I have always loved systematic theology. I own four (Grudem, Oden, Hodge, and Reymond). Ironically enough, I am going to continue my discussion of Christian Theology as Storytelling by quoting from a systematic theology, because Thomas Oden gets it right, I believe. I’m going to let Oden do a lot of the talking here, but stick with it: It’s good stuff. (Quotes are taken from The Living God: Systematic Theology, Volume One).
The value of Oden’s already great “systematic” theology is increased by the fact that it realizes its own limitations. Oden writes:
The vitality of the biblical history of God’s acts does not easily boil down to the clear, consistent formulations about God attempted by systematic theology. Try as we may, the biblical history resists systematization (p. 40).
One might wonder why Oden writes this in the middle of a systematic theology. He rejoins:
Yet since the Bible wishes to address each hearer as a whole person, it invites and to some degree requires that each believer bring its loose ends together, to listen for its unity, and to try to see it integrally. In that sense the Bible invites systematic, cohesive thinking about its varied events and messages (pp. 40-41).
Good answer. Oden cautions that we do well not to pretend to be able to resolve the tension between the Bible’s inability to be easily systematized and its invitation to think about it cohesively. In other words, we do systematic theology with a constant awareness of its own limitations, because the Bible is history and story, not a systematic theology itself.
Oden’s ability to see the limitations of systematic theology is rooted in his accurate understanding of how God is revealed in the Scriptures:
In the Hebraic religion, God is known by what God does. What God does is remembered and recollected as history – the history of God’s encounter with humanity…That remains a constant frustration to our systematic attempts to get God safely boxed into our changing linguistic packages (pp. 40-41).
So God is revealed to us in story form. It’s not a made-up story like a fantasy fiction or a nursery tale. Rather, it is God’s direct interaction with humanity within history. Perhaps a personal insight will help me communicate the value of such an understanding.
I recall the days when for me, biblical hermeneutics was about correct application of the grammatical-historical principle for interpretation, and then application to modern day. “What did the Bible say then? What does it say to me now? How do I apply that?” As I operated on these three questions, it made much more sense to let the propositional truth statements be the key guide for interpretation, and the stories I relegated to illustrative material. After all, if we’re making an attempt at systematic theology, wouldn’t it make more sense to read the “objective truth statements” of Paul and use Abraham, Moses, Acts, and even the Gospel stories as illustrative material of the Pauline corpus? (Or the General Epistles, of course). So my sermons generally consisted of the exegesis of a few verses from a Letter with OT and NT biblical stories as illustrative material.
You’ve heard these sermons. Three propositional truth statements (with alliteration!), and a story to illustrate each point. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, so don’t think I’m picking on your pastor.
But when it comes to understand God and how He’s spoken to us, we need to let Him speak as He has chosen to speak, and not how we want him to. The way we handle St. Paul is a good example. We think of his letters as statements of propositional truth about God. Paul, however, built his theology the other way around, as Oden noted about Hebraic theology (“God is known by what God does.”) Paul did not start with a systematic theology of justification by faith and then tack on Abraham as an example or illustration. The Abraham story and its culmination in the Jesus story is the foundation of the doctrine. The story serves as the central point; justification by faith comes out of the story.
To press this further, I used to believe the Romans was a good example of a sort of early systematic theology. This was a terrible missing of the point. As systematic as Romans may seem (and is, compared to the other epistles), even Romans is built on the framework of the story from Genesis to Paul’s time. Creation-Fall-Redemption serves as the foundation of Romans. Paul is explaining the story.
It should be further noted that each epistle has its own story and context: the story of the humanity – the failures, questions, and struggles – of Peter, Paul, John, and their readers. Some of these stories can only be speculated about, and this should lead to some humility on the part of the 21st century exegete. But the key point is this: in each epistle, all those truth statements are St. Paul’s bringing the Jesus story to bear on the historically situated, very human stories of the churches to whom he is writing.
There is no question about it: this method makes theology harder. As Oden has noted, “History does not readily lend itself to systematic statement or definition” (p. 41; more on this subject in a coming post). But it yields deep rewards in understanding a God who doesn’t just shout truth from on high, but enters into our world and our stories himself as the truth.