Integration — it’s one of those things I’m sure I understood at High School even though I wouldn’t have a clue about where to start these days.
But the kind of integration I want to talk about involves biblical and systematic theology. On the face of it, the difference between the two seems fairly obvious. This is reflected in familiar characterisations of this difference — e.g., along the lines of studying plants ‘in the wild’ as opposed to studying them in the organised and thematised context of a botanic garden.
Nevertheless, all sorts of complications lurk just below the surface. Taking biblical theology first up: it has been understood and practised in a variety of different ways throughout its relatively brief history. Yet at a broad and fairly minimal level, we might best see it as an attempt to account for the unity of the Old and New Testaments in terms of the overarching story of God’s action.
Equally, systematic theology doesn’t always commend itself to contemporary mind. Nevertheless, as a number of theologians have recognised, the core doxological activities of the church already tilt in a recognisably systematic-theological direction. As Rowan Williams would have it (On Christian Theology, xii), ‘A person seeking to shape their life in a specific way, seeking discipline and consistency in relation to God, is theologizing, forming a reflectively consistent speech for God’.
Understood like this, systematic theology need not make grandiose claims to finality, exhaustiveness or closure. At the same time, it retains the scope to accommodate many of the more abstract and metaphysical concerns which tend to be teased out in times of crisis when its consistency or coherence of our confession seems to be at stake.
Ultimately, however, the challenge is to specify how biblical and systematic theology might legitimately converge so that they are integrated with one another — drawing upon and informing each other. And that’s a tougher ask altogether.