Who’s Afraid of the Big-Bad Systematic Theology Project?

As someone who was not alive during the 1970’s, but also someone deeply interested in the history of my church, I have long sought to understand just what the bugaboo was with the Systematic Theology Project (often abbreviated STP–which makes it sound like some kind of loathsome disease, which is probably the point of using the abbreviation for many people).  And so I have asked those who were there.  Some people remember the project as being the product of a group of arrogant intellectuals (though intellectuals, especially in the Church of God, without necessarily being arrogant, are often accused of being so), many seem to see it as evidence of doctrine going off track, as if systematic theology were some kind of tool of the devil for the corruption of doctrine rather than a godly exercise in seeking consistency of belief and practice [1], while others saw the project as being a good one that happened to fail due to hitting a personal sensitive spot with Mr. Armstrong in the 1970’s over the doctrine of healing and its genuine biblical content.

So, my own investigations into the subject have proved to be largely fruitless.  As someone who is, in principle at least, sympathetic to the idea of a systematic theology project (something which I am not afraid to openly admit and defend), I find this sort of account baffling.  Why would it be “liberal” to desire a consistent view of scriptural positions on a doctrine, so as to avoid prooftexting and an incomplete understanding of the Bible?  As readers of my blog can attest to, my own interests in consistent biblical teaching about relevant biblical laws are not liberal at all [2].  They will also know that I have a passionate desire to help provide biblical consistency in understanding and practice in a broad array of issues ranging from business practices [3] to those who struggle with addictions or the aftermath of child abuse [4].  In short, I have zero interest in corrupting doctrine, but every interest in purifying it and removing from it inconsistencies that have resulted from ad hoc decisions made over the course of decades without a full understanding of the biblical context of existing judgments and doctrine about such issues as the Sabbath.

Part of the difficulty is understanding what exactly is meant by “systmatic theology.”  Wikipedia gives a helpful definition of systematic theology that also examines some of its potential pitfalls:  “In the context of Christianity, systematic theology is a discipline of Christian theology that attempts to formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith and beliefs. Systematic theology draws on the foundational sacred texts of Christianity, while simultaneously investigating the development of Christian doctrine over the course of history, particularly through philosophy, science and ethics. Inherent to a system of theological thought is that a method is developed, one which can be applied both broadly and particularly [5].”

Let us parse this statement to see its potential and its potential pitfalls.  After all, it is the purposes and conduct of the people engaged in a systematic theology project, and not systematic theology, that is at question.  My own interest in systematic theology is in my personal interest to formulate a rational, orderly, and coherent (i.e. consistent) view of doctrine from the Bible.  Personally, I care little about the “evolution” of doctrine over centuries and decades.  If a doctrine is biblical–let us keep it and enforce it.  If a doctrine, no matter how widely held or beloved, is not biblical, it may remain as interesting speculation but it is not true doctrine.  No pet doctrines without scriptural warrant ought to survive a rigorous and consistent systematic pruning.  Likewise, no true biblical doctrine ought to fall victim simply because of its unpopularity.  Our concern ought to be with the truth, not with the “evolution” of doctrine into its present (and usually corrupted) state.

Nonetheless, there are potential pitfalls that abound in a systematic theology project that are worth considering.  It is not only liberals but also “conservatives” who like to add and subtract from the Bible.  People may spiritualize away obligations for generosity and support unbiblical systems of class warfare against the poor and helpless, completely twisting the purpose of biblical government [6].  Likewise, people may add their own personal interpretations to scripture and then seek to enshrine those as biblical, when the biblical core of truth has been deformed almost beyond recognition by the attached speculations.  This is especially true when someone claims that a scripture can only be interpreted one way when it may have many different applications and possible valid interpretations [7].  The pitfalls generally fall into two camps:  the people engaged in the systematic theology project may have agendas to pervert scripture by applying the wrong principles to the body of scripture in order to change doctrine by stealth by getting rid of proper biblical doctrinal material under fallacious grounds.  However, let us not forget that the other (and perhaps more common) pitfall is for a systematic theology to threaten the pet doctrines and speculations of believers and leaders, and thus to lead to the rejection of religious truth on behalf of deeply held error.  There are ditches on both sides of the narrow path of proper systematic theology.

