Thursday, 17 June 2010

Systematics or Dogmatics?

Systematics or Dogmatics? That is the subject of this reflection.

I was surprised to read in a recent post of erstwhile Lutheran pastor David Schutz, over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia, the complaint that Lutheran theology was ‘a system’ that did not admit of answers to questions if they are deemed not to fit into ‘the Lutheran system‘. Reference was made to what was taught at Luther Seminary, Adelaide in the 1980s in the subject known as ‘Systematics’.

That surprised me because I have always understood Lutheran theology to be concerned with Dogmatics rather than Systematics, the latter being more the concern of the Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians. Systematics has been defined as the endeavour to set down an orderly, rational and coherent system of Christian theology, usually grouped around a core organising principle, such as the sovereignty of God in some Reformed systematic theologies. Dogmatics, on the other hand, is the study of the dogmas of the Christian faith (or more broadly Christian doctrine) as they are drawn from the sedes doctrinae (‘seats of doctrine’) found in the various scripture passages (loci) which teach God’s counsel on particular subjects directly and authoritatively. In Dogmatics the prevalent concern is to group together for study all that Holy Scripture says on a dogma such as the Trinity or Original Sin. There is a place for human reason in Dogmatics, to be sure, but in a ministerial (servant) role, always subject to Holy Scripture which is the magister (master), because it is God's Word.

Thus, works of Lutheran theology have traditionally been modestly organised according to the ‘loci’ or 'common-places' suggested by scripture itself, after the method of the prototypical dogmatics of Melanchthon, who followed the outline of the apostle Paul's Letter to the Romans. Even when Lutheran theology becomes more complex, as in Gerhard (presently being translated and published in English by Concordia Publishing House), it still basically follows this method. [pic: An edition of Melanchthon's influential Loci communes (Commonplaces), opened to the loci De Deo, On God, with marginal glosses].

In Reformed theology, in contrast, we see much more of an attempt to cast dogmatics in an architectonic manner. This tendency is already present in Calvin’s Institutes (the development of which through its various editions makes for a fascinating study in the early development of the systematic method), and becomes dominant following the example of Turretin who influenced Charles Hodge and the Princeton school (Turretin's Institutes was used at Princeton for c. 150 years until Hodge's own Systematic Theology replaced it in the mid-19th C.) and Herman Bavinck in the Dutch ‘neo-Reformed’ school.

In medieval Catholic theology we also witness the impulse to systematisation stemming from the need to synthesise the variegated teachings of the church fathers of the first millenium and from the adoption of Aristotelianism by Thomas Aquinas in pursuit of this endeavour. However necessary - for apologetic reasons - Thomas's utilisation of the newly re-discovered Aristotle may have been at the time, Roman Catholicism has made a fundamental error in officially tying theology to the Aristotelian-Thomistic method (cf. the papal encyclical Doctoris Angelici, 1914). There can be no 'perennial philosophy' as far as the Christian faith is concerned; only the Word of God is eternal!

As impressive as the systematic theologies of these scholars are as achievements of the human intellect reflecting upon divine revelation, the Lutheran is likely to feel distinctly uneasy with the emphasis (over-emphasis!) on rationality, order and coherence in their theologies. Not that Lutheran theology is irrational, disorderly or incoherent! But the Lutheran theologian is concerned not to force the 'data' of scripture into a shape that seems to be neat and tidy to the human mind, lest violence is done to the actual teaching of Holy Scripture.
Perhaps the best example of this is the question of why some are saved and not others (cur allii, alii non?). Lutherans have maintained the doctrines of ‘salvation by grace alone’ and ‘universal grace’ alongside each other without attempting to reconcile the two in a way that satisfies human curiosity, lest one end up in the ditch of double predestination on one side of the road (Calvinism), denying universal grace (1 Tim 2:4), or ‘free will-ism’ (Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, ‘decision theology‘) on the other, asserting that people are saved because of some favourable quality or response in themselves, denying original sin (Romans 3:22-24). By the way, the main reason why Roman Catholicism's doctrine of salvation is so probematic is that it has attempted to maintain both grace alone and 'free will-ism' by positing that grace is a 'substance' that inheres within the human subject and enables a 'free' response to God (but that is really a subject for another post).

All that is not to say that there have not been Lutheran theologians who have attempted a systematic presentation of theology (one might think of the possibilities justification offers as the core organising principle in such a case), but I maintain that it is not the historic, distinctly Lutheran way of doing theology. So it was that when Werner Elert offered the theological world his ‘Morphologie des Luthertums’ (E.T. ‘The Structure of Lutheranism’), Hermann Sasse retorted that "there is no "structure" of Lutheranism!" If ever a Lutheran did successfully set forth a systematic theology, there would have to be ‘missing-links’ in the system, since God in his wisdom has not answered all questions to our 'satisfaction', although he has provided us with all we need in order to be saved (the sufficiency of scripture).

But back to the comments by David Schutz which prompted this reflection. There are surely some questions that Lutheranism cannot answer definitively, not because they do not fit within its 'system', but because they are not addressed by the Word of God either directly or by logical inference. And then perhaps there are some questions the Lutheran answer to which someone swimming the Tiber is, alas, too far away from Wittenberg to hear!


Melanchthon said...

Very well explained. There was a reason our main text for "Systematic Theology" was "Christian Dogmatics" (eds. Braaten, Jensen).

Lutheranism requires a certain ambiquity. I cannot recall how many times I have had to correct Reformed or Roman clerics regarding "consubstantiation." I have to tell them our dogma regarding the Eucharist rejects such a definition.

M.A. Henderson said...


Yes, the persistence of 'consubstantiation' outside of Lutheran circles bugs me too. I've noticed it even appears in Reformed & Roman textbooks as our doctrine. Surely the first rule of charity in 'comparative symbolics' is to interpret your opponent's position accurately. Sigh!

Pr. Alex Klages said...

Yes, at our sem, whilst called the "Systematic Theology" dept, it was really courses in Dogmatics, not systems. In fact, numerous was the occasion when we observed ourselves to be holding in tension seemingly opposite things---but the Word is above all, so we go with what it says. That's dogma, teaching, not systematics.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I really think we should think twice about calling Lutheran theology works or departments in seminaries 'Sytematics'. Call it 'Dogmatic Theology' or 'Christian Doctrine'; 'Systematics' sends the wrong message.
I'm open to correction on this, but I don't think this 'Systematics' is historically Lutheran - and for good reason, too!
I'm curious as to what your main 'Dogmatics' text was...

Pr. Alex Klages said...

Pieper. It really needs to be updated, but it's still the single most thorough English dogmatics in the conservative/confessional tradition.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I guess you know the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series being published by Luther Academy? I think it's meant to supplement Pieper. It's very good but a) after 21 years it is still only half completed and b) being a multi-author project it lacks a certain consistency. Personally I would like to see a dogmatics text which engages with scripture exegetically rather than just approaching topics thematically and historically.