De-systematized Theology

First of all, I know the title of this post is quite clunky. I applaud your courage in attempting to read this. I assure you however, that the rest of what I am going to say is not so cumbersome, I hope. I chose this particular title to illustrate the problem at hand, the nature of Christian theology.

I once heard someone describe herself as a “theology buff” on a show on one of my favourite YouTube channels. I know of all sort of “buffs” but you hardly hear of a hobbyist theologian. There are all sorts of reasons but as far as Christian theology is concerned, systematic theology to be precise, it is not generally speaking attractive. Now I actually enjoy theology (to my complete surprise) but it was not always the case.

My first experience with proper theological books just put me off. Though I did learn from them, the writing was clunky and awkward, very much like my title. Even though it seemed to be talking about the Bible I found it overall to be abstract, impractical and far from the Bible. Many people share my experience. When I hear pastors talk about theology it usually goes like this, “What I am saying is true, I could go into the theology of it but it’s too tedious and complicated for me to do here.” With such statements coming from the pulpit it is hardly surprising that Christian theology is not popular among Christians. When you are going through a rough patch you do not go looking for a theologian.

When I look at systematic theology I see that it is dominated by Western thinking. I see the strong influence of American Christianity in particular among the learned in my own country. The Western approach to theology is very different from the African worldview. I am not going to make the ridiculous argument of pitting one culture against another but I would rather caution us to be wary of cultural syncretism. Westernized Christianity comes with its own baggage of things which are not Christian at all but just Western thinking. I do not consider myself an expert in another part of the world even though I did spent a part of my early childhood in the West. Being immersed in a completely different culture however does allow me to make certain observations that a Westerner would not. A tourist notices the peculiarities and quirks of the people of a foreign country. Similarly, I am a curious observer of a different ideological world.

Systematic theology is very topical in nature. According to Wayne Grudem,

…systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.

As with any academic discipline the definitions of what that discipline is abound.  Taking a look at other definitions there is the common theme of things being neatly arranged and filed in a cabinet. When you want to know about something you just have to refer to the index. Now I am not against the orderly presentation of information, I use Google after all. What I have the observed is the approach is similar to say how one would pursue science. There must be laws, principles, rules that govern the enterprise which cannot be violated. It is very much a product of Western Enlightenment thinking which sees the world in mechanistic terms. Christian systematic theology is dogmatic in nature in a similar manner to how mathematics is axiomatic. What is very interesting to note is the Bible is completely different.

The Bible is not a neatly codified book of dogmatic positions. It is messy. Systematic theology wants to “sort out the mess.” It would be so simple if Christianity could be defined in terms of set theory but I don’t think it works that way. Even though Western thinking has it merits I certainly do not think it is the only way to go. Likewise, I think the current approach to theology is not the ultimate and there is a lot lacking.

To help illustrate the differences in worldviews I want us to consider dancing. The Western idea of dancing involves being able to execute certain moves. The African view of dancing is doing what comes naturally according to the beat. The average Ghanaian will probably not see ballet as dance but to the Westerner it is a beautiful art-form. This is not to say we don’t understand having specific dance forms but ours has more improvisation. I am not saying Westerners are stiffs and we have fun. Most Africans, Ghanaians anyway, think of Westerners as quite informal. I want to point out how worldviews and ways of life can drastically differ even with something as simple as dancing.

When the Westerner reads the Bible and sees miracles it is often a challenge or a thorny issue. I was listening recently to interviews of Dr Craig Keener on his two volume book Miracles. I was just so struck by the difference. He spoke about the “Hume hangover” that persisted in their culture. Though I was aware of it, it had not really hit me how much Western society is anti-supernatural. The average African Christian reads the miracle accounts and not only receives them whole heartedly, but trusts God to do it in his life today.

