Exhaustive Systematics

Posted: December 3, 2012 by Ty in Spirituality
Tags: , , , , , , ,

English: Resurrection of Christ

English: Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Introduction

Strong’s (1903) Systematic Theology: A compendium designed for the use of theological students within its three volumes more than lives up to the turn of phrase compendium. This writer not being a strong proponent of systematic, but rather a more holistic interdisciplinary methodology finds Strong’s exhaustive meta-narrative/analysis. He is a thorough compiler that presents an almost three thousand page tomb on the Western understanding of theology and how this discipline was grown. One step at a time, unfortunately it is not truly an exhaustive focus as it does have the Western Church bias, ignoring half the world of theology, which would fit the Orthodox/Coptic style of theology which is more mystic than systematic.

Strong as with most of his contemporaries in systematic at the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century attempt to bring the modern scientific movement into the fold of Christianity and more importantly into what they try and sell as the “hard” science of theology. What Strong produced was a pre-1903 encyclopedia of biased and slanted understanding of the sciences, social sciences and liberal arts that propped up his own understanding of the faith.

109 years on is this compendium still relevant in light of the move towards more integral, missional, intentional, emergent and wisdom systems of theology that tend to take a holistic perspective not only of the person, but the community and the story of the church? As one reads through Strong’s 1903 compendium the answer to the previous question more and more becomes no, as Strong shows his out datedness for the contemporary context of the Body of Christ.

Summary

Strong has built a meta-journey for the systematic theologian in the Western world. Page 2 illuminates that the only revealer of God is Christ Jesus. He then goes on to point out that both philosophy and science are good servants of Christ unless they rule out the Son of God (Strong, 4).  This is the baseline established as the compendium launches forward.

Revival is crucial for the life of churches as without it they will become secularized, missions will die out, and in a Revelations reference the candlestick will be removed (Strong, 5). This is the driving force that opens up the three volumes before the reader. It is within the homiletical nature of the book that Strong hopes to communicate the passion of systematic (p.6) for the truth that will move believers that the Trinity is an antidote to the false doctrine which has and presently threatens the church (Strong, 5).

Strong holds to the belief throughout that theology is science (27) and that its aim is to discover (28).  Theology holds a threefold purpose (29-30):

  1. Existence of God who has relations to the universe.
  2. In the capacity of the human mind for knowing God and certain of these relations.
  3. Provision of means by which God is brought into actual contact with the mind, or in other words, in the provision of revelation.

This science of discovery with its threefold purpose is the underpinning of the journey through systematic history to prove that each and every “orthodox” doctrine is true, while those that do not fit Strong’s systematic pattern are cast aside as heresy.

The question though is does this systematic process hold water today?

Interpretation

By equating theology to science, in the historical context it is obvious Strong is attempting to discredit evolution unless it allows for the incarnate Word. Yet what is really happening is that by equating theology to science Strong is hamstringing the art that is theology by confining it to a didactic method that is incomprehensible for the purpose.

The purpose of theology should be to understand the heart of God more for the believer, as noted in Canate’s (2012) Interdisciplinary Method in Christian Theology? In search of a working proposal opens up the third millennium context where this narrow of a focus does not hold sway. Correction, should not hold sway, unfortunately there is still a strong drive to not allow for Godly advancement in theology due to the unwavering belief that our understanding of God does not change.

This is the trap that systematic done encyclopedic has upon the Body of Christ. It lends itself to the once proven, never need to think about again dogma or the old chestnut of “the Bible says it, that’s it” usually applied to some belief that may never have been found in the Bible, or that has never been thought about since some thinker of the Fourth century CE came up with the theory that has then been indoctrinated in believers since.

This is the fallacy of theology as a science, for it lends itself to a method that must be reproducible. Regardless of time and space a believer should come to a doctrine, and be able to reproduce the systematic to come to the exact same conclusion just as one working out the solution of a physics formula. Unfortunately our God does not exist within a systematic box as the history of the Christianities proves by how often there is a reformation or restoration to the Heart of Christ.

Whether it was the “official” historical Reformation of the 1500’s, or the Great Renewals, the Great Schism; the Avalon Captivity (of the Papacy); the rise of the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans, the Social Gospel, or Liberation Theology each one shares in kind a move beyond simple systematic to a practical and pragmatic theology lived out from the heart of the Gospel story.

Which is the soul that is missing from Strong’s threefold possibility of theology (29-30):

  1. Existence of God who has relations to the universe.
  2. In the capacity of the human mind for knowing God and certain of these relations.
  3. Provision of means by which God is brought into actual contact with the mind, or in other words, in the provision of revelation.

How do these threefold possibilities hold up 109 years later? Let’s take them apart point by point:

 

  1. Existence of God who has relations to the universe.

Yes God has relations to the universe, but it is more than simply relations. From a wisdom theological perspective it is a mutual existence within one another. One where God rests inside Her creation and the creation rests within Him. A perspective that infuses all with the sacred, and rises up the ideal of coexisting as the caretaker of creation, both male and female created and bearing God’s image, infused with the life of breath, not just a “relation”.

  1. The capacity of the human mind for knowing God and certain of these relations.

At first read this second fold appears to be stating that humans can know relations of God, the unfortunate piece is that it does not hold to a holistic viewpoint of the human experience with God. Not a mind/soul/emotion/body of knowing God, but rather a platonic dualism where the mind can know but it is disconnected from that which is deemed “evil” thank to St. Augustine in the body and the transmission of original sin.

