What does it mean for us to do systematic theology?

That might be a nice philosophical or methodological question, but I mean it as a paedagogical one right now. Since we're back to school again, the question was asked "what could we be doing better in Advanced Studies?" A persistent refrain from those of us in the nominally systematic theology division was that actual systematic theology is not being taught at our level. Related beside that is the question of whether we're teaching enough courses in the division to support our students, but even that comes back to what is, and isn't, being taught. Many of us go elsewhere to fill in our needs in basic and solid theological education, balancing out the otherwise excellent selection of topical courses and specializations. We teach courses called Systematic Theology to the ministry students, and follow their practical ministerial formation with a course called Constructive Theology, but these are oriented toward introduction to the loci and consolidation of theological awareness into usable forms. Only as a TA for these courses is it really possible to get educated in how to teach them. Even then, I'm not sure we're turning out teachers whose desire is to teach dogmatics as a constructive and beneficial theological framework. So, what does it mean for half of the division nomenclature to be explicitly "systematic theology"?

One aspect of the problems underlying this, especially at this school, is the sense that the motion toward reconceiving theology as a particularized field of contextual disciplines has deprecated traditional dogmatics. The more I read, the more I see this as a reference-frame error. Up close, we see motion and understand it in a straight line. Farther away, I think this really looks like a pendulum, as with so many other fields. We have been in a correction reaction for a very long time, moving from the universalization of one perspective toward the reality of plural particular perspectives. The fact that dogmatics has been done by the dominant and universalizing perspectives, and that dogmata have been used by them as tools of marginalization, has not stopped the theologians of marginalized perspectives from returning to the task of dogmatic or systematic theology out of the fullness of their distinctive communal identities. It has simply been the case that getting out from under the domination of perspective takes generations of effort -- simply to be valid selves outside of the mythos of normative sociological orthodoxy. Certainly there are reactionary movements to drag the pendulum back toward encompassing sociological and dogmatic orthodoxy and hold it there. However, when it swings of its own accord, theology does not return to the same position. It can't -- everything has moved around it. As ever, it remains an enterprise in building the larger meaning of the faith for us, building a representative structure from which we can draw usable conclusions that allow us to live and work in our relationship with God. But precisely because of that, doing dogmatics or systematic theology now means something different than it did before. Discard constructions that don't work, but by no means discard the knowledge of construction itself. The fruit ripen, fall away, and rot, and they should. But if all we are left with is various stages of rotting fruit because we have cut down the tree, then it is no wonder that so much of theology looks like a food fight. We haven't taught how to plant, nurture and grow better trees.

Since our division faculty is mostly liberation-oriented at the moment, it is understandable that we teach that aspect of the field. However, when asked what our emphasis is in systematic theology, I should not be stuck answering that we do two disparate things: classic (historical) dogmatics through the lens of the Lutheran confessional traditions, and liberation theology. (At a Lutheran seminary, I will let you guess which is the elective emphasis. Because of our populations, this reverses at the upper levels.) It is certainly unique and interesting that our Constructive syllabi aim toward the integration of these two areas, and I believe in the idea of Lutheran theology as a fundamentally liberating enterprise (so did Luther!), but that does not make it pedagogy for autonomous systematic construction of a theological perspective. And it could be made so! We don't teach hermeneutics in the "theology" division, as a practice of living into and living out of the corpus of Christian theology in a faithful and selective way. To be sure, we inculcate one particular theological hermeneutic, but while I may even agree with it I see its divisiveness in the reactions of our student body, a disproportionate microcosm of the reactions of the larger church. You may be able through law to enforce compliant action, and the dogmata of all sides are engaged in that attempt, but throwing entrenched hermeneutical perspectives and their doctrines at one another is no solution that enables life.

I may be accused of teaching the master's tools for building the master's house, but I'm not sure that we aren't still teaching people simply to live (however uncomfortably) in the master's house as it is. Improved interior decoration, even to the extent of rearranging walls, is not the same as building a better house. It's a step in the right direction, but any and every dwelling may be a place in which the Master resides. That discretion is God's alone, without respect for human opinion. I'd rather send out workers into the creation with tools and the ability to use available materials to build appropriate dwellings that respect the relationship between God and creation.

What do I mean by tools? I want theory and praxis, in the same way that we teach it in pastoral care. And it is fair to say that for the ministerial students, we have made their ministerial formation experiences theological opportunities, such that every time they come back, they have had a chance to see what theologies do to and in and for the minds and hearts of people. We have given them the tools to make theology pastorally useful, and I am proud of my classmates whose hearts and hands and feet have been their theological lenses. It is my goal to be a theologian for the life of the church, but where are we teaching that? My classmates from the mission fields know more about it than I do. But they aren't interested in dogmatics. They're interested in what works. (Note which category I fall into.) I, too, am interested in what works, but my field is not a parish, be it here or elsewhere. It's one thing to teach theology as the theory for which ministry is praxis. It's another to teach it as the theory for which dogmatics is praxis. To teach the material and at the same time teach the methodology, and to put candidates in the position of working with real ecclesial theological life. Tools, material, and the experience in a faithful environment to discover what works and how it works in real life. Dogmatics is only a theoretical science because we have divorced ourselves from the world. We fear to be practical dogmatic theologians because the exercise of dogma has been what the powerful have made it for so long. The practice of understanding and describing our faith is not a question of enforcement, the victory of the dead fruit over the living tree, but of attentive cultivation of the churches along the path of life that follows the Spirit. And it is happening, even if we do not teach it. To be faithful and practical dogmatic theologians we must teach it.

Odd as it sounds, I want a systematic theology division that looks like a Bible division. Our corpora may look different, even when you keep in mind that we should hold scripture in common, but what we are doing in Biblical theology is the foundation of the systematic task. Interpretation, the uncovering of meaning, the determinations to be made about application, our quest for best approximations of truth, these are common. 20th Century Theology and 8th Century Prophets are not so different at heart, and Gadamer and Ricoeur were performing a task that is as central to the SBL as the AAR. I believe in the value of courses in the material and courses in the methods, best when combined. And perhaps this is the reason that I belong at a seminary and not a divinity school, but I believe most strongly in the value of the processes within and between churches -- these are the places where what and how we believe are tested, and the places from which we can best take our sense of praxis as dogmatic theologians. If we are going to teach people to build livable theological frameworks, we need all of this, and this is the best model I have for it.


  1. It occurs to me on rereading my words that this seems to be on the edge of scathing critique. Which was not truly the intention. We do so much right, but so often it seems off to the side from what I understand as the curriculum. We do many of the things I desire done, but not in codified sequences. And part of this may simply be that what I want to do with my doctorate differs from the major emphases of my seminary, in which I am otherwise profoundly well nourished.


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