Theological Method

why does the Bible say what it does?


I’m kind of a systems guys.

Personal and pastoral (family) systems. Ministry systems. Above all systematic theology.

That shouldn’t be news for anyone who knows me — even if just from the blog.

But I’ve only just realised what it is that drives my interest in systems (apart from the inclinations stitched into my personality, reinforced by experience and plucked out by situational necessity).

Deep down, what drives it is my borderline obsession with one single question:

Why does the Bible say what it does?

You see, for better or worse (I think it’s for better), I’m really really really interested in what the Bible says.

It’s the bedrock of my life and faith.

It was modelled to me by the people who taught me the Christian faith and how to live it.

It is almost the central and defining part of my Christian heritage as a reformed evangelical.

And it’s what I invested four years of intensive formal theological education to be thoroughly equipped to pursue.

But I’m starting to realise it’s only a means to an end.

When it comes to knowing, loving and living for God, what the Bible says is subordinate to the even more fundamental question of why it says it.

And the why question is the key to thinking in terms of systems.

Because once you start asking it — e.g., ‘Why does Paul say what he says human authorities being God-appointed in Romans 13, and why does that seem to be different from the picture painted in Revelation 13?’ — you’re already doing systematic theology. Better still, you’re doing it as a natural extension of exegesis … which is exactly what it is!

And because asking it also helps you tune into the personal and pastoral implications of a passage — along the lines of Bryan Chapell’s so-called Fallen Condition Focus, which invites you to ponder what particular pastoral situation (and what underlying realities of living in a fallen world) each biblical passage addresses.

And from here the systematic flower blooms in all it’s manifold glory…

a summer of truthful conversation

One of the things I’m most thankful for about summer is the way it affords lots of opportunities for conversation.

Sporadic conversation while watching the cricket. Intensive conversation on long drives with visiting family. Immensely gratifying conversation with old friends who drop by — no minor feat when they mostly live in Sydney and we live in Melbourne.

In between the various conversations this summer, I’ve been meandering my way through Christ The Stranger — Ben Myers’ masterful and generous exposition of the theology of Rowan Williams.

It’s a terrific book!

It helps that Williams massively interesting. But Myers expertly teases apart the dense weave of his thought.

And I find myself wanting to post almost every second sentence of it online.

(I seem to have this experience with pretty much every book I pick up lately. Whether it’s Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical and vigorous defense of Calvinism, When I Was A Child I Read Books. Or Doug Harink’s densely theological commentary on 1 & 2 Peter. Or a book on bristling Marxist-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s curious relationship to theology. Or — most recently — Francis Spufford’s acerbic and insightful manifesto for Christianity, Unapologetic.)

I’ve refrained, however. For which you may well breathe a sigh of relief.

But I couldn’t resist sharing this little gem about the fruit of Williams’ reengagement with Hegel (page 54):

Authentic social exchange occurs wherever different persons mediate meaning to one another. Just think of the way understanding emerges from conversation: in a good conversation, something new appears which is not reducible to any of the individual speakers. For Williams, truth is that new thing that springs into being when different selves engage in the hard work of sustaining their differences. Openness to truth, therefore, is an experience of dispossession. We must give up our desire to possess the truth, in order to receive it and share it freely with others.

I think I can gratefully say that my summer has had an ample supply of this kind of conversation…

consumerism and idolatry (ii)

The link between consumerism and idolatry is topical. Earlier this week, James K. A. Smith posted some evidence confirming his ‘reading’ of shopping malls as cathedrals of consumerism.

So let me continue to share my collection of half-baked hunches about consumerism (I posted the first two HERE):

3. If we’re treating consumerism as idolatry because we’ve decided ahead of time that this is what it is, then I wonder whether we’re in danger of stretching the language of idolatry totally out of shape.

Sure, it may mean we can drape it over every sin. And doing so may even bring some of sin’s psycho-spiritual dynamics into focus — helping us zoom in on how we’re treating good things as God-things, as they say. But the cost is that we risk losing any contour-hugging specificity when we identify as idolatry things that never get spoken of that way in the Bible (like King David’s sinful dalliance with Bathsheba or the Jewish people’s hypocritical failure to obey the Law that Paul exposes in Romans 2).

If this is the game we want to play, then I feel like we’ve got to ask ourselves some hard questions about how much of a service it really does us.

4. If, however, there is something distinctive about consumerism that makes it fitting to identify it with idolatry — as Smith’s post suggests — then surely our starting point needs to be the conceptually and verbally related biblical equation: “greed … is idolatry” (Colossians 3.5).

The benefit of this is not simply that it’s biblical but also that it suggests that this is in fact a fruitful direction to (metaphorically?) stretch the language.

It may still leave me a little puzzled about which particular demonic power lurks behind the ‘idols’ of greed and consumerism — where more familiar forms of idolatry maybe don’t leave me guessing quite so much (see 1 Corinthians 10.18-22). But at least I’m reasonably confident this way of applying the language of idolatry does less violence to the biblical weave of the concept. Because it’s meant to stretch this way.

inundation and web-spinning

I wonder if you saw this amazing image from flood-affected Wagga Wagga?

No — it’s not a farm house surrounded by flood waters. It’s a farm house surrounded by spider webs!

How they organised this impromptu Occupy The Farm House bamboozles me. But I love it. Can you imagine walking out your front door to this one morning? You’d have to pinch yourself.

I find this image latent with more than purely Nature Is Amazing kind of significance. For surely this image of physical inundation triggering a frenzy of web-spinning — like the socially-networked protesters converging on Tahrir Square in response to a rising tide of brutality and economic insecurity — is metaphorically pregnant with the essence of the age we live in.

