Greek versions of the Old Testament were translated in synagogues throughout the Mediterranean world so that Jews and Gentiles unable to understand Hebrew would have access to the Scriptures. During the patristic period Christian theologians went in these two directions as well. On the one side, many church leaders fell into Christian syncretism because they went too far in their attempts to Hellenize New Testament faith. They mixed true Christianity with pagan beliefs and practices.
Some forms of syncretism had already risen in the New Testament church, but during the patristic period a number of well-known unorthodox sects such as Ebionism, Basilidism, and Gnosticism developed in Christianity. On the other hand, while orthodox Christian theologians resisted syncretism they nevertheless found legitimate ways to minister in their pagan world by interacting with Hellenistic worldviews around them.
As these true believers carried out Christ's commission to reach all nations, they expressed their theology in terms of contemporary philosophical and religious outlooks without compromising biblical truth. With these cultural shifts in mind, we should take a look at some of the ways authentic Christian theology changed to meet the challenge of ministry in the gentile world during the patristic period.
What were the general theological tendencies that emerged at this stage of Christian theology? During the patristic period, the dominant philosophical and religious stream in the Mediterranean world was an outlook commonly known as Neo-Platonism. The term "Neo-Platonism" covers a great variety of outlooks, and represents a broad religious philosophy. It is called Neo-Platonism because it was rooted in the teachings of Plato, but also included new ideas introduced by philosophers such as Plotinus, who lived from AD to Although this religious philosophy was complex, we can summarize its central themes in terms of three issues: dualism, rationalism and mysticism.
In the first place, Neo-Platonism was dualistic. It taught a fundamental antithesis between the spiritual and material realms. In Neo-platonic dualism pure spirit was considered good and pure matter was considered utterly evil. Although God himself was thought to be above both the spiritual and material realms, in his goodness God spread his divine Intellect, his Light or Logos into the spiritual and material worlds.
This divine force emanated from God and flowed throughout reality, bringing degrees of order and form, beginning first in the spiritual realm and then moving downward into the material world. This dualistic outlook had certain implications for the ways human beings were to live.
People were said to be born in the material world, even imprisoned in the physical realm. But Neo-Platonism taught that the highest good for human life was to seek God by eliminating all attachments to the material world. This notion of breaking with the material world in pursuit of God brings us to rationalism as the second emphasis of Neo-Platonism. As people sought to overcome their imprisonment in the material world they were to begin by focusing on human reason, the spiritual and intellectual capacity within each of us. Through careful reasoning and reflection, people could make great strides in lifting themselves beyond the evil matter that entangled them.
As important as rational reflection was, it was just the beginning for the truly virtuous person. Neo-Platonism called people to go beyond human reason and into mysticism. To reach full separation from matter and complete union with God, people had to move beyond their own human intellectual powers and to reach the heights of God himself.
Because Neo-Platonists believed that God is beyond all, transcendent even over human reasoning, in the end human beings could have union with God only as they received mystical revelation that went far beyond mere human reflection. This spiritual ecstasy was supposed to come about by the inspiration of the divine light and word emanating throughout creation. And it was said to result in utter union with God, supreme happiness, the grand fulfillment of human destiny. These philosophical and religious concepts were so prevalent in the Mediterranean world during the patristic period that faithful Christian theologians could not avoid interacting with them.
In fact, many of their theological discussions were framed in terms of Neo-platonic beliefs. Many of these efforts were quite legitimate. For example, the great ecumenical councils of the early church such as Constantinople and Chalcedon expressed biblical beliefs with Neo-platonic perspectives. Well-known leading Christian theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even Augustine, also expressed themselves in terms that were familiar to Neo-Platonists.
Faithful Christian theologians in the Patristic period did not allow their attention to Neo-Platonism to supplant their basic commitments to the true gospel. They held strongly to biblical truth. But their awareness of Neo-Platonism did help them explain the Scriptures in ways that they and their contemporaries could understand. And by interacting with their cultures in these ways, they promoted the gospel, built the church, and brought many unbelievers to a saving knowledge of Christ.
