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I am writing a Systematic Theology


I have been holding on to some news: Baker Academic approached me at the start of 2022 and asked me to write a Systematic Theology.

I will be writing this Systematic Theology for master’s level students (especially those in seminary). My Systematic Theology will be one volume and eventually I will write a shorter one volume systematic for undergraduate students as well. Baker Academic believes this book will be timely, so they have asked me to begin researching and writing now rather than later, making this Systematic Theology my next big project.

Why a systematic and why now?

As the twentieth century neared a conclusion, systematic theologies were absent from the evangelical landscape, which motivated some evangelicals to fill that lacuna. Yet as they tried their hand at systematic theology some operated primarily from the standpoint of biblical studies. By consequence they restricted themselves to doctrines with explicit proof-texts and transformed this approach into a method for systematic theology itself. At points, some even rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith that were not read directly off the pages of scripture.

Furthermore, doctrines not immediately relevant to the economy of salvation were also pushed to the sidelines. When such doctrines were addressed—such as theology proper and Christology, two pillars holding the foundation of theology in place—these doctrines were interpreted through a modern filter with its suspicion towards the metaphysical commitments of classical Christianity. In addition, this spirit of biblicism meant systematic theology no longer paid adequate attention to the history of Christian theology and its interpretation of scripture. When evangelicals did engage Christianity’s creeds and confessions, they often reinterpreted them through modern categories and priorities. In an ironic twist, theology lost its theological edge.

However, the twentieth first century is ripe for a better approach to systematic theology and already the first fruits have sprouted to the surface of the soil with recent publications, promising a harvest to come (more on these publications in future posts at Anselm House). A new generation is now asking evangelicals to reconsider their approach to theology, convinced scripture should be read far more theologically.

As for systematic theology itself, a new generation of evangelicals believe systematics should be incorporating biblical reasoning as well as rational contemplation. In the spirit of faith seeking understanding, evangelicals are hungry to understand how the entire Christian faith should be constructed as one doctrinal domain informs another. Yet rather than building systematic theology on the winds of modernity, they are eager to retrieve the fresh breeze of classical Christian theology for the sake of renewal today. They are motivated by a humility that desires faithfulness to Christian orthodoxy.

I am eager to begin writing a Systematic Theology to remedy these concerns for the next generation. As I begin this project, the following are only a few of the characteristics that will define my Systematic Theology and, I pray, set evangelicals on a trajectory to think far more theologically about the Christian faith as a whole:

1. A true systematic

Systematic theology is not a mere extension of biblical theology, merely a continuation of exegesis but with a summary of Bible doctrine. Systematic theology begins with the triune God in and of himself and then seeks to understand all things in relation to him. While systematics must engage the economy (economia) of salvation and its story, theology (theologia) draws our focus to a more ultimate, primary starting point and destination: who God is in himself. In the spirit of John Webster, I will write a theological theology. In contrast to modern theology which turned theology into anthropology, I will give original credence to the science and art of systematic theology by positioning God himself as the beginning and the end of the Christian faith.

Furthermore, rather than settling for a mere regurgitation of Christian beliefs each chapter will reveal the rationale behind its theological conclusions, helping Christians understand not merely what they believe but why they believe. One unique feature of my systematic theology will be the way each doctrinal domain is considered in light of Christian theology as a whole. Rather than isolating one doctrine from another, I will explore the many ways each doctrine of the faith informs and influences the cohesiveness of Christian theology. If systematics is done right, then it gives birth to dogmatics, that is, definitive beliefs that are not subject to doubt but can be defended and confessed with certainty by the church. (I also have a Doctrine of God under contract with Baker Academic, which will allow me to explore dogmatics in more depth…but the Systematic Theology will come first.)

2. Biblical reasoning and theological interpretation

Some systematics are characterized by a method of biblicism, which is prone to irresponsible proof-texting, treating scripture as if it is a dictionary or encyclopedia. The theologian, however, does not merely dig up the right proof text, chapter and verse, tallying them up to support a doctrine. Rather, the theologian must be far more holistic, not limiting himself to those things explicitly laid down in scripture but deducing its good and necessary consequences from God’s self-revelation in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My systematic theology will be characterized by serious attention to exegesis and biblical theology, but it will also major on establishing distinctively Christian presuppositions when approaching the canon as a whole (e.g., divine authorial intent; sensus plenior; Christ as hermeneutical key). While some systematics neglect hermeneutics, I will present a hermeneutic that listens to the best interpretive insights of a theological interpretation of scripture. In contrast to biblicism’s ahistorical indifference, I will consider the superiority of pre-critical readings of sacred scripture to help the Christian understand why his or her theology is distinctively Christian to begin with.

