When you’re hungry for knowing God a “good” Systematic Theology (from here on ST) seems to be a “God-sent”. Though the knowledge is buried usually in a thick book (sometimes several books) it has the promise of delivering neat, organized information ready for consumption. The theory goes that by reading the material one can have a better, maybe even more accurate view of God. But is it so?
Most ST claim to be introductory, just a start and not exhaustive, but the very nature of their formulations pushes them in the realm of propositional truth, producing statements that bear the mark of absolute truth.
[It is argued that Scriptures contain propositional truth, therefore supporting the legitimacy of such statements in ST. Without going here in details, I would point first to the context in which such statements are made and to how that shapes their meaning. Secondly, they represent a small portion of the whole body of biblical text. Thirdly, isn’t it assumed in these circles a supremacy of Scripture in rapport to other human writings? If so, shouldn’t it be expected – propositional truth – in the biblical text but nowhere else?]
Herein lies the problem.
ST inevitably becomes a “nice” crutch replacing the continuous grapple with Scriptures and the journey of knowing God in the intricacies of life.
The problem gets worse when ST’s claim to truth becomes the foundation for entire systems that in time become rigid and intolerant to outside input. As a result people go to the Bible not to verify the ST statements on a particular topic (since ST has established “itself” to be true, there is no need for this, right?), but to find support for it. Since somebody (an expert after all) has already done the work of extracting the “truth” from the Scriptures, why reinvent the wheel and go dig again? This way the Scriptures have effectively and realistically become a reference book, supporting material.
What we need to ask ourselves is how does one get to know God? What does it mean to know God? How do you know you know God? Is the knowledge of God the same as any other knowledge we acquire or is it a special kind. ST turns, openly and unapologetically in some texts, the knowledge of God into a science where God becomes the object and we are the subject. No doubt this is our natural tendency. We want to examine, to figure out something or someone before we initiate a relationship of some sorts and allow it/them into our life. It is our instinct of being in control. So it is expected to be no different when it comes to the reality of God. We feel we need to be able to explain Him. Before we give Him a place into our life and our thinking we need to create a category for Him, to build a home for Him, so to say, into our life. And though He takes anything from us as long as we open ourselves to Him, it is, ironically, precisely this category/categories we create that will later hinder our knowledge of Him. Time will come when we are faced with the decision to either hold dear to our intellectual box or let go of it and venture into the “unknown” holding tight to God’s hand. ST will make this decision more difficult, because on one hand it gives us a false sense of certainty and comfortability with the acquired knowledge and on the other hand it will trick our minds to think departure from its statements means departure from the truth.
The problem with this scientific approach to knowing God, though it may be in sync with philosophical reasoning, lies in the fact that it betrays the biblical narrative. In the Bible knowing God is not an abstract/intellectual exercise, but the result of a life of faith. John goes as far as to say that if we don’t love we don’t know God. The litmus test, it seems, for our knowledge of God is our love for one another. In other words,
the sphere of human relationships is the medium in which we can get to know God.
You can study love, but you will never really know it until you will experience it, until you give yourself to it and you are taken by it. That’s a different kind of knowledge, one that transcends words, linguistic constructs or logical categories. This gives us some idea of the kind of knowledge the Scriptures talk about when it comes to knowing God. Paul says, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” (1 Cor 8:2) and then he says, “who loves God, is known by God” (8:3). This shows a different kind of knowing, one in which both parties are intimately engaged. Simply put, knowing God is the result of more of an interaction with God, than an analysis of Him. The head knowledge makes us proud, says Paul, but our experiential knowledge of God makes us more loving, John would say.
The Scriptures are meant not to provide us with the knowledge of God (as it is trivially believed), but to invite us and persuade us into a dynamic relationship with God which in turn constitutes the context in which we get to know God. Words are extremely limited (as rich as we believe them to be) when it comes to speak of God and so can only point us into the direction of the knowledge of God, but CANNOT contain it.
Jesus made it pretty clear that everything revolves around and springs from love: love for God and love for one another. The more we love the more we know God and the more we know God the more we love.