Unsystematic Theology

When it comes to theology, systems and categories can both serve and hinder. Pastoral/practical theology is not interested in systems. It is interested in taking concrete biblical truth into concrete situations. It is theology done in real time for real life. This is an excerpt from Stephen Pattison’s article, “A Vision for Pastoral Theology.” In the article, he captures why pastoral theology is fundamentally “unsystematic.”

By describing pastoral theological activity as confessional I want to suggest that it is prepared to find its own expression of faith and personal and group experience and to speak directly about this, as did the early Christian apostles. It is confessional, too, in that it helps people to bear witness to the truths and questions of religion in a particular context.

It is partly because it is the product of direct reflection of particular and immediate situations and events that pastoral theology finds it hard to be systematic. Traditionally, the aspiration of theology has been to provide reasoned and ordered utterance at a high level of abstraction which has consistency and coherence, covering many eventualities, themes and areas in an even and illuminating way.

Pastoral theologies cannot (and perhaps should not wish to) aspire to this level of second- or third-order theology (Fierro 1977, p.317). It takes time and effort to develop complex systematic theologies and they may be of limited practical use once they have been manufactured.

Pastoral theologies will need to content themselves with being, for the most part, fragmentary, partial and unsystematic. In the modern world this should perhaps be recognized as grounds for pride rather than an inferiority complex! It is not only well-ordered theoretical systematic theology (second- or third-order theological activity) which covers all the bases in the game which is real theology and worth doing.

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