Is-ought the Bible to be systematic?

In class this passed Tuesday in which we were discussing Samuel and the rise of the monarchy a very sharp student asked why/how God could “regret” having made Saul king since God was all-knowing (1 Sam. 15:10 and 1 Sam. 2:3 respectively). I gave my usual, admittedly overly-simplified comment, that this is precisely why I do not hold much to systematic theology because the Bible is not systematic. That led to the student writing this excellent blog post respectfully taking me to task! (I strongly urge you to read his post.) So I feel I should respond to a few of his points.1

First we have his adequate definition of systematic theology:

which is basically the attempt to arrange religious truths in a self-consistent whole (or so my pocket dictionary claims).

The student then stated that my argument against trying to form a self-consistent reading of these texts falls afoul of a fallacy.

However, much to my surprise, some have argued against this sort of systematic interpretation, claiming that the text itself is not a systematic text, hence it is fundamentally wrongheaded to attempt a systematic interpretation of it. Unfortunately I don’t find this line of argument to be very convincing. It’s true that the Bible is not a systematic text, but this is not an ARGUMENT for why the bible should not be systematically interpreted, but instead commits an Is-Ought fallacy (sometimes referred to as Hume’s Guillotine) by illicitly moving from an ‘IS’ claim to an ‘OUGHT’ claim.

Now I admit that this is the first time I have come across the “Is-Ought problem” so I had to study up a bit on this. His argument is that my argument stating that the Bible is not “systematic” (by which I mean necessarily coherent or internally consistent) therefore we should not (ought not) try and build a systematic reading of the text fails because I am going from a descriptive statement to a prescriptive one. I don’t think I will argue with that, certainly that is what I am doing, but I would reject that such a move is a “fallacy.” For reasons I hope I can articulate.

I think the best place to tuck into this is by better stating my position. As I said, I often make the very simplified comment that “I do not do much with systematic theology because the Bible isn’t.” It is cute, usually gets a laugh and actually summarizes my view pretty well. I am undoubtedly conditioned by the fact that I grew up in a tradition that emphasized textual study over theological study (e.g., it was a Presbyterian church, but I didn’t know what predestination was until I was in college) and I have made it my discipline to read these texts carefully and to study how others have read the texts. So when I read a passage in the Bible, I am trying to understand what that passage says and means on its own. Later, I will consider it within the context of the biblical book, the canon, and the community of faith, but initially I want to try and understand the text as it stands, in so much as I am able. This is also what I try and teach in my intro class.

And it is at this point that I disagree with the student and systematic theology.

Methinks that it is our great virtue as thinkers to be ABLE to examine a chaotic text like the Bible with numerous inconsistencies and hash out (read: CREATE) a systematic account of the concepts and lessons in a way that is ORDERLY and self-consistent. Lets face it, the human intellect does not understand Para-consistencies very well (if at all), and the purpose of reading a text like the Bible (I hope) is to understand it. The only way to understand what is going on is to create a systematic (self-consistent) account where otherwise no such account is to be found. Coming up with answers to questions like the one above (why would God make a decision he knew he would regret?) is a necessary part of understanding the text.

The first point, that I will simply state and move on, is that the Bible is made of many texts and even many of the books of the Bible are themselves composites of many texts. So the Bible is not “a text” to understand, it is many texts. In that sense, I do understand the need of those of us within a faith community to read the Bible as a whole, but I think I will save my comments on that for another post. My second point comes right to the heart of my complaint. The student/systematic theology wants to “CREATE” a systematic account. That is, it is an imposition on the text which means that having done that one is not truly “understanding the text” but rather, upon examination of the system created, merely learning something about the one who created the system. This is not an attempt to fully understand the Bible (let alone its constituent parts), instead it is an attempt to make the Bible into a new work, palatable (or digestible) by the reader.

I also think that these para-consistencies2 serve to personalize the text in very important ways – they OPEN the text to creativity and interpretation (and creative interpretation), all of which are very personal and individualistic practices. For example, if I encounter the above stated para-consistency and wonder what (if anything) this dilemma implies about the nature of God, then the answer I eke out with my own powers of reasoning will inevitably be my own inference in a very personal way*1* [I personally find this interesting since it implies that the bible expresses individuality in its universality, and does so in a way that results in freedom]. Such para-consistencies allow us to express our freedom in the text, whereas if everything were explained then the text would be alienating and exclusive.

At this point the student seems to have effectively moved into “reader response,” the text takes its meaning only once the reader has constructed a system that satisfies his/her needs. It is the answer that “I eke out with my own powers of reasoning” that is important. And that is my primary beef with systematics; it is revealing about the “reader,” the one who has created the system imposed upon the text(s), but it does not (necessarily) reveal anything about the texts themselves.

Against this I would place a larger, less relativistic (although perhaps unattainable) goal: to understand what the text says (and by extension what the author(s) believed?) and ultimately what is true about God.

 
  1. Oh, and I should point out that this student is a philosophy major and has a very solid grasp of his discipline. Philosophy, formally, is not something that I can claim great knowledge of and this is important, as you shall see. []
  2. This was also a new term for me. If I am understanding it correctly, which is not a certainty, it may serve as the answer to the question we began with in 1 Samuel. []

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