There are many ways we could summarize the influence of Neo-Platonism on patristic theology. But for our purposes, we will point to three characteristics of patristic theology that parallel our summary of Neo-Platonism: the spiritual priorities of patristic theology, the importance of reason, and the importance of mysticism.
Let's consider first the priorities of patristic theology as they were influenced by Neo-Platonism. You will recall that one characteristic of Neo-Platonism was dualism between the spiritual and physical realms. Patristic theology responded to this dualism by organizing and presenting the Bible's teachings in a way that gave priority to spiritual rather than mundane concerns, an approach to theology that we will call "theology from above. These priorities became a hallmark of patristic theology. In the second place, Christian theologians gained a heightened appreciation of the importance of reason in theology, focusing on logical reflection as a primary tool for theology.
As we have seen, one of the chief values in Neo-Platonism was the belief that human beings have a duty to employ human reasoning to rise above the material world. In response to Neo-Platonism's emphasis on intellectual reflection, early fathers of the church also began to emphasize intellectual reflection in Christian theology.
Leading Christian theologians focused more than ever on the careful rational exploration and explanation of Christian beliefs, so that many doctrines that the New Testament left unspecified and unexplored became the objects of rational reflection. For instance, New Testament theology allowed doctrines like the Trinity to remain largely unexplained; New Testament writers did not address the details of the relationships between the persons of the trinity. But, in the patristic period, theologians used logical analysis to explain what New Testament writers believed about the Trinity, even though the biblical writers had not stated their views explicitly.
In response to false teachings about God the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, early church fathers devoted themselves to careful distinctions through rational reflection, working out as many details left untouched in the New Testament as they possibly could.
In this way, applying reason to theology became an important value for theologians as they ministered in their Neo-platonic world. In the third place, patristic theology also focused on mysticism, or transcendent spiritual enlightenment, in response to Neo-Platonism's emphasis on mysticism. As we have seen, in Neo-Platonism careful reasoning through attention to the human mind was merely a stepping stone to higher, mystical levels of union with God. Reason was limited and could not grasp higher spiritual realties and reaching these higher levels required special illumination.
In a similar way, when early Christian fathers expounded doctrines such as the Trinity, or the divinity and humanity of Christ, or the sacraments and the church, they often confessed that some elements of these doctrines were beyond human reason. Frequently, their rational discussions were coupled with acknowledgments that the higher truths of the Christian faith simply could not be explained or defended rationally.
Instead, they could only be apprehended through mystical enlightenment, through supernatural experiences that exceeded the reaches of human rationality. Patristic theology employed reason in service to God's revelation, but it leaned more heavily on spiritual intuition than on logical proof. So it is that as theologians of the patristic period faced the challenges of teaching, exploring and defending Christian theology in their Gentile world, their strategies and emphases shifted.
These shifts toward the priority of the spiritual over the physical, or theology from above, the use of rational analysis and reliance on mysticism set a course for the church that would eventually lead to what we know today as systematic theology. Now that we have seen how theologians began to explain Christian theology to their Hellenistic culture during the patristic period, we should turn to medieval theology, when Christians more consistently applied Hellenistic views of human rationality and logic to Christian theology.
We'll be concerned with a theological movement, often called "scholasticism," that developed roughly from AD to AD Our exploration of scholasticism will resemble the way we looked at patristic theology. On the one hand, we will look at the cultural changes that gave rise to scholasticism. And on the other hand, we'll explore some of the theological changes that resulted.
Let's think first about the cultural shifts that took place during these centuries. To begin with, we should point out that the term "scholasticism" derives from schools of higher learning in early medieval Europe. In those schools lecturers in dialectic, normally called "logic" in the modern age, were known by the Latin term scholasticus.