3. Faith seeking understanding

Systematic theology is incomplete if biblical reasoning and theological interpretation are not informed by a rational contemplation. This book is committed to faith seeking understanding. In the words of Anselm of Canterbury, “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.” Anselm’s prayer teaches us the proper relationship between faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Reason is not the foundation of faith. To say so is to give reason an excess of authority, as some during the Enlightenment were prone to do. Yet neither should we disregard reason like the fundamentalists since reason is the instrument of faith. In his City of God, Augustine defines philosophy as “the love of wisdom.” Since God is wisdom, the best philosophy is a quest to love God. Philosophy, therefore, serves theology.

My systematic theology is committed to the retrieval of classical Christian theology, as expressed in East and West alike. Yet behind this revival of classical theology is a commitment to classical philosophy as well. This book will root itself in the historic and orthodox tradition of classical realism (as represented in the metaphysic of the Great Tradition, from the church fathers to the medieval and Protestant scholastics), providing a base for theology that avoids the missteps of modernity and postmodernity.

4. Retrieval for the sake of renewal

God has declared us saints thanks to the righteousness of his Son, yet no one is summoned into the Christian life apart from the communion of the saints. The same can be said of the theologian. God has called us into the saving life of the church so that theology may serve the church. To serve the church, however, the theologian must do theology with the church, not only the church of today but the church of yesterday, that is, the church catholic (universal). For this reason, C.S. Lewis once said that chronological snobbery may define modern theology with its hermeneutic of suspicion towards tradition, but it cannot characterize classical theology which models a hermeneutic of humility when learning from the past. In short, retrieval is essential for the renewal of the church.

The Great Tradition will serve as both a guardian and a gardener. As guardiantradition protects the word of God by defending the faith once for all delivered to the saints from the thorny threat of heresy. As a gardener tradition labors for the flourishing of sound doctrine and cultivates the celebration of orthodoxy so that God’s people shine in the sun, a light to the world. In the spirit of theological retrieval, my systematic theology will listen to the past with humility so that the theological arguments put forward are informed by a retrieval of historical ideas for the sake of advancing the present theological conversation. To be clear, my method will not repristinate a golden era, but will dialogue with voices of the past to model systematics today with both creativity and fidelity. To do so, I will engage not only the Reformation but the Patristic and Medieval traditions to answer modern challenges in systematics.

5. Theoretical and Practical

One feature of my systematic theology that I hope readers find refreshing is the way it weds the theoretical and the practical. Some systematic theologies can feel dry, as if theology is merely cerebral; as a result, systematic theology feels encyclopedic but disconnected from the purpose of the Christian life. Certainly, theology is primarily theoretical but understood correctly, the contemplative should never be segregated from its spiritual, even pastoral implications (see Peter van Mastricht and John Owen).

In psalm 27:4 David says that he is consumed by one passion:

“One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek:

That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

To behold the beauty of the Lord

And to meditate in His Temple.”

Gazing at the beauty of the Lord—what older theologians called contemplation—is the heartbeat of theology. For theology, as Thomas Aquinas once defined the discipline, is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to God. Therefore, a good systematic theology will contemplate God from its inception to its conclusion, knowing that the greatest happiness will be experienced when the Christian finally sees God in the face of Jesus Christ. The beatific vision will be significant for defining eschatology, but that blessed hope should also galvanize holiness in the present, as the apostle John says. Rather than severing systematic theology from the Christian life, my book will consider the ways contemplating God and all things in relation to God defines the Christian life, the mission of the church, and life in the kingdom of God.

Therefore, I will give renewed attention to forgotten but essential components of theology like Christian virtue (how fascinating: Thomas Aquinas included virtue in his Summa). I desire every Christian who reads my Systematic Theology o walk away with a knowledge of God that not only informs but inspires the virtuous life, worship in the church, and the courage to live as a pilgrim in this world, as the apostle Peter once said.

These musings are but initial thoughts and only a few of the characteristics that will define my Systematic Theology. Starting this summer I am devoting myself to research that will launch the project. For example, this past week I have returned to resources I have long valued, such as Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, John Webster’s essay “Theological Theology,” etc. As you might expect, I am reading the classics once more, from The Orthodox Faith by John of Damascus to Institutes of Elenctic Theology by Francis Turretin. And this Fall I will I will be teaching the Advanced Systematic Theology PhD seminar at MBTS, leading our students through Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, exploring the ways his thought was critically appropriated by the Reformed Scholastics.

But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Subscribe to my newsletter and I will post sporadically and let you eavesdrop on my research. In all honesty, whether you are a student or a scholar yourself, I welcome whatever wisdom you offer as I do desire a book that will truly benefit God’s people in the end. I’m calling the newsletter Anselm House. For a project as ambitious as a systematic theology must begin and end in the spirit of faith seeking understanding. 

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Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the editor-in-chief of Credo Magazine, director of the Center for Classical Theology, and host of the Credo podcast. He is professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Simply Trinity, which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in Theology/Ethics. His new book is called The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. He is currently writing a Systematic Theology with Baker Academic.

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