History of Systematic Theology

Topic: Theology

Type: Book section

Author: A. H. Strong


Strong, A. H., Systematic Theology. 20th Pr. 1958; 1907; Philadelphia, PA; The Judson Press. Pp. 44-49.

History of Systematic Theology

1. In the Eastern Church, Systematic Theology may be said to have had its beginning and end in John of Damascus (700-760).

Ignatius (?-115-Ad Trall., c. 9) gives us "the first distinct statement of the faith drawn up in a series of propositions. This systematizing formed the basis of all later efforts" (Prof. A. H. Newman). Origen of Alexandria (186-254) wrote his Peri Arcwn; Athanasius of Alexandria (300-373) his Treatises on the Trinity and the Deity of Christ; and Gregory of Nyssa in Cappadocia (332-398) his LogoV kathchtikoV o megaV. Hatch, Hibbert Lectures, 323, regards the De Principiis of Origen as the "first complete system of dogma," and speaks of Origen as "the disciple of Clement of Alexandria, the first great teacher of philosophical Christianity." But while the Fathers just mentioned seem to have conceived the plan of expounding the doctrines in order and of showing their relation to one another, it was John of Damascus (700-760) who first actually carried out such a plan. His EkdosiV akribhV thV orqodoxou PistewV, or Summary of the Orthodox Faith, may be considered the earliest work of Systematic Theology. Neander calls it "the most important doctrinal text-book of the Greek Church." John, like the Greek Church in general, was speculative, theological, semi-pelagian, sacramentarian. The Apostles' Creed, so called, is, in its present form, not earlier than the fifth century; see Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 1:19. Mr. Gladstone suggested that the Apostles' Creed was a development of the baptismal formula. McGiffert, Apostles' Creed, assigns to the meagre original form a date of the third quarter of the second century, and regards the Roman origin of the symbol as proved. It was framed as a baptismal formula, but specifically in opposition to the teachings of Marcion, which were at that time causing much trouble at Rome. Harnack however dates the original Apostles' Creed at 150, and Zahn places it at 120. See also J. C. Long, in Bap. Quar. Rev., Jan. 1892: 89-101.

2. In the Western Church, we may (with Hagenbach) distinguish three periods:

(a) The period of Scholasticism,—introduced by Peter Lombard (1100-1160), and reaching its culmination in Thomas Aquinas (1221-1274) and Duns Scotus (1265-1308).

Though Systematic Theology had its beginning in the Eastern Church, its development has been confined almost wholly to the Western. Augustine (353-430) wrote his Encheiridion ad Laurentium and his De Civitate Dei, and John Scotus Erigena (?-850), Roscelin (1092-1122), and Abelard (1079-1142), in their attempts at the rational explanation of the Christian doctrine foreshadowed the works of the great scholastic teachers. Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), with his Proslogion de Dei Existentia and his Cur Deus Homo, has sometimes, but wrongly, been called the founder of Scholasticism. Allen, in his Continuity of Christian Thought, represents the transcendence of God as the controlling principle of the Augustinian and of the Western theology. The Eastern Church, he maintains, had founded its theology on God's immanence. Paine, in his Evolution of Trinitarianism, shows that this is erroneous. Augustine was a theistic monist. He declares that "Dei voluntas rerum natura est," and regards God's upholding as a continuous creation. Western theology recognized the immanence of God as well its his transcendence.

Peter Lombard, however, (1100-1160), the "magister sententiarum," was the first great systematizer of the Western Church, and his Libri Suit Sententarum Quatuor was the theological text-book of the Middle Ages. Teachers lectured on the Sentences (Sententia = sentence, Satz, locus, point, article of faith), as they did on the books of Aristotle, who furnished to Scholasticism its impulse and guide. Every doctrine was treated in the order of Aristotle's four causes: the material, the formal, the efficient, the final. ("Cause"here= requisite: (1) matter of which a thing consists, e. g., bricks and mortar; (2) form it assuumes, e. g., plan or design; (3) producing agent, e. g., builder; (4) end for which made, e. g., house). The organization of physical as well as of theological a science was due to Aristotle. Dante called him "the master of those who know." James Ten Brooke, Baptist Quarterly Review., Jan. 1892:1-26-"The Revival of Learning showed the world that the real Aristotle was much broader than the Scholastic Aristotle- information very unwelcome to the Roman Church." For the influence of Scholasticism, compare the literary methods of Augustine and of Calvin,-the former giving us his materials in disorder, like soldiers bivouacked for the night; the latter arranging them like those same soldiers drawn up in battle array; see A. H. Strong, Philosophy and Religion, 4, and Christ in Creation, 188, 189.