Largely, these lecturers taught Aristotle's logic. Consequently, the term "scholastic" came to be applied to philosophy and theology that depended heavily on the principles of logic in Aristotle's philosophy. Scholasticism resulted from one of the most important cultural shifts that took place in the medieval period.
This shift occurred when the intellectual communities of the Mediterranean world turned away from Neo-Platonism and toward the philosophy of Aristotle. And as a result of this shift, leading Christians had to adapt the ways they explained and defended Christian doctrines to Aristotelian philosophy. Of course, this shift toward scholasticism took place over hundreds of years, and there was much resistance to it, especially from Christian mystics. But by the time of Albertus Magnus, or "Albert the Great," who lived from around to , and his well-known disciple Thomas Aquinas, who lived from around to , scholasticism represented the dominant form of Christian theology.
Just before the reformation, the mainstream of Christian theology was deeply attuned to the philosophical viewpoints of Aristotle. Now that we have looked at some of the cultural changes that gave rise to Scholasticism, we should turn to some of its basic characteristics. What marked scholasticism as a major approach to Christian theology? Although there are many similarities between patristic and scholastic theology, there is at least one crucial difference.
On the whole, patristic theology maintained that the greatest theological insights come through mystical inspiration. But scholasticism was highly rationalistic, stressing the value of logic in exploring, explaining and defending all of theology. The physical and spiritual worlds, and even God himself, were to be analyzed through the careful application of logic. Scholastics were well-schooled in Aristotle's writings on logic, physics, and metaphysics, and sought to accommodate the presentation of Christian theology to this rational worldview.
And for this reason, to understand medieval scholastic theology, we need to have some understanding of Aristotle's views on logic. Time will only allow us to mention four aspects of Aristotle's views on logic that influenced scholastic theology: first, the importance of precise terminology; second, the necessity of propositional reasoning; third, the value of logical syllogisms; and finally, the priorities of rational analysis.
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In the first place, Aristotle understood that the success of rational, logical reflection depended on the terms we use and how carefully we define them. Now, definitions were important to Neo-Platonists and patristic theologians as well. But Aristotle was much more concrete in the way he handled these matters. Based on his views of physics and metaphysics, he described logical, even early scientific ways of classifying items by defining the essence or substance of a thing and its accidents or non-essential features to distinguish anything under consideration from all other things.
Correspondingly, in order to communicate clearly with their Aristotelian culture, scholastic theologians also defined theological terms as precisely as possible. To illustrate just how scholastics accommodated their theology to Aristotle's emphasis on precise terminology, let's look at a passage from Aquinas' Summa Theologica.
In the chapter entitled "Is God Infinite? Notice how Aquinas used several technical terms in this brief passage. He used terms such as "matter," "form," "formless," "finite," "infinite," "perfected" and "imperfect. Consequently, Aquinas was able to make fine distinctions between his views and the views of others. This focus on precise definitions of terminology was characteristic of scholastic theology.
As a result of this focus, scholastic theology was rife with technical terms. Scholastics developed extensive specialized vocabulary for Christian theology. And this is important to us because many of their terms have continued to be used in Christian theology throughout the centuries. Besides inspiring scholastic theologians to emphasize precise terminology, Aristotle's work on logic also motivated them to give a central role to propositions in communicating theological truth.
In their simplest forms, propositions are assertions of fact formed by a subject and a predicate. We use propositions all the time in daily speech. Consider the sentence, "I am a man. And we're all familiar with propositions in theology, such as "Jesus is the son of God. Aristotle focused much attention on how logical reasoning operates with propositions. In his view, logic does not operate with expressions of intuitions or emotions, poetry or symbolism, riddles or prayers.
Logic is concerned primarily with statements of fact. Only with properly formed propositions can we use logic to analyze a topic. In line with Aristotle's emphasis, scholasticism worked hard to express its formal theology in propositions. Now, on a less formal, less academic level, scholastic theologians understood that the Christian faith had to involve other kinds of expressions. Many scholastics were very pious and expressed their religious convictions in poetry, hymns, prayers, and the like. But in sophisticated, academic contexts, theological beliefs were presented in carefully constructed propositions, assertions of facts.
