Unsystematic Theology

There’s a thought, an understanding that’s been hinting to me for some time, but which I’ve never fully explored. It goes like this: if God had wanted us to have a systematic theology he would have arranged the Bible differently. I know that this can be construed as one of those clever phrases that actually doesn’t mean much, but to me there is a kernel of real truth in this idea that needs to be understood better, especially in this 21st century where everything is rigidly defined.

First of all, let me say at the outset that I’m not against the use of or the production of systematic theologies – I have Calvin’s Institutes on my bookshelf too. What I do want to point out is that we need to understand the place of systematic theology and what and how it lacks elements of what is required for a fully rounded faith and walk. God didn’t give us a systematic theology, he gave us the Bible. As evangelicals we can easily reduce or rearrange our understanding of God to that which we read in our systematic theology of choice.

Let me begin be explaining what I see are the inadequacies of the concept of a systematic theology. One of the first things that most systematic theologies do is attempt to explain the nature of God and in so doing point out that no book can fully do justice to that point. In acknowledging this the writers are admitting up front that their works will never give the full answer, the complete grasp of life, the universe and everything, they are partial. The danger is that having read the caveats and jumped in the reader forgets the acknowledged limitations and takes the following pages as ‘gospel’. Now, the logical path to follow is that no book can fully explain God, not even the Bible, but, the Bible is, we believe God breathed, other books are not.

The problem with systematic theologies isn’t so much what they say as what they don’t say. Consider for a moment the nature of a systematic theology: it is a choice of subject and arrangement of revelation that we see elsewhere; it is chosen, arranged and explained by people with their own presuppositions, prejudices and omissions. We only need to look around us to see that human beings have it in their nature to classify, categorise, put in ‘boxes’ all that they see. In any field of human understanding we see this, from biology to physics to the arts. Even something as broad and unregulated as painting has become systematised into impressionists, cubists, and many more. We can’t help ourselves. This tendency to categorise and compartmentalise won’t work with God. We may, and must begin to learn what we can of God from what he has revealed of himself, and it is inherent in doing that that we will apply some sort of structure to that learning, but we must be careful not to take that structure as definitive of an infinite God. We choose the categories that we use, we pick the Bible passages that support our choice, we gather together, explain, synthesise and weave together a coherent structured picture of a God who is beyond comprehension. Whilst pursuing this endeavour can and should draw us closer to God and enhance our learning and understanding and draw us to worship, very often it can limit our horizons to what is said and nothing more. Rather than being a springboard to ‘taste and see that God is good’ it becomes the beginning and end of our understanding – it relegates our relationship to an intellectual grasp of God who is a person and not an object of study.

What is my point, where am I going with this? Simply that we must read all of the Bible as God gave it to us as our primary source of knowledge of Him. What the Bible points to is a relationship, not a religion, it’s a walk, not a form of words. The God who reveals himself through the Bible intends us to understand this relationship and partake of it.

“They shall be my people and I will be their God” may well be easier to enter into than to understand, certainly for the non-theologians!

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

Jeremiah 9:23-24 ESV