The Congregation has spoken: “We also want systematic theology!”

At the church I pastor a returning missionary was giving a brilliant sermon on Acts 17. Mid-talk he paused and asked the congregation to discuss this question: “Is Jesus still a man today?” I was perplexed as to why he would ask such an obvious question…until a number of people gave the wrong answer!

I experienced what I would later call a “theological heart-attack” as a number of people tentatively suggested that Jesus was no longer a man! Even though Acts 17:31 says God has appointed a man to judge the world!

However, when I heard the reasons offered in support of the incorrect answer, I was both heartened and enlightened. In the very short space of time they had to think, my dear brothers and sisters were instinctively defending the complete divinity of Jesus. The idea that humanity can be integrated within the divine Godhead – when you’ve got one frantic minute of thought – seems to compromise the complete divinity of Christ and/or God. These brothers and sisters were boldly upholding what they knew to be an essential biblical doctrine: the complete otherness of the divine trinity, the notion that the divine being is not in any way sullied by human flesh. The Jesus who returned to the Father, is also fully God, and must not therefore mar the Godhead with his lesser humanity. With great gentleness, the visiting preacher tactfully corrected the wrong answers, whilst also affirming the rightness of the theological instincts of those who gave it. He explained that Jesus’ role as mediator necessitates that he perfectly, continually, represent both God and man, and that if he doesn’t, then our salvation would be jeopardised (e.g. see 1 Tim 2:5-6).

The whole episode taught me two things. First, it was a helpful challenge to keep growing in my competence as a bible teacher!

Second, the in-depth discussions over morning tea and supper made it clear that many people were fascinated by the way a vital area of doctrine (the divinity of the ascended Christ) needed to be considered in light of another vital area of doctrine (the mediatorial role of the ascended Christ). And therein lay the important lesson for me: these brothers and sisters, whether realising it or not, were interested in systematic theology.

In some contexts, systematic theology and doctrine come close to being synonymous. However, in the situation at hand, the difference between them is helpful. It’s possible to affirm an important doctrine (e.g. the divinity of Jesus), but still need to systematise it. That is, we still need to work out other doctrines (e.g. the mediatorial role of the ascended Christ) ought to influence, and be influenced by, it. What my doctrinally sound congregation members were telling me (whether they realised it or not) was that their regular diet of expository book-by-book, passage-by-passage preaching needed to be occasionally supplemented not only by doctrine, but also by systematic theology. My encouragement to evangelicals is that we ask our pastors to do the same.