To illustrate the centrality of propositions in scholastic theology, we'll turn again to Aquinas' Summa Theologica. As we would expect, this passage refers to Aristotle's technical meaning of what is self-evident as an idea that "no one can mentally admit the opposite of. He did not break forth in praise or lament. He did not scold or threaten his opponent. Instead, he consistently responded with propositions. What we see here in Aquinas was characteristic of scholastic theology in general. Scholastics restricted their formal theological discussions almost entirely to propositions.
They reasoned through theological issues by setting carefully defined terms in well-formed statements of fact. This feature became so central to formal Christian theology that even in our own day propositions remain the crucial to systematic theology. A third way that scholasticism interacted with Aristotle's reflections on logic can be summarized under the category of syllogism. In a word, a syllogism is a logical argument in which propositions are arranged to form premises and conclusions. By way of illustration, one well-known syllogism often taught in elementary logic textbooks goes something like this: Premise One: Socrates is a man.
Premise Two: All men are mortal. Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Aristotle spent much time identifying how propositions can be ordered into arguments that lead to certain kinds of conclusions. He explored the so-called "laws of logic" like the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction and the law of excluded middle, as well as a variety of valid rules of inference, the ways we can rightly or logically infer different kinds of conclusions from different kinds of premises. Of course, real theological arguments are often quite complex, but Scholastic theologians were intent on forming theological arguments that conformed to Aristotle's canons of argumentation.
He wrote these words:. The syllogism presented here can be expressed in this way. Premise One: No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident. Premise Two: The opposite of "God is" can be mentally admitted. Conclusion: Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident. This passage is just one example of how Aquinas explored and defended his theological positions with carefully constructed syllogisms. And his treatment of this topic was typical of medieval scholasticism. In fact, this kind of focus on syllogism remains a central feature even of systematic theology in our day.
In addition to a focus on technical terms, reliance on propositions and logical syllogisms, scholastics also demonstrated the influence of Aristotle by the priorities of their theology. Aristotle applied reason to the task of analyzing reality in terms of a static, rational, hierarchy. He looked at everything as having a place in a vertical rational order. In his view, all things belonged somewhere on a scale between manifold and imperfect matter at the low end, and pure unified and perfect form at the high end.
And he believed one of the tasks of philosophy was to identify where every bit of reality fits within this rational order. In very simple terms, God himself was at the top of the scale. He is the first principle, the uncaused cause of all things. God is pure unity, pure form, pure being. Angels stand one step beneath God. Human beings are placed beneath angels because they are spiritual and physical. Various forms of animal life take their place below humans; plants are next; inorganic materials follow; the four basic elements of air, fire, earth and water underlie inorganic materials; and prime matter is at the bottom of the scale.
In order to communicate with their Aristotelian cultures, scholastics tried to explain their theology in terms of this Aristotelian model. They rigorously structured their doctrinal summaries in the order of theology from above. That is to say, they tended to begin with and emphasize Christian teachings that paralleled the higher levels of Aristotle's hierarchy and then they worked their way down to the teachings that paralleled the lower levels of Aristotle's scale. All the time, they sought to make clear the intricate rational order that permeated their theology from above, explaining how each part fit with every other part.
This tendency toward theology from above can be seen rather plainly in the structure of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. Part One of his Summa begins with an introduction and then moves directly to the topic of highest priority in scholastic theology: The One God. Then Aquinas moved to The Blessed Trinity. Next, he focused on Creation, a chapter that still concentrated on God as the first cause of all things. Then Aquinas moved to the greatest of creatures: The Angels.
