.  So his method involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages of Scripture on a topic. This is exactly what I do when formulating a biblical theology. My critique will not be here but, I suspect, in the lack of sophistication with which he 1) interprets individual passages and 2) maps them to each other.

Take this dictum: "We are free to use our reasoning abilities to draw deductions from any passage of Scripture so long as these deductions do not contradict the clear teaching of some other passage of Scripture" (34). This is of course a form of a long standing rule that says that "Scripture interprets Scripture."

In this age of reflection, however, there is more going on in performing this statement than the Reformers certainly understood, and one wonders if Grudem really understands either. First of all, those who have used this concept largely did not understand how to read words in their full socio-cultural context.  Words have meanings in contexts, not in some abstract theological bubble.

You cannot interpret the words and significations of Matthew in one context by reference to the way Isaiah used words in another context. You can integrate the two together from some third standpoint, letting each stand on its own, but you cannot change the meaning of Matthew on the basis of Isaiah or vice versa.  Yes, God is the same, but he reveals himself in the categories of his audiences, not in absolute categories that we would not be able to comprehend.

As is often the case, the simple dictum, "Scripture interprets Scripture" is a shorthand for a more complex process: "When applying a biblical text, we must process it in in terms of fulcrum points elsewhere in Scripture and fundamental principles that have been identified over the centuries as the Spirit has inspired the communion of saints (i.e., the Church) reading Scripture.  For ethics, the fulcrum point is the 'law of love,' found repeatedly in Scripture, not least in Matthew 22:37-40. We can identify numerous other fulcrum points on issues of theology. For example, the book of Hebrews provides the fulcrum point on sacrifice, and Leviticus must be appropriated in its light, although the meaning of Hebrews cannot change the original meaning of Leviticus, which was a function of words and significations at its time of origin. The decision to use Hebrews as the fulcrum point necessarily comes from a third perspective outside of the biblical texts themselves."  Grudem's approach lacks this level of sophistication.

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