I don’t trust theological systems. I may have one, but I don’t trust it.
Seminaries are places where Christians have the luxury of spending time defending their party lines and refuting those of others. That’s not a bad thing if humility and respect is present. Indeed a big part of students’ educational process in a biblical seminary is refining their theological positions through question and debate.
But at the evangelical seminary in which I teach I see a trend that concerns me. I see students arriving for study already doggedly committed to their Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, or whatever one’s name-your-soteriology-system. And for some reason it is precisely their soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) in which their certainty shows up. I see no similar commitment to pneumatology or ecclesiology (doctrines of Spirit and church, respectively) in which we evangelicals are chronically deficient. However, I do remember a time when eschatology was the New Big Thing to Bring to a Boil. Thankfully that one has cooled down, for now.
My concern is the certainty these students have for positions that have been debated by some really wicked-smart people over centuries of time without satisfactory resolution. How does one learn if one already has it all figured out? Why come to school?
Which brings me back to the theological systems I have but that I don’t trust. The goal of studying the scriptures and doing theology is to serve humankind by presenting the Good News of a gracious God in all his glory. Sometimes we forget this, instead making scripture study only about strengthening the walls of our theological fortress to make it impenetrable by foreign arrows. The fortresses about which I am speaking are theological systems.
I don’t think we should trust these fortresses and here’s why.
I don’t trust theological systems because they do not take seriously enough the fact that God has not revealed all, he has merely revealed enough. Sufficient revelation is not exhaustive revelation. Those who trust systems (1) assume that their system is correct because they (2) assume that the extent of their knowledge is sufficient to establish conclusions about disputed truths. That’s two assumptions too far for me.
I don’t trust theological systems because their adherents cherry-pick scriptures that support their view and relegate scriptures that do not to the sidelines or to silence. That’s because their system’s paradigm is not comprehensive enough to handle verses that don’t support it. A theological paradigm that explains all the scriptures related to a given topic is a paradigm powerful enough to adopt and defend. No one has found it yet (see #1 above.)
I don’t trust theological systems because systems are tertiary discourse. What do I mean? Simply this, Jesus and the scriptures that reveal him are primary discourse. That is, they are the source materials that undergird our knowledge. Our interpretations about those scriptures comprise the secondary discourse that is essential to biblical and theological understanding. And systems we devise as interpretive paradigms for controlling all this knowledge are tertiary. This isn’t to demean the process or its necessity. I point it out to mention that the more we seek to systematize our conclusions about the scriptures the more derivative they become and the more our grubby hand-prints are found on them.
While I don’t trust theological systems, I do think that attempting to systematically understand the theology of the Bible is a good and necessary thing. But such attempts should always be considered tentative, human and incomplete. We see through a mirror dimly, after all.
Theological maturity acknowledges the need for continued investigation that may indeed lead to changes in views and practices that correspond to increasing knowledge. No theologian, indeed no Christian, should be afraid to change his or her views, language, or practices in conformity with increasing light from the scholarly study of and about the Holy Scriptures well-respected and well-examined. The “protesting reformers” that became the Protestant Reformers recognized what happens when systems, through tradition and church culture, override the scriptures. We should not make the same mistake in our own age.
God is bigger than the box of our making.
(Dr. Chip Moody teaches pastoral theology and homiletics at Phoenix Seminary, a Christian theological seminary in Arizona.)