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date: 11 November 2019

Introduction: Systematic Theology

Abstract and Keywords

The theological discipline to which this Handbook is devoted is variously identified as Christian doctrine, dogmatics, or systematic theology. It is characterized by a measure of internal contestation. The contests are generally of two kinds: material, that is, contests about the content of Christian claims to reality, which are the matter upon which systematic theology goes to work; and formal, that is, contests about the task, modes, and structure of systematic theology. This article deals with the formal elements of the discipline. The discussion here provides a skeletal account of the genesis and development of the discipline and helps place in context contemporary contests about its nature and tasks.

Keywords: dogmatics, Christian doctrine, systematic theology, God

The theological discipline to which this handbook is devoted is variously identified as Christian doctrine, dogmatics, or systematic theology. There is no firmly established usage of these terms; a preference for one or other of them is often arbitrary. Of the three, ‘Christian doctrine’ is the most general and descriptive, indicating that the field of inquiry is Christian teaching, but making no prescriptions about what might count as normative Christian teaching or about the form which an account of it might take. ‘Dogmatics’ is often, though not exclusively, used to denote the rather more determinate study and exposition of dogma, that is, of authorized church teaching; it is somewhat less current in contemporary theology, especially in English. ‘Systematic theology’, on the other hand, is broader in compass than dogmatics, if the latter is taken to be concerned with teaching which has acquired ecclesial definition and approval, since systematic theology occupies itself more generally with Christian claims about reality. Further, as the adjective suggests, ‘systematic’ theology is especially interested in the scope, unity, and coherence of Christian teaching. Finally, systematic theology is often a preferred term for those accounts of Christian teaching which are especially concerned to coordinate their subject matter with what is held to be true outside the sphere of Christian faith. However, such clarifications of the terms do not always correspond to their actual deployment by particular theologians; in any specific case, use (p. 2) determines meaning. The choice of ‘systematic theology’ for the title of this handbook simply reflects its wide contemporary currency and its inclusiveness.

The subject matter which is engaged in systematic theological inquiry is Christian teaching, that is, Christian claims about reality. Systematic theology attempts a conceptual articulation of Christian claims about God and everything else in relation to God, characterized by comprehensiveness and coherence. It seeks to present Christian teaching as a unified whole; even though particular exercises in the genre (such as the chapters of this handbook) may restrict themselves to only one or other element of Christian doctrine, they have an eye for its place in the entire corpus. The shape of a comprehensive and coherent account of Christian claims, as well as the lineaments of the particulars, depend upon judgements reached about the sources, norms, and ends of systematic theology, and about its relation to other spheres of intellectual activity. With respect to sources, practitioners of systematic theological work make judgements about where to look for instantiations of or raw material for Christian teaching. Such instantiations would include texts judged to be of enduring substance and authority (scripture, the ecumenical creeds, confessional documents); the theological, liturgical, and spiritual traditions of Christian self-articulation; the practices of whatever are taken to be normative strands of the church; or Christian religious experience. Judgements about sources, however, go hand-in-hand with acceptance of norms, that is, criteria by which decisions may be reached about which sources furnish the most authentic, reliable, and persuasive Christian teaching (a norm is a source to which preponderant authority is accorded). Judgements about sources and norms are, in turn, bound up with judgements about the proper end of a systematic account of Christian teaching, that is, about the aims and audiences of the undertaking. Is systematic theological work primarily directed internally, to order ecclesial disarray, to reinforce or repudiate some aspect of Christian self-expression, whether theoretical or practical, to promote reappraisal and revision of existing patterns of belief? Or is it primarily directed externally, as defensive, apologetic, or missionary self-explication contra Gentiles, seeking to chasten or perhaps entice the cultured despisers of Christian teaching? Judgements about the end or orientation of systematic theology involve decisions about its relation to the work of reason in other fields, especially those which enjoy intellectual prestige or which are considered to be contiguous with Christian theology, such as philosophy or history. Finally, all of these judgements are shaped by, and often shape, a construal of the material content of Christian teaching.