When I listen to Western preachers and Christian music talk about idolatry it usually means spending your time doing something else rather than keeping God at the centre. African believers also get preoccupied with things they shouldn’t but we never talk about it as idolatry. Idolatry for us is something real we see with mallams (native Muslim spiritualists), fetish priests and ancestral shrines. We understand what it means to follow idols and deities as in the ancient world of the Bible and the fear of these supernatural forces which exert real influence upon lives. Animal sacrifice is related to idol worship. In the ancient world of the Bible, sacrifice was part of the worship of any deity. Westerners look upon this with horror and see it as an obstacle to faith that the God of the Bible receives blood sacrifice. For us in Africa it is taken for granted. The propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus is something we readily grasp. It is something we see in our culture since paganism is practised to this day and it is quite vibrant in fact. I could go on but the list of things we do not have a problem with would surprise a typical Westerner, Christian or non-Christian.

The supernatural is thought of as a violation of the laws of nature in Enlightenment influenced thinking. For us the natural and supernatural mutually coexist sharing the same space. The term supernatural carries the idea that there are things outside of the “natural world.” The natural order for us involves things which are not material. In my local dialect there is really no word for “supernatural.” I think the biblical worldview has an ontology more akin to ours. In the Bible God is active in the world even though he transcends it. God is not neatly tucked away in heaven. Heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool. He is in both places at once. If we are going to have a theology that reflects the Bible it needs to be de-systematized. I am not saying we should get rid of what has been done. We need a new approach that does not put artificial boundaries on the Bible and the faith that comes from it.

I think the reason the Scriptures are not dogmatic is that life itself is messy. A dogmatic topical theology cannot address the sheer complexities of life. Every believer deals with theological issues in the realities of life. Everybody has had questions about God and how he relates to man. In light of this, the obvious direction to go theologically is relationship. Relationship is a constant in the Bible from the very first right through to the end. The great motif of the Bible is God dwelling among his people. If this is indeed the intent and plan of God our theology needs to be centred on that. Systematic theology needs to move aside for relational theology to take centre stage.

I do realise that I am making huge claims especially for a Christian “theology buff” but I find a relationship with God far more interesting than a systematic theology of him. People are deliciously complex and I expect the God in whose image we are made to be infinitely more intricate. How marvellous would it be if we had theology that introduced us to the person of God instead of the subject of God?

What would a relational theology look like? Perhaps there are answers that lie in antiquity. I have not read the massive tome of NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but I have heard him lecture on his book on YouTube . He contends that Paul invented what we consider in hindsight as Christian theology. Instead of giving them a long list of dos and don’ts, or believe and don’t believe, he taught them to think about God for themselves. It is obvious that Pauline theology, or any New Testament author’s theology, did not resemble ours. They inhabited a different worldview driven by a different metanarrative. I earlier showed the limitations of the Western worldview in reading the Bible. We need to inhabit another worldview which requires adopting a different metanarrative. If we are going to understand the Bible we need think the way the authors did.

The fact there is a biblical metanarrative in the Gospel provides us with a great starting point for a relational theology. As I have pointed out in my other posts, the apostles’ preaching and teaching was not based off dogmatic principles but governed by the biblical narratives. It is the stories of the Creation, the Flood, the call of Abraham, the Exodus among others that shaped their understanding. We need to adopt this metanarrative worldview of the Scriptures to have truly biblical theology.

Those who are pretty attached to systematic theology might ask how would something as vague as a story help the believer understand justification or atonement. These terms are now theologically laden but that does not make it impossible to explain in an undogmatic fashion. Jesus often used parables in his teaching. When there are issues that are difficult to understand or are not easily communicated we resort to using metaphor. Jesus did the same and I think that is exactly what God did in the Scriptures. Stories and art in general lasts for generations because they transcend ordinary linguistics and time. Potent lasting lessons can be transmitted from one generation to another.

If the Bible is a story crafted by God for us, our approach to grasping it theologically has to change. If we see God as a story-teller then the Bible is a work of art. We need to think of the Scriptures in more artistic terms, to view it as word-art. In Jesus the Prophet I mentioned how symbolically rich the Bible is. Symbolism is always understood in a vibrant manner. We need to engage the Scriptures with our imagination. In studying the Bible I realised it was packed with multiple layers and dimensions of meaning. I am not saying you should see the Bible the way you want. Meaning requires coherence. This kind of depth in interpretation only exists in personal relationships and interactions.

The Bible is far more sophisticated than our current theology and the God of the Bible is far more intimate. Our theology has to reflect a dynamic relationship with him, a truly personal theology, relevant to every believer.


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