What do Theologians Do? (Making Progress in Understanding What I’m Doing)

I must admit, I am a systematic theologian in training, but I have had really no clue what that means or what I am supposed to be doing. My chief difficulty has been getting my mind around what it means to “do theology,” or even what “theology” is. I see all sorts of “theologies” incorporating all sorts of methods, but very little help on what is the particular notion of rationality that governs so-called “theological discourse.”

That said, I wrote an email to a friend yesterday that may indicate I’m making some progress in understanding that which I’m training to do. I’d be interested in your feedback on this. Here it is:

I’m not particularly proud of any of the papers I have written, but I’ll try to think of one by the time I finish this email. I will say, however, that I’m really interested in this question. If we’d had more time in class I would have made more than just a snarky comment about it. I like Dr. Vanhoozer’s (surprise!) notion of Systematic Theology basically working in front of the Biblical text giving directions for church belief and activity. As an example, Systematicians might do anything from discussing whether God is impassible to discussing racial reconciliation (I’m including theological ethics in the job description). The more difficult question is how theologians do this. My own view is that systematic theologians ought to follow the direction of Scripture, by rooting their work in Scripture’s canonical direction (doing the work of exegesis and theological interpretation), by taking cues from how the Spirit has shaped the historical doctrine of the church (giving a nod to tradition and traditional judgments, particularly where they were universal–theologians operate within a tradition), and by integrating contemporary academic disciplines as they map reality (paying attention to sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, science, etc.). So systematicians are generalists. Systematicians are tasked with bringing together a wide variety of voices to assist church life and practice. As such, “methods” within Systematic theology will differ somewhat–the methods of these disciplines we are integrating differ–but need to be chastened by the magisterial authority of Scripture.
Hope this helps!
Matthew LaPine

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