Because the work of systematic theology requires these various discriminations, it is—like any other sphere of intellectual inquiry possessed of historical duration and material depth—characterized by a measure of internal contestation. The contests are generally of two kinds: material, that is, contests about the content of Christian claims to reality which are the matter upon which systematic theology goes to work; and formal, that is, contests about the task, modes, and structure of (p. 3) systematic theology. Our concern in this chapter is with the formal elements of the discipline, leaving later chapters to treat material matters—bearing in mind, however, that separating out material and formal scarcely does justice to their coinherence in what are commonly taken to be the most commanding representative works of systematic theology. Before entering the discussion, however, a skeletal account of the genesis and development of the discipline will help place in context contemporary contests about its nature and tasks.

I. History

Conceptual reconstruction of Christian teaching is a post-apostolic enterprise. The texts of the apostolic period which established themselves as the New Testament canon are not concerned for systematic order or conceptual regularity. Some New Testament materials, notably the Pauline corpus, the Fourth Gospel, and the Letter to the Hebrews, deploy elaborate patterns of conceptual argument in the course of articulating the Christian gospel and its requirements, but even these writings are occasional, serving didactic, paraenetic, or polemical purposes and lacking significant interest in speculative entailments (such as the reconstruction of the doctrine of God required by the confession of a triune pattern in God's saving operations). They do not attempt a comprehensive presentation of Christian teaching, and their unity is that given by common attention to saving events rather than unity at a formal, conceptual level.

Early Christian literature from the period after the apostles does not recognize the distinctions between exegetical, doctrinal, moral, and practical-pastoral theology familiar in modern divisions of theological labour, and to a casual glance the texts of this period in which Christian teaching is expounded present themselves as unschematic and at times random. The impression indicates not so much a lack of intellectual rigour on the part of the authors of these texts as a conception of the nature and genres of Christian doctrine which differs substantially from those which emerged much later in the history of theology. Early post-apostolic explications of doctrine, undertaken primarily for the purposes of edification or combating heresy, generally adopt some variant of the commentarial or expository genre, though not without a measure of thematic organization (even here, however, the exegetical element bears the load, as in Irenaeus' Against Heresies). Similarly, Clement of Alexandria's construal of the Christian faith in his Miscellanies in terms of the pedagogical work of the divine Logos yields only a very loosely structured set of reflections (Clement himself calls his work ‘promiscuously variegated’ (Miscellanies 6.1, in Roberts and Donaldson 1990: ii. 480)). A firmer (p. 4) thematic ordering emerges in Origen's On First Principles, which follows a sequence of God, the world, freedom, and scripture, with other topics such as the soul, angels, incarnation, and eschatology (sometimes awkwardly) inserted. Origen's ordering of the material of Christian teaching was adapted and supplemented in, for example, John of Damascus' On the Orthodox Faith, in which topical treatments are fitted into a sequence roughly following the order of God's acts in the economy: creation, redemption, and perfection. For other patristic writers such as Augustine (both in On Faith and the Creed and in the Enchiridion), the order of the Apostles' Creed offers a basic narrative-topical order for the exposition of Christian teaching.

The more settled organization of Christian teaching into doctrinal topics owes much to Lombard's Sentences, which divides the material into a (to moderns) more recognizable sequence: God, creation, humankind, sin, incarnation, salvation, sacraments, eschatology. Something of the same pattern can be found in Bonaventure's Breviloquium. Although Aquinas's Summa theologiae is rhetorically and argumentatively different from earlier texts because of its use of Aristotelian methods of analysis, and shows much greater interest in the speculative entailments of Christian teaching, its fundamental structure reflects the Christian kerygma's concern for God in relation to creatures. Like the Sentences, the summa genre does not necessarily entail complete systematization and the hypertrophy of concepts arrived at by speculative deduction; it may, in fact, be an informal and less ambitious summarization, categorization, and extension of Christian teaching—though these limitations were not always reflected in the traditions of commentary evoked by both Lombard and Aquinas.

