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What’s Wrong with Systematic Theology.

by Stephen Hebert on Monday - 29 March 2010

in Biblical Studies

Allow me to draw your attention to the period (.) ending the title of this post. Normally I would have a question mark (?) here, but I am making a grand statement! Yes, I think there is something inherently wrong with the idea of systematic theology.

Allow me to state first that I have great respect for many of the Church’s systematic theologians. Thomas Aquinas comes to mind. That guy was a stud. Augustine, Barth,1 Erasmus, Origen, Tillich, all make my list of “dudes I respect” (hrm…no women here…sad), and all engaged in certain systematic pursuits. I think there’s a lot to be said for systematic theology, but I do have a problem with it: too often it smacks of proof-texting, ignorance of context and genre and other literary concerns, and the inability to give the other side a fair shake annoys me to no end.

Perhaps no well-reviewed work of systematic theology annoys me more than Wayne Grudem’s aptly titled Systematic Theology. Grudem goes about creating his system by the aforementioned proof-texting route without paying much attention to the context. What is laudable about his book is also what is condemnable: Grudem’s conciseness. The book is so concise, in fact, that Grudem didn’t find room to offer any serious reflection on Scripture. There is a reason that Barth had to stretch Church Dogmatics out into 13 volumes while only covering a few of the very large categories2 — because careful theology requires careful exegesis. Of course, to criticize Grudem for this is to ignore what he’s trying to do. Grudem’s aims were accessibility — Systematic Theology prefers to live on the bookshelves of lay people rather than professional clergy with an eye toward serious theological reflection. I get that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make it less frustrating.3

So, here’s the thing. I’d rather take a cue from the greatest theologian of the 20th century (Mr. Barth), and focus on the paradox here. To me, what is most interesting and compelling about Christianity are the paradoxes. For example, Jesus Christ himself represents the most incredible paradox: God and Man in one. Serious reflection on this idea requires pages and pages and pages of thought to work out.

Another example of a paradox is systematic theology itself. Here we have a human attempting to systematize, categorize, and make easily referenced that which defies and even denies systematization. As Paul says in 1 Cor 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly…” Sure, we understand some attributes of God. We can offer some kind of mental assent to God’s infinitude and the paradoxes inherent within (e.g., love and justice | eternal and temporal | etc.). But, at the end of the day, we only have a faint impression of his fullness. The best Christian thinkers are like Monet in his later periods, stricken with cataracts that alter his perception of color4 — we are painting a half-blind impression of the fullness of God.

So what’s wrong with systematic theology?

Infinitude defies finite system.

But, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try…


  1. Barth himself was critical of this systematizing enterprise. In the end, however, I think it would be difficult to argue that the 13-volume Church Dogmatics is not a systematic theology.
  2. For example, I don’t believe Barth ever got around to the doctrine of “redemption” here.
  3. I could offer a much longer, more detailed review of Grudem’s work. For example, I take issue with his lack of engagement with other serious theologians. But such criticisms must be developed more fully elsewhere. I will say that Grudem’s text is handy for getting some basics out of the way or finding passages that might speak to a particular issue. I keep a copy near my desk, and I am grateful and indebted to Dr. Grudem.
  4. Fact Check Alert! I must admit that I am no art historian, and this information comes from what I remember of a Monet exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts over 15 years ago. Please correct me if you know a lot about the impressionists.

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