Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.

Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

Theology with Rough Edges

Systematic theology is intended as a helpful exercise. It helps us make sense of complicated ideas. It helps us to articulate some of the thinking that has taken place over the centuries. Yet, no matter how well we categorize our thoughts, it remains that God revealed his news to us through the complicated stories of saints and sinners. Since we are removed by time from these events, it is sometimes tempting to remove the news from the original contexts in an effort to understand it more accurately.

This can result in a topics approach to theology that can be helpful yet is still artificial. We can state with some confidence that the bible does not take a topics approach. It is a collection of experiences that tell how salvation entered history and the different ways it looked at different periods of the history. On account of that, the bible cannot be interpreted faithfully in a vacuum. It is not intended to be read in laboratory conditions. The fact remains we will be most faithful when our theology continues to have some rough edges.

Karl Barth and Exegesis

As the Nazi’s purged the German universities of those who did not think like them, Karl Barth exhorted the students and preachers he left behind with some version of the following quote. (This one is found in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period by Richard E. Burnett).

Dear friends, who have listened to me, the main thing you have heard from me is dogmatics. Dogmatics is a high and steep art. I do not want to deny that, humanly as well, I strive after it with a certain love and desire. And I dare say that I have noticed that many of you have been excited about this subject matter as well. If this now for the moment has come to an end, accept this as a signal for you to temporarily begin anew your studies at a different place. Take now my last piece of advice: Exegesis, Exegesis, and once more, Exegesis! If I have become a dogmatician, it is because I long before have endeavored to carry on exegesis. Let the systematic art, which can also make one mad, rest a little and hold on to the Word, to the Scriptures, which is given to us and become perhaps less systematic and more biblical theologians. For then the systematic and dogmatic tasks will certainly be taken care of as well. That is what I wanted to say to you and in this way I wish to be you farewell.

Amen.