In an oldie-but-goodie, Doing Theology in Today’s World, J. I. Packer’s essay on systematic theology is an excellent primer on the relevance of and need for the discipline of systematics (pp. 17-37). Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the essay is his continual assertion that doing theology should humble the theologian because it’s a discipline rooted in God’s Word:
The systematic theologian’s goal must accordingly be to use his mind to grasp and state in order as much as possible of all the things that God teaches in Scripture, so as to be able then to go to God knowledgeably in the exercise of faith and prayer and to discern his will in each situation for the practice of faithful obedience.
He then quotes Luther at length regarding the humility needed to do theology. Here’s a snippet of Luther’s points:
Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book that turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness.
Secondly, … take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken [the Bible’s words] once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding.
Thirdly, [learn] not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.
Working at a Bible college for three years and spending seven years (so far) as a student in biblical and theological training, it’s always said (but not repeated enough) that doing theology is a humble person’s task. Pride puffs up, leaving the theologian with nothing but Spirit-less fodder for intramural debates. Humility, on the other hand, allows for God-exaltation to happen in the life and work of the theologian.
Theology literally means words about God. God-talk. That’s no small thing! We’re attempting to describe the character, acts, and will of an infinite, perfect being with finite, imperfect language. In order to even attempt at doing theology humbly, let me encourage you to consider three things (that I constantly need to remind myself):
1. There is no such thing as presupposition-free theology. We all bring contextual baggage to the text, interpreting through particular lenses and with predetermined biases. We do all we can to be objective, but we must understand that we do not read the Bible in a vacuum (figuratively, of course. And wouldn’t literally reading the Bible in a vacuum be impossible at worst and distracting at best?). This means we need to beware of and be honest about our blind spots.
2. There is no such thing as a perfect theology. Nobody, nowhere, no how, no way has it all figured out. The reason why there are seemingly endless theological systems and nuances is because nobody’s theology is perfect. The mantra “always reforming” should be actually true for us. This means we should always be willing to be wrong and to learn from others because we’ll never “arrive.”
3. There is no such thing as a “personal” theology. In other words, theology is not kept to ourselves and should not be kept to ourselves. First of all, our words and actions reflect our theology. The intentional observer can spot your biases rather quickly. You can’t hide it. Second, if theology is about God, then it should be shared. As ministers of reconciliation, messengers of Good News, we should not hide even our theology underneath a bowl. Our theology should directly convict and drive us toward a lived-out faith. This means we need to be careful what we believe and how we articulate, imperfectly pointing toward the perfect One.