Thursday, January 21, 2016

Systematic Theology? In Africa? Really?

In one of the ironies of my life, I’m getting ready to walk into a classroom of eager Kenyan undergraduates and give the first lecture of my new Systematic Theology III class.  It’s the same course I taught last term, but I am not complaining.  Seven of the nine classes I am teaching this term are new-to-me.  I’m grateful to have a class that I don’t have to start from scratch to teach.  But back to the irony.

Adolf von Harnack

This course I’m teaching, replete with my Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology textbook, would be simply normal in a conservative theological college setting in the US, especially one that was more or less ‘reformed’ and ‘evangelical’.  I am, however, ensconced in the Kenya Highlands, teaching a class of Kenyans and South Sudanese who also happen to be Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Orthodox, along with a healthy dash of Pentecostals. This is now the fourth African (two in Ethiopia and two in Kenya) theological college that has asked me to teach Systematic Theology.  And all of the other Christian schools offering diploma, Bachelors, Masters and PhD programs for Christians preparing for ministry, in both of these countries at least, require their students to take Systematic Theology.



The great problem in all this is that Systematic Theology is a Western project.  The current academic concept grew out of the Enlightenment optimism that human reason could envelop and categorize all knowledge, including religious knowledge.  This of course built on Reformation attempts to re-calibrate Christianity without anything remotely smacking of Roman Catholicism.  And this ambitious effort was preceded by equally ambitious attempts to translate Christian theology into Aristotelian categories (see Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae, for example).  But with Reformation scholars like John Calvin came an entirely new attempt to work through the Bible alone and determine from the Bible alone (as opposed to the Bible + the Catholic Magisterium and Catholic Church Tradition) the doctrines that defined Christianity.  This became the quest of subsequent generations of Protestant theologians, who endeavored systematically to determine what the Bible teaches about any topic pertaining to the Christian faith.

Friederich Schleiermacher

This quest hit a jarring speedbump with the advent of both the Enlightenment and the subsequent reaction called Modernism.  And while Modernist skepticism influenced ‘liberal’ European and American theologians to question the trustworthiness of the Christian Scriptures, the more conservative theologians felt they had good reasons to believe that a theological summary of what the Bible teaches was still both possible, worthwhile and, in fact, necessary.

Harvey Cox

And now a slight detour.  The Wikipedia definition of Systematic Theology includes the following statement: ‘Using biblical texts, it (Systematic Theology) attempts to compare and relate all of scripture and create a systematized statement on what the whole Bible says about particular issues.’[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systematic_theology] I normally don’t use or cite Wikipedia because its articles can be changed by anyone at any time and for who knows what ideological reason, and thus there is no guarantee that the information has been vetted or that it is without philosophical or religious bias.  However, what caught my eye was how many times this definition turned up on other websites having to do with systematic theology or academic programs offering degrees in systematic theology.  This sentence, or significant chunks of it, turned up again and again on these pages when they were defining ‘systematic theology,’ without attribution of course.  One cannot say for sure who was copying who (though one can guess…).  And I thought I had serious problems with students addicted to plagiarism and who insist on using Wikipedia as a legitimate academic source…  (Full disclosure.  I do use Wikipedia occasionally, but only as the first step, for dates or to give me ideas or references.  But not as a source of reliable, academic-level, peer-reviewed information).

Marcus Borg

Back to systematic theology.  I am more concerned about the conservative brand than those theologies produced by those motivated by more liberal assumptions, for the simple reason that most liberal systematic theologies are overmuch concerned to reflect the most up-to-date scholarship and criticism and philosophical trends and theological fashions. Which means these sometimes immense volumes of systematic theology are obsolete as soon as they are published.  They are quite effective at providing a mirror of the fashions and presuppositions and the latest theories that were current when it was written.  But the crowd that reads such books is more interested in the NEXT BEST THING and of surfing the NEXT BIG WAVE rather than chew over yesterday’s tired ideas.  This pattern of writing systematic theologies to reflect the liberal presuppositions of the day has been going on for two centuries.  One would think that someone in that camp would wake up one morning and realize, ‘Gosh, haven’t we done this before?  And we keep on doing it, again and again and again?  How bizarre.’  In other words, every ‘liberal’ systematic theology written in the 19th and 20th century is essentially irrelevant.  The only people who read them now are students whose professors want them to know something of the history of theological ideas.  But to read someone whose ideas have been so thoroughly debunked by the next generation and who are famous (or infamous) because of the controversy they caused in their day is nothing more than a waste of both current liberals’ and current conservatives’ time. Unless, of course, one really likes intellectual history; in which case reading liberal systematic theologies from the past 200 years provides a fascinating hike through the woods of the philosophical and cultural changes that have occurred in the West during these years.  But one must really like wandering through the woods…

