Something I don’t do as often anymore, but would like to change, is offer you thoughts in process. I think that’s kind of a big part of blogging. I used to use the blog to think out loud more frequently, but that was in its MySpace and Xanga iterations. I think in seminary I felt like I had to post complete thoughts and complete thoughts only. But, I’m not in seminary any more (but I live across the street from one).
Recently, as I’ve been teaching the Sunday night Doctrine class, and my 11th grade Bible class (which in this semester is a Christian doctrine class), I’ve been thinking about how we go through theology. “Systematic” really just means “ordered according to some logical principle,” and certain ground is expected to be covered. So, systematic theology is just theology that is ordered logically according to topic rather than traced in a linear way through either a single biblical book, or the entire Bible itself.
Good systematic theology is highly exegetical. That is, it is built by exegeting key passages of Scripture. Historical rootedness is helpful, but teaching theology should be more than just rehashing what major theologians have said. A good theologian goes back to the text, and as John Piper exhorted preachers last Wednesday at the inaugural Spurgeon Lectureship at RTS, we need to point people to the text so they see where we got it.
In light of all that, I’ve been wondering if treating the topics in a semi-reverse order might actually be better suited for many audiences. Consider for instance the major headings in the table of contents of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology:
- Doctrine of The Word of God
- Doctrine of God
- Doctrine of Man
- Doctrine of Christ and The Holy Spirit
- Doctrine of the Application of Redemption
- Doctrine of the Church
- Doctrine of the Future
Similarly, here is the table of contents from Michael Horton’s more recent systematic, The Christian Faith:
- Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology
- God Who Lives
- God Who Creates
- God Who Rescues
- God Who Reigns in Grace
- God Who Reigns in Glory
Here we see fairly similar ground covered, but instead of “doctrine,” Horton orbits everything around God as the main actor. Gerald Bray does something similar, but focuses on love, hence his title, God is Love:
- The Language of Love
- God’s Love in Himself
- God’s Love for His Creation
- The Rejection of God’s Love
- God So Loved The World
- The Consummation of God’s Love
I could multiply TOC’s further, but I think you get the idea. They all tend to follow a general pattern. The pattern in and of itself is not what makes them “systematic,” but the fact that there is a clear pattern to it. Berkhof makes this point in his systematic, predictably titled Systematic Theology, where he points out that there are numerous logical orderings, but the point is that there needs to be some kind of logical/topical flow. The one at work in all of the above is starting with the foundation of knowledge, then moving to God, then forward through the biblical story.
If we are going to use the “ologies” for each of these focal points, it would look like this:
- Theology Proper
Now, what if instead of starting in the usual place (which really puts the most complicated doctrines right up front), we started were people are: the Gospel (or soteriology)
What I’ve noticed while teaching, and I owe some of this insight to Fred Sander’s The Deep Things of God, is people are most familiar with soteriology and the basic contours of the Gospel (if they’re in a good church). It is not self evident to them that epistemology is important for understanding theology and growing in their relationship with God. It is, but it’s not self-evident to the average church-goer.
So, what if a systematic theology was oriented toward readers who have a basic grasp of the Gospel, but want to grow in their theological knowledge? I think it would look something like this:
- Work of Christ
- Person of Christ
- Theology Proper
Here’s how I would think of it in terms of questions (and this is the part I owe to Sanders):
- What did Jesus do for me? (past tense)
- How is He relating to me now?
- What more can I know about Jesus as a person?
- Why did Jesus have to die, and how am I responsible?
- What was God’s original intention?
- How is God working to fix things now?
- How can I know all this is true?
That’s kind of rough, but the idea is that people start with their grasp of the gospel and then move backwards. In order to go deeper into the gospel as the work of Christ, you move into his person and his Spirit. That then raises the question of why Jesus death was necessary, as well as what it means for him to be fully human. That raises the question of what is God’s plan in all of this, which leads to discussing the original creation, the final recreation, and the church’s role in that whole process. You’re already been employing a latent Trinitarianism, so the stage is set to explore that further, and in doing that you bring up the issue of revelation, which brings up the issue of epistemology.
I think moving in this way would pique interest better, but maybe that’s just me. After reading through this, what do you think? What would you alter? Do you think people would connect with theology taught in this direction?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts, so don’t leave the comments section lonely!