Introduction: The Puzzle of Systematic Theology

The following presents a journey through the world of systematic theology. Let me attempt to be your guide, my life has been consumed with this area for the last 25 years. I have been blessed to be able to spend my life drinking from this well of truth and sharing it with others. We are building a puzzle with all the pieces that God has given to us. While the Scripture presents us with a unique and authoritative piece of this puzzle, we have many other pieces. In fact, some of these sources are less of a piece of the puzzle and more like the glue that holds the puzzle together.

As we count down from the fifth to the most influential source, remember that every source holds immense value.

5. Mystical Theology:

I have never liked the designation “mystical theology” or even mystical in general. It sounds to ethereal. However, this is its name. It is regarded as the least foundational on my list. Yet don’t let that fool you. It is a highly significant source for systematic theology. Mystical theology delves into the intensely personal and experiential aspects of faith. It encompasses:

Personal Experience: Mystical theology involves direct personal or communal encounters with the divine, often through prayer, meditation, contemplation, or spiritual experiences. These experiences are deeply subjective yet profoundly impactful. They can provide a unique connection to God.

Emotions: Emotions, including awe, ecstasy, joy, humility, and reverence, play a central role within mystical theology. These emotional responses are intertwined with the mystical encounter, heightening the sense of divine presence.

Immediate Effects: Mystical experiences bring about immediate and powerful effects on individuals, leading to heightened spirituality, and a sense of closeness to God. It can bring about deep feelings of transformation and enlightenment.

Subjectivity: Mystical theology is inherently subjective, varying greatly from one individual to another. This subjectivity makes it challenging to standardize or integrate into a systematic theological framework.

Confidence and Synthesis: Mystical theology represents the synthesis of all other theological sources, including scripture, reason, tradition, and natural theology. It provides a deeply personal and self-assured confidence for faith and theological understanding. This confidence in one’s faith is not necessarily weak because it is subjective.

When properly built upon the combined richness of these other theological sources, it may be the most coveted theological source (if we are being honest), and there is nothing wrong with that. All who undermine its importance and relevance will inevitably fall by its sword,

4. Natural Theology (Scientific Theology):

Natural theology represents a branch of theological inquiry that seeks to understand God and divine principles through the method of observation and testing, which aligns with scientific principles. While it includes science as a discipline, it distinguishes itself by emphasizing a scientific-type understanding. Key elements of natural theology include:

Integration of Scientific Method: Natural theology integrates the scientific method, emphasizing observation and testing, into theological inquiry. It explores how this method can be used to gain insights into theological beliefs and the nature of the divine.

Included in this integration:

    1. The Anthropic Principle: This concept explores the idea that the universe appears to be finely tuned to support human life, raising questions about its purpose and design.
    2. The Size of the Universe: Natural theology examines the vastness and complexity of the universe and considers what it reveals about the divine and his “end game.”.
    3. The Intricacies of the Cell: Scientific theologians explore the intricacies of life at the cellular level and how these complexities may shed light on theological concepts.

Biblical References: Biblical passages such as Psalm 139, 19, and Romans 1:18-21 are often cited in natural theology discussions. The Romans passage along with Psalm 19 highlights the revelation of God’s existence and attributes through the created order. Psalm 139 beautifully brings to heart how much God’s careful design expresses his love for us. This all reinforces the theological significance of nature.

Natural theology engages with these examples and more, using scientific understanding to inform theological discussions about the nature of God and creation.

3. Historic Theology (Tradition):

Historic Theology or Tradition holds the third rank in our list. It is a vital place of reference for authority in Christian traditions. This source is explicitly understood and celebrated by many, including Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. For most others, it is, unfortunately, many times, unadmired due to its past abuse. Historic theology emphasizes:

Consensus of Historic Christian Faith: Historic theology draws its authority from the consensus of beliefs and doctrines that have been held by the Christian community throughout history. This consensus of faith is referred to as the regula fide and is mined through the “Vincentian Canon”. It serves as a unifying thread that connects believers across generations. Articulations of this consensus can be found in the creeds and confessions of the historic Church.

Continuity of the Body of Christ: The body of Christ, which includes all believers, is viewed as a unified and continuous entity that spans both the living and those who have passed away. The contributions of theologians and thinkers from the past, such as Augustine, Aquinas, and St. John of the Cross, are considered enduring and valuable.They are still considered contributing members to this entity called the Body of Christ.

Apostolic Succession: The foundational belief underlying historic theology is in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is believed that the Holy Spirit continues to guide and influence the body of Christ throughout history, ensuring the preservation and development of essential Christian truths. Protestants, such as myself, see this power and continuity in the “apostolic succession” of teaching in the church. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox find this continuity in the “Apostolic Succession” of the organization and unwritten Traditions of the church.

