When I was in seminary a few years ago, lots of my friends complained about having to take a course on Systematic Theology. If some of them were to be believed, it was an insult to their intelligence and the course itself was often entirely out of step with where they saw Christian theology moving. Systematic Theology, by its very name, indicates that theology can be “systematized” and harnessed, which is a pretty audacious claim. There’s simply so many competing thoughts within scripture itself before we begin to bring historical debate into the mix, the advances of science and society, much more how these thoughts stand today, often challenging one another. But most of all, my friends and I challenged the implicit message communicated to us by a professors that theology was “more correct” today than ever before. This is a very Modern claim, with embedded claims to capitalized Truth. But it’s a popular claim, if you turn on any televangelist or Christian talk radio station. Truth, as it is presented by Evangelicals today, is finite and predictable, almost mathematical. God can never go against the laws of science he (because, for Evangelicals, God is always gendered, and always gendered male) has created and this is why miracles have passed away – a claim that seems to ignore scripture and the history of the church as much as it does the place of Pentecostals in the Church.
Systematic theology is a discipline of Christian theology that formulates an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the doctrines of the Christian faith. It addresses issues such as what the Bible teaches about certain topics or what is true about God and his universe by building on biblical disciplines, church history, as well as biblical and historical theology. Systematic theology shares its systematic tasks with other disciplines such as constructive theology, dogmatics, ethics, apologetics, and philosophy of religion. But systematic theology is a mess. And it’s a mess because of the movements of a few key figures – all of them identifying as “Reformed.”
The “New Reformation” of the last two decades has proven to be a divisive strand of Evangelicalism strengthened by its insistence on “right” doctrine. While doctrine is certainly important, it is the New Reformed’s emphasis on doctrine at all costs that has created a hostile, even antagonistic experience for many churches. Figures like John Piper have dismissed thoughtful voices like Rob Bell – not because Bell says anything especially controversial, but because Bell points to a long disagreement over doctrinal issues. Piper has also very publicly dismissed leading figures in Evangelicalism like Rick Warren for emphasizing programming and thus creating, as Piper puts it, a “Gospel-less” message. Piper has also dismissed his own son for questioning him. And while these examples are, yes, about John Piper, they don’t end there. Mark Driscoll, a pastor who stepped out of the pulpit because of plagiarism and questionable ethics, parrots Piper while also managing to alienate half the Church with his views on gender, namely that patriarchy is what the Bible intended. Driscoll’s views on non-complementarian “equality” boil down to privileging ancient social norms and “protecting” women by making decisions for them. Quite publicly, Driscoll wrote about his wife’s failure to please him when she cut her hair short in “their” book, Real Marriage. Related, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye Joshua Harris was also leading voice in the New Reformed Movement. In his follow-up manual, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship, Harris shares how his wife “disappointed” him by having sex before marriage. He says he was entitled to her virginity and questioned God on whether he should marry her because of her “failure.”
While these are just a handful of the largest names in the New Reformed Movement, they all trace their theological and social views to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. It is this book, I think, that caused so many of my theology classmates to blanch at the prospect of having to take a course in ordered, structured, systematized theology – they knew all too well what Grudem’s work had brought about and had come to see that the study of God was never meant to be fixed and static, lacking in movement, action, or change. For someone like me, the greatest problem with such a class and especially such a book is the setting aside of history. Keeping track of debates and disagreements, councils, confessions, and creeds, revelations and rebukes is difficult because it requires so much of us. We tend to think that the “name and dates” way of learning can be set aside after high school. But knowing and being able to track the tedium (just like with calendars and personal journals) allows us to see patterns of growth and failure, to actually see the “waves” of history and human development.
Many Evangelicals are, in a sense, lost in both time and space as a result of their ignorance and this bleeds over into all areas of their lives and how they see society. As Michael Malice writes in The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics (2019), “Conservatives, blind to history, tout the nuclear family as the height of stability.” Without a constant to hold them and understand their place in the history of religion or the world, Evangelicals are unanchored, adrift in felt emotion and experience, making emotional choices which they believe are rational because there is a system for their misinformation, a corrupt logic to their heresy, fear, and their hatred wrapped in idolatry. While Grudem tried to offer a constant, without context, his kind of systematic theology, the kind espoused by those who have read and been (pardon the word choice) indoctrinated to his views, becomes subject to vox populi, constantly sliding down the decline of self-congratulation and becoming ever more uninformed, ignorant, and hardened to rational thought. Armed with only a topical and superficial understanding of their faith and even less experience with other religions, Evangelicals and many Christians – because Evangelicals can no longer be called Christian and so we must distinguish them as two separate groupings – believe they possess some kind of moral authority, even superiority not because they understand their faith system (or anyone else’s) but because their ignorance is “systematic” because it attempts logic. Efforts at understanding the faith that challenge their biases and tight structure are discouraged, and indeed rewarded within the cult of personality. Their pride is derived from allegiance to amateur demagogues like Grudem, Piper, or Driscoll – those who have a platform to shame and “call out” anyone who challenges them and their authority.
It’s not new. Jimmy Swaggart did well with this in the 1980s, publicly insinuating and privately destroying rival ministries as he acquired radio stations and television satellites. Donald Trump used new media to blatantly lie and lower the standards of decency and public discourse, but he won the American Presidency. As he has crowed repeatedly, he won. Get over it. It doesn’t matter how. He won. Deal with it. The ends justify the means… and increasingly, the ends as well.
This is the world Evangelicals now live in – a fear-based alternate reality where their fears and hatreds are now considered godliness. It is this belief in structure and order – again, a new and very Modern idea – that continues to bring such damage to the way of life Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles once affirmed.
