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Systematic Lecture 1

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TH 302 Lecture 1


1.1 What is Theology?  What is Systematic Theology?



"More consequences for thought and action follow the affirmation or denial of God than from answering any other basic question."  ~ Mortimer J. Adler, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1994) vol. 2, p. 561.




At its most basic level, the word 'Theology' simply means a way of "talking about God" (literally theo - logia, or "God-talk"). Talking, however, can imply a number of activities.  Talking can mean a monologue, or a lecture (like the one to which you are currently listening), where information is given in a one-way fashion.  Talking can also indicate a converstaion between two or more parties, where there is give-and-take of information and positions.   Each of these possibilites, and others we might imagine, has its own rules, vocabulary, grammar, and interests.


Theology is often referred to as a "second order" discourse, which means that it comments and fills in the gaps of a more "primary" discourse (such as Scripture).


As an example (I do not mean this disrespectfully of sacreligiously): we know from Scripture that Jesus ate food - but can we say that Jesus went to the bathroom? Scripture does not answer this question, but depending on how we answer this question, there might be tremendous consequences for other parts of our faith.


By "consequences" I mean following the chain of effects of saying one thing or another, like dominoes falling one after the other. For example: if Jesus did not have normal human functions, then Jesus was perhaps not human. If he were not human, what was nailed to the cross? If what was nailed to the cross was not human, then can the cross affect human sin...? You can follow these chains of consequences in many directions from seemingly simple and minor decisions. To the extent that we insist that Jesus did (or did not) do this or that thing that is not specifically referenced in Scripture, we have moved to the realm of Theology. This is true as well for many matters not specifically related to the person of Jesus. Theology related to all areas of understanding the Christian life.


One of the key things to learn in this course is that Theology has to pay attention to consequences- the theologian pays attention to what is said casually about belief, because the consequences of these casual statements for the coherence of Christian faith may be unforeseen and huge, for good or for ill.


There are many jobs in the Church - pastor, deacon, usher, parishioner, custodial staff... each of these jobs has specific tasks and responsibilities. We might ask, "What is the role of the theologian in the church?" One answer (the one I prefer) is that a theologian "defends the faith." This means that the theologian and the pastor are not enemies. When the pastor is speaking from the pulpit in the power of the Gospel and the spirit of truth the theologian is cheering. It is only when the pastor (or others in the church) step away from the historical traditions of the faith that the theologian feels compelled to cause a stir. (Bear in mind that there are many pastors and theologians both who would disagree with me on this point!)


What we will be examining in this class together is systematic theology. What does this mean?


If we imagine a car, we can see that it is made up of a great deal of systems: the air conditioning, tires, brakes, radiator, fuel injectors and many more each go into making a functioning car that you would want to ride in. Now some of these systems are not vital (you might be able to ride comfortably in a car without air conditioning) and some are absolutely necessary (one cannot ride in a car safely that has no brakes). Some are interchangeable (like a car stereo) and some are specific to the model and make of car you are driving.


Systematic theology works in much the same way. Just like, when you ride in a car, you aren't thinking of all the different components, you often don't notice all the different pieces that make up what you believe. When you really begin to notice them is when one part stops working like it should. Your beliefs are complex and have many aspects you don't always see or consider. Systematic theology helps us understand the relationships among all the parts of our faith, and "fix" our beliefs when something stops working like it should. There are many reasons why we believe what we believe. We have our families, and our experience, and Scripture, and many other voices from our teachers and authorities to choose from.


In theology, we call these various voices by the techincal term sources.Plainly put, a source is just one of the many reasons that go into justifying what you believe. Now, as we can imagine, there will come times when two of the sources we are using might come into conflict. In those cases it often happens that one source becomes more important than the others. For example, in a conversation with a person who took both science and Scripture seriously, that person might choose one source (science or Scripture) over the other when discussing the origin of life on Earth. When this happens we call this more powerful source a norm. Sources and norms interact and interchange, but you always have them when you believe, or know, something.


1.2 Historical backgrounds


Israel and Hellenism


We must look at the events described in the New Testament as being a part of a much larger fabric. Jerusalem in the first century AD was at the center of many layers of cultures and conflicts. The chief among these layers were those of Judaism and Hellenism.


Jewish culture ranged back some 3000 years, from the earliest myths of a group of "wandering Arameans" [Deut. 26:5], through the enslavement and exodus to the construction of Solomon's temple. The culture of Israel (by which we mean the identity of the people, as the kingdom of Israel had split into Israel/Judea by the time of the New Testament events) was characterized by radical monotheism, the absolute belief that there was only one true God. The Israelites believed this so strongly that the would often riot and revolt if made to worship idols or other gods. This monotheism was in stark contrast to other cultures around them.