  1. Provision of means by which God is brought into actual contact with the mind, or in other words, in the provision of revelation.

Again, the final fold reveals an unwillingness to see that revelation from God is more than just a mind activity. It is a whole person contact that moves one into the revelation of God for them, but then takes it one step further as Revelations shows with sharing with the seven churches, or Acts 15 with the Jerusalem council. The revelation is holistic for the person, which is then taken into the community and shared, verified and lived out. Practical theology.

A strong example of this is found in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 10, more specifically here:

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching                                    the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and                                   wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a                               trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet                                coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were                            all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then                               he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By                     no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or                                       unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time,                                                         “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”16 This happened                         three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

                                17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision                           that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They                                     were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.

(Acts 10:9-17, New Revised Standard Version).

The key points this revelation from God shows is that it is not only a “mind” thing, but rather God opens up Peter’s life and experience, the revelation of the gospel to the gentiles is centered on a bodily need of hunger, and then moves to a challenging emotional situation as Peter begins to argue with God about what is clean and unclean, the reason though takes hold in the mind that he is essentially arguing with the creator of everything, but it finally rests in verses 15-16 where God uses the holy three repetitions to point out that he needs to get up, kill and eat for what God has made clean no one can call profane (unclean).

The three repetitions also reminds the hearer/reader of another time Peter had to experience statements three times, and this was the three fold questioning by the resurrected Christ to become the minister of the flock. Christ, the ultimate holistic revelation of God’s Word, as the Word became flesh. A revelation that was truly more than just to the mind of the world. Christ is the revelation that is still living and breathing, and for God to be truly revealed it must not only sink into one’s mind but make the eighteen inch move to their heart. This is where systematic, and this compendium fall short because it reduces the knowing of God into nothing more than an academic exercise to prove God and disprove everything else.

How does Strong contradict himself up to this point? Simple, he holds to the idea of revelation to the mind, yet points out that scripture (Word of God) is the chief Christian revelation (70). The hang up though is that the scripture in our Bibles’ is but one form of the Word of God, the true Word of God is the Cosmic Christ, and that removes the revelation to simply the mind as noted above.

While Strong holds that theology is a rational necessity (52) it is more than that. Theology is the seeking of God by any believer as they move from being simply a believer to being a disciple and eventually within community to discerning their vocational call. This call is where the theology and even religion move from the theoretical, to as Strong stipulates, to the useful it becomes practical for the believer (Strong, 65).

There are some highlights within the compendium that one should be aware of. Due to its exhaustive nature it does eventually show a balanced relation to the systematic understanding of faith. Strong does place theologians and philosophers as complimentary in the exercise of understanding the science that is theology.

Strong does step out of the early 20th century mindset in volume two of this work as he walks through the doctrine of angels to prove that it is through a systematic understanding of this doctrine that one realizes this universe is simply a piece of reality (Strong, 133). The challenge however is that this statement points to a broader understanding/experience of the Holy Mystery, but one that is not to be grasped outside the box of only knowing God mentally.

Which then contradicts what happens within the third volume where Strong exegetes church structure from the writings of the New (Christian) Testament. The conclusion being that the Law of the church should simply be the will of Christ (Strong, 225). Unfortunately Christ is a whole person/community experience, not just of the mind so using this as the benchmark for the governance of the church it tears apart the earlier systematic established in his threefold possibilities.

This contradiction of the threefold possibilities of theology takes us back to the first volume where Strong reflects on the ancient Creeds of the church that these are not declarations of faith, but rather responses to ongoing heresies of their time (Strong, 57). Historically it may or may not be accurate (as the victors or survivors write history) to state that these Creeds were denials of ongoing heresy. Since most emerged from Ecumenical Councils (Nicene) or allegedly written by Bishops (Athanasius) it can lend credence to this viewpoint. However, the functionality of these documents since their writing has been more catechumenal than heretical battling. What does that mean? These creeds (and ones written later by other denominations to be used alongside or in place of) are now used as teaching tools to open up the dialogue with new believers during the discipleship process. They are used in response to the Great Commission to go forth and make disciples; they are used to form the personal and communal promises during the rites of passage sacraments. The Creeds (ancient and modern) are made highly practical tools to aid the discipling of the Body of Christ as they enter into the lived revelation of God.

Conclusion

It is rare that a compendium so thorough of the western systematic theology throughout time could be viewed so harshly. The view does not come from whether or not this compendium may prove a useful tool, or to whether or not systematic theology in its proper time and place had not been a useful tool. The unfortunate part is even though our world is growing, changing, and adapting. Even though our understanding of how to come to scripture is changing there is still this belief in equipping the next wave of “professionals” within the church that a solid understanding of systematic is the way to produce a vital ministry.

Systematic theology while useful, is not still useful in the context of the shrinking world into a global village, the information explosion, and the deeper understanding of what it means to be human. For it is within the revelation of the image of God/Christ, that we truly experience God. Within the wisdom theology that has been long suppressed, that it becomes evident that all is sacred and we need to become open in this process to living the sacred.

 

Reference

Canate, F. (2012) Interdisciplinary Method in Christian Theology? In search of a working             proposal retrieved from            https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=281 24   November 2012.

Strong, A.H. (1903). Systematic Theology: A Compendium designed for the use of           theological students retrieved from        https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=108 27             November 2012.

 

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