Thursday, 18 February 2010

Systematic Theology: Queen or Cinderella?

Some years ago it was quite clear that systematic theology, once regarded as the 'queen' of the theological sciences, had become the 'cinderella' - the despised scullery maid of the family.

Then things changed, it seemed; some fine systematic theologies were published and it appeared that systematics was regaining something of the respect formerly accorded her.

And now? I am not so sure. Am I detecting a certain scepticism about 'system' in evangelicalism again?

Without speculating about how widespread such an attitude may be, are there reasons why suspicion, bordering on rejection, of the systematisation of theological truth, may be 'in the air'?

Let me first briefly define terms - with help from Cornelius Van Til (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p.2):

'Exegesis takes the Scriptures and analyzes each part of it in detail. Biblical theology [as a discipline - MR] takes the fruits of exegesis and organizes them into various units and traces the revelation of God in Scripture in its historical development. It brings out the theology of each part of God's Word as it has been brought to us at different stages. Systematic theology then uses the fruits of the labours of exegetical and biblical theology and brings them together into a concatenated [linked together into a continuous chain - MR] system'.

Systematic theology is therefore at the end of a process (though practical or pastoral theology follows)and is itself the process of harmonising all that the Word of God says on a given subject - on Scripture, God, Man, Sin, Salvation, etc.

So with that in place, we continue.

Some people see systematic theology (ST)as:

unspiritual. 'Only the Bible' is their watchword. Not too many may say this openly but I suspect it is a surprisingly strong undercurrent amongst evangelicals. ST worthy of the name however is always firmly rooted in sound exegesis and exposition and is always to be measured against Scripture. Only the Bible is inspired; no ST I would value claims anything else. The uniqueness of the Bible is not threatened by the proper use of ST. A secondary 'standard' or level of instruction and authority is not in itself unspiritual - as I shall try to show next time.

unnecessary. This is closely related to the above. Why create admittedly human constructs when we have all we need in the Bible? But this is naive. Theology has been necessary throughout the history of the church, because the Bible has been argued over since (not to mention during) the time of the apostles. Systems help to explain, teach and protect biblical truth. If systems are not carefully thought through and explicit, they will surely be carelessly thought through and implicit.

We cannot help systematising and if we do not systematise well we will certainly do it badly.

imposing structure artificially on Scripture. This may be true in some STs; it is certainly not essential to it. Good ST recognises, and makes explicit, connections that are in Scripture. It is a question of 'joining the dots,' not putting in dots that are not there.

expressive of an authoritarian mentality. No doubt systems of thought can be abused to stifle questioning or creative thinking; that is neither desirable nor possible. Nevertheless we need some intellectual grids which help us to identify and challenge thinking which is not orthodox. Or are we afraid of that word?

Is there a postmodern spirit in evangelicalism , sympathetic to the 'generous orthodoxy' of the emerging church, wary of and even hostile to 'metanarrative', that really is unwilling to be told what is to be believed - however biblical it is? If this is creeping into evangelicalism more generally, it is worrying.

Christianity is not authoritarian, but it certainly believes in the authority of truth. A good ST is not that truth in itself, but an essential guide to it, and attacks on ST can be a thinly veiled attack on the notion of orthodox doctrine.

placing too much trust in human reasoning. This is closely related to the above but reflects a radical scepticism about the use of reason in studying the Bible. Of course reason is only to receive truth, not create it or stand in judgment over revelation. The enlightenment turned this on its head and subjected revelation to reason. An over-reaction to this perhaps refuses to go further in theology than can be discovered on the surface of Scripture. Recent examples of areas where the cry 'but we do not see this in Scripture' is heard are 'the imputed righteousness of Christ' and 'the covenant of works'. Sometimes this is genuine scholarly conviction; sometimes it is because of unfamiliarity with a broad range of Christian doctrine.

One response to this must be careful thought about the duty and validity of using sanctified reason in the service of Scripture. The issue is to think things through energetically to their biblically justified conclusion without going beyond what Scripture warrants. It is a difficult task to accomplish but it cannot be avoided.

uses unfamiliar and non-biblical technical terms. Yes, this is true; and proponents of ST must use the best terms available and explain them as well as possible. But there is no way of avoiding 'technical shorthand' as the church from the earliest days has found. Without the word 'Trinity' how would we conduct sensible discourse?

One of the consequences of the distaste for systematic theology is a neglect of the great Confessions of the church. We are a generation which really does not like the 'i's' dotted and the 't's' crossed. We are to be 'liberated' from all that. This, however, is like being told that to leave the motorway and enter thick fog is to be liberated from knowing where you are going. Restraints on original thought the Confessions are not; without being inspired, they protect the gospel and the faith of the church, but enable creative thought. Neglecting these great statements of the past is the last thing our generation can afford to do. We are abandoning depth and embracing novelty.

Next time I shall try to put more positively a case for systematic theology.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Religion in mitigation?

If you are charged with a criminal offence you may bring certain matters in evidence to defend yourself. If you are nonetheless found guilty you may bring perhaps the same issues and/or other ones into account to seek to persuade the court to be lenient in sentencing. Such factors are called 'mitigating'.

Cherie Booth QC (aka Mrs Tony Blair) has got herself into a spot of bother recently over just this issue in her capacity as Recorder (judge) at Inner London Crown Court. A young man called Shamso Miah punched another man shortly after leaving a mosque. Miah was found guilty and sentenced, but Ms Booth told him 'I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable'.