In many respects, the doctrinal work of the magisterial reformers recalls earlier modes of expounding Christian teaching, in that it takes the form of extensive biblical commentary or polemical and hortatory works in which doctrine is not so much a discrete interest as an ingredient of practical divinity. Even in more formal presentations of doctrine, there is little attempt at systematic completeness, and a marked hesitancy towards (which sometimes becomes a fierce repudiation of) the speculative accretions which had grown up around the Sentences in particular. In this connection, the strict practical minimalism of Melanchthon's Loci communes, which in its original 1521 edition does not address apparently speculative topics such as Trinity or incarnation, is characteristic, along with Zwingli's True and False Religion (though elsewhere, such as in his handling the doctrine of providence, Zwingli gives evidence of considerable speculative powers). Even in its elaborated 1559 edition, Calvin's Institutes is to be set in the same company; its selection of topics, its proportions, and its modes of argument and appeal are shaped not by systematic considerations but by a sense of which aspects of the biblical gospel require highest profile in meeting the demands of Christian nurture and the defence of the church.

Accounts of Christian teaching begin to assume a form more readily recognizable as systematic theology only in the post-Reformation period of doctrinal and (p. 5) confessional consolidation. There are a number of signs of this: increasing attention to theological foundations prior to the exposition of positive doctrine; methods of argumentation seeking to persuade by evidences and proofs, and placing high value on deduction; an ordering of the material in which the historical shape of the divine economy is sometimes eclipsed by topical division; a certain distance from practical divinity. Such moves are not unrelated to the formal separation of dogmatic theology from moral theology and theologia historica (that is, the exposition of the faith tied to the narrative sequence of God's dealings with creatures). Nevertheless, this formative phase of the discipline ought not to be belaboured as systematic domestication of the Reformation impulse (Muller 2000: 101–17), any more than the work of Aquinas can be reduced to a set of fine logical discriminations. Keckermann (1571?–1608), usually considered the first to use the term theologia systematica, is also the first great representative of the so-called ‘analytical’ method in which doctrinal exposition is oriented towards practical issues concerning human salvation and destiny rather than speculative questions concerning God and God's decrees.

Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith, which dominated Protestant doctrinal theology for a century and beyond, is in some respects a radicalization of the analytical dogmatics of the seventeenth century, transposing the economic-soteriological interest into a focus on the immanent reality of the ecclesial experience of redemption, which furnished both the material and the formal principle for his dogmatics (an obvious result of this is Schleiermacher's drastic minimalism in discussing God in se). Schleiermacher's prestige, combined with the rise of historical study of the genesis and growth of doctrine which emphasized the arbitrary character of much classical Christian dogma, pressed for a reconception of systematic theology as a fully historical enterprise focused on the life and activity of the Christian community as the medium of Christian teaching. Mediating theologies (of which the last and greatest representative is the system of Christian doctrine set out by Dorner), which sought a critical integration of positive doctrine with prevailing cultural norms, were largely overtaken by neo-Protestantism, whose dogmatic achievement begins with Ritschl's magisterial Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation. Ritschl's influence was widespread, not only in Germany but also amongst British and American doctrinal thinkers.

Much of the history of twentieth-century systematic theology was shaped by Barth's early repudiation of neo-Protestantism and his attempt to reconceive the systematic theological task. His achievement was immense, in part because he was able to transform an astonished rediscovery of divine aseity into a positive covenantal dogmatics in the analytical tradition, one possessed of seemingly limitless confidence in the interpretative power of classical trinitarian and Christological teaching. This, allied to Barth's very considerable descriptive and dramatic powers and his boldness in redrawing the overall shape of Christian doctrine, makes the Church Dogmatics a text with which all contemporary systematic (p. 6) theology must at some point enter into negotiation. Alongside Barth, the concerns of theological liberalism were continued, especially by those who drew on the resources of existential philosophy and phenomenology to interpret Christian teaching—Rahner amongst Roman Catholics, and Tillich amongst the Protestants. Both continue to exert influence, especially in North American theology, in particular by exemplifying a mode of systematic theology concerned for the coordination of Christian teaching and human self-understanding (for representative works, see Macquarrie 1977; Hodgson and King 1983; Fiorenza and Galvin 1991). Even though existentialism no longer enjoys widespread currency, the method of correlation exercises a continuing hold, especially in feminist and liberation theologies (Chopp and Taylor 1994).

