The Episcopal Church and systematic theology are divided.1 They have been for a long time, and there are reasons for this on both sides. The problem I’m going to focus on in this post is a belief that abstract theological statements—about the Trinity, for example, or what it means to say Jesus Christ is very God and very Man—are irrelevant to Christian life. I’ve heard this belief expressed in myriad ways. In church, it’s not uncommon to hear things like “it doesn’t matter whether your believe Jesus is divine, only that you follow his teachings.” This is a ‘life not doctrine’ approach. In seminary, it’s not uncommon to hear the question “when am I ever going to use this? It’s of no use for pastoral ministry.” This is a theory/practice distinction.
In this post, I’m going to argue that systematic theology is essential to Christian life, such that it is a mistake to prioritize life over doctrine, practice over theory. I am first going to describe what systematic theology is. I will then give both personal and practical reasons for its importance. I will end by suggesting some resources to help contemporary Christians begin to learn about modern systematic thought.
It is important to note that I am not claiming we should prioritize doctrine/theory over practice/life. The responses above are correct in what they are rejecting—the idea that ‘right’ belief apart from right practice is good in itself, or the idea that abstract theory can ignore concrete reality (though it is rare to find anyone who believes these things, and it pays to be suspicious of one’s arguments when few people believe what one is arguing against). I am instead going to argue that life cannot be lived apart from doctrine, that practice requires theory, and that systematic theology is as such integral to the life of the Church. This is not an original or controversial claim. But I think it worth making.
I am also going to focus primarily on the Trinity and the Incarnation in this post. These are not the sole subjects of systematic theology, and I don’t want to give the impression that the study of systematic theology is limited to these examples—I haven’t even touched on the Holy Spirt, after all.
What is Systematic Theology?
To begin, what is systematic theology? Broadly speaking, it is that element of theology which “offers a vision of the whole, a sense of how to bring together all the elements of Christian involvement into unity around an organizing center or center.”2 When it comes to orthodox Christian systematics, this means articulating how a series of seemingly incompatible statements can be believed at the same time. To give a few examples—God is One, but also three; Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, but the two natures do not blend; grace alone redeems and determines value, but human activity is still essential. Each element in each pair is immediately derivable from the Christian Scriptures, and each dyad seems inconsistent. The systematic tradition can be described as an attempt to articulate how these dyads can nonetheless be affirmed together.3
Within this, systematic theology is descriptive, not explanatory. This means that rather than explaining how or why things are the way they are, it tries to develop language which can best express a given state of affairs. It is thus closer to poetry than natural science. Theoretical physicists, for example, postulate explanatory models based on existing data, then develop hypotheses to test those models according to certain criteria of rationality.4 Systematic theologians instead attempt to express what it can mean for certain beliefs to be true, and so articulate the meaning of God’s existence in light of scripture. This doesn’t mean that theological claims cannot be critiqued, of course. It simply means that they must be critiqued by means other than empirical demonstration.
To say that systematic theology is descriptive rather than explanatory is then to say that it is concerned with concepts. Somewhat ironically, it is hard to define ‘concept’—but whatever the definition, concepts can be described as the mental tools used to understand what it is to be a given thing. We use the concept ‘tree,’ for example, to articulate what it means to be a tree, as well as to distinguish trees from non-trees. We use the concept ‘good’ to articulate what it is to be good, as well as to distinguish (among other things) good action from bad. To say that systematic theology attempts to express what it means for God to exist given the witness of Scripture then means that it seeks to develop concepts appropriate for describing God in light of that witness. The attempt to describe how Jesus is both human and divine, for example, requires us to interrogate and redevelop our concepts of ‘divine’ and ‘human’—not to mention our concept of ‘identity,’ expressed in ‘is.’5 This is a practice of internal critique.
