“If God already knows my future actions, then do I really have freedom to do something different if I choose?” This is a question most Christians ask themselves at one time or another. It’s a tough one and I have no intention of trying to answer it today. I simply want to use it to point out one of the challenges every Christian faces. That challenge is part of the larger task of trying to figure out how all of the Bible teachings and facts fit together.
Our attempt to bring all the teachings of the Bible into a coherent, harmonious whole is called “systematic theology”. Now, those last two words may turn some of you off. When you think of systematic theology (if you’ve even heard the term), you think of thick academic books which only pastors read, and usually even they seldom crack open after seminary. What I want you to realize, though, is that all of us, do some sort of systematic theology. Our brains can’t help it. Whether or not you’ve ever read a theology book, you still have your own theology; otherwise known as your beliefs about God and the Bible. And, if you’re a believer in Jesus, your mind tries even harder to organize these beliefs in a way that makes sense. It’s difficult to live with and follow a collection of beliefs that are incoherent and contradictory.
I say all this to lay a proper foundation for what I want to discuss. The foundation is that systematic theology, first of all, is unavoidable. You may do it well, you may do it poorly, but everyone does it to some extent. Second, that this tendency to want a coherent, organized set of biblical beliefs, is useful and good. God is a God of truth and so we should expect Him to speak in coherent, consistent, non-contradictory ways. Therefore, it’s a worthy task to try and connect all the biblical dots in a way which makes sense.
Third, however, and this is the focus of today’s discussion: our attempt to fit biblical teachings into a consistent system is challenging and brings certain risks with it. It’s helpful to be aware of these risks as we seek to make sense of how Scripture fits together.
What are the risks involved when we do systematic theology?
Risk #1: We risk imposing a system on a book that was not written as a system
If the Bible had been written as a systematic theology it would have been carefully organized into categories with most, if not all, the critical questions discussed, harmonized, and explained in detail. It’s not put together that way. The Bible is a loosely collection of genres like poetry, history, law, and prophecy which are not tightly organized, and are written by a variety of individuals over a large number of years to a variety of cultures. This is not to say that it’s not coherent or inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that it’s like a puzzle with quite a few pieces left out. When we attempt to create a system, to put in the left-out pieces, we’re forced, as logically as possible, to add pieces that are, at best, only implied, but not stated. These pieces may be solid guesses, but they’re not inspired. This leads to a second risk:
Risk #2: We may elevate a theological system to the same level as the Bible
When I was young I often wondered why people kept coming out with new books on theology. If theology represented the Bible, though, then what was the need to write yet another book? Surely one book would be enough. But theology, systematic or not, is not the Bible. Theology is someone’s attempt to explain the Bible. Using their own filters, such as their background, their rules of interpretation, their academic skills, and so on, people fashion their understanding of Scripture. This itself, is not Scripture. It’s one step removed from the original text. If we don’t understand that Lutheranism, or Calvinism, Wesleyanism, or our particular “ism” is not the same as the Bible, this leads to a third risk:
Risk #3: We may hold our particular system with unwarranted rigidity
If I equate my “ism” with the Bible, then I will be tempted to see other theological systems as unbibiblical or even sinful. Now, I’m not denying that false theology or heresy exist. The Bible says that it does. And we must resist it. The key words here are “unwarranted rigidity.” This unwarranted rigidity may reveal itself in at least two ways. First, it’s shown when we accept our own system too uncritically. Every system needs healthy criticism. Nobody has it all figured out correctly Second, it’s shown when we’re overly critical of other systems; unwilling to learn from them or acknowledge their strengths.
Risk #4: We may distort Scripture in order to make our system work
This is my major criticism of systematic theologies. If a verse supports our system, we emphasize it. If it appears to contradict our system it’s easy for us to either ignore it, play it down, or find a creative way to reinterpret it. By “creative”, I mean, we interpret it in a way that is not the more obvious, normal reading of the text. Each major system has verses which seem to strongly support it and verses which seem to contradict it. Brilliant scholars, have, of course, found sophisticated ways to attempt resolution of these issues, however, the Bible was not written to brilliant scholars, but to ordinary people like you and me to whom these solutions probably would not have occurred.
Risk #5: We may refuse to accept legitimate mystery
By all means, we should use our minds to figure out everything we can about Scripture. But there are mysteries in the Bible which the human mind will not be able to resolve, at least with our present earthly limitations. The Trinity is one of these mysteries – how can there be three persons but only one God? How Divine sovereignty coordinates with human free will is another. Sometimes, the best answer to a tough theological question is: “I don’t know”. An unwillingness to say this may result in the biblical distortions I mentioned in the previous point.
So what I am suggesting as a solution – that we avoid systematic theology, or theology in general? As already mentioned, that isn’t feasible, nor is it advisable. Good theology matters. Mostly, I’m advocating that we be aware of the risks mentioned above and try to minimize them. Don’t be overly dependent on a system, good as it may be. You’re not primarily a Calvinist, Arminian, or Dispensationalist. You’re a Christian. Study the Bible for yourself. Read more widely than just your own group or personal beliefs. Be honest about texts that don’t fit neatly into your system. Allow for mystery. Keep your circle of fellowship as wide as legitimately possible. Be humble and teachable. One day, in Heaven, all of us will have our theology corrected in various ways. Our God is too infinite, deep and mysterious to fit neatly into any human system of belief. Aren’t you glad?