A Foundation of Faith: An Introductory Study of Systematic Theology

Posted: October 2, 2012 by Ty in Spirituality
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Introduction

            What is systematic theology? It is the study of the nature of God, yet we have to keep it in proper context. The early church (pre-Empire involvement) was a beautiful mosaic of many understandings of the Cosmic Christ, and his life here on earth. There is a renaissance of this type of diversity thanking to the independent/free church movements; emergent; missional; progressive; and fundamentalist that appear to be crossing denominational lines and bringing together diverse bodies under theological instead of geographical auspices. Historically this diversity was co-existing mostly due to distance from one another, but as a more refined church emerged that became bonded together over time (a hybrid of Paul/James’ church) that became known as the Apostolic Church needed to craft an understanding of the basics of the faith. The earliest form that is known of this collective is the Apostle’s Creed, yet overtime and as many of the older or divergent forms of the faith attempted to take a foothold there needed to be an ability to respond.

This response became a way to build logical arguments/apologetics around belief that followed a rather Greek philosophical system. It is interesting that as an introductory to this method Stanford E. Murrell, Th.D. chose to partner his written journey with a smaller denominations confession/statement of faith. Regardless of how progressive or conservative a church body is the simple fact they acknowledge certain beliefs/truths shows evidence of a system of theology in place.

Murrell’s A Foundation of Faith: an introductory study of systematic theology with references to the Baptist Confession of Faith 1689 (1998) is a journey that outlines four types of methodology, kinds of theology (both pro/anti-Christianities) and how the social sciences interplay throughout a building of a rudimentary understanding of the Holy Mystery. This short paper will touch upon a summary of Murrell’s work, followed by the writer’s own interpretation, with a summation of the usefulness of the work for a theologian.

Summary

            Murrell opens up with two distinct statements for the reader: (a) scriptures are authoritative, and (b) the fundamental question for a disciple of Christ is “what has God said?” (p.19). This is what leads into a journey of a textbook to not only outline how systematic theology works, but the practical application through partnering it with a confession of faith to show how it works out within a certain Body of Christ.

The journey continues by the outlining of four methodologies:

  1. Speculative Method – everything most conform to what is already known (Murrell p. 21).
  2. Mystical Method – Individual or corporate bodies that subscribe to special revelations from God that supersede the scriptures (Murrell p. 21).
  3. Inductive Method – the gathering of information for examination and with all the pieces gathered the attempt to make a harmonious whole (Murrell p. 22).
  4. Deductive Method – one has a starting inference and gathers information to support the theory (Murrell p.22).

This is the ground work to begin looking at what can be called “orthodox” or “creedal” belief. From these methods he moves into the five types of theology:

  1. Natural – the search for understanding God is found in the works of God (Murrell p. 23).
  2. Revealed (Biblical) – the search for knowing God is exclusively within the scriptures (Murrell p. 24).
  3. Dogmatic – the search for God is in the doctrines of the church over the centuries (Murrell p. 24).
  4. Practical – the outworking of divine truth within the everyday lives of believers (Murrell p. 24).
  5. Theology Proper – which is focused on the person of God to find truth (Murrell p. 24).

Out of these types of theology couple with methodologies Murrell takes the reader through a short history of where key doctrines came from in response to what are classically known as early and later church heresies, but also in response to anti-Christian theories: (a) atheism, (b) polytheism, (c) materialism, (d) pantheism, (e) deism, (f) rationalism, (g) pessimism, and (h) doctrine of a finite God (Murrell p. 32-37). While walking through these Murrell relies on a revealed theology to do a point counterpoint debate which can almost be a written catechism for a young Baptist.

Murrell touches on evolution (which he is not a fan of, p.57); and states declaratively that no Christian can abide liberal theology (p. 71).  While exploring the social science of bibliology (p.65) stipulates an argument against Anthropology. Murrell rounds out his text with basics around Original Sin (p.115-116), soteriology (p.157), regeneration (p.188-191), justification (p. 193), and sanctification (p.200).

This summary shows at first blush quite a few useful answers to indoctrinate, yet the study of systematic theology is simply not just memorization. For the practice is part of a lifestyle of always learning, growing and changing as one experience the living Christ within their lives and communities. The next step is interpreting this download of information.

Interpretation

            It would be simple to say that this is a fine introductory text. The reader is given the building blocks for the thesis of the work on systematic. The methodologies presented illuminates whether an individual is open to where the evidence leads (inductive) or simply holds to the evidence that supports their own theory (deductive). This faulty deductive methodology at its worse is seen in Richard Dawkins` atheistic works where he builds circular straw man arguments centered on the impossibility of proving God`s existence. The other two aspects of methodologies are equally twinned with speculative and mystical. Speculative would be the idea that ancient Israel bore in regards to the concept of Christ`s teachings in general. For Jesus did not fit the conventional norms. While mystical methodology is the personal revelation, akin to St. Francis of Assisi within San Damiano and hearing Christ speak from the crucifix to rebuild the church.

None of the four methods are invalid, and one who is truly disciple will be able to see points in time within their faith journey when they adhered to one or another methodology. This type of understanding of the personal can be applied to the five types of theology that Murrell postulates as well.

Each type of theology taken on its own is quite valid and dependent on where someone is in their journey with God. What needs to be noted though is at any time an individual can be operating in piecing together a theology that encapsulates one or more of these stated theologies, or even those theologies and theories that Murrell poses as invalid with the Christian walk that he writes in three statements.