This does not, however, mean that systematics has nothing to do with facts. On the contrary, conceptual investigation is prior to factual investigation, since concepts determine what we take a given fact to be. For example, systematicians might be analyzing concepts when they ask what it means for Jesus to be both human and divine—but these concepts determine what kind of ‘facts’ Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity are taken to be. The goal of most systematic theologies is to articulate concepts which are consistent with the simultaneity of these facts, which then shape our understanding of the world in which we have encountered God.
Nor does it mean that systematic theologicans cannot make constructive factual claims. When it comes to God, the facts are indeed usually treated as given—but how we express these characteristics of divine being has concrete implications for the character of this world. The way we understand the being of the creator will determine how we understand facts in creation; whether colonialism is an idolatrous usurpation of God’s rule, for example, or proof of Europe’s divinely sanctioned mission to the world. Conceptual description does ground factual claims, then, even if systematic theology is a descriptive rather than explanatory practice.
So, systematic theology is an attempt to give an account of Christian beliefs as a whole. It does so by exploring how certain beliefs taken from scripture can be described as cohering, and so takes the form of an investigation into how the concepts we use to express certain beliefs are determined by the supposition that these beliefs are all true. (I should say that this is very much my account of systematic theological thought, which can and should be contested. It should, as such, be taken with a pinch of salt. Even so, I think it is compelling nonetheless.)
Why is it Important?
At this point, one could reasonably ask: so what? Why do we need to cohere these beliefs? Why not just pick one and reject the other—say, choose Jesus’ humanity over his divinity, or God’s unity over God’s threeness?
My answer to this is personal, and begins with another question: do I believe the witness of Scripture regarding God? There is no right or wrong answer to this question—it is not a moral choice. Systematic theology is first of all important to me because I do believe this witness.
I can’t give a reason for this belief (if anyone wants to read how I converted to Christianity, I reflected on it here). It isn’t a belief one has to have. But do believe that the basic testimony of Scripture regarding God is true. And through this—though it never stops feeling bizarre to say it—I believe that Jesus is both human and divine, that Jesus died and was resurrected, that God is both three and one. This is not the only reason to pursue systematics, of course, whilst this belief does not motivate this pursuit. But in my life, the initial impetus for systematic theology follows from the fact I believe each of the claims above to be true.
In itself, this does not show that systematic theology is integral to the life of the Church. After all, it doesn’t follow from the fact one believes this witness of Scripture that one must cohere that witness—one could accept that these things are true, that they are mysterious, then leave things at that.
In response to this, we have noted that systematic theology is a descriptive, not an explanatory enterprise. One consequence of this is that it can never explain how these Christian beliefs are true. Systematic theologians can say that if God is both one and three, then this is how we can best describe the relationship between unity and multiplicity. But they cannot say how it is possible for God to be one in three, three in one—they cannot say what makes this possible or how it is effected. Instead of explaining the mystery, then, systematic theologians aim to describe how mystery shapes the concepts we use to express it.
Similarly, God’s transcendence is a consistent theme of Scripture (despite accusations of anthropomorphism). If we are committed to describing Jesus’ double nature as a coherent whole, then, we should likewise be committed to the fact that our description can only be provisional—a response to something in itself ungraspable, rather than the grasping of God’s being. Though systematic theology aims at coherence and completeness, then, it cannot aim at finality. That is to say, the completeness sought is internal, not external: theologians seek to say all that they (and we as human beings) can say, not everything that is the case.
I am now going to give a positive argument for thinking that systematic theology is integral to the life of the Church. I have claimed that systematic theology is primarily concerned with concepts. This may seem hopelessly abstract, but it is not—concepts are woven into and direct every aspect of conscious human life, and so conceptual investigation is of practical importance.
This is not always obvious, since we take our most basic concepts for granted. Imagine, however, a five year old—one who has not yet been taught what either a circle or a square is—with five shaped blocks in front of them; two squares, three circles. If you ask them to pick out the square blocks, they won’t be able to. This is because they don’t have a concept ‘square.’