Next, he discussed The Six Days of creation which dealt with the physical creation below angels. Then there is a chapter on Humanity, the spiritual and physical creature. And finally, Aquinas closed part one of his Summa with God's Government of Creatures including those things that are merely physical. The Aristotelian priorities reflected in Aquinas' Summa Theologica characterize the general strategy of scholasticism. And this tendency has characterized formal Christian theology for centuries, even in modern protestant systematic theology.
Now that we have seen some of the ways Christian theology shifted from the patterns of the New Testament toward Hellenistic ways of thinking — first toward Neo-platonic dualism in the patristic period, and then toward Aristotelian rationalism in the medieval period — we should turn our attention to the ways protestant theology compares with these developments. There are so many ways to look at protestant theology that we must limit ourselves to a small sampling.
We'll look at three stages in protestant theology: first, the theology of the early reformers of the 16th century; second, the classical protestant confessions; and third, modern protestant systematic theology. Let's begin with the theology of the early reformers. The goal of early protestant theology was to reconstruct Christian theology according to the content of Scripture. Martin Luther and John Calvin, for instance, were deeply committed to reasserting the Bible's authority in theology.
They countered the challenges of Roman Catholicism and radical Anabaptists primarily by delving directly into the Scriptures. And as a result, neither Luther nor Calvin wrote anything that directly corresponds to modern systematic theology. Even so, many of the characteristics of patristic and scholastic theology do appear in the writings of the early reformers. By way of example, consider Calvin's well-known Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes were written in the first place to defend Protestants against the charge of heresy.
But in defending the views of Protestants, Calvin reflected significant affinities for building theology in ways that had developed during the centuries prior to the reformation. Now, it would be unfair to say that Calvin simply followed the patterns of patristic or scholastic theology. Nevertheless, in the Institutes he displayed a significant concern with Aristotelian logic in the ways he employed technical terms; expressed his theology largely in propositions; constructed syllogisms to reason through issues; and patterned his theology according to the priorities of theology from above.
Time will not allow us to demonstrate each element in Calvin's work, but we can easily see his endorsement of reason as a central tool in theology and how he followed the priorities of theology from above. On the one hand, listen to the way Calvin affirmed the advantages of studying dialectic or logic, even as it was developed by unbelievers.
In line with this endorsement of dialectics or logic, Calvin's writings frequently displayed not only a concern for what the Scriptures teach but also for expressing those biblical teachings in ways that corresponded to the standards of Aristotelian logic.
On the other hand, on a large scale Calvin's Institutes also reflect the priorities of theology from above in ways that closely reflected the structures of medieval theology. The Institutes divide into four books: the first book deals with the Knowledge of God as Creator. In this book Calvin described God in himself and God as the sovereign creator and controller of the universe.
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Book Two focuses on the Knowledge of God as Redeemer; it treats more earthly matters related to God's intervention in the world as Christ accomplished salvation for his people. Here Calvin explained how the salvation that was accomplished in Christ is applied to individual people and what blessings and effects the reception of salvation brings to the lives of individual people. And Book Four focuses on even lower, more practical matters: the church, its sacraments, and its relation to civil government. So we can see then, that Calvin moved from higher celestial concepts to lower, more mundane ones.
God as the great Sovereign over creation is dealt with first. Then God's intervention into history in Christ is second. The salvation of individual people is next. And finally, we find attention to practical, everyday Christian concerns. So, in terms of his endorsement of logic and theology from above, Calvin continued to follow the theological methods and priorities that had developed in church history prior to the reformation. In addition to recognizing the dependence of early protestant theology on earlier developments in theology, we should also point out that the same is true of the confessional heritage of Protestants.
Protestants in different regions of the world produced a number of classical catechisms and confessions that summarized their faith. By way of example, consider the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith written around As with earlier Protestants, it would be unfair to call Westminster theology strictly scholastic because of the importance placed on the teaching of Scripture. Still, it is true that the Confession was influenced by outlooks that characterized theology of the medieval period.