There are three statements that ring false to this reader’s ear. The three involve: evolution, anthropology, and liberal theology. The first reflection is found in regards to evolution being incompatible with the Christian understanding of creation (Murrell p. 57). The challenge with this declarative of a statement is that it brings a superficial reading to the scriptures. A reading that even Murrell says one cannot take all writings within scripture verbatim as the word of God, as they are a collection of human records and personal observations (p. 66). Yet he stands by this idea that evolution and Christianity need to be at odds, this is an exercise in missing the point. There are many things that come together for the understanding of God, as Murrell noted with his typologies of theology and his methodologies. Yet he holds firm that evolution is not compatible with scripture, but what if the point of scripture is not to explain how things are created, but rather why God created (John 3:16-17 or any ending of a day of 1-6 of Genesis where God calls creation good?).

The other weaknesses are in regards to his written attack on the social science of anthropology (pp.89-95). This walk through a social science that originated on the mission field is an attempt to stipulate that anthropology is invalid because it has missing pieces within its theory. That is that it is hard to prove or disprove, the hinge for Murrell rests on the idea of the soul. What is missing is a true understanding of the history of anthropology that began as an inductive method worked out through natural theology to grasp a deeper understanding of God’s world. Does this mean one should accept all that anthropologists have discovered without critical thought? No, what it means is that through fossils, studying of the origins of creation and society we can begin to discern a deeper understanding of the Holy Mystery and our interdependent relationship with Him and one another.

Evolution and anthropology are tied together in Murrell’s estimation as invalid. Yet he reserves his strongest statement for liberal theology: “No Christian can accept liberal Theology” (Murrell p. 71).  Now, first liberal theology like any of the five theologies Murrell lists needs to be taken with a grain of salt. That is the believer (better a body of believers) need to work to discern the divine truth within together. Just because it is uncomfortable does not make it wrong, for Jesus stated many things that were uncomfortable to those in power and it is his life that we are to explore theology through.

How does this work out? Take one example of the extreme liberalism, Gretta Vosper, a United Church Minister who in her work With or Without God (2008) illuminated the challenge to be a true transformative community (good), yet falls short of even progressive orthodoxy by stipulating that God and/or Jesus are not personal. That is God is limited (Murrell p. 37) which in itself does not bear witness to the God of the scriptures found within the diversity of the Abrahamic faiths.

So, like with all theologies, there is good and bad that needs to be approached with a discerning mind. Why as a true disciple of the living Christ we cannot throw out any theology completely? Because each believer is a theologian, we are each individually and collectively attempting to understand the Holy Mystery that breathed life into us. By throwing away any form of theology as completely invalid we are throwing away voices of the Body of Christ.

These arrays of voices hold nuggets that can shine a new light into our understanding, a challenging thought that we may never agree with or feel is divine truth but by opening up to exploring it The Holy Spirit reveals something else about our journey. Do we truly have a firm grasp of understanding God as active within our diverse world if we cannot access the wealth that is evangelical, protestant, Calvinist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Liberation, Social Gospel, Fundamentalist, Monastic, Progressive, Emergent, Missional, Feminine, Queer, Black, Mah Jong, Vietnamese, South African, Anglican, and the list goes on for as many believers as exist within the world (2 billion at last count) there is a diversity of theologies that all aid in informing a piece of the puzzle that is God.

Murrell`s voice is part of this puzzle, it is a piece in the corner that allows a reader to have a quick reference to key points of the basics of systematic theology. Through broad strokes he outlines methodologies, theologies, and challenges to the Christianities. Critically using these aspects provided a much needed baseline for the believer, but preferentially to the preacher or teacher within a local Body of Christ to have a quick reference at their fingertips.

Conclusion

            Systematic Theology can be a complicated process for some to understand. It was birthed out of the need for a rule of order within the Body of Christ. Murrell`s work was well laid out with good information to the reader. The information was tied well into the confession he chose to use as a running example throughout the text. For introductory texts upon the topic the use of the confession of faith as a breathing example throughout aided the reader`s understanding in how arguments of doctrine were built and created. The partnering of methodologies and styles of theologies in the beginning are reflected throughout for the astute reader and critical student.

Where the weakness appears within Murrell`s text is when he attempts to step outside the logical, systematic thought process of the understanding of God to then use systematic as a form of apologetics. Yes both disciplines share rudimentary underpinnings, but one is intended for the non-believer and the other for the believer as a form of discourse and spiritual growth.

Which brings us to the point of this paper, is this a valid text book for the study of systematic theology? Murrell is quite adept at titling his work a foundation, for that is what it provides for the student. If one is able to critically assess the times Murrell goes off the rails of academia and into personal bias it becomes easier to read the book which is twinned with the 1689 Confession of Faith of the Baptist Church.

The foundation is aptly provided through Murrell`s systematic method of laying out the building blocks that moves towards understanding. It is in understanding of where one`s opinions and beliefs come from, then one can move from just theology as our personal study of God to theology as a discourse in the broader community of believers. Finally, this discourse can move into the realm of apologetics to allow for a broader discourse among the believer and his neighbours in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference

Murrell, Stanford E. A Foundation of Faith: An Introductory Study of Systematic     Theology with references to the Baptist Confession of Faith 1869 retrieved from      http://ntsmoodle.com 26 September 2012.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s