But Israel was just one island in a much larger culture - the culture of Hellenism.This culture was centered in the city-states of Greece and was exported by a series of wars and empires throughout Asia Minor and beyond. While this was not the "birth of civilization", as some writers of the past have put it (to call it that would be to discount the important contributions of the African and far-Eastern societies of the day), Hellenism still factors greatly in the discussion of the rise of what is now called "Western thought".


The Hellenistic culture was polytheistic (worshipping many gods) and focused on many philosophical questions. It also made great advances in areas of art, architecture, urban planning, and (in some cases, to a limited degree) democracy. When we use the term "pagan", the word technically refers to the religious culture of Hellenism.


When we remember the story of Paul at Mars Hill (see the Book of Acts) we see him encountering a group of thinkers in the marketplace. The religious dialogue he takes part in (and the way the others seem to "play" with him without taking him too seriously) is typical of the philosophical climate of Hellenism at the time of Christ. There is a keen interest in "big questions" (how should we live? What is Good? What is Truth?) but there is also a certain amount of distance from definitive answers.


Hellenism was taken on by the dominant empire of Christ's time - the Roman Empire. It modeled itself on many of the Greek's ideals and adopted the Greek gods as its own (though it changed their names).



1.3 Patristics, Desert Fathers, and Apologists



The period between roughly 95 and 350 AD was marked by tremendous growth, change, and structure within the young Christian church(es) around the Mediterranean Sea and Asia Minor. many factors contributed to this growth and change - some of these include Location, Language, and Politics.


Just as we see a diversity in churches and denominations today, we can look back to the earliest days of the church and find great variety of thought and belief. The feeling that there was some "original unity" to the Christian church that we have somehow lost over the centuries is largely false. Instead, we find that church practice in the first centuries was as varied as the languages that the many different churches spoke in their regions.


There were four major cities for the ancient church during this time: Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Antioch.  These were the cities in which the church had a large population and a major theological presence.  That is, the decisions made in these cities tended to affect how chruches in smaller cities and rural areas understood themselves and worshipped.  It is important to remember that these cities, though in unity with each other through their bishops, did not always agree on the right manner of worship and church practices.  If we take a moment and think about it, we can easily see why.


Our Old Testament was written in Hebrew, originally, but the version the Apostles were most likely familiar with was in Greek. The New Testament writings that have been canonized were written in Koine Greek, but the events they reflect deal largely with speakers of Aramaic. Within a century of the death of Christ you begin to have various translations of writings into a series of other languages, and by the third century there are several translations of the whole Bible into Latin. So if you are a church in one town tryin gto settle a dispute about belief with a church in another town, one of the questions you have to settle first is which version or translation of the Scripture will you use to decide?


To give but one example: it is an important article of early Christian faith that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. This doctrine finds Scriptural support in the Latintranslation of the Book of Isaih: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive." The origianl Hebrew text, however, is more ambiguous. The word translated as "virgin" in the Latin can mean either "virgin" or "young maiden." Now, of course, it might be reasonable to inferthat the context and implication of Isaiah is clear, but the fact is that, in the end, the text alone does not give us the full answer.


That the church embraces the virgin birth of Christ in the first centuries is as much (or more) a matter of doctrine than it is of Scripture. To have Christ born without human sexual intercourse allows some early writers to conclude that he is born without original sin (which was thought by some to be spread through the sex-act). Thus a tradition of reading an unclear text a certain way arises. This process of reading clarity where there is ambiguity is going on continuously - even in churches today - and it was certainly at work in the disputes of the early Church(es).


In the first centuries, where your church was determined what language(s) you spoke, and many conflicts over "right readings" of Scripture arose over this simple fact. Compounded on top of this problem was the matter of politics: each church community had to negotiate in a sea of other cultures and expectations surrounding them. Churches had to justify first to Jews and Synagogue leaders that they were not a heresy (although this eventually failed), then to Roman authorities that they were a real religion independent of both Judaism and the state-sponsored polytheism. And most importantly, churches had to justify their doctrines and belief and readings of Scripture to each other.



