On training as a systematic theologian

I’m currently writing a (now long overdue) review essay of Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology for the Expository TimesOne of the book’s more unusual features, within the realm of systematic theologies at least, is the author’s frank admission that he is not a systematic theologian by training.

Another confession that I have to make is that I am not by speciality a systematic theologian. I cut my scholarly teeth in the realm of biblical studies. I’ve worked in areas as diverse as the historical Jesus, Synoptic Gospels, the life of Paul, New Testament theology, Second Temple literature, and textual criticism, and I have even written a commentary on 1 Esdras based exclusively on codex Vaticanus. Not exactly the standard training ground for a systematician, who is supposed to do a mandatory PhD on Karl Barth and thereafter write a postdoctoral tome on something like divine aseity and divine freedom, enhypostasis versus anhypostasis, or sexual repression in Augustine’s sermons (not my bag unfortunately).

– Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 25.

In comparison to this, I suppose my training in systematics has followed a more conventional path: as a seminarian I watched in awe as Donald Macleod constructed a living systematic theology before our eyes. Then followed the ‘mandatory’ systematics PhD (albeit not on Barth), a monograph based on my dissertation, a postdoc at a continental European university, and now my current lectureship, with its ongoing research and teaching.

In terms of the substance of these various steps, the common path, it seems, is that the trainee systematician first serves an apprenticeship under a (usually deceased) theological great: which is to say, you write a doctoral thesis focused on a particular thinker. You must familiarise yourself with the inner workings of this person’s mind. In my case, I tried to learn to ‘think Bavinck’s thoughts after him.’ I explored the way he constructed dogmatics and attempted to trace out the particular sense in which the nature and being of God, as understood by Bavinck, made his distinctive approach to theology possible. In the process, he provided me with a three year masterclass in the practice of systematic theology.

The intended result of this early apprenticeship is that the apprentice’s general competence as an interpreter of said theological great might be recognised: in my case, although I spent good portions of my PhD years reading other theologians, I became an interpreter of Bavinck. As far as I understand it, the reason for this ‘interpreter’ stage is that by writing on the systematic theology of another (far more important) figure, we build up momentum towards the eventual appearance of our own creative, constructive theology. But the pattern is very much that you invest years in reading and writing about systematics before you begin to write your own.

That path is not ‘mandatory’ in the sense that one could never emerge as a skilful systematic theologian without having followed it. To refer again to Donald Macleod, although he has engaged with a stellar cast of theologians, I am not aware of him ever having spent a period as anyone’s interpreter. Rather, he seems to have appeared as though fully formed, a unique systematician from the outset. His voice has always been his own, and both church and academy are blessed by it.

However, the list of constructive systematicians who have followed the conventional path merits consideration: Bavinck began as an interpreter of Zwingli; Kuyper’s early work was on Calvin and Johannes a Lasco; Calvin’s was on Seneca; John Webster was first an interpreter of Jüngel; Paul Nimmo initially came to the fore as an outstanding young interpreter of Barth; and so the list goes on.

To return to the ‘mandatory training ground’ identified by Bird: a PhD on Barth followed by a tome on divine aseity cannot provide the entire repertoire of skills necessary for good systematic theology. That process will teach you how to read great theological works in their original languages, to locate them in historical context, and to handle doctrinal loci in their interwoven beauty; but the systematician – as Bird reminds us – must also know how to read Scripture itself, which requires a different kind of training.

That having been said, an apprenticeship under a great thinker (supervised by a thoughtful contemporary practitioner), followed by a period as an interpreter of that figure, certainly helped the likes of Bavinck, Webster and Calvin as regards their own eventual constructive theologies.

When I first approached my future PhD supervisor to discuss the possibility of doctoral research, I came with a list of constructive theological topics. “Those are all good topics,” he said, “but at this stage you really need to work on one of them in the writings of a particular theologian.” Eight years on, I am thankful for his direction, as I am for the standard training ground.


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