System troubles (3)

(This is the final installment of “System Troubles.”  Find Part 1 of this series here.  Find Part 2 here.)

Previously, I noted “glitches” in systems of various kinds—in the sphere of electronic technologies, in retail and online markets, at the workplace, and within institutions such as churches.  Most recently, I suggested that the systems of first-century Judaism drew some of the strongest-ever critiques from the likes of Paul and Jesus.

This post is about “systematic theology”—sort of.  Maybe more accurately, it’s about a straw system that may be created by, in this example, a “doctrines” book authored by a systematic theologian.  If “systematic theology” is a new term to you, you may be interested in following up to learn more about the larger picture.

The very idea of “Systematic Theology” disturbs me at my core.  I know some people are into it, and I suspect that most thoughtful Christians have a deep (although mostly unenlightened) respect for it in their hearts.  The trouble is this:  rarely will anyone look at supposedly well-worked-out theologies with a critical eye.  People seem simply to assume that it’s all been hashed out already, and that’s that.  (And then theology and religious history become college majors,² whereas people must assume biblical studies is a dead field, as though all the possible textual understanding has already been gained.)

I have in my hands right now a book by Wayne Grudem.  I understand Grudem to be a sort-of go-to guy for systematic theology.  This particular book is a little one and seems to be a sort of theological primer for laymen.  It treats 20 topics, including some of the “biggies.”  In borrowing the book, I admit that I had a closed-minded, mostly skeptical outlook, so it stands to reason that almost every chapter I glanced at met my low expectations.  Here are a few chapter titles with brief comments.

  • What is the Bible?  (I stopped reading at the careless line “all the words in the Bible are God’s words.”  To paraphrase the vocal band A Cappella, if this were the case, God must’ve been a 17th-century Englishman [or a fourth-century pope who spoke in Latin, or whatever].  See here for more on that.)
  • What Is the Trinity?  (Why does this chapter come so early in the book although Grudem admits the word is never found in the Bible?  Methinks the Trinity idea was subconsciously, artificially promoted in order to give the appearance of unquestioned legitimacy.)
  • What Is Election?  (This is about God’s own electing/choosing [not politics!], and it appears to be a pretty fair-minded chapter, although I wouldn’t really want to foist this topic on anyone young in the faith . . . it can give even mature Christians fits.)
  • What Will Happen When Christ Returns? and What Is the Final Judgment?  (Presumptions abound.  ‘Nuff said.)
  • What Are Sanctification and Perseverance?  (The notions and doctrines suggested by these two words carry a lot of baggage—baggage with which I don’t want to saddle anyone, including myself.)
  • What Does It Mean to Become a Christian?  (Notable omissions cloud this chapter’s credibility; it focuses only on a sense of “call” and response to said call.)

I acknowledge that Grudem does not present his 20 chapters as giving the final answers on any topics.  Instead, he provides, at points, for differences of interpretation and opinion.  However, I’d say the best use of this book would be among learned, experienced Christians who use the brief treatments as springboards to deeper, broader discussion.  The author’s first line reads “This book is a summary of twenty basic beliefs that every Christian should know,” but I would challenge that.

I would hate for novice Christians to get bogged down in some of this material.  As examples, take sanctification, atonement, election, and justification.  These may be considered theologically foundational in that they could be thought of as underlying spiritual realities, but they are anything but easy to understand, and they may not be appropriate for many baby Christians to delve into.  Basically, some of the “basic” beliefs in this book are not exactly basic, and I would suggest that the list of topics itself is the result of a flawed, systematized way of thinking.

Sadly, the idea that Jesus is the Christ is reduced to one 5-page chapter.  That tiny bit of material seems out of balance in a book that purports to provide Christ-ian faith “basics.” ³  What is Christian theology if it gives such a small place to Jesus’ identity?  I fear the scenario when the eyes are focused on a superimposed theological system rather than on the Christ.  It can be good to consider and philosophize and ponder the ramifications of things.  Organized thought patterns are not bad.  Inasmuch as this book has systematic theology at its root, though, I’m still not very hopeful about that system.

² It’s telling that a “religious” institution of higher learning offers majors in Theology and in Evangelization & Catechesis—and these are the only two majors in its only religion-oriented department—but not in Biblical Studies.  There is even a major in Latin but not in Greek or Hebrew.  Amazing.  Or maybe not so surprising.  If this is a market-driven scenario, i.e., if there is no Biblical Studies major because there aren’t enough incoming students to pay for that curricular program, then it’s understandable from a fiscal point of view, but I’d say the larger religious system is the problem, and not necessarily the particular college.  In the case of another institution, a department was delineated into to sub-departments:  (1) Religion, (2) Theology and Philosophy, and (3) Bible.  I certainly wished that Bible were at least set up as a basis for the others, and a greater integration of the three would have been advantageous, although not providing the same neat pigeonholes for faculty specializations.

³ This reminds me of the tale of the supposedly convert-in-process who’d gone through some educational program and who then reported with excitement, “I’m ready to be baptized, but I just have two questions:  who is Jesus, and what is sin?”

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