Candlish, art.: Dogmatic, in Encyclopedia Britannica, 7: 310-"By and by a mighty intellectual force took hold of the whole collected dogmatic material, and reared out of it the great scholastic systems, which have been compared to the grand Gothic cathedrals that were the work of the same ages." Thomas Aquinas (1221-1274), the Dominican. "doctor angelicus," Augustinian and Realist,-and Duns Scotus (1265-1308), the Franciscan, "doctor subtilis,"-wrought out the scholastic theology more fully, and left behind them, in their Summa, gigantic monuments of intellectual industry and acumen. Scholasticism aimed at the proof and systematizing of the doctrines of the Church by means of Aristotle's philosophy. It became at last an illimitable morass of useless subtilities and abstractions, and it finally ended in the nominalistic scepticism of William of Occam (1270-1347). See Townsend, The Great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages.

(b) The period of Symbolism, -represented, by the Lutheran theology of Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), and the Reformed theology of John Calvin (1509-1564); the former connecting itself with the Analytic theology of Calixtus (1585-1656), and the latter with the Federal theology of Cocceius (1603-1669).

The Lutheran Theology.-Preachers precede theologians, and Luther (1485-1546) was preacher rather than theologian. But Melanchthon (1497-1560), "the preceptor of Germany," as he was called, embodied the theology of the Lutheran church in his Loci Communes = points of doctrine common to believers (first edition Augustinian, afterwards substantially Arminian; grew out of lectures on the Epistle to the Romans). He was followed by Chemnitz (1522-1586), "clear and accurate," the most learned of the disciples of Melanchthon. Leonhard Hatter (1563-1616), called "Lutherus redivivus," and John Gerhard (1582-1637) followed Luther rather than Melanchthon. "Fifty years after the death of Melanchthon, Leonhard Hutter, his successor in the chair of theology at Wittenberg, on an occasion when the authority of Melanchthon was appealed to, tore down from the wall the portrait of the great Reformer, and trampled it under foot in the presence of the assemblage" (E. D. Morris, paper at the 60th Anniversary of Lane Seminary). George Calixtus (1586-1656) followed Melanchthon rather than Luther. He taught a theology which recognized the good element in both the Reformed and the Romanist doctrine and which was called "Syncretism." He separated Ethics from Systematic Theology, and applied the analytical method of investigation to the latter, beginning with the end, or final cause, of all things, viz.: blessedness. He was followed in his analytic method by Dannhauer (1603-1666), who treated theology allegorically, Calovius (1612-1686), "the most uncompromising defender of Lutheran orthodoxy and the most drastic polemicist against Calixtus," Quenstedt (1617-1688), whom Hovey calls "learned, comprehensive and logical," and Hollaz (?-1730). The Lutheran theology aimed to purify the existing church, maintaining that what is not against the gospel is for it. It emphasized the material principle of the Reformation, justification by faith; but it retained many Romanist customs not expressly forbidden in Scripture. Kaftan, American Journal Theology, 1900: 716-"Because the medieval school philosophy mainly held sway, the Protestant theology representing the new faith was meanwhile necessarily accommodated to forms of knowledge thereby conditioned, that is, to forms essentially Catholic."

The Reformed Theology. -The word "Reformed" is here used in its technical sense, as designating that phase of the new theology which originated in Switzerland. Zwingle the Swiss reformer (1484-1531), differing from Luther as to the Lord's Supper and as to Scripture, was more than Luther entitled to the name of systematic theologian. Certain writings of his may be considered the beginning of Reformed theology. But it was left to John Calvin (1509-1561), after the death of Zwingle, to arrange the principles of that theology in systematic form. Calvin dug channels for Zwingle's flood to flow in, as Melanchthon did for Luther's. His Institutes of the Christian Religion ("Institutio Religionis Christianae"), is one of the great works in theology (superior as a systematic work to Melanchthon's Loci). Calvin was followed by Peter Martyr (1500-1562), Chamier (1565-1621), and Theodore Beza (1519-1605). Beza carried Calvin's doctrine of predestination to an extreme supralapsarianism, which is hyper-Calvinistic rather than Calvinistic. Cocceius (1603-1669), and after him Witsius (1626-1708), made theology centre about the idea of the covenants, and founded the Federal theology. Leydecker (1642-1721) treated theology in the order of the persons of the Trinity. Amyraldus (1596-1664) and Placeus of Saumur (1596-1632) modified the Calvinistic doctrine, the latter by his theory of mediate imputation, and the former by advocating the hypothetic universalism of divine grace. Turretin (1671-1737), a clear and strong theologian whose work is still [1907 - aal] a text-book at Princeton, and Pictet (1655-1725), both of them Federalists, showed the influence of the Cartesian philosophy. The Reformed theology aimed to build a new church, affirming that what is not derived from the Bible is against it, It emphasized the formal principle of the Reformation, the sole authority of Scripture.