We see the evidence here in America with the election of Donald Trump to the White House, but the process of exploiting the ignorance of Evangelicals began long ago. The first lecture in my American Literature class is the dismantling of the cohesive Evangelical narrative. America is a collection of any thoughts, and one cannot define “America” anymore than one can define “God.” Our offers are reductionistic, alternatingly shy and especially bold, often superficial, both bored and boring, and often simply wrong, based off incorrect interpretations. This is not to say that there is not a point in doing systematic theology. Far from it. But there must be a grace and humor to the entire affair, acknowledging that “relativity” is an excess, but that “timeless truths” are laughable on their face. There is no such thing as a truth outside of time, no matter how much we want to believe this. Even God changes their mind sometimes, oscillating between anger and compassion, seeking humanity and rejecting it, saving and condemning, raising up and casting down. To reconcile this, Evangelicals (again, those who have stepped outside of the practices, traditions, and beliefs of the historical Church and can no longer be called Christian in teaching, witness, or worship) adopt the teachings of the New Reformed because this thought strand assures them they are right. By virtue of the fact that they are trying, they are already saved and everyone else is damned. Because they are listening to this particular ministry, they have been chosen for such a time as this. Because they vote a certain way or protest a certain issue, they are already one of the elect – predestined for tripartite salvation: sanctification, justification, and glorification.
When this exclusive perspective escalates and is weaponized, say through evangelistic efforts like street preaching and apocalyptic proclamations, televised correlation of causation like blaming natural disasters on the passage of a higher wage for women, then there is inevitable pushback. This pushback, a corrective to balance such woefully myopia, is not seem as a natural stabilization but “persecution.” What is worse, critics of Evangelicalism live into the narrative when they meet violence with violence. “If punching Nazis becomes permissible in any sense,” writes Malice, “that means actual [people] can be slugged in the face at random. That’s a very difficult position to defend on ethical grounds or (if one is a complete Machiavellian) on strategic grounds. There are very few people in America who are comfortable seeing their fellow citizens being assaulted. Yet if we don’t understand people’s needs and wants, if people – especially young men – feel unheard, violence is the only way for them to express themselves.”
So what is the alternative? Grudem considers the following areas, offering that while this may not reflect the entirety of the Christian experience, it at least offers a cohesive thread by which to understand it.
Doctrine of the Word of God
- The Word of God
- The Canon of Scripture
- The Four Characteristics of Scripture: Authority, Clarity, Necessity, Sufficiency
The Doctrine of God
- The Existence of God
- The Knowability of God
- The Character of God
- Incommunicable Attributes
- Communicable Attributes
- God in Three Persons: The Trinity
- God’s Providence
- Satan and Demons
The Doctrine of Man
- The Creation of Man
- Man as Male and Female
- The Essential Nature of Man
- The Covenants between God and Man
The Doctrines of Christ and Holy Spirit
- The Person of Christ
- The Atonement
- Resurrection and Ascension
- The Offices of Christ
- The Work of the Holy Spirit
The Doctrine of the Application of Redemption
- Common Grace
- Election and Reprobation
- The Gospel of Call and Effective Calling
- Conversion (Faith and Repentance)
- Justification (Right Legal Standing Before God)
- Adoption (Membership in God’s Family)
- Sanctification (Growth in Likeness to Christ)
- Baptism In and Filling With the Holy Spirit
- The Perseverance of the Saints (Remaining a Christian)
- Death and the Intermediate State
- Glorification (Recieving a Resurrection Body)
- Union with Christ
The Doctrine of the Church
- The Church: Its Nature, Marks, and Purposes
- The Purity and Unity of the Church
- Church Government
- Means of Grace within the Church
- The Lord’s Supper
- Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The Doctrine of the Future
- The Return of Christ: When and How?
- The Millenium
- The Final Judgement and Eternal Punishment
- The New Heavens and New Earth
Christianity, for Grudem, can be reduced to God’s proclamations, the nature of the one who makes the proclamations, the audience, and what we can expect when we follow (or fail to follow) those proclamations. To summarize even further, Grudem has created a staged affair – the author, the play, the audience, and the impact. If this feels small, that’s because it is. An alternative to this theater needs to be offered and indeed, the resistance to labels and simplicity by many today is a witness to the inability of Grudem’s stage. There are, we might offer, other stories to be told – ones which do not just border on the magical and fictional but break the very boundaries and traditional structures of those narratives, subverting them and doing new things with them. This, I would offer, is evidence of God – the refusal to merely recycle a narrative, but to create new ones which are bold and just as authoritative, creating a dialogue between them.
Most of us can, I assume, enjoy a piece of nonfiction as much as fiction, even noting how the supposedly real and the unreal compliment each other or how the nonfiction can feel incredulous while the fiction is more “real” than the reality we experience every day. This is not to say that theologians should make stuff up, but to point out that even when we work with a text we know is not real, there are qualities that guide our lives just like when we deal with a historical text, we can recognize its truth without it changing us and demanding change from us because this is the nature of the lived experience, continually adopting and rejecting claims and narratives and truths all around us, weaving magic into the quotidian and changing, becoming more fulfilled, guided by a metanarrative that is not formulaic and predictable. A dance, if you will, where we know the steps and enjoy the nuance – indeed, finding that the nuance enriches the steps we were taught and know so well.
What we need, then, is a theology that is enriched by both and not restricted by them. As I tell all of my writing students, it is entirely possible to tell a compelling story without strict adherence to the rules of grammar and syntax but a compelling story is thoroughly enriched when it is able to follow the rules or, at least, break them for a reason that makes sense. Masters of poetry and prose are the ones who are able to do this, not amateurs with a point to prove and almost never the ones who stop at the rules and try to convince others that the rules are the story itself.