Reinhold Niebuhr

‘In the West.’  All of that discussion, all of the conservative/liberal debates, the volumes piled on volumes of more theological jargon than one can shake a stick at – all of this has been a Western conversation about Western issues and concerns.  So imagine my shock when I was assigned several years ago by my dean to teach a masters-level course on ‘Modern Theology’ (by which was meant ‘Modern Western Theology’) to a classroom full of African students from 10 different African countries. In another irony, I tried and tried to figure out a way to make all this modern theology relevant to my students.  Ironic because that was the purpose that motivated these liberal theologians to theologize.  They were trying so hard to update Christianity, to make it relevant to the assumptions of the day.  Not a single one of them thought that they were destroying Christianity (the charge leveled at them by many Conservative theologians).  Instead most liberal theologians thought they were saving Christianity from the debacle of having its truth claims demolished by modernist interrogation. But once Jesus is no longer both human and divine (and may even be a figment of pious imaginations), once the Bible is shown to be mistaken again and again, once Christianity is discovered to be the triumph of the conservative bad-guy Catholic party over the good-guy liberal Gnostics, once the Biblical narrative is proven to be wholly fictitious – what’s left to rescue?  We are left with deeply felt religious feelings (Schleiermacher).  We are left with a moralistic religion of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (von Harnack).  We are left with a theological construct so brilliant that nobody still understands it or what it might mean (Tillich), except that to have Tillich on your shelf announces to anyone who cares (an admittedly small but terribly self-important circle) that one has intense liberal street cred.  (Just don’t ask anyone to explain him, and hope to God that nobody asks you the same.).  We are left with a mosaic of religion made of those pieces deemed appropriate and acceptable (idiosyncratically) by the theologian hard at work trying to make his/her construct hold together, which it never does.  Or at least it never survives the theologian, and sometimes fades into irrelevance even before the theologian is ushered from the field of play to meet the God about whom he/she had such grave doubts.  

Paul Tillich

But what relevance does any of this small Western drama have for Africa, for her thousands of denominations, for her half a billion Christians?  For centuries, theologians in the West played their intellectual and theological games as if they were the only show in town.  They pronounced and declared and decreed and pontificated as if their voice was the only voice worth hearing.  They published articles and books and lectured and guest-lectured and got ever higher academic positions and degrees and honorary degrees and gave prestigious lecture series and got lots of letters and titles after their names and assumed that by doing so they had achieved something.   But the West and its ‘center of the universe’ mentality no longer exists, mainly because the rest of the world is proving the West to be too small in its perspective.  Which means the philosophical and religious assumptions underpinning the totality of Western intellectual history and theological development has already been proven insufficient and thus irrelevant, by the simple fact that there is a ‘rest of the world’.  This, of course, will not go down well with the Brahmans that make up the Western philosophical and theological elite.  But the old model of theology was so ensconced in an ethnocentric, cultural-centric, academia-centric, male-centric model as to make it useful only if that was your world.  But that is no longer anybody’s world.  Even the fraught attempts by Western women or homosexual-rights advocates or other cause-oriented theologies to wrench academic theology out of its ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’ or ‘racist’ moorings so that it accommodates their more important issues, these efforts miss the same point as the theologies they are attempting to supplant and for the same reason.  The world of these ‘outrage theologians’ is even smaller than that of the 19th and 20th century liberals because the current cause-theologies revolve around addressing my grievances and my concerns. Too often masquerading as a concern for social justice, the outrage movement is the ultimate end of Western individualism, where the individual is given the right to rewrite theology itself to suit his own presuppositions or assuage her own indignation.  It is the anarchy of outrage, the tyranny of diversity, both of which assume the authority to demolish the beliefs and practices of anyone else if those beliefs and practices are deemed offensive by anyone.  But once this door is opened, history shows us again and again that the revolution will spiral out of control and will eat her own children.  Think French Revolution here.  Once one has gotten rid of every authority but one’s own, then there is nothing to stop the next even bigger, more wicked authority from picking up where one left off and sweeping one out of the way in the process.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The point being (here, at least), why would anyone here on my current continent think that this was a good thing, or relevant to reality here?  Why should anyone here be concerned about those things that currently vex the world of Western elites?  We have our own raft of problems over here, affecting many times more the number of people than those causes that so outrage people in the West.  And given the magnitude of the problems here, all of the shouting over there seems a bit self-serving.  That’s not to say there are not legitimate concerns and grievances.  But please, take a deep breath and get some perspective! 

