Unsystematic Theology

The standard modern/Protestant method of doing theology has been to collect statements about God from the Bible and file them by category, this constituting a “systematic” theology. We then employ this chart of “divine attributes” as the rubric for our study of Jesus. I took systematics courses in seminary that worked this way. God is omniscient as implied by out-of-context verse X, and thus Jesus is also omniscient according to out-of-context verse Y. The goal in all of this is to forensically “prove” Jesus’ divinity, which helps us argue for the veracity and superiority of our faith.

There are many problems with this method, and in fact one of the major turning points in my own spiritual journey saw its unmaking. First, the systematic method ignores the Bible’s diversity of thought and voice, flattening a multiplicity of witnesses and claims about God into a simple catalog or encyclopedia of foregone theological propositions. If you want to know what God is like, turn to any page and start reading. Systematics then takes its specious package of “God facts” and stuffs them into an empty vessel called “Jesus,” likewise obscuring the rich and colorful tapestry of Jesus witnesses in the Bible and the organic contextual environments of the gospels. The result is a stale, conflicted, and obtuse notion of “God,” constructed out of detached biblical elements, and an even more muted and useless Jesus, a bland and generic divine mascot who simply underwrites everything we already think about God.

The Problem Is Our Method, Not the Bible

This is not about the Bible being deficient or untrustworthy, but about our strange way of reading and interpreting it. In our attempt to be faithful and deferent to “biblical truth,” we’ve chosen to disengage our discernment and curiosity and read the Bible as a reference book instead of a library of stories. By ignoring questions of history and perspective, we have chosen not to engage with the voices in the Bible but simply to flatten each one into a series of timeless devotional platitudes.

Systematic theology is the academic expression of this error. It feels like a responsible and thorough engagement of the Bible’s contents, but it actually works against fruitful study and spiritual engagement. Instead of entering into the arguments, screeds, debates, and jubilations of the Bible, we simply collect unquestionable truths and then force them into an organized system. In the system, individual units of truth may not openly contradict or challenge one another but they often neutralize and dull each other in effect. God is love, but there is also wrath. God loves peace, but is the author of war. God desires mercy, but also demands sacrifice. God provides and protects, but also withholds and punishes. The Christian life becomes a game of juggling dissonant ideas and keeping them all in the air as long as one can. Needless to say, this approach does not lend itself to intellectual honesty or critical thinking.

But this is not the biggest problem with the systematic method.

Jesus Wants to Tear the System Down

Where systematic theology fails us most drastically is in the way it domesticates and dilutes the message and voice of Jesus. By stacking up unquestionable facts about God and His attributes, it significantly hinders Jesus’ ability to speak prophetically and correctively about the divine character. When Systematic Jesus talks, he is only able to say things about Systematic God. And if Systematic God deals in wrath and exclusion, Systematic Jesus must be on board too.

But the heart and soul of Jesus’ message is a fresh vision of God that challenges the prevailing notions and dares us to imagine a God who is bigger and better than our system was built to contain. From his ethical teachings about empathy and enemy love to parables about an endlessly forgiving father, Jesus invites us to boldly abandon the old system and its burdensome tensions and limitations. The real, radical Jesus did not come to underwrite archaic notions of God, sin, and sacrifice, but to liberate his hearers for a true change of mind (“repentance”), and to give them permission to believe and hope above and beyond the old ways.

The alternative to unhelpful systematic theology is a truly Christian theology that not only respects the history and humanity of the Bible, but which sees in Jesus an authentic and revolutionary vision of God. Jesus is our theology, which is just to say that we come to understand that God looks like Jesus.