Faith in God? Or in Systematic Theology?

As I’ve interacted with conservative Christians over the last two decades I’ve felt that some of them seem to place their faith in systematic theology rather than God. Systematic theology almost seems to have become their God, although I’m sure they’d vociferously deny anything so idolatrous could ever happen to anyone with as correct theology as theirs ;-)

A few days ago I read “How I changed my mind: Theological Method” by John Armstrong. I was excited because it seemed to me that John, in his articulate theological way, was raising a concern very similar to mine about whether some Christians’ faith is more in systematic theology than God.

John writes about theological foundationalism and nonfoundationalism and his move from the former to the latter. He describes foundationalism this way:

In conservative theological foundationalism the goal of theology has generally been to amass true statements (seen as a series of factual propositions) and then to arrange them into a logical and coherent whole. The Bible is seen as a compendium of truths that can be discovered, unlocked and arranged by “scientific”methods (e.g. hermeneutics used the right way). An illustration of this type of approach can be seen in the popular systematic theology of Wayne Grudem. Grudem’s definition of systematic theology is “the attempt to determine what the whole Bible teaches about any given topic.”

On the other hand, John writes, nonfoundationalism argues that

the ultimate authority in theology is the living triune God alone, not a particular set of theological constructs. If there is a foundation in Christian theology, and I believe that there must be, then it is not found in the Church, Scripture, tradition or culture. The biblical foundation, according to the witness of Scripture and tradition, must be God revealed in Jesus Christ.

John continues:

foundationalism (as a system for doing theology) must be rejected because it is too small a philosophical approach for the revelation of God that is in Jesus Christ alone. But we still have a very real foundation, one openly disclosed in history.We can never secure truths completely, or precisely, because we are fallen and finite.We can and we must listen to Christ alone.We must call no man master, and no theology, or system of theology is settled and final.

Theology must be a humble human attempt to “hear him”—never about rational approaches to texts. The standard evangelical approach, used since the mid-nineteenth century, sees the Bible providing the factual and loosely organized material that we can then put into a coherent system of truth. This has been rightly called a “concordance” view of theology.You gather all the verses on a given subject, sort them all out, put them in their proper place in your system, and then develop (or write) a theology, formal or otherwise. This theology is then transferred as if the system itself contains, or is, the truth of God.Wayne Grudem represents an example of this method when he asserts that systematic theology is finally the effort to determine what the whole Bible teaches on any given subject.

What I am convinced of, having changed my mind on the way to go about doing good theology, is that a nonfoundationalist (or “soft”foundationalist) method is best calculated to serve the life of the Church in any given time in history and culture.

John wraps up his article this way:

The real issue is how do we do theology so that we glorify the Living Word who reveals God in human history? How do we “listen to him?”My change in methodology allows me to enter a dialogue with new eyes and a new willingness to listen and learn from others. It is an evangelical and ecumenical theology in the best sense. This has made a profound difference in my personal life. Whereas I once saw truth in a closed system created by a very small group of theologians whom I believed wrote the last and best word, I am now willing to listen and learn from all my brothers and sisters who honor Christ and the gospel with me.

This article was in a 2003 issue of John’s ministry newsletter. If you want to read what John’s been writing about lately, you can go to his blog.