Hans Kung

There aren’t many liberal systematic theologies written anymore, mainly because liberals have so rubbished the Bible as having any relevance or authority, that such theologies tend to be the equivalent of Rorschach tests, or of Linus and Charlie Brown looking up at the clouds – ‘I see a horse.’ ‘But I see a Lamborghini.’ And who’s to argue¸ as it doesn’t matter anyway.  They have sawed off the branch on which they were sitting.  And if anything can be said using the Bible as one’s jumping off point, it’s not a big step to then say that nothing can be said, at least that’s worth saying.  Such theology has made itself irrelevant to its intended audience (Christians).  And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that African Christians don’t rush out to buy and read any of their meticulously-researched pieces. We have better things to do with our time.  Which ultimately will spell the end of liberal theology.  If it won’t play here in Nairobi, it’s not going to play.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Louis Berkhof

Liberal systematic theology may have consigned itself to irrelevance.  But the conservative version, still taught with such vigor at all the major conservative seminaries in the West, and still imposed with vigor on all unsuspecting African students at conservative theological colleges in Africa, has its own array of self-inflicted issues that are leading it to the same end.  It’s just that nobody is listening.  In the past, conservative Christian theologians were too engaged in a life and death struggle with their liberal counterparts to pay any attention to any other possible problems, except the long-term perennial bogeyman or antichrist or whatever you want to call those pestiferous Roman Catholics.  And despite winsome popes and good-faith efforts to dialogue with those people on the part of some branches of Protestantism, everyone else remains dug in and heavily armed, much like the DMZ separating South Koreans from their crazy neighbors to the north.  It’s a difficult relationship that goes back almost exactly 500 years.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

Back to the point.  Protestant systematic theology seems impressive enough, with its thick and heavy tomes, with the requirement at every seminary that every first year student plunge into some Evangelical theology guru’s Prolegomena, and then into the depths of the nature of God and the glories of cataphatic theology (as opposed to the ever questionable and dangerous apophatic theology…).  The Bible is the supreme and only stated guide, and the Reformation insistence that, if it can’t be proved from Scripture then it’s not something Christians are obligated to believe, is paraded like a confederate battle flag in South Carolina, or an orange anything in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Protestants have always tied everything to the Bible.  The Bible is the supreme authority.  Protestants look to nothing but Scripture as the ground of what they believe.  It’s all so clear.  So simple.  It began with Luther and his admirable efforts to disengage Christianity from the clutches of a corrupt Catholic system of authority that included Scripture, but also included the Magisterium of Papal authority, as well as Roman Catholic Church Tradition, which itself included all Papal pronouncements and all so-called ecumenical councils sponsored by Rome after the split with the Eastern Churches in 1054.  It’s from this strangle-hold of self-serving Roman Catholic authority that Luther wrested free with the phrase ‘Sola Scriptura’ or ‘Scripture alone’.  This was a fantastic and winning slogan, and it sent Luther’s friends and other wannabe reformers rushing back to the Bible to rebuild the faith and the Church after Luther’s verbal demolition of the foundations of Roman Catholic faith and practice in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1521) and other furious diatribes.  It was totally an inside job (Luther was an Augustinian monk and a professor of the Bible).  And it was a lit match that fell on dry tinder and then leapt quickly from the fire pit of theological dispute into the surrounding fields and forests, becoming a wildfire and then a conflagration that nobody could put out.

Charles Hodge

The problems with Luther’s strategy to free himself and the Church from the corrupting influence of Catholic authority were immediately apparent, but Protestants (as they came to be called) were too busy fighting first the Catholics and then with themselves to take note or to care.  The snag had to do with Luther’s own authority construct itself, namely, that the Bible as God’s Word is our supreme authority.  The great problem was that the Bible does not address issues directly.  The Bible is not a creed with precise definitions. The Bible is not a Book of Order with specific instructions about how to order worship or run churches.  Instead the Bible is narrative and story; there are gospels, histories, letters, a lot of poetry, and documents pertaining to Israel’s relationship with God, and for the really brave at heart, apocalypses.  There are enough authors and genres and styles to qualify for an encyclopedia (except the Bible is anything but, unfortunately, for those who want/need it to be), all of which means that there simply isn’t a straight line from picking up a translation of the Bible to a happy healthy Church.  The Bible isn’t uniformly clear.  And that means the Bible needs to be interpreted.  And herein lies the great problem for Protestants in general, and for Protestant systematic theology in particular.  All good Protestants agree that the Bible is the one and only authority for everything pertaining to Christianity.  But none of the same good Protestants can agree on how that authoritative Bible should be interpreted.