According to Time magazine, a recent study published in Science has found evidence that when inundated with information, we network. Specifically, they found that:

  1. We are increasingly processing the tsunami of information threatening to swamp us by networking. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we start thinking about how we can get access to the Web to answer it
  2. We are increasingly outsourcing our memories — failing to commit things to memory when we believe we’ll easily be able to save and access it again later
  3. And what we are remembering is not the information itself but — in an Information Age mutation of the social-psychological phenomenon known as transactive memory — where and how we’ll be able to find it

This certainly resonates with the way I learnt theology. I was forced to think much more about the connections within the overall system — as well as how these linkages are made — than the precise details (of historical debates about the doctrine of creation etc).

What about you? Does it ring any bells for you too?

for the kingdom belongs to such as these

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18.15-17)

I’m aware this may cut across what I said earlier this week. But I’ve been struck by the way my infant son engages with his environment. I think I have a lot to learn from him about Christian living — and theological inquiry in particular.

When he’s at his best, my son displays a kind of relaxed relentlessness.

He’s relentless in his curiosity. About everything. (This is typically expressed, at this stage, by him putting everything into his mouth. I’m told he’ll grow out of this.)

Yet there’s also a gentleness to his curiosity. He’s relaxed in his explorations. Not an obsessive Captain Ahab.

Perhaps the difference is that in pressing to understand and discover, my son doesn’t seem all that interested in gaining mastery or control. Rather, the goal of his explorations is either wide-eyed wonder or a delighted chuckle.

And whatever else Jesus means us to understand in saying that the kingdom belongs the like of infants, surely it means that we should take our cue from my son’s relaxed relentlessness. Pressing to know God and his world — in the quest not for mastery but for wonder and delight…

why having a child hasn’t taught me anything about God

A little while back, a friend asked me what having a child had taught me about God.

It’s a common question — and, given how frequently preachers refer to their children and experience of parenthood, seemingly quite legitimate.

Now, I’m sure my friend didn’t mean it this way but I object to the idea that my experience of having and beginning to raise a child should somehow give me special insight into God. As though I can now ‘get’ his being a father now that I’m a father or something.

I’ll be the first to admit that having a child has taught me — and will no doubt continue to teach me — all sorts of things.

On the one hand, our son’s desperate crying whenever he’s hungry is a pretty good picture of what we’re so often like with God. Even though he’s proven it again and again, we’re still infants who can’t seem to see past our immediate need or pain to trust God’s provision for us.

On the other hand, the fact that our son often “acts up” when he’s tired, hungry, or in pain, has reminded me that there’s a pretty big element of this to our sinning. We hurt others (more often than not) because we’re hurting ourselves.

So why do I object to the idea that having a child would teach me about God?

For one thing, this way of thinking would seem to exclude any non-parents from a true and deep understanding of God.

For another, the kind of father God the Father is, he is eternally. Unlike me, he never became a father. The difference between God’s fatherhood and mine can’t be erased.

And, ultimately, isn’t the only way to gain an ‘inside’ knowledge of God as father the way the Lord Jesus provides? As he invites us by his grace and achievement for us — in the power of the Spirit — to join him in calling God “Father”.

Perhaps I’m overreacting?

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.

what counts as ‘Christian theology’?

To speak Christian is an exacting discipline. It has taken the church centuries to develop habits of speech that help us say no more than needs to be said. But I fear too often those of us charged with responsibility to teach those habits fail to do so in a manner that those in the ministry can make their own.

(Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Reflections on Learning How to Speak Christian’)

There’s been a bit of chatter lately about what makes theology distinctively Christian. It’s not really explicit. It’s more that people keep assuming that there’s a line between Christian theology and some other kind of theology.

So Ben Myers draws attention to a new book responding to atheism — which apparently argues that the main difference between atheism and theism boils down to patience. It’s chief recommendation for Ben is that ‘in contrast to the usual apologetics … it’s actually a Christian response to atheism’.

And Mike W provocatively wonders if we can really call Wayne Grudem a theologian in light of his discussion of Christians and self-defence, in which apparently ‘There is absolutley no discussion of Jesus, his mission or his kingdom’. Ouch!

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all. But I’d be keen to hear your thoughts: What do you think counts as Christian theology? Or, to flip it around, what would disqualify a piece of theology from being Christian?

(I’m aware this is probably a ‘family resemblance’ thing. I’m not looking for a shopping list of non-negotiables to be mechanically ticked off.)

the challenge of theological integration

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.

where does biblical theology fall short?


I stumbled upon this in John McLeod Campbell’s The Nature of the Atonement (1878):

[H]ow often have the points of agreement between the type and antitype been dwelt upon, as if to see that agreement was to understand the atonement, although the fullest recognition of that agreement leaves the questions still to be answered – Why must He who is to be the atoning sacrifice for sin, be Himself the Holy One of God? How does His being so qualify Him for bearing our sins? In what sense could they be, and have they been laid upon Him? Being laid upon Him, how is the shedding of His blood an atonement for them? How is His moral and spiritual perfection so connected with, and present in His bearing of men’s sins, and in His tasting death for every man, as that “we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins,” because He, “through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God?”

These questions are not answered by tracing the points of agreement between the type and the antitype, and therefore the seeming progress made in the understanding of the atonement by such tracing is altogether illusory.

Campbell sharply poses the question I’m tackling in my project: What is the relationship between biblical and systematic theology — between an interest in the grand narrative, longitudinal themes and typological correspondences in the Bible on the one hand, and a more philosophical, even ‘metaphysical’ concern with the ontological presuppositions of what has been fulfilled in Jesus on the other?

Suggestively (for my purposes anyway), it is precisely in relation to the person and work of Christ that Campbell finds biblical theology deficient — that is, exactly where we’d like it to carry us the furthest!