The Danger of Systematic Theology

I am Catholic and a strong supporter of using the scholastic wisdom of Aquinas in our own lives. I do not think systematic theology is bad and I think it can and has brought a large number of people closer to God. However there are serious issues that arise when approaching systematic theology without any humility. In seeking to know and understand God, we must be careful of assuming any complete understanding could ever be reached. Confidence does not belong in the realm of theology, especially the further we move from the Word of God. The sin of presumption, among others, risks overly confident theological speculation. The Orthodox Church makes a very true and serious critique for western systematic theology, and in this article I want to explore the danger of the study, and argue why in spite of this danger, it can be used for good.

For my final thesis in my Theology degree at Loyola I decided to write my term paper on a comparison between Catholic and Orthodox views of the seven sacraments (or mysteries). In doing research on the subject I came across Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World, as well as books by Fr. Meletios Webber and Fr. Thomas Hopko. These books addressed a lot concerning the sacraments and were some of my favorite books to read. Skepticism, if not outright hostility, at those who seek to mix the divine with the academic ran throughout the text.

Orthodox thinkers often look at the Western dive into systematic theology as a way that theologians would rip away the divine mysterious beauty of God. These theologians would think they could understand the precise mechanisms of salvation or clearly explain each of Christ’s teachings. Fr. Meletios Webber quotes Plato saying, “let us leave God to the Ideals, but keep him away from me” as an example of the manner in which systematic theology distances practitioners from the divine.[1] Plato, teacher of the infamous Aristotle, was well in the tradition of using reason to understand metaphysical realities. This quote, in which Plato sees the divine as a side aspect of this great journey of study, is a lense through which much of western theology is seen.

This is not without basis. How many people have been killed in the religious wars following the reformation concerning matters of dogma we can now debate civilly? Or how often do I, in eagerness to become theologically savvy, lose sight of the reason for my existence at all: God? The concerns of Orthodox theologians are not just valid, but apparent in my own life. Sometimes I get so excited about finding out some theological treasure or scriptural reading that supports my own doctrinal views, I treat the study of God like a sport where I want my views to win.

While exciting in the moment, treating theology like a sport has made it difficult for me to build my (dare I use Protestant language) personal relationship with Christ. God is not simply the prime mover and first cause, but became man, reaching out to us. Christ calls us to be his friend (John 15:15) and to love him above all things (Mark 12:30). Sometimes I recognize I get too invested in discussion of Church history or looking at social issues of the day, and I completely miss the beauty of a relationship with Christ. Such a relationship is not easy; it requires a level of trust. Trust, in turn, requires a level of mystery. You cannot trust someone whose every action you know; it is only when there exists the unknown (in God’s case, the unknowable) that trust can exist. Similarly, we must take the time to appreciate the mystery of God and truly trust him and his will for us.

Nevertheless, while systematic theology has real and tangible danger, it has profound benefits when approached with devotion and humility.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a father of systematic theology, recognized the potential for reducing God to a science and wrote about how to deal with this risk. Aquinas made the distinction between knowledge about God and knowledge of God. In studying theology we seek knowledge about God in a similar way to when one seeks knowledge about his beloved. There is always a mystery involved, but that doesn’t mean one should stop trying to learn about one’s beloved.

Aquinas was well aware of the danger of equating knowledge about God and knowledge of God. Theology, including the systematic approach to it, can allow us to study the mysteries of God in a manner that we may come to love and serve Him better. Both mystery and systematic reasoning can coexist. For Aquinas, it was recorded that “When consecrating at Mass, he would be overcome by such intensity of devotion as to be dissolved in tears, utterly absorbed in its mysteries and nourished with its fruits.” This is hardly the work of a cold logician (developer of transubstantiation) who sees no place for the mystery of God. Aquinas himself, upon a private revelation, realized his works were but a drop of understanding in the infinite mystery of God. Systematic theology, combined with a dose of humility and appreciation of God’s infinite nature, can and has been fruitful to both practitioners and readers alike.

Faith and reason both are used in regard to truth. Faith deals with divine revelation, and reason (or the sciences) deal with natural revelation. Nature, everything God created, are just as much a product of God’s creation as scripture and tradition. While secular forces have claimed a certain level of dominance in the sciences today, there is nothing inherently atheistic about science. The source of both is God, and seeking to understand them only puts us in a greater communion with God, so long as we understand that we will never be able to reduce God just to that which we study.

This Article will be part of a series of articles in the future where I look to expand on my research concerning Catholic-Orthodox relations. In this series I wish to write on both what I have learned from reading Orthodox priests and theologians and what I think Catholicism can offer in return.

The Call to Evangelize

What Real Ecumenism Looks Like

A Manual for Catholics on How to Dialogue with Orthodox Christians

[1] Webber, Meletios. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God. Conciliar Press, Chesterton, Indiana, 2007. Pp. 102-104.


2 responses to “The Danger of Systematic Theology”

  1. Courtney Avatar

    I am beginning a systematic theology degree tomorrow and have been getting the “looks” lately when asked my degree program. I began overthinking what God was calling me to study, and this blog and some others has helped affirm that I am right where I am supposed to be. Thank you! Looking forward to your other articles.

  2. Daniel Sutkowski Avatar
    Daniel Sutkowski

    I am glad that this article was fruitful for you. God bless you on your systematic theology degree program!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *