Pope Benedict XVI recently got in trouble for stating that Latin should return in force within the Roman Catholic Church. What was missed within the media furor of taking the church back 50 years within its practices was a little known statement that the language of the vernacular had made theologians excessively wordy, and the use of a secondary language forces conciseness and reaching one’s point.
This is how one feels when they approach Dr. James Petigru Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1887. Dr. Boyce has embraced the excess in reaching his points. It appears that there was a strong belief in rhetoric that the more words a text contained the more authority it was imbued with. As a writer of his times Boyce regales the reader with a strong belief that theology in itself is a science (Boyce, 4) and as such is concerned with fact (Boyce, 6). Unfortunately the years have not be kind to Dr. Boyce and his verbosity within the confines of systematic theology, and this biased Southern Baptist treatise does damage to the idea of systematic theology. It illustrates quite strongly that systematic theology while a well thought out, modern way of arriving at doctrinal “truth” it falls dramatically short in being able to inspire the masses to hold true to the faith.
Jesus himself taught in parables and growing theology which was confirmed not by a logical sequence of point a to point b proves point c, but rather that his life lived, miracles produced gave credence and authority to that which he taught for revolutionizing the world. What is lined out before us then is quite a simply a journey to explain Boyce’s theory of systematic, and why it does not hold water.
Boyce holds firm in his belief that theology is a factual science (Boyce, 4-6). This is expounded upon by his rational of five types of theology:
- Revelation – natural and supernatural theology.
- Systematic – a didactic, polemic, dogmatic, controversial, practical experiment within theology.
- Main Religious Idea – Lends to pantheistic, Deistic, and rationalistic.
- Name of Founder – Christian, Judaist or Mohammedan theology.
- According to sources – Biblical, Christian Dogmatic or Ecclesiastical Dogmatism.
From these five touchstone is where the facts are drawn to craft a hard science of theology (Boyce, 6). For Boyce for this study of theology as science to hold up within these five broad categories it must hold to six ideals:
- A reverence for truth and especially the truth taught in the Word of God.
- Sought with earnest prayer for divine help.
- A careful searching of heart against prejudice.
- With timidity as to the reception and propagation of new doctrine.
- With spirit willing an anxious to examine, to accept whatever we may be convinced is true.
- Teachable humility.
The flow of Boyce’s rationale on how to reach a systematic polemic, is quite systematic in its outline, as out of these six support beams the house of systematic is grown with four walls and 2 floors or the advantages of studying theology systematically:
- Ascertain truth that scripture teaches on each point.
- Comparison of each to discern limitations.
- One is forced to acknowledge God’s revelation is source of our knowledge.
- One is warned not to omit any of the truth ascertained from any source, nor to add to it anything not properly embraced.
- Harmony & consistency of God’s teachings will be found.
- Led to value each doctrine of word of God for each is true.
This is the walls that Boyce raises his roof of Southern Baptist systematic upon. The roof is fleshed out as Boyce points out that universal belief in God throughout history (14). This initiates a walk through the historical for and against arguments to each of his points of core doctrine, an example being the time spent on the existence of God. Once he has established the proofs of God Boyce shifts gears into then expounding upon the attributes.
The foci of the treatise narrows into a focus, like smoke from a chimney, Boyce illuminates that reason is not from God, but rather from man’s mental perceptions, thoughts, reflections, known facts, logic, inquiry and deduction (Boyce, 42). Boyce then simply states that the science of theology comes out of revelation which is from God (Boyce, 42).
This is the simplest thrust of his rather wordy treatise on systematic.
Verbosity is the downfall of most theologians, if not preachers. There is the appearance of enjoying their own words more than ensuring the clarity of God is espoused to the world. Boyce falls into this trap within the 19th century practice of verbosity in laying out a systematic belief system for Southern Baptists. The challenge for the reader becomes the ability to evaluate the work and see if it still holds the ability to speak to one today.
The first point of contention is Boyce’s assertion that in academic disciplines theology falls into the category of science (Boyce, 4-6) ala biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, etc. One would be hard pressed in this day and age to state that the study of God is a hard science in the same category as these other revealed gifts of the Creator to humanity. What theology is is a liberal art. It is the ability to gather individually, but best communally, and prayerfully to discern understanding of the why of our life, which is sacred because it is breathed into us by a loving God.
Then Boyce wanders into blanket categories for five types of theology (6). Yet it appears as he wants to present systematic theology as something other than. It reveals once more the modern mind that wants things broken apart, separated, so as to keep a measure of control. Let us be honest when it comes to theology do we keep revelation theology separate from source theology? Can anyone come to their sacred text and state that the Holy Mystery does not speak to them from within it through the natural or supernatural world? No, because if that is the case then the sacred text is no longer sacred. It has been deemed a dictionary. The same as stating that our founder tradition does not inform who we are when we approach the Holy, and this identity shapes how we understand our experience of the Holy, and how we process truth. Which then lends itself to the fact that religious idea theology also shapes us, but this within itself creates a shaper of identity for the other types of theology, because our traditional label has shaped how we understand experience of the Holy?
The genesis of the foundation stones is false, and then the foundation stones do not act separately, but rather as one pointed idea of how theology can be revealed to one. Which then opens up whether the six points on how to study theology hold within this critical dynamic?
It is agreeable that one should approach the sacred text (Word of God) with reverence (Boyce, 8), but for a Christian the Word of God is more than just our Bible, it is also the living person of Jesus Christ. This entails entering into reverence with the local church, the international Christian community, and into the mystical experience of the sacraments where the true living Christ become imminent to us. This then couples itself with the ideal of prayer, but this is not the ideal of a formulaic prayer for divine help (Boyce, 8) it is the ongoing dialogue within the Holy of us for a deeper understanding of the why. For one needs to remember we are the Body of Christ in the here and now, the next chapter in the Cosmic Opera that is the Holy Story.
Where Boyce falters is the ideal of timidity in regards to the new doctrine (Boyce, 8). The challenge is that too often the Holy Spirit is speaking to the believer to speak out in the church, only to be caught short because the church is a monstrous ship that does not want to change. Think of the abolition of slavery, yes it took a while, but would it have gotten off the ground if the believers were timid? Civil rights for African Americans, Aboriginals, LGBTTQ, women or those with disabilities? Each and everyone would not have taken off the ground, although it can be traced back to the genesis being within the Holy Spirit if the believers had been timid within their approach of preaching the new.
Within the Spirit even Boyce admits that the believer must overcome this ideal of timidity to be willing to examine and accept whatever is revealed to be true (8). This in itself contradicts the value of timidity, some would state that it is ensuring what one heard is true and not revealing until all the ducks are in a row, but if we are to trust the Word of God, if we are to hold that Jesus, was the Word of God, then the Body of Christ here in the world is the Word that these revelations need to be tested against. Do not be timid; be bold when you hear the Spirit move.
The final point however, is completely agreeable as it is without this that many teachers and disciples are led to be harmful to them and world. Come to the endeavour with teachable humility (Boyce, 8). But the house Boyce is attempting to build is becoming quite shaky, the roof itself may not hold.
As systematic logic becomes shaky are they still advantages to this type of study. Let us enter into the six advantages that Boyce lays out to see if the roof will hold, or come crashing in. For Boyce there is an ascertainment of truth that scripture teaches on each point (8). Yet if we are keeping a narrow viewpoint of scripture, and are not to stray from what has come before, are we not just seeking confirmation for our church’s doctrine & dogma? Should not the study of God, not be merely confirmation, but seeing how Christ breaks into our current reality today?
The modern mind fell into the trap of dichotomy that is because this one is superior, the other must be inferior. This is what Boyce second advantage falls in is to as he points out the comparison of each point will discern its limitations (Boyce, 8). The challenge though is what if each point is not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually supportive? We do exist within a monotheistic faith of a monotheistic God that is Tri-Unity, and that lives for a Messiah that is 100% God, 100% Human, yet we come to our theology in a piece meal method that demands one fact must be better than another fact.
It is unfortunate that this falling down second advantage could cloud or tarnish the third one. Our knowledge is from God’s revelation (Boyce, 8) which unfortunately Boyce uses later on page 42 to point out that reason is not Godly. This is a farce, if God is the source of everything, then God is even the source of reason, science and theology. It is the unity of creation that is important, not our own divisions and labels.
Boyce’s fourth point is a straw man argument, he lays out a “warning” that we are not to omit any truth that is ascertained regardless of the source and not to add to it (8). The challenge however is that the argument is circular in that it protects existing doctrine, and places God in a box that existing doctrine may not be proved untrue or grown from the germination of the seed that it is.
Ignoring the straw man there is a strong point made in the fifth, that being that there is a harmony and consistency within God’s teaching (Boyce, 9). For many there is the illusion that it comes down to the words of the Law, but what is at the core of God’s teachings is the Shema, that which Jesus espoused to the Pharisees when asked for the Greatest Commandment from Matthew 22:37-40 (New Living Translation):
37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
As disciples we tend to forget that Jesus himself placed this as the core of the Law and the Prophets, the harmony of God’s teachings. Which then leads us not to hold to advantage six to value each doctrine of the Word of God because each is true (Boyce, 9) for the simple fact that the church as an institution has fenced the Torah, we have added qualifiers onto the simplicity of the harmony of God’s teachings.
The systematic house is shaky, and the roof is falling in. The world has changed, and unfortunately all toll Boyce’s treatise does not hold for the post-Christian age in the ability to communicate the truth of God’s love to the world.
Is there a need for a secondary language to be used for theology as Pope Benedict XVI espoused recently? There is a word vanity leant to theological texts where it appears that the one with the most words must be true. Is this necessary? It is not necessary, and shows the limitation of the writer, teacher or preacher when they replace simplicity and depth, with verbosity and shallowness. The message cannot get through when one loses interest in hearing/reading the message.
The cause of this is simple, it is the rise of dichotomy, a false belief that if one aspect is true then the other must be disproven, when in fact what is necessary is to find a way to present the truth of God, accessibly, universally, and allowing for both-and thinking that is at the heart of early church teaching. Dr. Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology misses the bulls eye, even the whole target in revealing God’s truth. It misses because it misconstrues why Jesus taught with authority, it was an authority that the Body of Christ needs to confirm through our actions within the community, not within rhetoric.
Boyce, J.P. (1887) Abstract of Systematic Theology retrieved from https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=101 on 9 November 2012.