In general, while the line between Catholic and Protestant in Europe runs from west to east, the line between Lutheran and Reformed runs from south to north, the Reformed theology flowing with the current of the Rhine northward from Switzerland to Holland and to England, in which latter country the Thirty-nine Articles represent the Reformed faith, while the Prayer-book of the English Church is substantially Arminian; see Dorner, Gesch. prot. Theologie, Einleit., 9. On the difference between Lutheran and Reformed doctrine, see Schaff, Germany, its Universities, Theology and Religion, 167-177. On the Reformed Churches of Europe and America, see H. B. Smith, Faith and Philosophy, 87-124.

(c) The period of Criticism and Speculation,-in its three divisions: the Rationalistic, represented by Semler (1725-1791); the Transitional, by Schleiermacher (1768-1834); the Evangelical, by Nitzsch, Müller, Tholuck and Dorner.

First Division. Rationalistic theologies: Though the Reformation had freed theology in great part from the bonds of scholasticism, other philosophies after a time took its place. The Leibnitz (1646-1754) Wolffian (1679-1754) exaggeration of the powers of natural religion prepared the way for rationalistic systems of theology. Buddeus (1667-1729) combated the new principles, but Semler's (1725-1791) theology was built upon them, and represented the Scriptures as having a merely local and temporary character. Michaelis (1716-1784) and Doederlein (1714-1789) followed Semler, and the tendency toward rationalism was greatly assisted by the critical philosophy of Kant (1724-1804), to whom "revelation was problematical, and positive religion merely the medium through which the practical truths of reason are communicated" (Hagenbach, Hist. Doct., 2:397). Ammon (1766-1850) and Wegscheider (1771-1848) were representatives of this philosophy. Daub, Marheinecke and Strauss (1808-1874) were the Hegelian dogmatists. The system of Strauss resembled "Christian theology as a cemetery resembled a town." Storr (1746-1805), Reinhard (1753-1812), and Knapp (1753-1825), in the main evangelical, endeavored to reconcile revelation with reason, but were more or less influenced by this rationalizing spirit. Bretschneider (1776-1828) and De Wette (1780-1849) may be said to have held middle ground.

Second Division. Transition to a more Scriptural theology. Herder (1744-1803) and Jacobi (1743-1819), by their more spiritual philosophy, prepared the way for Schleiermacher's (1768-1834) grounding of doctrine in the facts of Christian experience. The writings of Schleiermacher constituted an epoch, and had great influence in delivering Germany from the rationalistic toils into which it had fallen. We may now speak of a

Third Division. And in this division we may put the names of Neander and Tholuck, Twesten and Nitzsch, Müller and Luthardt, Dorner and Philippi, Ebrard and Thomasius, Lange and Kahnis, all of them exponents of a far more pure and evangelical theology than was common in Germany a century ago. Two new forms of rationalism, however, have appeared in Germany, the one based upon the philosophy of Hegel, and numbering among its adherents Strauss and Baur, Biedermann, Lipsius and Pfleiderer; the other based upon the philosophy of Kant, and advocated by Ritschl and his followers, Harnack, Hermann and Kaftan; the former emphasizing the ideal Christ, the latter emphasizing the historical Christ, but neither of the two fully recognizing the living Christ present in every believer (see Johnson's Cyclopedia, art.:"Theology", by A. H. Strong).


3. Among theologians of views diverse from the prevailing Protestant faith, may be mentioned:

(a) Bellarmine (1542-1621) the Roman Catholic.

Besides Bellarmine, "the best controversial writer of his age" (Bayle), the Roman Catholic Church numbers among its noted modern theologians; Petavius (1583-1652), whose dogmatic theology Gibbon calls "a work of incredible labor and compass"; Melchior Canus (1523-1560), an opponent of the Jesuits and their scholastic method; Bossuet (1627-1704), who idealized Catholicism in his Exposition of Doctrine, and attacked Protestantism in his History of Variations of Protestant Churches; Jansen (1585-1638), who attempted, in opposition to the Jesuits, to reproduce the theology of Augustine, and who had in this the powerful assistance of Pascal (1623-1662). Jansenism, so far as the doctrines of grace are concerned, but not as respects the sacraments, is virtual Protestantism within the Roman Catholic Church. Moehler's Symbolism, Perrone's Prelectiones Theologicae, and Hurter's Compendium Theologiae Dogmaticae are the latest and most approved expositions of Roman Catholic doctrine.