Imagine again two individuals faced with a choice: they must choose either to give $1000 to an art museum or a homeless shelter, and they are told they must make the choice which supports the greatest good. One person has been taught their whole life that the arts are the highest good, one has been taught the relief of homelessness is. They make different choices, but both give the same reasoning: I made the choice which supports the greatest good. This difference is grounded in the fact that they have different fundamental concepts of goodness—a difference which I’m pretty sure structures a great many human conflicts.6
These are thought experiments, but concrete examples are easy to find. Of the people reading this, many of you have likely felt inadequate at some point in your life. On some level, however this feeling will be grounded in a belief that you failed to meet some measure of value (whether spoken or implicit). And this measure will be grounded in a concept of what it is to be good enough, whether in general or in a specific situation.
Most of you will also have had arguments with people where it seems as if you‘re talking different languages, even as you use the same words—arguments where communication becomes impossible and hurt is the only result. I would place good money that a difference in concepts lay behind these arguments, a difference hidden by the fact you were both using the same words. That is to say, your interlocutor had a different concept of what was being argued about, one which motivated different conclusions from ostensibly identical premises, and because this difference was left unspoken, no sense could be made of anything.
On a much more general level, whenever we decide to do anything, concepts guide our decisions. When we intend to drive a car, this is because we have the concepts ‘car’ and ‘drive.’ When we seek to show love, this is because have a particular concept of what love is and how it is to be shown. When things go wrong, moreover—when our plans have unforeseen and negative consequences—it can easily be because our concepts were wrong. Love is a hideously distorted concept, for example, one bound up by logics of need and possession.7 When the feeling of love is refracted through a distorted concept (and it must always be refracted through some concept), it can become destructive without any ill intent whatsoever. Even the expression of a visceral feeling is informed by a concept of some kind.
Finally, concepts are bound up in wider systems of power. We learn concepts through social training, and training in society is patterned by particular hierarchies of value—hierarchies which prototypically map onto hierarchies of people. The language of systematic racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia is becoming common currency at the moment. What is less appreciated is that our most basic concepts are gears in these systems. Whenever we pursue self-reflection through conceptual analysis, then, the recognition that we are conceptual selves must go hand in hand with the recognition that concepts function within systems—systems which can be either life-giving, death-dealing, or both.
Given all this, we can say that practical problems have conceptual roots, and that these concepts are bound up in systems of social power. In order to navigate these problems, one must be clear about the concepts in play. This is one reason why the theory/practice distinction doesn’t make much sense: theory just is lived practice, even as it emerges from practical training.
It is now possible to argue why systematic theology is integral to the life of the Church. Let us suppose that each of the statements above is true—and let us suppose that in order to express this truth, we must allow these beliefs to structure the concepts with which they are expressed. Our concept of humanity, for example, must be fundamentally informed by the fact that Jesus was very God and very human. Our concept of identity must be informed by Chalcedon’s expression of Christ as one person with two natures, neither separated nor confused. And our concepts of who we are must be fundamentally shaped by our description of who Jesus is. If we take these beliefs about Jesus to be true, then we can—without too much arrogance—say that this at least partly constitutes a good way for our concepts to be.8
This kind of conceptual analysis can shape the life of a Church. One way or another, our concepts of God shape our concepts of ourselves and others. It is possible to have bad concepts of God. And when practiced right, systematic theology can make a kind of reflection possible within which the concepts most fundamental to our senses of self are illuminated and reformed (or perhaps affirmed). Responding directly to the concerns I’ve heard regarding systematic theology, then: Jesus’ divinity and God’s triunity matter because our concepts of God shape our concepts of ourselves and others. These latter concepts in turn determine how we treat both ourselves and others, and so the pattern of life in all its complexity. Far from being separate from lived experience, doctrine shapes life—one way or another.
The connections need to be made, of course. The question will always be ‘if God is God, then who are we?’—but the relationship between concepts used to express God’s being and our own senses of self are not always clear. I think this is one of the biggest problems inside the academy, where it’s easy to forget that relationships which seem obvious are unclear at best, deeply implausible at worst.
