Along with my previous post on deconstructing systematic theology, I wanted to explore this topic in a bit more detail, and examine some of the personal aspects regarding what toxic theology can do to people, not just in terms of belief but also relationally.
In that first post, I made the point that we should indeed question some of the basic presuppositions underlying the very approach taken by systematic theologians. I’m not saying it’s entirely wrong and invalid, that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater; but I believe we should absolutely raise the question: is the Bible indeed nothing more than a giant “database of answers” waiting to be discovered?
It would appear that one basic presupposition taken for granted by systematic theologians involves the notion that the Bible contains everything we need to know about God, Jesus, the Spirit, humanity, creation, revelation, etc. Viewed in this way, Scripture devolves into little more than a compendium of information just waiting to be discovered, categorized, labelled and systematized into nice, neat little packages by the theologian.
Go ahead—just name the theological topic, and you can guarantee that there have been volumes and volumes written about it over the centuries—and argued about, oftentimes to the point of violence and bloodshed, martyrdom and intense persecution of those labelled “heretics” by the ones in power.
Historically, most of the time, it was the Roman Catholic church doing the labelling of heretics or infidels, and because of their unique status as being the state church (whether in Rome or later in history), the Church could have the State carry out its dirty work for them in stamping out heresies. That way, the Church could keep its hands clean from violence and bloodshed, and the State would ensure that the status quo was being maintained. It was a win-win scenario—that is, of course, except for those being tortured, maimed, and executed by being burned at the stake.
The Roman Catholic Church wasn’t unique in this persecution of heretics, either. It turns out that following the Reformation, and the union between state and church in places like Geneva and what is now Germany, both Calvinists and Lutherans participated in the same exact type of thing as did the Catholic Church.
Witness, for example, how both Reformed and Lutherans, together with the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, ruthlessly persecuted the Anabaptists in Europe. So, it appears that we can’t point the finger solely at the Catholic Church; Protestants could be just as divisive, hateful and hurtful to those they saw as a threat to their Reformation belief system and doctrines.
What’s Systematic Theology’s Role in all of This?
As I pointed out in the previous post, the problem with systematic theology (beyond its questionable approaches to Scripture and its desire to classify and systematize topics) is first and foremost in its application. But how exactly do one “apply” systematic theology?
Let me give you a scenario. Based on the notion of “confirmation bias,” oftentimes people tend to appropriate those systematic theological categories that suit their beliefs, presuppositions, biases and theological worldview. Those sets of core “orthodox” beliefs then become the bedrock upon which they construct their Christian faith, and indeed their very identity. This explains why, so much of the time, Christians are so emotionally threatened whenever anybody even dares to question what they believe. Much of the time, they will counter-attack such a person with surprising vehemence.
In the scenario I’m describing, two distinct phenomena can occur: one, that Christian tends to feel more and more secure in themselves, since what they believe is clearly “the Truth” (yes, with a capital T); their levels of certitude are high; God is clearly pleased with them for being so correct.
Why are they so smug? They’re secure in the certain knowledge that they in fact believe all the right truths about God, that they’re going to heaven because in their minds, they’ve got it all boxed off intellectually. It would appear, then, that the Christian faith, and indeed entrance to heaven itself, truly comes down to believing the right sets of bullet-point propositional truth statements about God and Jesus. And you can see how systematic theology could indeed play a major role in both supplying those bullet-points, and moreover affirming them as essentially accurate.
The second phenomena that happens is that oftentimes, those who feel the most secure believe that now—armed with the Truth—they are much more able to sniff out false teaching, questionable interpretations and readings of Scripture, and potentially heretical theology of others. What gives them such blessed assurance? They know it’s the Truth, because week in and week out, the preacher’s sermons merely serve to buttress what they already think they know, and what they already believe.
But doesn’t it seem a bit funny (in an ironic way I suppose) that there are so many thousands of denominations out there? Each of which makes the claim, however, to have its own distinctive “corner on the Truth.” We read the Bible right; we believe all the right sorts of things; and that liberal (or conservative) church down the street has quite clearly got it all wrong.
What’s your particular point of view? Then you can go out and find someone who supports your position. Don’t believe in tongues and miracles? Then go find systematic theology books written by staunch cessationists (those who believe spiritual gifts ceased at the end of the 1st century AD).
But what if you do believe that tongues and miracles still operate today? Well, just as easily, you can find systematic theology texts, written by Pentecostal and charismatic theologians, that will support exactly the opposite viewpoint. Both seem diametrically opposed to each other, but funny enough—both points of view will have hundreds of proof-texts to show that their beliefs are in fact correct.
Investigate a little further, and you’ll also discover a wide range of systematic theology works that run the gamut in terms of beliefs, written from various denominational perspectives too. So apparently, this is how it works when you’re performing confirmation bias: only read the books with which you agree; ignore any dissenting points of view; further buttress your existing beliefs, and this will allow you satisfactorily to disprove and demolish any and all opposing views or arguments.
This, incidentally, explains why so much of the time so many Christians are completely insufferable, and exceedingly narrow in their perspectives. They don’t have to be open-minded; there’s no need to be challenged in any way because they’re right. How has this occurred? It happens when they surround themselves with books and other like-minded people who serve to shore up their existing views, and have spent years listening to sermons that affirm their beliefs.
Therefore, while systematic theology may indeed have its merits, unfortunately it’s the application—or perhaps I should say, mis-application, of the truth it purports to proclaim, that can lead to a whole lot of trouble.
No Hot Dog Roast Allowed!
I remember one of my professors in seminary, Dr Millard Erickson, sharing a story about this type of thinking. (Somewhat ironically, Erickson himself was a systematic theologian, and had produced the massive tome of systematic theology, Christian Theology). But anyway, he told us about a conversation that he once overheard that took place between the youth leader at his home church, and another man.
The man informed the youth pastor that there was some good news he’d just heard about: their youth group had been invited to a hotdog and marshmallow roast campfire event by the church down the street. It seems that the church down the street was trying to reach out, and see if they could get both of their youth groups together for a fun night of games, hot dogs, and burnt marshmallows! What could possibly be wrong with that?
But the youth pastor retorted vehemently, “There’s no way we’re going to that hot dog roast with that other church!” The man was somewhat taken aback, and asked the youth leader, “Why not? Sounds like it’d be a fun night out for the kids!” The youth pastor scornfully replied, “We’re not going, period. Why not, you ask? Isn’t it obvious why not?”
The man scratched his head. “Ahh…no, I’m afraid it’s not that obvious, at least to me. Can you explain why our kids can’t go to the hot dog roast?”
The youth pastor, in frustration, said, “I can’t believe that I even have to spell it out for you. It’s blatantly obvious why we can’t have any sort of ‘fellowship’ with those people. That church believes in the mid-tribulation rapture!”
And there you have it.