two ways to approach systematic theology?

Tell me how you react to this:

One way to approach systematic theology is primarily analytic. It involves tipping all the theological pieces (key biblical texts and themes, the decisive debates in the history of theology, etc) onto your mental table, picking through them, attaching suitable labels, and placing all the similar pieces into relevant boxes.

Another way to approach systematic theology tries to be more synthetic. It involves doing something with each piece you pick up — connecting it to whatever other pieces it might fit with in the interests of assembling a coherent overall picture.

The danger with the first approach is that it lets you think you’ve done the job once every theologically relevant piece has been categorised. Theology done this way won’t live — it’s more of a stamp-collecting enterprise than something intimately bound to Christian living and mission.

The problem with the second is trying to put together the picture using whatever comes to hand and then struggling to know what to do with those extra pieces that haven’t yet been recognised (let alone been found a place within the picture). The temptation will always be to brush those ‘extraneous’ pieces off the table.

In truth, of course, both approaches are needed.

We need to make sure we’ve done the work of ensuring that the pieces are correctly categorised and that each category is represented.

At the same time, we need to ensure we’re doing something with the pieces — connecting them with other pieces. Just as with a puzzle, we need to find ways to join edge pieces to pieces of sky and to those pieces closer to what’s at the centre of the picture: the God revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.


  1. Hi Chris. I feel there needs to be a third area to explore in doing systematic theology….and that of the experiential nature of the narrative story… Eg – when we piece together Paul’s writings; do we read him through the lens of his conversion experience?

  2. I would apply here the same critique Kierkegaard gives of Hegel’s dialectic: at the end of the day it’s you who is producing this “truth” and reality will probably throw a spanner in the works eventually anyway… The problem with systematic theology is that it’s systematic theology of he Bible. Whilst that is a really cool thing to have all theology should in the end become practical, and if your entire system is base solely on the Bible then you have a more restricted scope for the Holy Spirit to move in. Sure, you have a very Biblical view of the Holy Spirit, but that’s like have a Biblical view of Jesus – it’s fantastic, but no one should ever kid themselves into believin that’s anywhere near all there is to Him.

    I don’t like systematic theology – as a discipline. We all do it in our own minds everyday, and that’s a good thing; leave it there.

    1. Craig, Matt — thanks for your contributions, both of which (in their own ways) highlight the importance of theology being much more than an academic exercise — ie. seeing it do something in/to us by connecting us with the living Lord at its heart.

      Perhaps the limitations of the analogy I drew with puzzle-solving have got us off on the wrong foot? Maybe it would be better if we thought about the analytic/synthetic distinction I drew in terms of an engine:

      An engine is something that, unlike a picture, does something: producing practical outputs, etc. But, like the puzzle analogy, there are two ways to approach the bits and pieces that make up an engine — pull them apart in order to tag and categorise them (making sure all the bits are there and work on their own terms) or put them together so that they do what they’re designed to do.

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