1.4 Patristics (continued), Councils and Creeds



As we have discussed, the early Christian church inherited worldviews and themes from both Jewish culture and Hellenism. One of the most profound structures the church inherited was the idea of a three-level universe.In other words, from the Jewish culture and (to a certain extent) from Roman Hellenism, Christianity was given the notion that the world divides into three stacked "realms":


  • God
  • The Spirit World
  • Creation


    From the first commandment we know that the topmost realm, "God," can only have one inhabitant. The realm of "Creation" is everything we can see and touch. Somewhere in between is a realm of angels, demons, and false gods (see for example Isaiah and Job). These levels, and their interaction, were discussed not only by the Patristic writers, but also by the jewish leaders and the philosophers of the Greek tradition. While they did not always use the same words or come to the same conclusions, the fact remains that the basic structure was the same.


    Scripture, as it began to become more solidified and agreed upon, then presented a tremendous problem for the Patristic writers. There are a variety of claims made about Jesus, ranging from what we would term low Christology (Jesus was just a man - though chosen of God and an example of perfection - an account such as we read in Mark's Gospel) to high Christology(Jesus is a divine being and greater than a mere man - such as we read in John's Gospel). The question the Patristic writers faced, then, is which part of the three-level universe is the right place for Jesus? This question forms the heart of what we might call the early church's Christological problem.


    Not every writer in the Patristic period agreed o the same answer to the problem. In fact, we find a great variety of answers to this question through the first three and a half centuries of the church (and even after, though the politics of disagreement had changed, for reasons we will see in a moment). Some writers thought of Jesus as mere human. Others placed him as part of the spirit realm, created but not mere human, acting as God's "hands" in the world, getting things done. Still others wanted, from the very earliest days, to claim Jesus was in fact God on Earth - the Messiah.


    Each of these answers had its merits and its problems. At some point, Scripture and tradition both agree and disagree with putting Jesus in each level. What we see in the disagreements and arguments in the early Church are many people trying their best to faithfuly read Scripture (though each is reading it differently).


    Around 300 AD, we see a series of events take place that would change the course of these questions - and the church itself - forever. The Roman emporer Constantine - who had been (and probably remained) a Sun-worshipper - was victorious in battle after having emblazoned the shields of his warriors with the Chi-Rho, a symbol of the Name of Christ. While it is debatable whether this victory caused him to "convert" to Christianity, he did harbor a newfound respect for the Christian God.


    Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire - though not for the romantic reasons often assumed. He was being very practical. The Empire was faltering, and under attack on several fronts. Constantine hoped that by rallying the Roman citizens around "One Empire, One Emporer, One Faith" that he could restore stability. Christianity - with its well-connected network of Bishops in major cities throughout Roman lands - was the ideal candidate to become the "One Faith" Constantine was looking for. Suddenly, this fledgling, sometimes outlaw religious sect became respectable and legitimate.


    What Constantine failed to realize (though he quickly became aware of it) was that - in addition to inheriting the strong infrasctucture of Bishops - he had also inherited the Christological problem. The Bishops, while well-networked, were not unified at all on the question of Jesus (nor on a whole host of other questions). There was bitter, and sometimes violent, disagreement among them (and their followers in the various cities they served).


    Constantine decided to take action, and in the year 325 he called together a representative (though selective - not everyone was invited or allowed to speak) assembly of Bishops and convened a church council in the city of Nicea. The council continued to meet for several years, and eventually produced a declaration of basic Christian faith known as the Nicene Creed.


    It is useful to compare the wording of this creed with that of the Apostle's Creed,which was written probably a hundred and fifty years or so before the Nicene council. When we look at them side-by-side we can see both similarities and stark differences. For example, both creeds find their chief puropse in explaining Jesus as a being with both humanity and some form of divine nature. The Apostle's creed, however, stops short of explicitly naming Jesus as God, and does not elaborate in the slightest about the nature of relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father or Jesus. The Nicene creed, in contrast, makes explicit the divinity of both the Spirit and Jesus (as the Son). This is but one example. In class we discussed several others.


    If you'd like to read more about these creeds and their development, here are links to two excellent articles from the online New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia :


  • The Apostle's Creed
  • The Nicene Creed



1.5 Toward Medieval Christianity: Augustine, Monasticism, Dogmatics


If we consider the contemporary church in America, one might well argue that the "flow" of understanding and salvation follows this sort of path:


You ----> Personal encounter with Jesus ----> Become part of the church


In other words, your relationship with Christ can exist without a relationship with the church - at least in the way many of us consider the matter today. This was also the case for the earliest churches in the first century. But this was not true as the church began to gain institutional structure and power.


Even before Constantine made the church the official religion of the Roman Empire, one begins to see the rise of the idea that the church is the only point of salvation in the world. Instead of the formula we saw above, one might instead see


You -----> Join the Church ----> Personal encounter with Jesus


As Augustine (whom we will discuss in a moment) put it: "You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother."


