Theological Notebook: Dulles on Systematic Theology and Models
I frequently find myself having to struggle to define "systematic theology" to people with no formal theological background. It's one of those terms for a subdivision within the field of theology, and it happens to be the aspect of theology in which I am primarily doing my doctoral work – my "major," as it were. I've been reading in Avery Cardinal Dulles' 1995 The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System tonight as part of my dissertation research, in which I am currently playing around with his theological language of "models" of the church, and I found a passage I thought said things neatly:
Systematic theology aspires to deal in a consistent way with all significant questions pertaining to Christian faith and to develop answers to each of these questions in correlation with all the others. A theological system, as an original construal of the meaning of Christianity, is a major achievement of the creative imagination. Faithful to the data of Scripture and tradition, as well as to all that is known from other sources, the systematician integrates all these manifold elements by means of certain overarching principles into a complex and unified whole. Thomas Aquinas and the great medieval doctors were systematicians in this sense. So were Calvin and Suarez. In our own century the same may be said of a few authors such as Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.
The greatest systematic theologians have always, in my estimation, been somewhat unsystematic. They have never been slaves to the logic of their system. Augustine never fully reconciled his Neoplatonic metaphysics with his commitment to the biblical vision of salvation through time and history. Thomas Aquinas, notwithstanding his preference for Aristotelian categories, never abandoned his attachment to Neoplatonism, even in the acute form represented by Pseudo-Dionysius. He interpreted Aristotle with extraordinary freedom and, when it suited him, shifted to biblical and juridical categories. Thus the method of models is helpful not only for mediating between different theological systems but for analyzing the inner tensions within a single theologian's work. No opposition exists between the approach through models and the practice of systematic theology.