Catholics and Protestants allow for varying degrees of development in historic theology while Eastern Orthodox primarily look to the early Church Fathers and the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Catholics recognize twenty-one Ecumenical Councils. Protestants recognize three to seven, depending on the tradition. While Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believe that this authority is infallible when found correctly through the institutionalized Church (Catholics) or the Ecumenical Creeds (Eastern Orthodox), Protestants do not.

A reverence for the authority of historic theology is scripturally sound. Christ expressed that his sheep would hear his voice and follow him (John 10:27-28) and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Body of Christ (Matt. 16:18)

2. Philosophical Theology (Rational Theology):

Philosophical theology is a distinct branch of theological inquiry that emphasizes the use of rational thought, logic, and philosophical principles to explore theological concepts. It acts more like the glue that holds every piece of this puzzle together. Key elements of philosophical theology include:

Rational Thought and Logic: Philosophical theologians engage in rational thought and logical reasoning to delve into theological questions. They seek to understand the nature of God, existence, morality, and other theological concepts through rigorous philosophical analysis and argumentation.

Properly Basic Beliefs: Philosophical theology often relies on what are considered “properly basic beliefs.” These are foundational beliefs that do not require further justification but serve as the starting point for reasoning. Examples include the law of non-contradiction and the reliability of sense perception. The “Ontological Argument” serves as a good unique example here. It proposes that the concept of a perfect being implies its existence, making it a powerful argument for God’s existence when understood correctly. It comprises the most properly basic belief of all.

Distinguished from Empiricism: Philosophical theology distinguishes itself from natural theology by emphasizing rationality over empiricism. It underscores the objectivity (relatively speaking) of logical analysis and philosophical principles in theological exploration. While philosophical theology and natural theology have distinct approaches, some theologians combine the two to create a more comprehensive theological framework. However, the emphasis on rationality remains a hallmark of philosophical theology.

Philosophical theology plays a significant role in providing a rational basis for theological beliefs and exploring complex theological questions. It relies on foundational principles of logic and philosophy to contribute to theological discourse.

1.2. Special Revelation (Ongoing Divine Communication):

Here is a curveball I bet you didn’t expect!

Special revelation refers to the belief that God continues to communicate with humanity through authoritative means beyond the canonized Scriptures. This concept is held by various religious traditions, including Charismatics and Catholics, with some distinctions in the perceived level of authority. Key aspects of special revelation include:

Catholic Perspective: While Catholics would normally not regard the Church’s infallible authority in this category, for all intents and purposes, it is. Within Catholicism, the Institutionalized Church is considered to have the same degree of authority as the canonized Scriptures. It is regarded as a vital component of a three-legged stool. The written (Bible) and unwritten Tradition of the Apostles have been handed down through the ages. Only the Magisterium can interpret both with authority. The Magisterial authority, which includes 1) a congregation of the Pope and Bishops or 2) ex cathedra (“from the chair” of Saint Peter) can interpret both with infallible authority when needed, an infallible voice.

Charismatic Perspective: Charismatics believe the voice of God is spoken through the continuation of the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14), However, while charismatics recognize ongoing special revelation, they attempt to distinguish it as secondary to the canonized Scriptures. Prophetic utterances are assessed for alignment with the Bible. When new revelations are found to be consistent with existing biblical teachings, they are often accepted as authoritative and become part of the ongoing divine communication.

In this context, there is virtually no way to distinguish the authority of either ex-cathedra statements of the Pope or ongoing prophetic utterances from charismatics from the Bible. If they are both God’s authority, they are both equal once established (a discussion for another time).

Having said all of this, if any form of special revelation is continuing today, it would carry the same degree of authority in our lives and theology as Scripture. However, that does not speak to its legitimacy. If God is continuing to speak authoritatively through prophets or Popes, how can our theology hold back his hand? There is nothing that definitively says special revelation cannot be continued today.

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1. The Canonized Scripture (The Bible):

The canonized scripture, commonly known as the Bible, comprises a collection of sacred texts recognized as authoritative in the Christian tradition. While there are distinctions in the canon among various traditions, there is a shared acknowledgment of the authority at least 66 books. Key aspects of the Bible include:

Method of Delivery: The Bible’s authority was given through various means, including direct communication from God, prophetic writings, and the apostolic authorship of the New Testament. Mark, Luke, and the author of Hebrews, while not apostles, wrote under the “apostolic umbrella” (as did some in the Old Testament) and contributed to the canon.

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Perspective: In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox, the canonized scripture includes not only the 66 books recognized by Protestant traditions but also additional books known as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon comprises a larger body of sacred texts.

Norma Normans Sed Non Normata: The Latin phrase norma normans sed non normata translates to “The norm that norms but is not normed.” This phrase highlights the Protestant belief that the 66 books of the Bible have a unique role as the governing authority. They believe that the Bible “norms” and evaluates all other sources of theology. It serves as the standard by which all other theological claims are measured.

While there are variations in the canon among Christian traditions, the Bible is universally recognized as an authoritative source of divine revelation, even though the degree of authority it holds may differ among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants.




C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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