Let us also note that sometimes the critics of systematic theology are themselves engaged in the very same project, albeit unwittingly.  James Malm, for example, the editor of the Shining Light blog cited above [1], is someone who deeply desires for the Church of God as a whole to become more consistent about Sabbath obedience, including not eating out on the Sabbath.  As it happens, one of the aspects of systematic theology would be a focus on the consistency of application of God’s law on all areas of a particular doctrine.  If one considers the forbidden status of making someone work on your behalf on the Sabbath (your manservant or maidservant) or of buying or selling on the Sabbath as still valid, there are applications of that particular belief on our practice of the Sabbath as a whole.  This is itself an application of a systematic theology project on Sabbath obedience, whether one admits it or not.

One may say this or that is a twiggy point, but it is the purpose of a systematic theology project to tie up loose ends and resolve minor inconsistencies that threaten to discredit one’s commitment to the whole structure of biblical law.  Now, whether this was what was meant by the Systematic Theology Project engaged in by the Worldwide Church of God in the 1970’s, I cannot say.  It is, however, the way in which I would support and agree with such a systematic theology project myself, and an aspect in which I believe ordinary believers should be engaged in themselves in their own lives [8].  We grow in our capacities of spiritual discernment when we begin to see the rich and full perspective of scripture and transcend our own narrow understanding and limitations of perspective, and that process of spiritual maturation makes us more capable to judge and discern, and thus more expert practical and systematic theologians, not simply out of book knowledge but out of consistency of thought, belief, and practice.

Therefore, no one ought to be afraid of a systematic theology project.  For a true believer in the Bible, the foundational ground of all thoughts and judgments and opinions will be scripture.  One’s own thoughts and musings about such matters remain one’s own (for God’s thoughts are far higher than our thoughts), but the truth of scripture remains sure.  If a would-be systematic theologian is engaged in lopping and cropping biblical truths out of a personal agenda, the solution to such an error is not attacking systematic theology in general but to refute such heresies with the truths of scripture, to expose their dark deeds in the harsh light of day.  Likewise, if a person thinks themselves to be consistent in their thought and biblical practice, the sharp sword of the word can show themselves how they need to be pruned and corrected in their own inconsistencies of thought and practice so they can be brought into harmony with the full and fair standard of scriptural truth [9].  We all can grow in many areas (I know I can) to become more consistent with the Bible in our behavior and practice.  We ought therefore to realize that this desire to be consistent with the biblical standard in all walks of life is itself a personal systematic theology project.  What therefore prevents us from supporting and joining such a systematic theology unless we have irrational fears and faulty understanding?  Let us therefore correct our own mistaken perceptions so that we may be prepared to support godly efforts to make straight the crooked paths of theology, and to defend the faith once given, and to go out in battle against evil, as in the olden days.

[1] “Meanwhile the UCG doctrinal liberals are now in unopposed power and will move forward with their agenda, probably after they are confirmed at the May Conference.  Expect a push to “protect” doctrine with an effort to clearly define the UCG’s teachings in the future.  Like the “Systemic Theology Project” this defining to “protect” doctrine will result in many subtle and some not so subtle changes.”


[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/the-price-of-honor-an-application-of-exodus-2216-17/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/a-modest-proposal-concerning-business-counseling-and-the-application-of-gods-laws/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/a-modest-proposal-for-the-development-of-focused-education-programs-in-the-united-church-of-god/

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systematic_theology

[6] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/on-biblical-taxation/

[7] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/on-the-difference-between-greek-thought-and-hebrew-thought/

[8] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/on-the-fundamentals-of-theology/

[9] I must thank Mr. Gary Petty in his 12/25 presentation at the Winter Family Weekend in Louisville, Kentucky for his astute and pointed observations that the sharp sword of the word of God should be used primarily on ourselves rather than being used to kill the wounded brethren among us.  It is a vital point to remember that the purpose of any consistency of biblical thought is first to be directed at ourselves and our own inconsistent practices to bring us into greater harmony with God and His standard, not to club other believers as “lukewarm” or “Laodicean” or “liberal.”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Who’s Afraid of the Big-Bad Systematic Theology Project?

  1. Clint says:

    I was always told it was a covert attempt to liberalize the Church–but this always came from people who’d never actually seen it. A couple of years ago a surviving draft of the STP surfaced on the internet, so the curious can now finally look into it and come to their own conclusions.

    • I have a copy of it myself, and it is a monster of a document. It doesn’t look liberal to me at all. Some of it, which I might post about (given the fact that the whole project is of interest to me), is a very brief and concise way to describe my own beliefs about our examples to the community and our thoughts about race, for example. What it is not is liberalization in any way, and its whole openness and honesty is refreshing.

  2. Pingback: A Brief Look At The Systematic Theology Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Where Do My Visitors Come From? | Edge Induced Cohesion

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