Although the study of Christian doctrine continues to engender vigorous debate both in German- and English-language theology (renewed interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in the last twenty years is only the most obvious instance of the liveliness of the discussion), there have been relatively few really authoritative attempts at comprehensive accounts of the field. Beyond the textbook literature, much of the influential material has been presented as essays and monographs on particular loci or themes. The overall accounts which have commanded most attention are the systematic theologies of Pannenberg (1991–8) and Jenson (1997–9), both ecumenically minded Lutherans, both attracted to an ecclesiology and sacramental theology centred on divine and creaturely participation, both seeking to chart a fresh direction after Barth. Pannenberg is more cautious, offering a good deal more historical elaboration, and has a strong concern for the relation of systematic theology to non-theological fields of inquiry, most of all philosophy and the history of religion. Jenson is more radical, both materially and formally; the work's ellipses are its doctrines of the Trinity and the church, and its treatment of these themes is characterized by a high degree of conceptual inventiveness which, coupled with a certain maximalism in framing its judgements, makes it markedly innovative.

II. Task

As it has emerged over the course of its history, the task of systematic theology is the explication of Christian doctrine in its full scope and in its integrity. In much classical Christian dogmatics, as well as in some modern systematics, the scope of the discipline requires consideration of both credenda and agenda, thus prohibiting any separation of doctrine and ethics (although the distancing of morals from dogma in the modern period, entailed by the authority accorded to natural (p. 7) morality as prior to positive religions, makes their coinherence problematic for some practitioners of either field). Systematic theology is a ‘positive’ science, that is, an inquiry into an antecedent subject matter, and its work is guided by and responsible towards Christian faith and its various forms of self-expression. Very few approach the task in the purely constructive manner proposed by Kaufman (1975); most undertake their work in relation to a range of sources recognized as bearers of authority. In pre-modern Christian theology, these sources were commonly widely distributed amongst liturgical, creedal, and scriptural materials, though the supremacy of the latter was universally acknowledged. In the dogmatics stemming from the Protestant Reformation, scripture furnished the matter of doctrine, reinforced by the teaching of the early Christian centuries (for a modern example, see Torrance 1993). More recently, some have commended the language and practice of worship as a basic source for systematic work (Schlink 1967: 16–84; Pannenberg 1970: 182–210; Wainwright 1980); others emphasize the historical experience of faith as fundamental (Haight 1990). Whatever may be taken to be its sources, however, systematic theology is generally undertaken as a work of reconstruction, referring back to realities (scriptural, practical, existential) which present themselves for systematic consideration. Yet the dividing line between construction and reconstruction is not easy to discern. It is difficult to imagine a systematic account of Christian teaching which simply recorded positive data, for it would lack the abstraction and schematism necessary for a conceptual representation of the material. To make a representation of Christian teaching is to construe it, to commend a version of it which may not be made up but is certainly made. This, in turn, reinforces the need for criteria against which the adequacy of systematic construals can be assessed.

The task of systematic construction has both an internal and an external orientation. In its internal orientation—what might be called the dogmatic-analytic element of the task—systematic theology concerns itself with ordered exposition of Christian claims about reality. In its external orientation—what might be called the apologetic-hermeneutical element of the task—systematic theology concerns itself with the explication and defence of Christian claims about reality in order to bring to light their justification, relevance, and value. Different systematic theologies tend to give priority to one or other element. Barth's Church Dogmatics is written out of a conviction that dogmatic description is sufficient to persuade, and that independent apologetics inhibits rather than enables extramural presentation of the substance of Christian faith. Pannenberg, on the other hand, judges this procedure to be introverted, and proposes by contrast that ‘systematic theology ascertains the truth of Christian doctrine by investigation and presentation of its coherence as regards both the interrelation of the parts and the relation to other knowledge’ (1991–8: i. 21–2). Thus the process of systematic reconstruction in relation to whatever else is taken to be true is intrinsic to the establishment of its truth, which cannot be presupposed. From a different perspective again, the ‘revisionist’ tradition in North American (p. 8) theology, much influenced by Tillich's method of correlation between ‘message’ and ‘situation’, envisages doctrinal construction emerging from the encounter between the content of the Christian tradition and cultural-intellectual or experiential realities (e.g., Gilkey 1979).

