04 August 2006

systematic theology

A blog reader emailed me with a question that I'm not entirely sure how to answer. The question in brief form was, "When and why did 'systematic theology' arise as a particular way of doing theology?" There were some further questions about the nature of systematics in contrast with other approaches, as well as the historical circumstances of the emergence of systematics.

It's an interesting question.

As a sheer matter of the use of the term in English, as far as I know theologians were not publishing tomes under the title "systematic theology" until the middle of the 19th century with the systematics of Charles Hodge and Charles Finney, both appearing in the mid-1840s. Hodge's work became more typical of what was published under that title and after his work there were numerous similar "systematic theologies" published.

And if we were to search about libraries and databases, we'd find that it isn't until the first half of the 19th century that the term "systematic" comes in common use in English book titles, describing the presentation of the book's content, whether that might be biology, arithmetic, grammar, philosophy, or other topics. The Latin "systema," however, goes back to the early 17th century and can be found among Reformed figures such as Clemens Timpler and Bartholomaeus Keckermann (both influenced by Suarez) with reference to theology as well as logic, grammar, rhetoric, and so on.

Whatever the case, we shouldn't be confused by the simple appearance of the phrase "systematic theology" or related terminology since there were, prior to the 1840s, plenty of theologians undertaking what we would probably readily recognize as the same sort of project Hodge completed, but often under other titles, such as "a body of divinity" or "Christian dogmatics." Thus, the issue is really one of definition.

So, what do we mean by "systematic theology" over against other ways of doing theology? Is John of Damascus doing "systematic theology" in his book on the orthodox faith? What about the Sentences of Peter Lombard and subsequent commentaries on it? Do we find systematic theology in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae or, for that matter, John Calvin's Institutes, Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes, or Francis Turretin's Elenctics?

It seems to me, at least, that what theologians undertook in the early centuries, medieval period, and much of the reformation era is not "systematic theology" in the sense we mean: taking biblical data as a whole and organizing it comprehensively and logically, progressing through a series of ordered loci, applying tools of rational analysis.

Earlier theologians certainly used the resources of reason and philosophical reflection, but their purposes often were far more open-ended, governed by traditions of questioning, prior theological conversation, the voices of recognized authorities, and so on, and less so by the requirements of logical ordering and comprehensiveness.

So, how would you answer the question? When and why did "systematic theology" arise as a particular way of doing theology? Was Suarez the first systematician, as some have suggested? How does Schleiermacher's Der christliche Glaube fit into the genealogy? Why the linguistic shift to the term "systematic" in the mid-19th century?

You can leave your thoughts in the comments.