Explorations in Systematic Theology

This is Vanhoozer quoting Miroslav Volf on the practical implications of studying systematic theology. “Miroslav Volf rightly says that ‘at the heart of every good theology lies not simply a plausible intellectual vision but more important a compelling account of a way of life.’ The ultimate purpose of theology is not to produce pristine systems but ‘to serve a way of life.’ To be precise, Christian theology serves the way of Christian discipleship by striving to understand God’s own way in our world, what Barth calls ‘the way of the Son into the far country‘. In short, theology is the attempt to understand and respond to God’s story. Only recently, since the 1980’s, has systematic theology seriously grappled with the implications that Scripture is less a storehouse of facts than a realistic narrative that renders personal identity: of God, Jesus Christ and Christians.

Systematic theology cannot properly make sense of narrative with the tools of linguistic and conceptual analysis only. Reading Scripture theologically needs imagination, ‘the faculty which makes sense of things, locating particular bits and pieces within larger patterns’. Whereas analytic exegesis breaks Scripture up into fragments, the imagination is more synthetic; its business is to grasp the pattern of the whole. Moreover, to the extent that theology serves a way of life, imagination locates everyday reality withing biblical text. To live so that the biblical world is one’s primary interpretative framework is an imaginative, practical and spiritual enterprise. As I argue below, facilitating that kind of interpretation is the true aim, and glory, of systematic theology.


3 responses to “Explorations in Systematic Theology

  1. christopherlake

    I agree with Volf and Vanhoozer that theology is more about “a way of life” than about simply “pristine systems.” Systems which are logically airtight, yet don’t actually affect our thinking and living, are worthless, in terms of what the Bible means when it speaks of truly *knowing* God. However, in agreeing with these brothers, I also want to point to the need to be careful in how we speak and think about the issues of fact and narrative. Scripture is both a “storehouse of facts” *and* a “realistic narrative that renders personal identity: 0f God, Jesus Christ, and Christians.” The factual and narrative aspects of the Bible are each crucially important, and one should not emphasized at the expense of the other. Even more, these aspects should never be set against each other (not that you intended to do this at all, Bryan– I know that that is not your heart, and I’m thankful to you for spurring us to think deeply about these issues). Perhaps, in the past, some of our brothers and sisters in the church (universal) have treated the factuality of the Bible in a way that was correct, and yet, missed some of the overall point of the story of the Bible.

    However, we must be careful not to overcorrect the mistakes of the past. The thing is, the facts of the Bible aren’t *only* facts. They are glorious, beautiful, and yes, historical facts (space/time truths) which change *everything, absolutely everything* for lost people who cannot save themselves. We must be careful not to even appear to set the factuality of the Bible against the “narrative” of the Bible, because the narrative is an objectively factual one– one which, again, changes *everything.* Therefore, there is no place in the Christian life for facts which don’t change our lives. There is also no place for facts isolated from the context(s) which give those facts *meaning* and *sense.* The ultimate context, obviously, is that the Bible is authored by God Himself, the personal Ground of all Truth and Meaning, revealing Himself in His word to His people, in the past (in terms of the historical stories in the Bible) and in the present (as we read it today, illuminated to understanding by the Holy Spirit and by hard study). The Bible is a story, but it is *valuable,* ultimately, because it is a *true* story, given to us by the Source and Ground of Truth Himself. As Francis Schaeffer said so welll, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital ‘T.’ Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality– and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

  2. Chris,

    Thanks so much brother on your thoughts on this matter. I will preface by stating that I agree with everything that you stated in your comment. I think that there might be a tendency to lean to far to the factuality side or even to sway to far to the narrative side, what is needed is a healthy balance. I don’t think that Volf was trying to diminish the the factuality side of interpretation and study, but rather embrace both systematics and biblical theology to set the tenor application, that being biblically thinking and living. There is a pseudo war going on with systematicians and biblical theologians at the present time, but I pray we as followers of Christ would embrace both biblical and systematic theology as they both work together to only further our understanding of the Word and Glory of God. Truly as you stated everything contained in the scriptures are glorious and ought to change our interpretation and lens to life.

  3. christopherlake

    Thanks for the response, brother Bryan! It seems so strange to me that systematic theologians and biblical theologians should be in any kind of pseudo-war– they are explaining the same Biblical truth(s), from different angles, framed in different ways. Both forms of theology are very helpful and important. Hopefully, if any real competition and/or acrimony exists between the “advocates” (for lack of a better word) of the two ways of thinking, they can be resolved by remembering the common bond of all Christians in Christ Himself, as revealed in God’s word!

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