Systematic Theology, or, An Homage to Paul Tillich (What? At DET?)
The question “Why a system?” has been asked ever since the first volume of my systematics appeared. In one of the books that deals critically with my theology…the fact of the system itself, more than anything stated within the system, is characterized as the decisive error of my theology…There are many reasons for aversion to the systematic-constructive form in theology; one is the result of confusion of a deductive, quasi-mathematical system…with the systematic form as such…In the Spring semester of my first year as an MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary, in the first half of my systematic theology requirement, I was given the change to read Tillich (see my Paul Tillich Mini-series). Well, to be a bit more honest, I had it assigned to me! So, I read most of the first volume and virtually all of the second volume. Unfortunately, none of the third volume was assigned. So, I’m going back and trying to plug in the gaps.
For me, the systematic-constructive form has meant the following. First, it forced me to be consistent. Genuine consistency is one of the hardest tasks in theology (as it probably is in every cognitive approach to reality), and no one fully succeeds. But in making a new statement, the necessity of surveying previous statements in order to see whether or not they are mutually compatible drastically reduces inconsistencies. Second, and very surprisingly, the systematic form became an instrument by which relations between symbols and concepts were discovered that otherwise would not have been apparent. Finally, the systematic construction has led me to conceive the object of theology in its wholeness, as a Gestalt in which many parts and elements are united by determining principles and dynamic interrelations.
Some of my friends have been curious as to why I would bother to do so. They rightly perceive that I disagree with Tillich on very many points of doctrine, and that I find his system to be quite foreign. However, they wrongly deduce that disagreement and strange-ness means lack of profit in consideration. In my opinion, perhaps the highest compliment that one can give the work of an academic theologian is to say, upon recommending that work to another, “S/he will make you a theologian.” Tillich will make you not only a theologian, but a superb systematic theologian.
The quote above reveals why. If Tillich does not quite grasp Christian doctrine as I think it should be grasped, he does – in my opinion – understand what systematic theology is all about: consistency, interrelations, and wholeness. (The bold-type above is my addition.) If I ever write a systematic theology, I can only pray that it will score as highly on these three markers as does Tillich’s work.