Charles Finney

Take the issue of baptism.  All good Protestants believe that Christians should be baptized.  But some believe that only new believing converts should be baptized, and others believe that infants of believers should be baptized.  Some believe baptism is valid only if one is immersed, others if water is poured over one’s head, others if water is merely sprinkled.  These differences are not inconsequential, and they have resulted in entire groups of Christians separating themselves from other Christians who are obviously less obedient to Christ, and forming entire new denominations of Protestants who wear the rightness of their cause in their name – in this case So-and–So Baptist Church.  In fact every name tells the story of some historic split, all in the name of our right interpretation of the Bible over and against your wrong interpretation.  If only the Bible were clear, all Protestants would agree.  And wouldn’t that be a miracle.

Roger Nicole (who taught me systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

What systematic theology does, at least in its conservative version, is codify all of these divisions.  Every theological issue is covered in the same way, namely rehearsing all the different ways people have come up with disagreeing over this particular issue, and then carefully explaining why my particular understanding is actually what the Bible is teaching and is therefore the right way.  Impressive arguments are augmented with even more impressive constellations of Bible proof texts.  But when I pick up an alternative systematic theology from one of those heretic Arminians (from the perspective of Reformed theologians, the guardians of the true faith), I discover that she has done the same thing, argued persuasively that her interpretation makes by far the best sense of the matter and then provided enough justifying Scripture to sink a battleship.  And who is right?  The one who shouts the loudest?   The one who blogs most snarkily?  This is done with the Trinity, with the role of women in the church, with Pentecostalism and tongues, with the whole spectrum of sexual issues, with sacraments/ordinances, with church government, with creationism, with inerrancy.  With such vast possibilities for disagreement, it sure gives Protestants a lot to talk about, and a lot of irreconcilable differences to divorce over.

James Inell Packer

What one very quickly discovers is that, for conservative Protestants and despite their insistent rhetoric, it’s not the Bible that is authoritative in matters of faith and practice, it’s one’s interpretation of the Bible that is authoritative.  500 years of Protestantism coupled by revivalism and now Pentecostalism have demonstrated rather clearly that we can make the Bible say what we need it to say, and we can ignore the Bible when we want to ignore it, even when it actually is speaking with persistence and clarity (um, ongoing racism in the United States, perhaps?).  And in this way, conservative systematic theologians are guilty of doing the very same thing with their theology as liberal systematic theologians – we are all using the Bible to recreate God in our own image and to make Christianity what we want it to be.  All of our fights are over our interpretations.  And our interpretations become the standards of orthodoxy.  And those who don’t line up are outside the pale and thus displeasing to God and thus, though it’s not polite to say so, heretics.  This happens so often that we hardly notice any more.  Protestants disagree and divide and disagree and divide, to the extent that there are now over 30,000 different denominations most of whom have justified their existence because they are right.  Ho hum.

Millard Erickson

Why can’t we see that this makes a mockery of rightness, of truth, of the Bible itself which we profess to uphold?  Systematic theology is the one place that puts all of these shortcomings on display.  It’s a catalogue of all that’s gone wrong with our Reformation.  The Genie left the bottle long ago and now we’re just living out the consequences.  Not only will things not get better, only worse, but conservative Protestantism is on the fast rail to irrelevance.  With so many versions all claiming to be true, at some point people are going to wake up and realize that the whole game is nothing more than a confidence trick.  If everybody is right, then nobody is right, right?  For all of our big theological words, we will all have been found serving our own agendas and furthering our own ends.  All for God’s greater glory, of course.  Hallelujah!

Thomas Oden

The problem is one of authority, and the Sola Scriptura solution favored by Protestants has been demonstrated again and again by our history to have a fatal flaw.  Evangelicals have long sought to control the argument and frame the issue as over the inerrancy of Scripture.  There are certainly liberals who contest that.  But my evangelical friends, by focusing on inerrancy, have missed the real monster that is consuming them.  It’s not the Bible that’s the problem, rather their interpretations, and their inability to decide what their authoritative Bible actually says.