For my money, these are two of the most important connections between the concepts we use to express God’s being and the concepts we use in our daily life. First, the concepts developed in systematic theology can reshape our idea of what a concept has to be. In terms of expression, this is about as abstract as it gets—but it is of paramount practical importance. When we conceptualize basic things, like trees and love, it’s easy to think we need to pick out particular qualities which necessitate something’s being a tree or being love; qualities which demarcate the essence of a thing. And though this method is quite correct in certain contexts (the natural sciences, for example), it is downright destructive in others. Think in terms of what it is to be a member of a particular community, and the concepts used to express that membership. Think especially of the concept ‘American,’ which has been used so much recently. Beneath the content of this concepts, a formal structure does the destructive work—whatever the qualities of an ‘American’ might be, there are certain qualities which necessarily pick Americans out, and so constitute membership of a moral community. The doctrine of the Trinity is a challenge to any attempt at articulating general concepts in this way. By expressing God’s being as co-constituted by multiplicity in unity, it shows that the ground of being is not just unitary, not just uniform, but is also essentially multiple. As such, we cannot uniformity as the absolute criterion of conceptual—or communal—adequacy. (This is the slight irony in progressive affirmations of neo-Arianism: Nicea’s statement that the Son is both of one being with and not subordinate to the Father is a denial that the divine must be ‘One’ in any simple way. And this unsettling of unitariness as constitutive of being is a powerful tool against oppressive communal self-definition.)
Secondly, systematic theology can reshape our concept of what it is to be a human self. The definition of Chalcedon is one of the most rationally brilliant rearticulations of what it means to be a human subject the world of thought has ever seen, a fact which makes its denigration as a piece of primitive superstition all the more galling (c.f. anytime the divinity of Christ is dismissed out of hand). In positing Christ as very God and very human without admixture or separation, the human is cast as capable of determination by God without ever needing to be as God, and God’s transcendence is shown to be no barrier to God’s immanence. Even as we are utterly distinct from divine being, then, we are not enclosed in ourselves. As such, the kind of selves we are cannot be utterly self-sufficient, but neither do they need to be—human self-hood is constituted by an inner incompleteness properly understood as openness, both to others and to God. This openness can be parsed in terms of both the inherent plasticity, multiplicity, and dignity of human persons and the proper preservation of these features through divine sovereignty. As such, our concepts of ourselves as subject to God as Lord must be structured by these qualities. (This is included in the work of theological anthropology, and has been explored by Eboni Marshall Turman in Womanist Ethics of the Incarnation, as well as Kathryn Tanner in Christ the Key.)
Finally, the most dangerous topics of original sin and predestination are of fundamental importance to how we conceptualize value in our lives. I do not have time to fully broach these subjects in this post, or it would run to 10,000 words. But one way or another, these fearful doctrines play a substantial role in our modern lives, and it is important to get clear about what that role is.
These reflections are themselves abstract, of course. They become concrete in application—when reflection on Chalcedon’s reconstitution of self-hood and Nicea’s impact on communal existence is worked out by real human selves. This post cannot therefore contain answers for what systematic theology will ultimately do in ecclesial communities.
All the same, we can assert the following. Conceptual analysis is integral to practice, since practice is conceptually determined. Systematic theology is the discipline by which we seek to describe Christian truths as a coherent whole, and so how the supposition of these truths informs the concepts that shape our practice. If, then, we wish to pursue conceptual analysis as a part of our spiritual life, and to do so in light of Christian faith, systematic theology can serve this purpose.
To conclude: there is a divide between systematic theology and the Church, grounded in part by a belief that systematic theology is irrelevant to life. Given that systematic theology explores how Christian beliefs inform the concepts used to express them as it tries to affirm them at the same time, and given that concepts are fundamental to our practice, systematic theology can be integral to how we live our lives as Christians—helping us to navigate and reform the conceptual roots of both our joys and sorrows. Systematic theology is thus essential to the life of the Church.
