One of the problems with “systematic theology” is its starting point. Theology, of course, is a Greek word that comes from “theos” (God) and “ology” (study). Thus, theology is ostensibly to be about the study of God. But our theology all too often becomes about other things, and this problem is particularly obvious in the practice of “systematics.” Unlike other forms of theology, like Biblical Theology, which approaches the Scriptures as an unfolding and expanding narrative, systematic theology is organized topically. That is, it pulls all the passages about the Church, sin, salvation, and so forth out of the narrative and arranges them in a logical order. This effectively de-contextualizes the passages and flattens all of the contours, tensions, twists and turns of the Bible out into an abstracted ideology that proceeds like a logical argument.
Systematic theology starts, typically, with the doctrine of the Word of God, the Scriptures. Once that is discussed, it moves on to the Doctrine of God Himself. This approach is already problematic (which came first, God or the Bible?), though I understand the idea of establishing the trustworthiness of the book from which we’re drawing our doctrine. But I don’t want to get sidetracked here. My beef is with the way we deal with the doctrine of God.
The doctrine of God is bogged down by complicated philosophical questions and Greek categories like God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes, and the list of Greek words like omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, etc.
But the Bible doesn’t talk this way. The images and symbols of God in Scripture are robust and active, not static Greek idea-forms. But further than this, none of these topics give us a definition of who God is. We have a list of things that God can do, but no definition of His character. I can’t think of a single, easy-to-remember definition of God that stood out to me over the years I spent reading systematics. In fact, if Kenotic Theology is correct, then none of these listed attributes are actually essential to God’s person, because the self-emptying of Jesus (Philippians 2) means He gave up his omni-powers to become human. They are little more than abilities, however noteworthy, not defining characteristics.
In fact, the Scriptures only ever give us one definition of God’s character and personality. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Yet I remember no discussion of this in any systematic theology I have ever read. Certainly not in more than passing, and in no detail. Nothing that would stand out, or suggest this was the central thing about God which the Scriptures wish us to remember is the most important aspect of God. God is love.
But if this isn’t enough for you, let’s take it a step further. There are personality traits which God defines as “love,” and thus these definitions of love become character traits of God. Paul’s phenomenal definition of love in the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, is as follows:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
Thus, we can replace “love” with “God” to illustrate God’s character:
God is patient, God is kind. He does not envy, He does not boast, He is not proud. He does not dishonor others, He is not self-seeking, He is not easily angered, He keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, God always trusts, God always hopes, God always perseveres. God’s love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
In all my years of reading theology, I have never read a discussion of the Doctrine of God that started or ended here, or paid this much attention at all. I can’t help but suspect that part of our trouble understanding God and His Scriptures starts here – we don’t actually know much about Him. It seems to me we need to start right here and approach the whole Bible again, and let this definition mess with our categories, let it sink down into our bones, talk about it over and over again until it is so natural we simply assume it to be true.