I took systematic theology in high school. I took it again as an undergraduate student. I took it again-again in seminary. What can I say? Conservative evangelical Baptists love theology.
Systematic theology can be a little intimidating. For someone who is used to getting bits and pieces of theology during sermons or personal devotions, poring over a booster-seat-sized textbook packed with theology makes for a very different kind of learning experience.
Systematic theology is necessary, though—or, perhaps more accurately, it is inevitable. We organize our thoughts; the capacity to do so is a wonderful gift, and ought to be exercised. Our thoughts about God—our beliefs—get organized along with the rest; we turn these beliefs over and over in our mind, piecing them together into a coherent whole. As our set of organized ideas grows, this increasingly complex conglomeration becomes our theological system.
Throughout history, the minds of many professing Christians have birthed theological ideas that seem out of sync with the system on which the rest of us have found some sort of consensus; these ideas are discarded, because they don’t fit well in the system. This too is inevitable.
This natural organizing and sifting of ideas constitutes the meat and potatoes of systematic theology. All of our seminarians take courses in it. We all learn what ideas have found consensus in our denomination or even across denominations. We all learn which ideas have been deprecated by all denominations. We learn to sift ideas through the matrix of our theological system, testing them for trustworthiness—well, really, testing them for conformance to the system; whether these two things correlate is another discussion.
I think systematic theology is good, and I’m glad to have taken it so many times. But there’s another class I wish had been offered at my seminary, but wasn’t. I call it “Systematic Good-ology,” because without the hyphen, it looks like it should be pronounced “Goo Dollogy,” which sounds like it might be a class on Johnny Rzeznik.
Systematic Good-ology would be just like Systematic Theology, except instead of building a theological system, students would build an ethical system—a system for helping them to be, or to become, good.
I think at some point during the article—maybe here—many readers will protest. “We already have a book on how to become good,” they will say. “It’s called The Bible.”
That is true, in the same way that the Bible could be considered a systematic theology textbook. Which is to say, it isn’t true. If building a systematic theology from the Bible alone were a natural, easy, intuitive process, we wouldn’t need systematic theology textbooks; we would all just sit down and read the Bible and by the end we would all believe exactly the same things. But that doesn’t happen.
It’s the same with being a good person. If it were just as easy as reading through the Bible and at the end, becoming a good person, that would be wonderful, and there would be a lot more good people. But it’s just not that easy.
More than anything else, the Bible is a record of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. As we read it, we learn a lot about God, and we learn a lot about what God wants from people—presumably, because God is good, these things God wants us to do are things good people would do, and a person who does them is good.
But the Bible doesn’t present a fully formed ethical system. Just as it doesn’t disclose every last detail of the nature of God, leaving theologians to fill in the gaps, the Bible doesn’t disclose every last detail of every decision you will ever have to make in order to be able to look back on your life and say, “Yes, every time, I picked the good choice, the ethical choice.”
This is true as it pertains to our relationship with God as well as our relationships with others. We know, for example, that the Bible says to love God with all of your heart. But what does that look like? Does that mean we should spend all day in prayer and Bible study, neglecting our bodily needs? If not, then how much prayer and Bible study should we do? How much is enough to be able to say we have loved God with all of our heart that day?
We know that we should love others as we love ourselves. But that doesn’t help us answer even the most elementary of ethical dilemmas. Is it okay to steal food to survive? Is it okay to lie in order to save a life?
Stuck at Square One
If your Christian education has been anything like mine, your Systematic Good-ology probably looked something like this by the time you were in high school: Love God and love your neighbor. Obey your parents. Read your Bible and pray every day. Don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls (or boys) who do. Don’t kill anyone, and for heaven’s sake, keep your pants on.
For some of us, the list went on quite a lot longer. For others, maybe it was even shorter. But there really wasn’t much of a system behind it. It’s just a list of boundaries, a list of rules. Simple lists just aren’t comprehensive enough when it comes to addressing the finer details of ethical behavior.
But at the same time, in that same period of your life, if you grew up in a Christian home you were expected to profess belief in some pretty esoteric theological concepts—God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence; the Trinity; the Incarnation; the sovereignty of God; blood atonement for sin… that list, for a conservative evangelical Baptist, gets very long indeed.
Theology is important, but because so many Christians have for so long prioritized theology over ethics—undoubtedly due, in many cases, to a misguided fear of “legalism”—many of us are stuck at square one when it comes to Systematic Good-ology. We just never studied the practice of being good the same way that we studied the subtle intricacies of God’s nature. We didn’t take our ethical systems as seriously as we take our theological systems. As a result, many of us are stuck at square one when it comes to ethics.
As a pastor, I’ve learned how critically misguided this is. While many pastors harp on the mysteries of God’s nature, I do everything I can to bring God’s instructions for his people down to a practical level. I try to help people see how God’s Word should be lived out on a day-to-day basis. Because while what we believe is important, Jesus’ brother James reminds us that if this belief does not result in action, we are deluded: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
Jesus the Good-ologian
What if Christians spent as much effort on doing the Word as they did on theological musing? What if we poured as much time into learning how to make good, ethical, biblical choices as we poured into trying to understand the Trinity?
Thankfully, while we have preoccupied ourselves with theological puzzles, another group of people has developed an extraordinary Systematic Good-ology based on our very own Bibles. I’m talking, of course, about the Jewish people.
Jewish ethics are famously systematic. In any situation, where one good conflicts with another—for example, the situations listed above, in which one is forced to choose between preserving life or stealing and lying—Jewish ethics has a clear answer. Guided by the interpretive principle of pikuach nefesh ("saving of a life"), any rabbi worth his salt could tell you that it is permissible to commit almost any sin (aside from idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder) in order to save a life. Incidentally, a careful reading of the Gospels indicate that Jesus took the same position, and perhaps even a stronger one; he broke the Sabbath in order to alleviate human suffering even when those he healed were not in mortal danger.
Unfortunately, many Christians believe that the systematic ethical framework of Judaism—based as it is on the Torah, the Law of Moses—is somehow outdated, or that it conflicts with the New Testament. On the contrary, Jesus himself embraced a very Jewish Systematic Good-ology, and most of his teaching is simply about how to be a better and godlier person by obeying the laws of the Torah. We might even call him a Systematic Good-ologian—the greatest and most inspiring good-ologian the world has ever seen.
If we’re going to take our discipleship to Jesus seriously, then we need to take more time to study his teachings—preferably in light of the fact that they are part of the broad tapestry of historical Jewish interpretation. Jesus has much to say about the choices we make; his blanket acceptance of the Jewish ethical framework (even as he differed with his contemporaries over details) gives us even more material to work with as we sort out our Systematic Good-ology.
Let’s not fall behind in doing the kind of work the Master spent so much time exhorting us to do—the Sermon-on-the-Mount kind of work, the work of learning to be good, the work of consistently making ethically sound choices.
In doing so, we will grow to become more like Jesus—and really, that’s kind of the whole point of being a disciple in the first place.