These different orientations of systematic theology are rarely found in pure form. One of the most sophisticated recent attempts to combine them is found in the work of the Jesuit systematician Frans Jozef van Beeck. Van Beeck resists the notion that the structures of religion and the structures of culture are discrete entities to be kept mutually isolated or, perhaps, brought into conversation. Rather, they form a continuum, in relation to which the central task of systematic theology is ‘the search for new forms of unity between religion and culture’ (van Beeck 1989: 42). Undertaking this task involves both ‘positive’ theological work, presenting Christian belief in its integrity, and ‘fundamental’ theology, studying the human condition as it harbours the possibility of integration into God's kingdom. The skill required to achieve this combination of description and the demonstration of credibility is ‘spiritual discernment’, that is, a well-judged sense of the ‘discretionary fit’ between church and culture in a theological representation of Christianity (van Beeck 1989: 42). The project is, of course, underwritten by a Catholic vision of the realm of cultural forms as ordered towards participation in God.

Verdicts about the task of the discipline have consequences for its content and shape. A comparison of the ground plans of Macquarrie's and Jenson's respective systematics is illuminative here. Macquarrie considers systematic theology to be ‘systematic in the sense that it seeks to articulate all the constituent elements of theology in a coherent whole, and that it seeks to articulate this whole itself with the other fields that go to make up the totality of human knowledge, and especially with those disciplines which stand in a specially close relation to theology’ (Macquarrie 1977: 39). This generates a tripartite division of the material into philosophical theology (a prolegomenal or natural theological phenomenology of human and divine being, language, revelation, and religion), symbolic theology (covering Trinity, creation, Christ and salvation, the Spirit, and the last things), and applied theology (ecclesiology and ethics). The conception privileges the generic over the symbolic and positive, with the result that the real engine of the account is to be located in its prolegomena; it is here that the most important decisions are taken. This, in turn, is reflected in the distribution of weight: trinitarian theology, for example, receives only a fairly brief treatment, and has little effect either retroactively on the philosophical theology or prospectively on other topics in symbolic and applied theology. Jenson's conception, by contrast, shows a distinct preference for the ecclesial and dramatic. Theology is defined as ‘the thinking internal to the task of speaking the gospel’ (Jenson 1997–9: i. 5); Jenson accordingly eschews any pre-theological foundations in a more inclusive ontology or epistemology, on the grounds that ‘if theological prolegomena lay down conceptual conditions of Christian teaching that are not themselves Christian teaching…the (p. 9) prolegomena sooner or later turn against the legomena’ (Jenson 1997–9: i. 9). Hence in arranging the material, Jenson does not move towards what Macquarrie calls ‘symbolic theology’ but from it (and would resist the term ‘symbolic’ as suggesting that positive doctrine is reducible to some antecedent philosophical phenomenology). Consequently, trinitarian theology bulks very large, not only in the treatment of the doctrine per se, but across the entire corpus of Christian teaching: in one sense, Jenson's systematic theology as a whole is a set of amplifications or extensions of the doctrine of the Trinity.

III. Form and Organization

In reconstructing Christian teaching, systematic theology proceeds by a process of conceptual abstraction and schematization. Both are necessary for rational representation in that they enable the theologian to generate a projection of Christian claims about reality which will display both the core content of those claims and also their overall shape when taken together.