All discussions of the church in the rule of Constantine and after, then, must contend with the reality that the church had moved from its outlaw status and become allied with the Empire - a reality which technically we call Christendom.


The first major split in the Church


If one were to draw a timeline of church development, it is often tempting to simplify matters and start with the Gospel events and then draw a straight line to the 12th and 13th centuries, where you would then put a break - branching left and right (or east and west) to reflect the first "split" of the church into Western (Latin-speaking) Catholisism and Eastern (Greek-speaking) Orthodoxy - often known as the "Eastern Schism." But to present the timeline like this is far too simple. To begin with, what was formalized in the 13th century (where the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other) only officially acknowledged what had in fact been the case for several centuries: the church was divided in half by geography, language and doctrine (some examples: The eastern half allies with the bishop of Constantinople, the western half with the bishop os Rome; the churches in the East speak Greek, and Latin in the West; and, as we saw in the discussion of the Nicene creed, there is disagreement over the proper place of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father and the Son in the doctrine of the Trinity).


Such a simplified timeline also fails to account for the incredible messiness of these early, pre-schism years of the church, in which the rise of several doctrinal controversies pushed and pulled believers in many differing directions.


Often, in systematic theology, we act as if the eastern church ceases to exist after this schism, completely ignoring it. This refelcts the reality of the (western) church's perception of itself. Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not disappear - it continues to grow, and develops its own mystical and theological traditions. However, what we term "systematic theology" is so deeply entwined with the thought of the "Western" branch of the split that it is not always possible to reflect the deep richness and diversity of the Eastern tradition. Let us acknowledge this as a shortcoming in the discipline (as well as this class!)




Augustine was born in North Africa in the year 354 AD and became, arguably, the most important theologian for the western church's development (he is also a major figure in the east, but not to the same level). While there is much in the life of Augustine to reflect upon and study, what is most important for our understanding here is his contributions to several of the major controversies of the church, namely Donatism, Arianism and Pelagianism .


In the century preceding Constantine's acceptance of the church, Christians suffered heavily under various persecutions across the Roman Empire and beyond. Often these persecutions included the demand that believers renounce their faith or the Scriptures or else face death. The Donatist controversey revolved around the question of what to do with a priest or believer who caved in under such pressures and renounced their faith or gave up the holy books. Could this person be admitted back inot fellowship with the church? Can a priest who has betrayed the Scriptures be allowed to serve the sacraments? The followers of a man named Donatus said "no." If you reject the faith for any reason, you are to be expelled from the church, according to their view.


When Augustine wrote his work "Against the Donatists" his intention was to re-inject the concept of grace into the discussion. But he also had more practical goals in mind: because the donatists held that traitor Bishops were not valid, they had elected a series of new bishops in their place. This meant that many cities in north Africa had two competing bishops, each claiming to be legitimate. It was splitting the church and the church's authority. Augustine hoped to mend this rift in the church with his writing.


His most persuasive argument, however, was not practical, but theological: If the behavior of a bishop or priest can alter the ability of a sacrament to convey grace (the early church saw the sacraments as a means by which God gives grace to us), then in some way the priest is more powerful than God. Augustine argued instead that it is God's will, and not the actions of the bishop, that make the sacrament effective.


As we have discussed in some of the earlier lectures, the question of the nature of Jesus Christ in relation to God the Father was a major issue of the church in its first centuries. During Augustine's lifetime the majority of bishops had come to follow the teachings of a bishop named Arius. The Arians (as they were called) held to the idea that Jesus was a created being, not God. As we have already discussed some of the problems with this position, and the church's response at Nicea and elsewhere, we should merely note that Augustine vigorously wrote and spoke against the Arians and defended the claim that Jesus was "fully God and fully human." Augustine greatly influenced his fellow bishops away from Arianism during the later years of his life.


The bishop named Pelagius was from a rural part of the empire, and he was not pleased at what he saw going on in the big cities. To his way of thinking, there were a great many folks claiming to be Christians while continuing to live degenerate, sinful lives. His response was to teach that God rewards and punishes us based upon our good (or evil) deeds. Now at first glance, this seems very reasonable (and it fact it is a doctrine still very alive in today's churches). We have the ability to do good, and our failure to do it condemns us.


The Pelagian position greatly alarmed Augustine, however. He felt it did not adequately account for the power of sin. If we are trying to hit a target, but someone has blindfolded us and spun us around, our ability to aim and hit the target is compromised. In Augustine's view, this is exactly the effect that sin has upon us: no matter how much we may want to hit the target of "doing the good," we will fail because we are blinded and misled by our sin-natures. We are desperately in need of assistance.


