some thoughts on “systematic” theology

“I do not have a finished theological system nor do I believe in such a thing. I do not know what a finished theological system would look like and even if I knew, I am pretty sure that I would not want it. My suspicion is that the desire to have such a system may indicate the theologian’s lack of faith in the church” (Stanley Hauerwas, Wilderness Wanderings, 5).

I miss being at Duke. I didn’t take any classes with Dr. Hauerwas, but I often saw him walking through the halls and I would always pause and my heart would skip a little beat knowing that I was learning under the same roof where he taught.  But I also miss Duke because people would say things like what Hauwerwas said about systems of theology above, or they would say that “nothing is more misleading than to try to answer a misshapen question” (ibid, 150), or that our task is to learn “a kind of attention that comes from knowing when to be quiet, or alternatively, knowing when nothing more can be said (ibid, 144).

Our church sells a volume of systematic theology (by Wayne Grudem), and some friends of ours have started a little group that gets together and discusses a few chapters of it at a time. I love our little group.  I love my friends who are in it.  I love talking about what the Bible says about different things.  But the way this book is written just makes me uneasy.  I picked up one of Hauerwas’s books from my shelf this weekend and stumbled across what he says above about theological systems. In the next paragraph he connects these theological systems with the fact that Christians in America have this sense that we have arrived. That we’re home. A text called Systematic Theology certainly underscores this reality. We have arrived. We know the Bible. We know what it says about topics A-Z. We have the right answers to all the questions.

If one wants to grasp God’s providence, he or she can turn to chapter such and such and figure it out. Or if one cares to understand the relation between predestination and free will, he or she can explore another chapter until he or she has learned a careful doctrinal assertion that solves the problem and ties up the loose ends. Incarnation systematically spelled out by a white hand. Home sweet home.

This way of doing theology points us to one of our greatest problems. We want to control Jesus. We want to possess him. We want to answer questions, not live in the unanswered space where Jesus hides himself (John 12:20-36). Yet as my ethics professor always reminded us, we are not here to master divinity. Systematic theology, at its heart, is violent. It is a wrenching from scripture the truths we have amassed and organizing them in the way we see fit to organize them. Obviously, I am not saying that everyone who has written a systematic theology is evil or has control as an explicit aim, nor is every student who reads systematic theology, etc. Yet the very enterprise of systematic theology, or of coming to believe that we have a theological system, puts us in a position of power in which we are the knowers and the deciders. Where all the problems are solved, the questions answered, and where we can sit in smug satisfaction that we hold firmly in our hand all the doctrine we’ll ever need.

What Dr. Hauerwas is saying, I believe, is akin to what Barth was saying, which is that we have to receive revelation day by day. We don’t store it up in jars and put it on shelves. We go out and collect it fresh as we wander through the wilderness. It is given to us as a gift.


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