Rational representation requires skilful use of concepts. This is true not only of speculative inquiries but also of a discipline like systematic theology, which has usually been considered to have a strongly practical dimension insofar as it originates in and aims at the understanding and improvement of Christian practice. Concepts are ‘abstractions’, not in the sense that they discard the practical in favour of the purely speculative, but in the sense that they articulate general perceptions which might otherwise be achieved only by laborious repetition. Systematic theological concepts (Trinity, election, providence, incarnation, regeneration, and so on) function as shorthand which enables more deliberate, reflective apprehension than can be had from the more immediate bearers of Christian claims such as scripture. Of course, scripture is by no means lacking in conceptual vocabulary; but it is more occasional, directed by particular circumstances, and shows less concern for the clarity, consistency, and thoroughness which have to characterize a systematic representation of Christian teaching.

The sources of systematic theological concepts are varied. Some are drawn from scripture, though often their systematic deployment involves a measure of generalization and regularization as concepts are put to work in different contexts and for different purposes than those in which they originally functioned (p. 10) (‘justification’ is a good example here). Other concepts are borrowed, adapted, or constructed from resources outside the sphere of Christian faith. The generation and use of such concepts usually involves a set of complex negotiations over time, in the course of which what are deemed inappropriate connotations in the original use may be eliminated or minimized, and the concept is reshaped or extended to serve as a more fitting projection of Christian reality claims (the language of ‘substance’ in the Christian doctrine of God and Christology exemplifies this: see Stead 1977).

The most illuminating systematic theologies are often characterized by (1) conceptual ingenuity, resourcefulness, and suppleness, which enable a projection of Christian claims suitable to draw attention to their richness and complexity; (2) conceptual transparency, which enables a more penetrating understanding of the primary modes of Christian articulation of the gospel; and (3) broad knowledge and sensitive and creative deployment of concepts inherited from the Christian theological tradition. By contrast, systematic theologies are less successful if they are conceptually monotonous or stiff, if concepts threaten to overwhelm or replace that which they are intended to represent, or if the concepts do not have a discernible relation to well-seated theological usage.

The systematic theologies of the last two and a half centuries can be divided into two very rough groups, according to the way in which they understand the relation between systematic theological concepts and the Christian reality claims of which these concepts offer a reflective representation (the groupings are merely heuristic, and ought not to be generalized). In the first group, Christian reality claims are taken to be ‘symbolic’, non-final though not, of course, unnecessary expressions of something anterior. What lies behind them may be, for example, experiential (such as the experience of redemption or liberation), or social and moral (a common direction of human ethical purpose). In the second group, Christian reality claims are considered irreducible; they are not expressive, and cannot be translated without serious loss, since their content lies on their surface rather than residing behind or beneath them.

The ‘symbolic’ understanding of Christian reality claims took hold in systematic theology largely as a result of at least two sea changes in western intellectual culture following the period of the great scholastic dogmatic systems in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One was appeal to natural religion and morality as anterior (and in important ways superior) to positive theological teaching, capable of easing intractable confessional conflict. A second was the development of idealist interpretations of Christian teaching (notably at the hands of Kant), in which the capacity of doctrines to act as incitements to moral performance was considered to be largely independent of their reference to reality.

If Christian reality claims are considered ‘symbolic’ in this way, then the work of systematic theology can be thought of as their transposition from the realm of Vorstellung (representation) to that of Begriff (concept)—the terms are Hegel's, but (p. 11) they are widely representative and were reinforced in historical studies of Christian doctrine (such as those of Baur or Harnack) which treated Christian dogma as an arbitrary expression of the essence of Christianity. To conceptualize is to move beyond the immediate in order to penetrate and rearticulate its essence in language more stable and better grounded. Much of the systematic literature of neo-Protestantism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries works along these lines. Troeltsch, for example, in Heidelberg lectures from 1912/13 proposed that the systematic task is that of raising ‘Christian faith conceptions to the level of dogmatic-systematic form…retrieving that which is essential to these conceptions and giving the most precise conceptual expression to what they instinctively imply’ (Troeltsch 1991: 62). This ‘essential element’ is what Troeltsch calls ‘the Christian principle’ whose purpose is ‘to bring the complex of multiple appearances together into a central formula that will express the unifying root and driving force behind the whole’—which in the case of Troeltsch is Christianity as ‘a religion of personality’ (Troeltsch 1991: 63). Systematic concepts push through the multiple phenomenal realm to its underlying moral foundation. In contemporary systematic theology, this approach remains a significant presence in revisionist theologies and in some styles of comparative theology (Ward 1994). In approaching the doctrine of the divine attributes, for example, a sophisticated revisionist theologian such as Farley considers Christian reality claims as ‘symbolic bespeakings of God’ produced by the ‘discursive imaging activity’ (Farley 1996: 79) which occurs in the sphere of redemption. The systematic task is not to repeat these symbolizations as if they constituted the end point of theological reflection, but rather to subject them to critical reconceptualization, in order to resist the tendency of mythology to ‘finitize the sacred by construing God as a specific entity’ (Farley 1996: 82).