One can imagine Professor Dawkins going ballistic over this and indeed the National Secular Society has lodged a complaint with the Office for Judicial Complaints saying 'This seems to indicate that she would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust'.

For about the first time ever I think I am of a mind with the National Secular Society.

Let's analyse, from the sparse facts at our disposal, what happened. Being religious clearly is not a defence, nor is being of previous good character. So we are in the realm of mitigating factors. Not having been in trouble before is clearly relevant.

How, though, does the defendant's religiosity come into it? Ms Booth's thinking one assumes is that his religion will help him keep out of trouble and a significant part of that is his knowledge that such an act of violence is wrong. Presumably she had in mind the rehabilitation of the offender - we are not told what the sentence was - prison? (unlikely if a first time offender); a community service order? Either way it was suspended.

There are two elements. (i) Being religous. But Miah had only shortly before been in a mosque before he clobbered someone, apparently for no reason known to the victim. Could one not argue that religion was in fact bad for him? Might indeed have been an aggravating factor? Why is there an assumption (at least in Ms Booth's mind) that all religion is bound to be helpful? A biblical approach to non-Christian religions would be that they are formalised idolatry therefore inevitably harmful not beneficial to their practitioners. One may not expect Ms Booth or any other judge to take the biblical line, but why assume the opposite? Perhaps sociological evidence of the general law-abiding nature of strongly religious people played its part in her thinking. That, however, seems a flimsy basis on which to favour a religious person, giving a flavour of justification to the protest from the Secular Society.

(ii) That because he was religious (it seems) he knew that what he did was wrong. But (a) do not non-religious people know that thuggery is wrong, at least except in extreme cases? Why should that knowledge be counted as mitigating when it comes in a religous framework? And can it be assumed that his knowledge of the rightness or wrongness of his act was mediated through his religion anyway?

(b)Perhaps the more significant point is this - should not knowledge that what one does is wrong be an aggravating factor, not a mitigating one? He who knows what is right to do and does not do it will be beaten with many blows, for to whom much is given, of him will much be expected (Luke 12:48). There is no reason why this eminently reasonable principle should not be acceptable in the judicial system.

Therefore despite Ms Booth's no doubt good intentions one cannot help but scent the whiff of pro-religious prejudice here.

Moreover at the great bar of God's judgement, we should all be very clear: the practice of religion will bring us no favours; and it will be absolutely no mitigation to say 'I knew what I did was wrong'. Our punishment will be commensurate with our knowledge - according to the clarity of the law under which we live and the light we have.

For mercy we look elsewhere - to Jesus Christ - and not our religious practices nor our moral knowledge.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Invictus (2)

(For those who have not read my last blog)
This poem by W.E. Henley, has become prominent because of the film of the same name. The film is about Nelson Mandela and South Africa's victory in the rugby world cup of 1995. The poem was a great influence on Mandela in his years in prison.

It reads as follows:

'Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my uncoquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul'.

Not only Mandela, but Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber of 1997 (executed in 2001) have professed to find inspiration from Henley's words, written by him at the age of 26 after losing a leg by amputation.

One can see why it inspires, though there is really something preposterous about it. Is it human, superhuman or sub-human to boast of not wincing or crying aloud in the face of tragedy? Is it virtuous or plain insensitive to be found 'unafraid' at the prospect of death? Is the man a hero or a block of wood?

Does the idea that an unconquerable soul should originate in some god or gods unknown and uninvolved, stand up for a moment? Clearly these deist gods have allowed the soul complete autonomy and have no more part to play in its 'fate'.

As I have pointed out before it is of course quite unable to give any moral guidance - a mass murderer and a national hero may both claim to have been inspired by it. It tweeks the will and the emotions, not the conscience or even the intellect.

'Invictus' means 'unconquered'. As such it is evocative for the Christian, who worships one who is unconquered. The Lord Jesus Christ experienced a night that covered him, 'Black as the Pit'; the bludgeonings he suffered, the bloody head and the place of wrath and tears and the 'Horror of the shade' were all too real. The scroll for him was charged with punishments more than we could bear, for he was bearing the punishments due to the sin of his people. The menace he faced was not of 'the years', nor of circumstance nor of chance but of his Father's wrath against sin.

How did he face it? Not entirely unafraid, nor yet unbowed, certainly not cavalierly facing whatever may come to him without wincing, crying aloud or without indeed immense trepidation. The Son of God knew what was to come, and feared it, and when it came he felt it. No block of wood, the eternal Son was neither superhuman nor sub-human but truly human. He truly was the master of his fate and the captain of his soul; only he could lay down his life and take it up again; only he could give up his spirit and not have it taken involuntarily from him. But his mastery and captaincy over his soul led him to lay it down in pure loving servanthood, for wretches like you and me. And it hurt him beyond mortal telling.

Yet God raised him from the dead because it was impossible for death to hold him.

How bleak and weak does Henley's bravado sound in the light of the cross.

Moreover, for those, too, who by grace have come to love and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is the promise of being 'invictus', indeed 'more than conquerors' through him who loved us. What a glorious invincibility this is which does not strut and posture in the face of Fate, but trusts a Father who is sovereign to order all things for the good of his own. Our confidence is not in our unconquerable souls but in the one who is unconquerable for us, and in his grasp of us and love for us.