Orderly Theology as Imitatio Dei

When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people.  At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.

Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it.  He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead

[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8)(“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)

Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road.  At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.

Any thoughts here?

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5 thoughts on “Orderly Theology as Imitatio Dei

  1. I think that would help to fill things out. Of course, the statement is pulled from the prolegomena section of the work, so Mastricht’s description of the imago Dei was never going to be adjacent to this. For a bit of biblical substantiation he appeals (as everyone would assume) to 1 Cor 14:33. Even though he may not give an elaborate exegesis of this passage or some of the others cited in his prolegomena, I’m impressed by how important different biblical directives are for Mastricht in his conception of theology.

  2. Steven:

    Imitatio dei & or Imago Dei, might work.

    As for your recent emphasis on the church as organizating principle though?
    Are your accounts becoming ecclesiocentric? And/or as N. T. might say, “Crypto Catholic”?

    Are our churches and their doctrines really all that reliable? Or say, systematic? First, 1) consider our churches, relative to each other: there are thousands of individual churches, that have often said historically, that their own doctrines, are even uniquely absolutely holy and reliable. And yet however, the churches say slightly different things: obviously, only one of them could be right; and the rest of the thousands, must be partially wrong. Indeed, Protestantism founded itself in violent opposition to the Catholic Church and its doctrines; obviously churches and their most systemic outlays are often wrong.

    Next? 2) consider our churches even within themselves. Most churches – historically – claim consistency with the Bible. And yet? When we look at what they claim, vs. the Bible itself, we see conflicts.

    While for that matter? For many of us, a 3) scholarly look at the Bible in itself, seems to find many conflicting theologies and accounts there. And no firm, sytematic reconciliations. If anything, the Bible seems rather self-deconstructive.

    What is my reaction to all this? Is my own reaction consistent or systematic? Personally, when I look at what the churches claim, and see so many conflicts, I have two reactions. Reactions that may at first seem incompatible and unsystematic – but that can be reconciled. At first, a) my reaction is … dismay and discomfort at our churches, and their many conflicts and contradictions and pretensions. But second? Finally, b) having noted their many contradictions and vanities and sins so vividly – I feel relieved to be free of them. So in effect, I have two at-first seemingly contradictory and un-systematic – but actually related – reactions. First dismay, but then relief.

    My home is not in churches at all in fact. But if so, then where if anywhere in religion finally, do I find much comfort, if at all? Finally I c) I take some small comfort not in churches and their dogmas. But if anything, in the field of academic and scholarly theology and religious study. Which seems to me – normally; overall – far more cognizant of the many conflicts and problems in classic church dogmas. Even as it manages to live with a religion that is somewhat conflicted, and disquieting.

    In academic and critical religious study, we are offered a Christianity that at last in effect, begins to confess its sins and inadequacies. Which is at first, disquieting. But the positive side of that, is that scholarly theology and study, is even more humble, than our dogmatic churches; it always open to correction. And to new discoveries.

    In the meantime to be sure? Among the specific things that I find annoying in our churches, is the new more ecclesiocentric, semi-academic dogmatic theology. It expresses an impulse to continue to make too many concessions, to churches as institutions (that after all, offer jobs). And to cater to their desire to appear all-too fully authoritative, and consolingly certain, or authoritative; as the consoling voice of God. Even as deeper down, from a look at the countless conflicts in ecclesiastical History, dogmas, surely we must by now all know better.

    Particularly troubling to me is the trend for many of our semi-intellectual churches, to occasionally acknowledge that the ontological and/or scriptural base of our new churches is not entirely reliable for systematic. But to feel that however, the purely human, institutional power of the churches – simply as practical institutions, with influence and at times even armies – will itself, be enough power through any problems.

    More and more religious authorities seem to feel deep down, that even if it is an all-too-human institution, still the church is in itself – even if it is indefensible intellectually – still at least, a simple force to be recognized; a power base that can be cynically used, the same as any other army or economic base. Even without, any more, any particularly vivid real religious convictions or foundation underpinning it. Or worse? With only political opinions still holding it up; with no real God but the “traditions of men” and a Nietzschean/realpolitic “will to power.” (As a possible case in point? See the new “Postmodern conservatives” in First Things, for example. And the matter of its recently-resigned editor, Dr. Bottum; and George Weigel). Such churches fully deserve the term “Crypto-Catholic”; or even “neo-Fascist.”

    Given these and other problems with churches? My favorite quotes from the Bible, regarding churches, are probably these:

    “And I saw no temple in the city” (Rev. 21.22).

    “Who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him?” (2 Chron. 2.6; 1Kings 8.27).

    Or:

    “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’” (Jer. 7.41, paraphrased);

    “Something greater than the temple is here” (Mat. 12.6).

    “If one swears by the temple, it is nothing” (Mat. 23.16).

  3. I don’t know where you’re getting the notion that I think the church is organizing principle of theology. I subscribe to the old view that God is the object of theology and that in theology all things are treated in relation to God.

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