This approach to the nature of systematic theological concepts ranges from a modest constructivism to something approaching pure nominalism. Nearly all systematicians (even potent realists like Barth or T. F. Torrance) incorporate some element of it. When it exercises a strong influence, its effect is to encourage the generation of systematic theological concepts which are relatively detached from the immediate language of Christian self-expression, not only rhetorically but also materially, and which exhibit a distinct preference for the general rather than the particular and dramatic. If, on the other hand, Christian reality claims are considered not to be reducible to general moral or religious proposals, systematic theological conceptualization assumes a different role. First, both in rhetoric and in genre it is a good deal less distant from the everyday idiom of Christian teaching. Systematic theological concepts are then considered as a discursive enlargement of Christian teaching but not as an improvement upon it or as a means of access to better-warranted apprehension of the truth. Systematic theology in this mode will often invest heavily in persuasion by citation, commending a construal of Christianity not by appeal to external norms but by building up a portrait of Christian doctrine which commends itself by descriptive cogency. Second, in this (p. 12) approach the role of concepts is to offer a kind of conceptual anatomy (or perhaps ‘grammar’ (Lindbeck 1984)) of Christian teaching.


Systematic theology aims at a comprehensive, well-proportioned, and unified conceptual representation of Christian teaching. In conceptualizing Christian doctrine in its full scope, systematic theology treats a relatively stable range of topics, even though individual essays may adjust the proportions or placement of certain elements of the whole, and may judge some topics outside their concern. The common order of the topics emerges from bearing in mind two principles: (1) the theme of Christian teaching is God and everything else in relation to God; (2) Christian teaching about God and everything else is best drawn from the sequence of the divine economy in which God's relation to creatures is enacted, a sequence set out in scripture and confessed in such primary documents as the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Attending to these two principles in some form yields an outline in which systematic theology begins with a substantial presentation of the doctrine of God, and especially of God's life in himself, followed by an account of the history of the relations of God and creatures, usually in some combination of episodic and thematic treatment. Here the topics covered include: creation, creatures, sin, the history of the covenant with Israel, the person of the Son and his work as saviour, the Holy Spirit, the church in its nature, calling, and activities, the future of all things. Much else can be built into the framework, such as consideration of the moral-theological entailments of the topics, or matters of particular confessional prominence (the doctrine of election or aspects of ecclesiology, for example). Some doctrines may be used to guide the exposition of others (such as Lutheran identification of the doctrine of justification by faith as ‘the article by which the church stands or falls’, or Christology in Barth's Reformed dogmatics). Further, prolegomenal matters may often be treated before the presentation of systematic theology proper.

In certain respects, order is a relatively unimportant and arbitrary affair, though the material naturally unfolds itself in certain ways: putting the doctrine of God first secures a sense of divine priority, and the retention of an economic sequence makes it easier to discern the reference of the conceptual material back to more immediate articulations of Christian teaching. Proportion, however, is a rather more significant matter. This is in part because systematic representations of Christian teaching, even the most abstract, are nearly always occasional, directed towards particular contexts. They may, for example, seize upon one or other aspect of Christian doctrine and deploy it to encourage or chasten a development in the teaching of the church. Or they may pay particular attention to a doctrine because it is considered to be under threat from external critique. The demands of pastoral (p. 13) and apologetic occasion, however, place strain on the overall shape of Christian doctrine, and can lead to distortion. Under pressure from such demands, doctrines can expand or contract, or can be made to serve purposes for which they were not intended. Teaching about the person and work of Christ may be expanded in such a way as to eclipse pneumatology; teaching about the church may take over tasks more properly assigned to teaching about the prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministries of the ascended Christ. Accordingly, a major systematic theological task is to register and correct such deformations by requiring that particular elements in the corpus be handled so as not to disturb the coherence and balance of the whole. And, once again, judgements about proportion depend upon material judgements about the substance of Christian teaching.

