The Purpose / aim / objective of systematic theology–in answering a question of a respectful friend

A friend, a senior colleague from New College dropped a question in my blog:

“Given what you have said (here and in a previous related post), what, then, may I humbly ask, is (or should be, or can be) the purpose / aim / objective of systematic theology?"

First of all, I appreciate this question, which reminds me of our time in Edinburgh where theological questions freely through which ideas were exchanged, minds were sharpened, friendships were built. My salute to Y from HK, E from Singapore, E who is now in Taiwan, B in Edinburgh, S and SN who are still in Edinburgh, J in Edinburgh (who is however quite reserved in expressing idea sometimes).

Back to the issue which I can run away.

One principle or motto which I think the above inquisitor and me share is “contextual", at according to what I know about his position. Therefore, when I said systematic, I never leave that of my frame of reference. To answer his question, let me begin with a context.

Let say a theologian, be him or her a biblical scholar, a biblical theologian (according to the s0-called school of biblical theology), an ethicist, a pastoral theologian et cetera. He or she anchors him/herself in a given context he at that particular time and space does his/her (a) theology with a concern that occupies his/her mind. To deal that particular concern which is of course always rooted in a context,

  • he goes to biblical texts to unravel, to re-present, to re-tell the story, the context, whereby a theological motif being voiced out.
  • he also reflects and medicates, precipitate and crystalize what he thinks most crucial and relevant to the situation that concerns him/her, be it a social, national, ecclesiatical, or familial issue.
  • having situated himself/herself in this context, his concern is always practical, which means he means to bring his theological reflection applicable to the situation, because he begins his/her doing of this particular theology from that context and situation. To be practical means then he has to see his theological reflection applicable, answering to the issue concern.
  • if the context concerned is related to social, psychological, historical, cultural-traditional, or/and cultural linguistic aspect a study of which may help bring lights to his/her theology, he/she is bound to do so.

Having said that, what about the traditional topics that are covered in most systematic theology textbooks that now still being used in most seminaries in HK, Taiwan, and Malaysia: Christology, Pneumatology, eschatology, doctrine of God, ecclesiology, doctrine of the Trinity, anthropology et cetera. If a systematic theologian as I define above has to fulfill his/her job, could he or she not have included many/all these understanding into his/her own theological construction? Would his/her dealing with the biblical text not charge him/her with the task of making the Christological motifs in the NT relevant to his/her context, or of applying the pneumatological understanding into his interpretation of his/her context, or interpreting ecclesiology so that the task of the church be more correlating with the context and the situations or so that the definition of a church given a new light from perspective of the challenge of the context? Would he/she need not analyze the complexity of the situations and people involved which he/she has to make use of tools available in our contemporary.

In that sense, a Christian ethicist is not exempted from the study of the theological motifs that are found the Bible, nor a practical theologian, pastoral theologian, et cetera. He/she (an ethicist or others) has to be in a sense a systematic theologian who deals with biblical texts on the one hand and his context on the other.

Traditionally, Christian tradition plays a part in the formation of a systematic theology. I view this as a resource rather than a source. For throughout Christian church history, theological debates revolved around each own particular social, historical, ideological context; theological insights and emphases thus produced made sense to their contexts, but may now become resources, like a live thinktanks which are open to theologians for their use. These historical productions are themselve contextual theologies.

Have I been clear in my articulation and delineation, being a student of theology who is more often unsystematic than systematic.

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