Meditation on systematic theology as a course

As with patriotism, one of the problems with systematic theology is that we attach our firm beliefs to its highest achievements. We gaze longingly at the highest points of the theological edifice, the great dogmata of the church, as though God put them there -- as though their glory were God's own. No such illusion is possible to the construction worker, even if the architects read too much of their own press. Only the foundation does not shake, does not fail, does not fall. Trust only the foundation -- believe God, not theology. Work on theology; understand how very much of it needs to be repaired or refurbished or replaced on a too-regular basis. It may be the Christian faith, but only in the way that the 5:15 train is the 5:15 train -- that is, independent of its material constitution. Our faith is in God, as a necessary presupposition of theological work, or we rise and fall with the fallible materials of today's edifice. The train comes and goes because it is promised that it will, regardless of which cars, what crew, what engine, how much fuel, &c. happen to be involved in this run. We trust only the promise, not the train itself. If the train fails one day, we do not stop riding the train thenceforth -- someone fixes the train so that it meets the promise again.

This class is not about your belief -- not essentially, anyways. In point of fact, you can play this game without believing. At that point, we call it philosophy, or metaphysics. But this class presumes that you do believe, and that you will have charge over others who likewise believe. What this class does not presume is that the knowledge of what that belief entails is self-explanatory. It does not because it cannot -- because it cannot be presumed that faith naturally makes sense. That sensibility is highly sought-after, and all of us make some kind of bargain, some tradeoff between faith and intelligibility. Systematic theology is the art of making the best of that bargain today, and continuing to look for a better bargain tomorrow. Only, you must prioritize what is better, which balance point provides an equilibrium with which you -- and those who hear you -- can best live. Be prepared going in to be wrong, and to change your mind, as you seek those balances. Follow your faith, and the faith of those around you, and let it guide your searching.

Church history is full of options on the balance between faith and intelligibility. We have even prioritized some over others -- orthos doxa vs. hairesis. Right opinion versus the choice of something else. This division is all about the balance of intelligibility against faith. Heresy is that step too far toward what would make sense to us, overbalancing the given truth of God. Ironically, orthodoxy has become a bad word today precisely because it becomes heretical, because it refers to periods in the life of the church when what seemed right enjoyed unquestioned paradigmatic dominance, developed along its own lines, and stagnated because it failed to attend to the ground truth of God. It is dangerous to play too far above the foundation, to trust too much in the made materials of human doxa and build too high on them. Learn the history not only for its successes, but also its failures. Know the balances that have been struck across its extent, and why they worked or failed in their contexts. Understand where, when and who you are, and try the balances for yourself. Properly understood, this is not a game that ever ends. The end of attention to the balance, of attention to God along with intelligibility, is the beginning of heresy.

You will fail. We are all heretics. Remember why you are saved, and that your theology is not it. Strengthen yourself in the sacraments, the grace of God given and shared. Get up and play the game again.


  1. I love me some heresy!!! I found myself helping 1st year MDiv students with their biblical exegesis papers last year. Everyone was trying to prove their beliefs, so much to the point that I literally said, "This is not about Truth, this is about evidence. Truth is for your faith, but here you must weigh the evidence. And hopefully, you are open enough to sometimes changing your mind about the Truth.


  2. Yeah, we don't get as much Truth as most people think. Especially in biblical studies. Which is why so much of orthodoxy turns into safeguarding dogmatic opinions about the truth of scripture against investigation. Which is how you and I got to be in two separate divisions!


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