Systematic theology divides Christian thought into a catalogue of topics and then takes various things the Bible about a particular topic and finally draws some summarizing thoughts about that topic. It attempts to organize these various topics into a coherent, logical, orderly system that is not self-contradictory. I believe there are some real limitations to how successful this enterprise can be.
If theology is primarily about God and derivatively about God’s initiatives with us, how systematic could it be? God is a living, creating, engaging, challenging, loving, and guiding presence in creation. We, too, are living, responsive, and choosing creatures. The ongoing story of God’s loving work in creation is always interpenetrating the story of our ongoing lives. How could this iterative dynamic between two living beings be systematized?
Douglas John Hall wrote: “Theology lies between the stories—God’s story of the world, and humanity’s ever-changing account of itself and all things. Theology is what happens when the two stories meet [Thinking the Faith—Christian Theology in a North American Context, p. 91].” You can record this sort of thing. You can interrogate it for meaning and a way forward. You can draw lessons from it—ones that comfort and ones that correct, but you cannot systematize it with much accuracy.
I think this is why I prefer biblical studies to systematic theology. The Bible is full of great stories, both happy and tragic. It is an account of how, in particular places and times, God’ story became intertwined with our stories.
You might ask, “What about the Jewish law recorded in the Bible? That is pretty systematic.” The law guides us to a place where our story can join the rhythm of God’s story, but it was never intended to replace the stories themselves. When we mistake the rules and regulations for the redemptive intermingling of our stories, our lives grow flat.
In Jesus, God’s story and our stories have come in closest proximity to one another. Theology is about making sense of that experience. Perhaps the most authentic theology we speak is when we tell how God’s story and our story have embraced a common plot in Jesus Christ.
Jim Kelsey--American Baptist Churches of New York State