Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reading a systematic theology

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned and idea about the need for a new systematic theology. As I said then, I'm' not a big fan of them, but then again we actually all do systematic theology whether we call it that or not. We make statements of faith and about our faith that amount to a core set of beliefs. We all think they are Biblical, whether they stand the test of scrutiny or not. This is systematic theology.

Perhaps what we actually need is a more systematic scrutiny of our existing systematic theologies that we carry around with us. In other words, do your core beliefs and practices actually stand the test of biblical reflection?

Anyway, I decided to take the plunge and to set about reading at least one comparatively recent systematic theology text to start getting my head around how my idea could work in the context of the local church.

I chose Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, which runs to around 1200 larger than typical pages. Helpfully subtitled "An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine" (Yes, I too wonder how long the full treatment would be if the introduction is 1200 pages), it's actually a very accessible book to read. Okay, so you might need a dictionary occasionally if you're not familiar with some of the theological terms used, but overall, this is not a hard book to read. The chapters are quite short, and of course you don't actually have to read it from start to finish, you can pick the topics in which you are most interested and read those first.

What I really like about the book is the approach Grudem has taken. This is a book written from an evangelical perspective and in a disciple-making context. The goal of the book is not to fill your head with all sorts of theological information but to help you grow in your understanding of your faith.

There's a good bibliography, and each chapter ends with a passage of Scripture to learn and a hymn or song that reflects the topic just discussed. You may not agree with every conclusion that he draws, but I don't think you can claim that you're going to be uninformed by the time you've worked your way through this weighty tome.

So why would you want to read a book of this length? 

First of all I should tell you that there are two edited versions of the book also available. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith is still 400 pages long, but even at that, only a third the size of the original. And if 400 pages is too much to get your enthusiasm racing, then the very concise Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, is only 160 pages long and not a bad place to begin at all.

And the reason you should at least one of them or something similar? Well I think the answer lies in a verse from James that we all know but probably don't think it applies to us.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.

I doubt we consider ourselves unstable, or double-minded, or with divided loyalties, but I often wonder if some of our struggles are rooted in an incomplete theology at work in our minds.  Take for example a person who becomes unsure if God still loves them. Our modern experiential framework means that they tend to look for some kind of feeling to solve their sense of being unloved. Sensing God's love is a good thing, but knowing we are loved is, I suggest, of far greater importance. 

The latter is a matter of understanding, the former is incredibly fickle because our feeling can be fickle. 

I don't want to set myself up for a fall, but I have come to the conclusion that the thing that keeps me going when things get me down and things get tough is my theology. It is what I know and believe about God that provides the foundation for my perseverance. And that's why I am beginning to see the need for a new systematic theology in the church today. Not so that we can argue the finer points of doctrine, or debate the order events in the end times or even test our orthodoxy with respect to the five points of Calvinism, but that we might grow, that we might become mature in our faith, for the glory of God and for sake of his purposes.

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