Q & R: Systematic Theology

Here’s the Q:

I wanted to ask you something that’s been on my mind lately. Do you think systematic theology sometimes over-complicates things?
The reason why I ask is because while I’m not a trained theologian, I love to study theology. I love gaining new insights about Scripture. After a while, though, I get confused about what I should believe about sin, the cross, the resurrection, etc. Is substitutionary atonement the right way to interpret the cross, or is it Christus Victor? (After re-reading all four gospels, I now lean towards the latter.) Is sin something you do, or a state of being? And if you’re as over-analytical as I am, you can really drive yourself crazy with all of these questions!
I think that’s why I take a more narrative approach to the Bible. A good story can change your whole perception on life. You end up thinking about things you never thought about before. And if a regular story written by man with no divine inspiration can change your perception, how much more can the divinely inspired biblical narrative change us!

Here’s a response:

I think there are several dimensions to your question – let me mention just three.
First, I think systematic theology was intended to simplify, not complexify – to take the complexity of the Bible (and ongoing reflection upon the Bible, thought, and Christian experience) and organize key ideas under simple logical headings. This all becomes a problem if the logical headings or categories we choose don’t match the realities we’re supposed to be systematizing … It’s also a problem if the material we’re trying to analyze and organize is supposed to contain tensions and arguments that aren’t meant to be integrated into one monological statement. Maybe some of your frustration with systematic theology relates to these complications.
Second, I agree with you that a narrative approach is very productive. The problem is that one can choose and impose any number of narrative structures on the biblical text. So it’s an important tool – but not a fool-proof panacea.
It’s interesting that systematic theology tends to work by analysis – breaking wholes down into parts. Narrative theology looks for patterns of plot, intention, and mission that unites parts into new wholes. So does a dialogical approach – that looks for statements and counterstatements in an ongoing search for truth and understanding.
Third, as you may know from my book A New Kind of Christianity – I think a lot depends on what we assumptions we bring to the term “divinely inspired.” For so many people, the term implies “divinely inspired constitution” or “divinely inspired textbook” – which invite a very different kind of reading and reflection than a divinely inspired library or divinely inspired art gallery.
Keep up the good thinking – without, as we all are prone to do sometimes, “over-analyzing.”