Systematic Theology, the Divine Comedy


I've been a Christian for nearly 20 years and have studied the word extensively, but I had only read small amounts from Calvin, et al. Why is there so much interest in what he wrote? I went into a large Christian bookstore and they only had a couple of books related to Calvin. What's the deal?

Both Calvinism and Arminianism, to be understood properly (in my opinion) must be viewed in the historical perspective in which both these systems rose from, what questions they were attempting to answer. The reason that Christians study either/both as well as later variants of the systems is because we can "see" further atop others shoulders.

Systemized theology seeks to place the many sentences, episodes, and maxims of the Bible into a whole, orderly, consistent statement without overreaching the meaning of the message of Holy Writ. The problem of course, which all systematic theologians willingly concede, is that the Bible wasn't written systematically­hence there remains a tension between the Bible and systematization that at times has comic-pathetic overtones. The reason is that as men we are all sinners, given to excess. If something is good, we run with it until it is too good, thus bad. This is where I hold that Satan does his best work, out in the margins of belief. This is a concession that both Calvinists and Arminians tend to agree upon. But the greatest presupposition of systematized theology, and one that suffers the greatest abuse, is that it assumes you have a really good understanding of what the Bible says in the first place. Too often people read something for the first time thinking, "Wow that sounds good!" not knowing that while it sounds good, it is not good because it is contrary to what another portion of Scripture says­thus the error of overemphasis of one thing over another. As Christians, we ought not make hasty judgments, but carefully consider all things and weight them before our Lord, in consideration of His ways and not ours (cf. Prov. 3:5-7).

Thus we must be wary of this error of overemphasis. And it is an error we are all guilty of­we come up with an idea that seemingly fits one bit of Scripture and when we trip over another bit of Scripture that should force us to modify our position, instead of conforming our position to Scripture, we beat the opposing Scripture into submission so that it fits our previous conception because we've grown comfortable with our old position and don't want to change. "Scriptorture," Hank Hanegraaff calls it.

While I myself hold a form of Arminianism, I completely accept Calvinists as my brethren, recognizing that both groups fall comfortably within Christian orthodoxy. That said, I'm not always thrilled with aspects of pure Arminian theology either. Yet I love theology in general, and do like systemized theology as well­because it is all about the study and understanding of God which serves to enrich my own faith, hope, and love of my Savior Jesus Christ. Yet there is a pitfall of over intellectualizing (over philosophizing) the precepts of the Bible, the word of God, into the realms of limbo­which once reached we think, "well that's neat, but it does zero to help me in my Christian walk." Or worse, convincing yourself of a doctrine that is in opposition or contrary to what God's special revelation (the Bible) teaches us. Hence the conclusion as Thomas Oden noted in his systematic theology, "Theology and comedy remain in [the] closest proximity" (Oden, The Living God, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 406).

I have a summary statement of how I approach Bible study encompassing the idea that we never know it all or possess the full truth:

Why stereotype your theological views? Why place God in a box? I have ceased to try and expect never to do so. The idea is preposterous. None but an omniscient mind can continue to maintain a precise identity of views and opinions. Finite minds, unless they are asleep or stultified by prejudice, must advance in knowledge. The discovery of new truth will modify old views and opinions enriching truths held fast to. There is perhaps no end to this process with finite minds in any world. True Christian consistency and maturity does not consist in stereotyping our opinions and views. We ought not refuse to make any improvements fearful we should be guilty of change. Instead, we ought to hold our minds open to receive the rays of truth from every quarter and in changing our views and language and practice as often and as fast, as we can obtain further information. I call it Expansive Theology, because this course alone accords with a Christian profession­the growing maturity one gains in their walk in Christ. A Christian profession implies the profession of candor and of a disposition to know and obey all truth. It must follow, that the road to Christian maturity implies continued investigation and change of views and practices corresponding with increasing knowledge. No Christian or theologian should be afraid to change his views, his language, or his practices in conformity with increasing light. The prevalence of such a fear would keep the world, at best, at a perpetual stand-still, on all subjects of science, and consequently all improvements would be precluded. We should be as the Boreans of Acts 17:11­readily accepting all good news, but checking by the Scriptures as our only authority to see if it is true and trust not in ourselves, but in the righteous Spirit of the Almighty in heaven to morally convict us of His truth.

This statement was largely taken from Charles Finney, who I personally view as positing questionable theology because his career did two things (1) it fueled an anti-intellectual backlash, and (2) it trashed the revival in America (though Finney himself is credited with revival) by instigating perfectionism (legalism in today's terminology). This occurred because Finney found that he could not agree with the precepts of the Presbyterian (Calvinism, reformed) church. Hence he began teaching against Calvinism but he failed to be able to discern the difference between 'hyper' Calvinism (a heresy) and 'biblical' Calvinism. He lumped them all together. He also taught that anybody who was a pastor and didn't cause a revival should not pastor a church. This is an error because while all Christians are called to evangelize, not all Christians are evangelists. Each of us has a role to play in God's plan, no matter which portion of the body we are. The result was that because most pastors were seminarians, layman tended to get placed into teaching positions (this is what fueled the anti-intellectual backlash) which introduced a whole host of doctrinal errors that had been dormant for centuries. The end result was that Finney and his supporters dove way too deep into Wesleyan holiness theology (Christians living holy lives, not sinning) which downplayed the fact that we are all sinners­with a tendency to sin even when this is NOT what we want to do (Paul has the same sin problem, recall Romans 7­with a neat solution in the last two verses leading into chapter 8).

I tell you about the failings of Finney simply because he serves as an example, that we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater when we read others thoughts of God and application of His word in our own lives. Yet we ought not be to wishy-washy and sit atop a fence either, blowing with every wind of doctrine as some do. It is to heed wise council and note that because people who write things about the Bible, or theology, are decidedly uninspired, that commentaries, or observations in and of themselves are only useful in the light that it draws our attention to teachings and doctrines that either are or are not presented in Scripture. Thus, it is the challenge to you, dear reader, to test what is the truth by the facts, and not to argue against the evidence by what "feels" right, or what "seems" true, or that you "wish" to be true. For if you do that, you run the risk of falling into error.

I'll get off the soapbox now,

Eric Landstrom

See also: Why is it important for a Christian to use their mind?

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