The Patristics and Systematics

I’m sure many of you – like myself – have heard a hundred critiques of systematic theology.  They go like this: it is totally modernistic, it is rationalistic, it is cold and dry like a brick wall, it is a product of the scientific branch of the Enlightenment, it imposes a dogmatic aspect upon Scripture that is not there, it ignores exegesis, and so forth.

Of course, we have to be careful not to “over do” systematics.  Most of the critiques of systematics should be considered so that it remains robust but does not do more than it should methodologically or topically.  One critique that I do want to answer and hopefully take much steam out of is the critique that systematic theology is a product of the Enlightenment’s scientific method.  To be sure, the Enlightenment hurt systematics in a lot of ways and helped it in a few ways.  But most certainly, organizing Scripture around certain scriptural teachings or themes was being done before the Enlightenment.  In fact, we can see it in the church fathers (though I’d also argue that Paul did it to some extent, but that’s a different post).  I’ll give a few examples from the fathers that I’ve been reading in the Ante Nicene Fathers set from Hendrickson.

Justin Martyr (2nd century): His two apologies were written to the Emperor and the Roman citizens.  In these two works, Martyr answers objections and accusations that many  were leveling against Christianity.  Martyr – in a logical order – refutes these objections/accusations, which include sections on Christology and ethics.  In fact Martyr even lists his responses out in numerical order (Apology I.xxiv-xxvi for example).   Of course, these are not systematics as we may be used to, but they are systematic, logical, and orderly.

Hippolytus (d. 236) wrote a massive essay refuting almost all Greek (and other) heresies of his day (titled Refutation of All Heresies).  Basically, he lines up all the heresies and, in order, explains each one, exposing their heretical nature.  Interestingly, at certain points (what we’d call chapters) Hippolytus even gives a quick a, b, c, d, summary of the topics covered up to that point.  It is clear in this that Hippolytus intended the work to be a systematic rendering of false theology compared with the true.  Much of the same can be said of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, which is similar to Hippolytus in many ways.

The Teaching of the Twelve Apostle’s (a.k.a. Didache) is another good example.  It is basically sort of an a, b, c, d, church instruction or church order written by some in the early church (c. 2nd century).  The Teaching is a purposefully systematic rendering of biblical teaching for instruction.

One more to consider is The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (c. 4th century).  This writing is very clearly a structured ecclesiological treatise written for instruction in the early church concerning church things.  The first part is for the laity, the second for the pastors/bishops, elders, and deacons.    The third part is a structured explanation of widows’ needs and baptism.  The fourth is about ministering the poor while the fifth part is on martyrs and other churchly matters.  There are a total of five “books” to this treatise, each an orderly presentation of church life and doctrine.

Finally, and probably most notable, is the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles (“same” as in same as the constitutions mentioned above).  This also dates around the 4th century, and is is basically a numbered list of canons concerning church functions and tasks.

In conclusion (this is just the tip of the patristic iceberg, so to speak – consider also the Ecumenical Creeds, which were highly structured!), we can say that while many features of systematic theology are unique to the “modern” period, systematizing the teachings of scripture is not unique to our period, or to the reformation, but was clearly in use way back there in the patristic writings.  The value of systematics ranges from refuting heresies (heresies in some sense gave rise to systematics), teaching new converts the main truths, and helping churches maintain apostolic standards.  While we may question some modern systematicians on certain things, we cannot question them on the topic of systematics in general.

Criticizing systematic theology as a product of the Enlightenment is ironically an Enlightenment attitude, assuming our point in history is one which has a higher judgment seat over those in earlier eras.  “Systematic Theology is baggage of the Enlightenment” is entirely an Enlightenment creed.  It is part of human nature and reason (not Enlightenment rationalism) to want to summarize and order teaching/writing for knowledge, belief, and living.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

2 thoughts on “The Patristics and Systematics”

  1. Systematizing theology from the Scriptures is an amazing reflection of the Imago Dei…is it not?

    God brought order and structure in creation…and so we image bearers reflect him in our ordering of theology!

    Praise the Lord for this!


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