Systematic Theology and the Bible

“Christian what?”

“Christian Dogmatics,” I told the young lady at the bookstore over the phone. Then I had to spell “dogmatics” for her. She was able to order it for me, and I’ve had it now for years. It’s a thick book – over 600 pages – of Lutheran systematic theology from the Missouri Synod perspective. Every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed…all theological questions and doubts are nailed down.

Of course I disagree with large sections of the book, simply because I don’t believe it’s completely in sync with the Bible. Then again, the nature of a systematic theology text is fundamentally different from that of Scripture. Systematic theology attempts to put in coherent order what the writers of Scripture left rather messily spread out in narrative, letters and somewhat arcane symbolism.

The modern mind struggles with Scripture. Post-Enlightenment scholars have worked feverishly to systematize what they viewed as the disjointed testimony of Scripture (although most would never have used such terms for the nature of the biblical witness). Most of my professers strained to show how this passage here connected with that one way over there in another book and time in the Bible to form this or that doctrine. Traditional, conservative preachers will often consider most “biblical” a sermon that jumps from one passage to another, forming a string of verses that proves their point.

For all that, the Bible isn’t a book of systematic theology. It is a record of God’s words and working with His people, centered around the great event: the Incarnation. Had God wanted to give us a systematic, section by section explanation of everything we would need to know, a sort of “user’s manual,” He could have. Quite simply, that’s not what He did. He gave us what He knew we needed, a very human text relating His working with fallen humanity towards the fulfillment of His plans for creation.

Maybe we should start reading it for what it is, not for what we would like for it to be.

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