Wayne Grudem

I was a Protestant for 50 years.  When I converted to Orthodoxy, leaders of both Protestant institutions in which I had served in Nairobi for years (one an Evangelical theological college, one a large Evangelical mission board) privately assured me that there was room for me in their institution.  Then it surfaced that concerns were raised in both institutions that if it became known that an Orthodox Christian was a member of the faculty or one of their missionaries, it would severely affect their ability to raise money.  I was fired in short order.  However, the official reason that was given to me was that was terminated because I, as an Orthodox Christian, could not subscribe to an Evangelical statement on the authority of Scripture because I also included Church Tradition as authoritative for Orthodox faith and practice (my efforts to explain that Orthodox Church Tradition is very different from Roman Catholic Church tradition made no difference).  So, good for them for upholding their Sola Scriptura standards.  But not so good for continuing to uphold a Protestantism that promotes not the authority of Scripture but the authority of private interpretation of Scripture, accountable to no one and responsible for the slow motion shattering of global Christianity .  It’s a hole of their own digging, and the only response I’ve seen anyone capable of is grabbing a shovel and digging some more.


So, that’s my job this term, to lead my students through systematic theology, to point out all the different ways theologians have disagreed about an entire grocery list of issues, and then to help them understand where their tradition stands and why.  And with humor, stories, some irony, and hopefully not too much snark, I’m trying quietly to bear witness that there is actually another way of doing things, a way that doesn’t end in irrelevance or a fragmented Church.  The original Church of the apostles and church fathers and mothers is still in our midst (and it isn’t that very large ecclesiastical institution based in Rome).  In fact it’s not a Western church, nor has it been caught up in the Western need to categorize and systematize.  It’s worship is not a reflection of contemporary culture, but comes into God’s presence the same way Christians have always done all the way back to the time when Jesus and his followers attended liturgy at the synagogue.   We are decidedly not ‘seeker sensitive’.  We are not interested in anyone being comfortable; rather we welcome you to join us in repentance, in picking up our cross, in following Jesus.  Lord knows we have our issues.  But all of us know that we are sinners and that we need a Savior.  Our churches are therefore not museums for displaying how holy we are, but rather we are a hospital for those of us who are sick and know we need a Savior, where we are connected with the Great Physician and where we receive the medicine of salvation in the Sacraments. We haven’t always agreed.  And we are not always pretty.  But we also haven’t taken God’s clear plate glass window and shattered it into thousands of pieces, either.


We Orthodox do theology, but since the Bible does not present itself as a catalogue or dictionary of belief we don’t use it as such.  We read the Bible during our ‘quiet times’ and hear it read at every service, but we read it through the lens of the Apostles and the great Fathers of the early church, and the traditions that the Church lovingly preserved from them.  It is too often forgotten that the apostles were responsible for Tradition in two streams, one that was written which eventually the Church acknowledged as Scripture, and the other that was spoken by the apostles as they went about their apostolic ministries and remembered by the Church as the oral tradition.  The apostle Paul himself acknowledges both in his letter to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 2:15).  The Church through a long process decided what would be authoritative in terms of the written Tradition, and the Church through the same process held on to the oral Tradition.  Interestingly, through that entire process, though Christians could fight like cats over any number of concerns, the issue of Tradition, both oral and written, was never fought over.  It was simply the water in which Christian fish swam in.  Certainly what should be included in the circle of authoritative Tradition was contested.  But the reality of the circle was never in doubt.


So I’m teaching systematic theology.  And I’m teaching bright, eager African students.  I will do my best to teach the content of the course.  Teaching the content is the easy part.  Helping my students grasp the Western nature of systematic theology and what African identities and African perspectives contribute to the discussion is slightly more daunting.  Connecting my students to the reality to which that content so imperfectly points is the real challenge before me.  Welcome to theological education.

Post Script
You will, I'm sure, have noticed that all of the systematic theologians pictured above are white guys from Europe and North America.  There are many more I could have posted.  But there are very few systematic theologians who are women or African, Asian, African American or Hispanic.  I wonder why?  Plenty of theology has been generated by people who are not male or caucasian, but not systematic theology. There are a few exceptions.  One which comes to mind is African Christian Theology by Samuel Waje Kunhiyop.  Kunhiyop makes a vigorous argument in his introduction that his book should be considered a genuinely African systematic theology.  But to be honest, it reads like a standard American Evangelical text that follows standard western categories and answers western intellectual questions but which also uses African examples.  African Christian Theology is thus an exception that ends up proving the rule.  Kunhiyop has mastered western Evangelical theology and sought to transplant it back into African soil.  'Evangelical Theology for Africa' might be a more honest title.  One way or another, it follows the Western model of assuming that Western answers are what everyone else needs.  Never mind they haven't worked in the West.  The emperor may have no clothes on, but we must simply avert our eyes and carry on.