Theology can never be fully systematic.

Or, not having God figured out, not limiting him, and not confining him to certain means of revealing who he is. Or, in a more positive spin, letting God be God.

Once again, I’ve ended up throwing some text from Luke Timothy Johnson onto my blog.

He is one of (on a short list) the most precise and adept biblical interpreters I know of, and he has quite a knack for pointing out to us, the church, what we need to hear–whether it’s in order to understand a biblical text, or to appropriately take into account the Bible’s instruction to us, or how to engage historical matters as Christians, etc.

One of his most important contributions in his work, I believe, is he guides us in how we should position ourselves theologically in regards to certain questions that deal with the above topics. And that doesn’t have necessarily to do with where we end up theologically, but how we get there. What Johnson displays himself and teaches us is a stance of openness and humility in our thinking about God, all with an eye on what is most important–worship and the conditions of our hearts.

What he is telling us in the paragraph I’m about to cite (from a current work of his that I’m moving through, Prophetic Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church Courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing CompanyJesus, Prophetic Church) is something that I would have liked to articulate some time ago, had I decided to try to put it into words. He’s basically done it for me now, and within his particular discussion about the theological vision of an important biblical author named Luke:

If God’s Holy Spirit–and the spirit of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus–continue to be active in the world, then theology within the church can never be fully ‘systematic’ in the sense that all the data is in and needs only to be organized, can never be deductive in the sense that everything can be derived from first principles. Theology, Luke shows us, must be both inductive and nonsystematic, for the living God continues to reveal through the prophets as well as more broadly through human experience. Theology so understood is not a specialized activity of academically-trained persons in the church, but rather an activity in which all the faithful participate as they seek to articulate the shape and the meaning of their faith in the living God. Theology as response to the living God is necessarily revisionist …

Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (68-69)

What Johnson does here is deal with the problem that explains why I have become increasingly dissatisfied with systematic theology. Not to say, however, that systematizing or organizing our thought about God should not be done at any level. On the contrary, it’s unavoidable. But to comb through the Bible, connecting lines where there aren’t even dots, and summarizing between two covers who God is and what he is like gives the impression that God is somehow more or less figured out and that our openness to learning about him–not only making new discoveries but new ways of discovering–is actually rather closed after all. It’s to limit God. And any theology that maps the extent of anything about God is an inadequate theology.

In the same vein, Johnson helps us to see that forming a theology, a view of God, does not require special class, training, experience, or education. To say as much, or at least to practice it as such, is to miss that all of us are able–and are eagerly invited!–to know him and believe in and about him. It is to properly respect God’s creation of the human being.


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