Missional Systematic Theology

In his Systematic Theology, Robert Jenson quips: “Recent clamor for ‘contextual’ theology is of course empty, there never having been any other kind.” (ST 1.ix) As exhibit “A” for this point, consider Bavinck’s explanation for the current structure of systematic theologies:

In earlier centuries faith was more robust, and the question Why do I believe? Rarely came up. The foundations seemed so secure that to examine them was totally unnecessary; all available energy was devoted to the erection of the edifice itself. But today it is, above all, the philosophical underpinnings of dogmatics that are under fire; not some isolated doctrine but the very possibility of dogmatics is being questioned. The human ability to know is restricted to the visible world, and revelation is considered impossible. In addition, Holy Scripture is being robbed of its divine authority by historical criticism and even the warrant for and value of religion is being seriously disputed. Consequently, and partly caused by all this, religious life today is dramatically less vigorous than before. It must be granted that there is much movement in the domain of religion, but there is little genuinely religious life. Faith is no longer sure of itself; even among believers there is much doubt and uncertainty. The childlike and simultaneously heroic statement “I believe” is seldom heard and has given way to the doubts of criticism… . When religious life is vital, people speak “as those having authority,” not “as the scribes,” and the words “I know whom I believe” trip from the lips of believers. In a critical time like our own, however, there is uncertainty, above all, about the foundations, about the source of knowledge, method, and evidence of faith. For that reason the formal part is still regarded as the most important division of dogmatics. An entire apologetics tends to precede the dogmatics proper. [Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1., 106]

In other words, systematic theology is intrinsically missional: it has taken as its starting point dialogue with the world. Whether dogmaticians ought to have done this is certainly disputable, but one can hardly fault them for not speaking to “felt needs”.