For Augustine, the grace of God is exactly the sort of help we require. Where we are unable to do the things that would save us, God takes over and "hits the target" through the work of Jesus' crucifiction and resurrection. As we saw in the donatist controversey, Augustine wants to make sure that we kow where salvation really comes from: the idea that we create our salvation through good works compromises the power of God's grace and makes it unneccessary. In his writings against the pelagians, Augustine makes clear his belief that we are so locked into sin that we are always dependent upon God's grace.




The church is gaining power and prestige as we move into the Constantinian period. The imperial church is very different from the earliest house churches. Money, land, and fine clothes are just some of the elements that mark the Constantinian church.




1.6 Medieval Christianity: Politics, Aquinas, the rise of Humanism


If we were to look at a map of what North Africa and Europe looked like as we move into the fifth and sixth centuries, we would begin to see a tremendous amount of shift and change. The Roman Empire was coming more and more under attack, and various tribal areas to the north began to solidify into more cohesive political entities. These are not "nations" or "states" in the way we think of in the Modern era, but definitely a style of "kingdoms," each with their own monarch or prince, as well as slowly developing alliances with other territories and kingdoms. The politics of these kingdoms, and their shifitng and growing power over the next several centuries, form the background for the discussions here.


As the shake-ups continue politically, we observe the reduction in power of the Roamn Empire - it "remains" in name only, with its structure and influence disappearing. For a time, as the various political entities are re-organizing, the only "real" imperial power in Europe is the Catholic Church itself. It strectched across borders and had influence in the governments of many of the emerging European monarchies.


The political instability in Europe was heightened by rampant disease and the "loss" of the remnants of Hellenistic culture. Works of the Greek antiquity such as the writings of Aristotle were lost or destroyed in Europe during this period. The copies that survive make their way out of Europe to the Middle East (Islamic culture, where they exert a vast influence) and a handful os monasteries in Ireland. The loss of these writings in the 7th and 8th centuries leads to scholars sometimes referring to these centuries as the "Dark Ages."


The monasteries across Europe are becoming institutionalized during this period, and it is often the case that the second son of a family would be sent to live and learn with the monks (this was due to the peculiar structure of inheritance at work at this time: the first son got everything, the second and subsequent sons nothing - so their option was to learn a trade or go into the priesthood). Monasteries became like schools - repositories of knowledge (as we move out of the "dark ages" the monasteries become sites for copying books and often they had vast libraries) and places of instruction.


In the cities, too, we see the eventual creation of centers of learning designed to train young men for the priesthood (although soon the areas of instruction branched out to include the natural sciences and other subjects). These were the "Universities." Now there had been schools of instruction in various forms for centuries before - the church did not invent such a model. Still, these universitis in Europe in the Middle Ages were chiefly run by - and answerable to - the dictates of the Catholic episcopacy.


The return of Aristotle: St. Thomas Aquinas


In the 12th century the writings of Aristotle (which had been preserved in the Middle East for several centuries) re-enter European consciousness and create a storm of controversey. At that time in Europe it was assumed that Christian thinking and philosophy offered the highest possible wisdom. Aristotle was a pagan, and yet he seemed to outshine the best of Christian thinkers. How could this be?


The attempt to answer his question became the life work of a man named Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas did not agree with everything Aristotle wrote, but he did his best to re-interpret the writings into a Christian context. The result was a Christianity that was deeply influenced by the categorical and analytical methods that Aristotle employed.


An example can be seen when we compare Aquinas with Augustine. For Augustine, the senses we have cannot be trusted because they are distorted by sin. As a result, the most important aspects of faith for Augustine occur when God directly touches our hearts and souls. Aquinas, however, accepted Aristotle's starting point, which was sensory perception itself. As a result, Aquinas feels very comfortable with theologies that see the divine order in nature and the world around us, something Augustine would never have accepted. The differences in the two thinkers, of course, has to do with the way they arrange the sources and norms of their positions. Each makes sense and is "right" in the context of its own presuppositions.


The re-introduction of Aristotle and Greek thinking was important to the growing rift taking place in the universities as well. Especially in the wake of the "rediscovery" of Aristotle the pursuit of natural science for its own sake, apart from church teaching, gained strength. There were those who taught in the universities who believed that not all truth was to be found in the Bible, and that human beings themselves were a subject worthy of study. This was the beginnings of the worldview which we now call humanism, and it will factor even more prominently as we move in our discussion toward the Protestant Reformation.








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