Finally, we have seen that concepts make practice possible—it is impossible to intend to do something that one cannot conceptualize. Or, in Tanner’s words, “what one can think … sets limits on what one can think of doing.”9 On the basis that systematic theology can lead to a reformulation of concepts, it can help us think new thoughts. As such, it can open up new possibilities for Christian action. It is a good in itself, then, to pursue inquiry into how we can best express who the God of Scripture is, then asking ‘if God is God, who are we?’ But this inquiry can also help us answer an interrelated question in new ways: ‘if God is God, what shall we do next?’
If this has been in any way convincing, you might be left with a further question—where is the best place to begin? After all, a great deal of systematic theology these days is wrapped up in the academy, written in a language impenetrable outside academia (my apologies if this post fits this pattern). My recommendation would be to begin with Kathryn Tanner’s Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, which is an accessible and rigorous introductory example of systematic thought. It’s affordable, short, and perfect for a Church book group. I also believe that every Episcopalian (among others) should read her The Politics of God. Both of these texts then provide resources for pursuing further study throughout the history of systematic thought. The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology contains authoritative overviews of pretty much every aspect of this kind of study, whilst Hans Frei’s Types of Christian Theology then lays out a more generative way of describing different types of systematic theology than typical ‘conservative/liberal’ or ‘orthodox/heterodox’ binaries. And beyond this, Eboni Marshall Turman’s Womanist Ethics of the Incarnation (mentioned above) and Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination are both perfect examples of how theology can reframe the concepts which ground systemic suffering. I should say that Tanner, Jennings, and Turman are all at YDS, so I’m a bit biased towards them—but their books are all incredible all the same.
- I’m going to be talking about Christian systematic theology throughout this post, even though not using the qualifier. This should not be taken to mean that there are no systematic theologies outside of Christian faith! ↩
- Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and Trinity, xiii ↩
- This is, of course, an account of orthodox systematic theology—at least, systematics which attempts to affirm the claims of conciliar orthodoxy. This does not, however, mean that this orthodoxy negates rational critique of the development of doctrine. Though it has always played a normative role of some kind in at least some spheres of systematic thought, this has typically been taken as providing the initial conditions for rational inquiry, not its foreclosure. As opposed to imposing doctrine through authority, then, systematics has typically served as a way of internally critiquing Christian understandings of those doctrines (this is Rowan Williams’ account of orthodoxy). I should also say that I am here locating systematic theology within mainstream orthodox thought. I am of the personal opinion that this is how it should be practiced, but it is not that case that systematic theology cannot be heterodox—if a theologian writes under the assumption that God is not triune but tries to systematically articulate this, it is a still a systematic theology. ↩
- My apologies if this is an unforgivably crude description! I think the basic idea holds water, but am unsure if this is the best way of expressing it. ↩
- Though there are different approaches to this, it is my belief that one should allow one’s concepts to be shaped by the Biblical narrative as far as possible. There are a morass of issues in this, not least how one determines what the Biblical narrative is. But one fairly clear rule of thumb is this: to read the texts under the assumption that the author is trying to say what they mean. When Matthew writes that Peter said Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” for example, we must not read these words as hinting at some other meaning than Peter’s saying Jesus Christ is the Son of the God of Israel (an experience of existential balance, for example, or an expression that Jesus represents the highest moral possibility of humanity). ↩
- This is actually a common scenario as people decide where to leave money in their wills. ↩
- Seriously, listen to any given love song on the radio, and listen for whether the love is expressed in terms of wanting, desiring, or possessing a person—as opposed to trying to promote their happiness and their flourishing as they wish it to be promoted. If you find the latter, you’re listening to very different radio stations to me. ↩
- There is always a risk of Christian chauvinism, here, within which those without Christian concepts cannot have correct concepts at all—or those without orthodox concepts. The response to this is that a belief in the truth of these concepts should not collapse into a belief that this is the only way to this truth. They are such a way, and they are unique in their way. Religions are not simply interchangeable, and they do not at root all say the same thing. But within this, difference in content need not entail an absolute difference in truth. ↩
- Kathryn Tanner, The Politics of God, ix ↩