Studies in Systematic Theology
The Confession embraces Aristotelian logic in the ways it relies heavily on technical terms, how propositions are the central form of expression, the ways careful syllogisms undergird the presentation of theology, and how it orders the topics of theology according to the priorities of theology from above. We can see a very important role for logic in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
This is especially clear in chapter 1, paragraph 6. Listen to the way it puts the matter. Notice here that everything necessary for God's glory and our salvation, faith, and life may be found in two ways. On the one hand, these truths may be expressly set down in Scripture. That is to say, the Bible teaches certain essential truths explicitly.
But on the other hand, other important Christian doctrines may "by good and necessary consequence … be deduced from Scripture. As these protestant theologians did their work, they employed reason and logic to draw out the implications of Scripture. In this way, the Westminster Confession reveals a definite tendency toward the methods of earlier periods. Beyond this, the overarching structure of the Confession of Faith also reveals the priorities of theology from above.
The chapters of the Confession follow this order: after an initial chapter entitled "Of Scripture," chapters 2 and 3 focus on the highest spiritual reality — God himself. Next, chapters four and five deal with the Creation. Then moving even further toward mundane or earthly subjects, chapters 6—17 handle humanity's fall into sin and subsequent redemption. Next, chapters 18—31 explain more practical issues of the Church and Christian life.
Finally, chapters 32 and 33 address the end of world history. The theological priorities exhibited in this structure characterize many of the classical protestant confessions and catechisms. With these general tendencies of early protestant theology and classical protestant confessions in mind, we can see that modern systematic theology continues the same tendencies.
By way of example, consider the systematic theology of Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary who lived from to Throughout his systematic theology, Hodge gave reason and logic a central role as he employed traditional technical terms, relied on propositions, built his case with careful syllogisms and followed the priorities of theology from above. On the one hand, Hodge endorsed a role for reason in theology that moved beyond the canons of medieval scholasticism and early Protestants.
Listen to the ways he explained how theologians must practice their discipline in ways that are analogous to modern scientists. In book 1, chapter 1, section 5 of his Systematic Theology he wrote these words:. Having described how the natural sciences were understood in his day, Hodge then added a word about systematic theologians. So we see that although Hodge modified his understanding of reason and logic along the lines of modern science in his day, as a systematic theologian he stood in a long tradition of seeing reason and logic as vital tools for constructing theology.
On the other hand, Hodge's Systematic Theology also followed the priorities of theology from above. A glance at his systematic theology reveals the overarching structure of his summary of Christian theology. Part Two is entitled "Anthropology" which moves down the scale of priorities to humanity. Next comes Part Three, "Soteriology," starting with the highest concept of God's work in Christ and moving down to the application of salvation to the lives of people, and then to the practical means of grace. And following the traditional order he completed his theology with Part Four, "Eschatology" — the last days.
So we see that in every age, while faithful Christians continued to be submissive to Scripture, they also expressed the teachings of Scripture in ways that were appropriate for the changing Gentile cultures in which they lived. Now that we have traced how Systematic Theology developed as a major way of expressing Christian theology, we should turn to our third main topic, the values and dangers of systematic theology. In future lessons we'll look into these issues in much detail. So, at this point, we will limit ourselves to just a handful of broad concerns. To see some of the positive and negative features of systematic theology, we need to remember how we have described building theology in other lessons.
You'll recall how we spoke of the fact that God has provided three main resources upon which we must draw as we build Christian theology: the exegesis of Scripture, interaction in community and Christian living. The exegesis of Scripture is our way of concentrating on special revelation and the other two resources focus more on God's general revelation in all things. Community interaction gives us access to a very important dimension of general revelation: the testimony of other people, especially other Christians.
And Christian living draws our attention to other vital dimensions of general revelation — those things we learn through experiences of living for Christ, struggling with sin and walking in the Spirit. These three theological resources are the ordinary ways the Holy Spirit leads God's people to understand his revelation and to build Christian theology.