Matters of order and proportion point towards the decisive issue concerning the organization of systematic theology, namely the degree to which it may legitimately seek to generate a unified system of Christian teaching. Any enterprise of rational representation requires some kind of schema as a medium through which its subject matter can be displayed and interpreted. A schema is an ordered projection of the subject matter, generated by the productive work of reason in which human understanding makes use of a set of categories in order to realize knowledge. Because rational representation is ‘productive’ or ‘projective’ in this way, much hangs on whether the schemas of which reason makes use are inventive (be the invention innocent or sinister) or receptive, that is, whether they organize inert material by projecting it as a unified whole, or merely discern and follow an antecedent connectedness in the subject matter itself. More simply: how do invention and discovery relate in the work of systematization?

From one point of view, the question of system is ‘the question of eschatology, of how far our intellectual constructions may anticipate such eschatological perfection of knowledge as may one day be granted to us’ (Gunton 2000: 36). Systematic schematization may neglect the mind's fallibility and the provisionality of its representations, turning theologia viatorum into theologia beatorum (though it ought to noted that the Protestant scholastics, often thought to be consummate transgressors here, were sharply aware of the imperfection of theological intelligence). From another point of view, systematic representation may mischaracterize the object of Christian teaching, especially when that ‘object’ is considered to be the personal communicative presence and activity of God. It was for this reason that Barth mistrusted the systematic impulse: a dogmatic system ‘loses contact with the event’ (Barth 1956: 863), and in a well-ordered dogmatics ‘the position usually occupied…by an arbitrarily chosen basic view belongs by right to the Word of God, and the Word of God alone’ (Barth 1956: 866). Whatever order there may be must therefore derive from the material centre of Christian teaching, and not from the demands of schematization. Others take a lead from social-philosophical critiques of closed systems, arguing that any systematic presentation must be subject to ‘the prophetic objection to a fixed, congealed system’ (Ritschl 1987: 94). (p. 14) All this suggests that, by virtue of its subject matter, no representation of Christian teaching can attain a fully determinate rendering of the topic; aspirations to do so can be fulfilled only by reduction or selection. Highly elaborate systematization inhibits catholicity and demonstrates the wrong sort of confidence in theological systematization.

Such objections are motivated by a concern to ensure fit between the material content of Christian teaching and the forms in which it is presented. Equally, the demand for a comprehensive and coherent presentation can be warranted materially by appeal to the unity of God. ‘If God is indeed one, and if that oneness is a revealed oneness, thus far there is a case for ordering what we are taught of God into, if not a system, then at least a dogmatics in which (1) who and what kind of being God is and (2) the various relations between God and the world…are held to be related to one another’ (Gunton 2000: 37). ‘System’ ought not to be confused with ‘deductive system’, fully elaborated more geometrico (Tillich 1951–63: i. 58–9). The criteria for appropriate systematic construction might then be as follows: (1) the systematic character of the schema should not be imposed by analytical reason but should emerge from attention to the subject matter's self-unfolding; (2) systems must retain provisionality and openness to revision from sources which cannot be given exhaustive description within the system; (3) systems must be indicative of, not a replacement for, the persons, events, and acts which form the substance of Christian teaching; (4) formal, systematic coordination must serve material scope and coherence. Many systematicians have thought these criteria best met by a combination of economic sequence and topical description; the loci method is often judged the most apt formal organization.

In the end, however, the most memorable and consistently stimulating works in systematic theology are not those which have maximally elaborate or coherent ground plans, but those which register the grandeur of Christian truth in their concepts and schematism, and in which material, rather than formal, skills have been paramount.

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