Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): Part 1


Like many Evangelical Americans, I have progressed through a tumultuous relationship with the church and my own faith. Throughout the phases of my life thus far I have moved in and out of the following wildly varied assumptions: being a card-carrying Christian also implies being a card-carrying Republican; women probably shouldn't be pastors; there was DEFINITELY one historical man named Adam in a place called Eden; there was definitely NEVER a historical man named Adam in a place called Eden; dinosaurs were absolutely among the passengers on Noah's ark; the story of Noah is a grand myth; Jesus' death was God's act of justly punishing humanity's debt to him because of sin (and there is no other way of understanding the cross); the earth is less than 10,000 years old; God knows all future events; God's foreknowledge is open and undefined; God is fundamentally a "He"; to be "saved" means repeating the "sinner's prayer"; scripture is 100% inerrant; there are parts of the Bible that are more historically reliable than others; Revelation obviously teaches the Rapture and Dispensationalism; Hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment; God is somehow working through all world religions; dropping the label "Christian" and instead calling oneself a "Christ-follower" is more spiritually sound; the Old Testament is less important than the New One;  Mary might not have actually been a virgin when Jesus was born; Catholics aren't actually Christians; and that I could no longer identify as an "Evangelical".

I still hold onto some of these assumptions. Some make me uncomfortable, and some I take great pains to radically distance myself from. Some of them will change. But underneath all of them is that divisive word: "theology", the study of God.

Theology is an interesting subject in modern culture. There are people who absolutely love studying it, and many of them may or may not call themselves "Christian". Then there are many people who do call themselves "Christian" who seem to despise it. To them, it is only a topic for cold, skeptical academics, and spending time and energy on answering difficult theological questions will only dampen one's passion for Jesus. Better to be content praying spontaneous, heartfelt prayers and raising your hands to a rockin' worship song. Don't think too hard, for that only leads to questions, which inevitably lead to being apostate.

I am sympathetic to this, to a degree. The feeling is captured succinctly by the political cartoon "The Descent of the Modernists"

"The Descent of the Modernists" by E.J. Pace, which first appeared in 1924.

I can understand, and have sometimes even interacted with, the fear of this "slippery slope". The reality is that this fear was created and cultivated within a specific historical phase in the development of Evangelical culture. In responding to this descent, the Protestant church, especially in America, has largely dug in her heels and clamped down on some "fundamental" issues that cannot be questioned (a more detailed discussion of this will appear in the Church History entry of this blog series). This all brings me to the conclusion of this introductory post.

Why Theology?

I firmly believe that more robust theology is desperately needed in the Evangelical church. Theology is something Evangelical Christians should love, not fear. An unspoken assumption in Evangelicalism seems to be, "Studying God, and relentlessly seeking answers to questions, is simply a way to 'control' God, explain away uncomfortable mysteries, and shrink God down to your human-sized intellect." This is an unfair assumption, which is keeping "lay people" from deep, rigorous study, watering down the teaching ministry of the Evangelical church, and needlessly exiling scholars and academics from the family of God. Ultimately, we are to love and worship God, and to know more about God, to study God's self-revelation through Jesus and the written Scriptures, should primarily lead to increased awe, reverence, and gratitude. This is why we need to reclaim theology.  

Why "Systematic"?

To break down the terms here, "Systematic Theology" simply means: the study of God done carefully and according to a system. Entire seminary courses are devoted to developing a cohesive, systematic way to understand God, and I am not arrogant enough to think a series of blog posts will provide a new alternative. Rather, I am intentionally choosing to label this series "systematic" because my goal is to propose an accessible way to understand how every area of theology can be understood interdependently, not independently. The cross, the Psalms, the story of Jonah, Paul's epistles, Jesus' parables, and the Mosaic law are intrinsically linked, and when weaved together, paint a beautiful picture of a loving Creator God who has decisively broken into human history. Again, this broad view is something that the Evangelical church has woefully overlooked, particularly in its ministry to youth (this is broadly speaking, of course, and I'm sure there are wonderful exceptions).

Why for "Recovering Evangelicals"?

Finally, why the label "recovering Evangelicals?" Well, to put it simply, this is the label I would currently apply to myself. At times, my ties to the Evangelical church have been threadbare, at best. However, as goes that famous quote applied to both Augustine and Dorothy Day, "The church may be a whore, but she is my mother." 

I find myself consistently returning to the Evangelical fold, and though I have periods of maddening frustration with it, I love the centrality of Jesus to the Evangelical message. He is truly the linchpin, the cornerstone, and the one to whom saving faith belongs. I add the term "recovering" simply because I am intentionally choosing to continue a relationship that has been both rocky and painful. Like any relationship that has been through hell, time must be taken to rebuild trust, to extend peace, and to heal. On the other side, though, I have deep hope that a once-strained marriage will be vital, thriving, and joyful. Entering recovery is humbling, and I pray that a humble spirit will fundamentally drive this process.

In part 2: An overview of the topics to be discussed, such as: God's identity, Doctrine of Scripture, Science, Worship, Atonement, The Gospel, Conversion, and more....