You'll also recall that these major theological resources help us evaluate the levels of confidence we should grant to particular beliefs we have. As the witnesses of exegesis, interaction in community and Christian living are harmonious and weighty on a particular matter our level of conviction and confidence about that issue should normally grow. But, as these witnesses are disharmonious and of less weight our levels of conviction and confidence should normally be lessened on a given subject.
Because the resources of exegesis, community interaction and Christian living play such important roles in building Christian theology, we can make some significant evaluations of the values and dangers of systematic theology by asking how systematics engages each of these resources. How does systematic theology enable and hinder our ability to use the three resources God has provided?
We'll touch first on systematics in connection with Christian living; second, on systematics and interaction in community; and third, on systematics and exegesis. Let's consider first how systematics has both positive and negative effects on Christian living. The resource of Christian living can be described in many different ways and we'll explore how it works more thoroughly in future lessons.
At this point, we'll give a brief snapshot of the resource of Christian living. In our study, we'll speak of Christian living as involving our sanctification, our growth in holiness, in three interrelated areas. We must be sanctified on a conceptual level, on a behavioral level and on an emotional level. In other words, our thoughts must conform to the will of God.
Our actions must conform to the will of God. And our feelings must conform to the will of God as well. We've spoken of these three dimensions of Christian living as orthodoxy, orthopraxis and orthopathos. There are critical ways in which systematic theology enhances and hinders our ability to benefit from these three dimensions of Christian living. Let's look first at the more positive side, how systematics enhances Christian living as a resource for theology. On the positive side, systematic theology is particularly strong in the area of orthodoxy. It provides us with a systematic way of thinking, a conceptual framework for considering rightly the issues we face in our daily lives.
As we seek to live for Christ day by day, we often face situations where we need to be able to draw from a logically coherent point of view, a consistent, stable view of God, the world around us and ourselves. Systematic theology is one of the most important ways we can find such outlooks. When we only have disconnected beliefs, we're not well-prepared to assess our circumstances, to answer questions about our lives, or to make choices that honor God.
I remember once visiting a friend in the hospital. He was very sick and in need of much prayer. But when I asked him if he was praying for God's help, he said, "No. So he told me. So, I know prayer can't make any difference. What had happened to my friend? Well, in many respects he had grasped a bit of Christian theology but treated it as the whole of Christian teaching.
He understood rightly that God is in control of history; that God is utterly sovereign. But my friend did not know how to relate that fact to other truths of the Christian faith, like the instrumentality of prayer, the ways God uses prayer to carry out his sovereign purposes. God's sovereignty does not diminish the need for prayer, it's actually the logical basis for prayer.
It is because God is sovereign that we pray. It is because he is in control that we turn to him for help. If God were not in control, we should turn to someone else for help. Had my friend understood these things, had he been better trained in systematic theology, had he understood the relationship between prayer and God's sovereignty he would have been much better equipped to live his Christian life during that trying experience.
Systematic theology - The Faculty of Theology
At the same time, as positive as systematic theology can be for orthodoxy, it can hinder Christian living when we expect too much from it. Systematic theology turns our attention to careful rational reflection on the Christian faith and this is very important.
But we can become so preoccupied with putting our beliefs into a logical system that we ignore other dimensions of Christian living, especially orthopraxis, conforming our behaviors to the will of God and orthopathos, conforming our emotions to the will of God. For example, Christians who become heavily involved in systematics often lessen their attention to the practice and feelings of the Christian faith. They marginalize things like worship, involvement in the means of grace, service to others, and the intuitive and emotional leading of the Holy Spirit.
They reduce Christian living to conceptual matters, orthodoxy, and eliminate more practical and personal dimensions of Christian living. Rational systematic theology is important, but our faith is not merely a system of doctrines. It is a practical faith that must be practiced and a personal relationship that must be nurtured. I can't tell you how many times I have dealt with this problem in the lives of theological students. I remember one student who had received calls to become the pastor of several churches. He was so frustrated because he didn't know how to make a choice.
He told me, "I have studied systematic theology so much. But it does not help me in this practical matter of making one of the most important choices I will face all of my life. So I asked him, "How do you feel the Holy Spirit is leading you? Have you spent much time fasting about this choice? Well, Christians who embrace the goals of systematic theology with a lot of enthusiasm often begin to ignore the practice of the faith and the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit. And this can severely hinder fruitful Christian living.
In addition to enhancing and diminishing our ability to live the Christian life, systematics also has many positive and negative effects on interaction in community. In future lessons we will look more carefully into interaction in community, but at this point we will simply mention the major dynamics of this theological resource.
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It helps to think of interaction in community as involving three concerns: our Christian heritage, the arena of the Holy Spirit's work in the past, our present community, the arena of the Holy Spirit's leading in our contemporary Christian community, and our private judgment, the arena of the Holy Spirit's work in us as individuals within community. Christians interact with each other because we know that the church is the central arena within which the Holy Spirit ministers in the world.
And Christ expects us to build our theology in concert with others who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Keeping these three areas of interaction in mind: heritage, present community and private judgment, helps us see how systematic theology enhances and hinders community interaction. On the one hand, one of the greatest values of systematic theology for community is the way it enables us to focus on Christian heritage, how Christians have understood and lived their faith in the past. Systematics constructs theology with an eye to the things the Holy Spirit has already taught the Church of Christ, paying attention to how great men and women in the past built theology.
And because of this, it can greatly enhance our ability to interact with the Christian community of the past. In our day, most Christians view theology as something very personal. It appears that the highest theological goal for many Christians is to form theology that is true to themselves with very little regard for what other Christians have believed.
Well, Christ does call us to be genuinely personal in our approach to theology in the sense that it must be authentic, and he wants us to engage it with our whole hearts. But approaching theology exclusively as a personal matter leaves us bereft of some of the richest resources God has given us for theology: the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages. Now, when believers today occasionally interact with others it's normally on the level of present community.
We read books and listen to sermons and lectures given by people who are our contemporaries. Systematic theology, however, helps us turn our attention to the wonderful ways the Holy Spirit has led the church in the past. While it is true that systematics enhances our interaction in community in this way, at the same time, systematic theology is limited in the ways it opens us to interaction.
When we take the traditional focus of systematic theology too far, it can lead us to irrelevance, ignoring what the Holy Spirit teaches the present community and how he informs our private judgment today. As important as the theology of the past may be, the church today faces new challenges and the Holy Spirit still teaches the church how to meet those challenges. I can remember seeing a friend of mine at church one Sunday morning. He was a member of another church across town, but he was visiting my church that day. So, I asked him, "Why are you here today? Don't you belong to another church?
We also embed content from third parties, including social media websites, which may include cookies. You can find out more about the cookies we set, the information we store and how we use it on our cookies page. The University of Aberdeen has a long-established international reputation for excellence in theological research, publication and teaching, and a flourishing community of graduate students from the UK and overseas. Systematic theology is a major research concentration.
The department has one of the largest groups of post-graduate research students in the field in the UK, attracted by the publications of its teachers and by its positive ethos; many students come to study topics in constructive Christian doctrine or the theologies of classical and modern Christian thinkers. Students can expect rigorous training in the history and contemporary articulation of Christian doctrine through attentive supervision and an extensive programme of seminars.
There are close working relations with those undertaking research in other theological fields, especially moral, philosophical and practical theology, the history of Christianity, and the study of Scripture. Please contact one of the supervisors below if you are thinking about applying for a PhD in their subject area. Professor Tom Greggs : Tom Greggs offers supervision in ecclesiology; pneumatology; soteriology and eschatology especially universalism ; theologies of the religions and inter-faith conversation; public and political theology; historical theology especially Origen and the constructive use of patristic sources ; evangelical theologies; Wesley; Karl Barth; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.