(b) Arminius (1560-1609), the opponent of predestination.

Among the followers of Arminius (1560-1609) must be reckoned Episcopius (1583-1643), who carried Arminianism to almost Pelagian extremes; Hugo Grotius (1553-1615), the jurist and statesman, author of the governmental theory of the atonement; and Limborch (1635-1712), the most thorough expositor of the Arminian doctrine.

(c) Laelius Socinus (1525-1562), and Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), the leaders of the modern Unitarian movement.

The works of Laelius Socinus (1525-1562) and his nephew, Faustus Socinus (1539-1604 ) constituted the beginnings of modern Unitarianism. Laelius Socinus was the preacher; and reformer, as Faustus Socinus was the theologian; or, as Baumgarten Crusius expresses it: "the former was the spiritual founder of Socinianism, and the latter the founder of the sect." Their writings are collected in the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum. The Racovian Catechism, taking its name from the Polish town Racow, contains the most succinct exposition of their views. In 1660, the Unitarian church of the Socini in Poland was destroyed by persecution, but its Hungarian offshoot has still more than a hundred congregations.

4. British Theology, represented by:

(a) The Baptists, John Bunyan (1628-1688), John Gill (1697-1771 and Andrew Fuller (1754-1815).

Some of the best British theology is Baptist. Among John Bunyan's works we may mention his Gospel Truths Opened, though his Pilgrim's Progress and Holy War are theological treatises in allegorical form. Macaulay calls Milton and Bunyan the two great creative minds of England during the latter part of the 17th century. John Gill's Body of Practical Divinity shows much ability, although the Rabbinical learning of the author occasionally displays itself in a curious exegesis, as when on the word ''Abba" he remarks: "You see that this word which means 'Father' reads the same whether we read forward or backward; which suggests that God is the same whichever way we look at him." Andrew Fuller's Letters on Systematic Divinity is a brief compend of theology. His treatises upon special doctrines are marked by sound judgment and clear insight. They were the most influential factor in rescuing the evangelical churches of England from antinomianism. They justify the epithets which Robert Hall, one of the greatest of Baptist preachers, gives him: "sagacious," "luminous," "powerful."

(b) The Puritans, John Owen (1616-1683), Richard Baxter (1615-1691), John Howe (1630-1705), and Thomas Ridgeley (1666-1734).

Owen was the most rigid, as Baxter was the most liberal, of the Puritans. The Encyclopedia Britannica remarks: "As a theological thinker and writer, John Owen holds his own distinctly defined place among those titanic intellects with which the age abounded. Surpassed by Baxter in point and pathos, by Howe in imagination and the higher philosophy, he is unrivaled in his power of unfolding the rich meanings of Scripture. In his writings he was preeminently the great theologian." Baxter wrote a Methodus Theologiae, and a Catholic Theology; John Howe is chiefly known by his Living Temple; Thomas Ridgeley by his Body of Divinity. Charles H. Spurgeon never ceased to urge his students to become familiar with the Puritan Adams, Ambrose, Bowden, Manton and Sibbes.

(c) The Scotch Presbyterians, Thomas Boston (1676-1732), John Dick (1764-1833), and Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847).

Of the Scotch Presbyterians, Boston is the most voluminous, Dick the most calm and fair, Chalmers the most fervid and popular.

(d) The Methodists, John Wesley (1703-1791), and Richard Watson (1781-1833).

Of the Methodists, John Wesley's doctrine is presented in Christian Theology, collected from his writings by the Rev. Thornley Smith. The great Methodist text-book however, is the Institutes of Watson, who systematized: and expounded the Wesleyan theology. Pope, a recent English theologian, follows Watson's modified and improved Arminianism, while Whedon and Raymond, recent American writers, hold rather to a radical and extreme Arminianism.

(e) The Quaker, George Fox (1624-1691), and Robert Barclay (1648-1690).

As Jesus, the preacher and reformer, preceded Paul the theologian; as Luther preceded Melanchthon; as Zwingle preceded Calvin; as Laelius Socinus preceded Faustus Socinus; as Wesley preceded Watson; so Fox preceded Barclay. Barclay wrote an Apology for the true Christian Divinity, which Dr. E. G. Robinson described as "not a formal treatise of Systematic Theology, but the ablest exposition of the views of the Quakers." George Fox was the reformer, William Penn the social founder, Robert Barclay the theologian, of Quakerism.

(f) The English Churchmen, Richard Hooker (1553-1600), Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), and John Pearson (1613-1686).

The English church has produced no great systematic theologian (see reasons assigned in Dorner, Gesch. prot. Theologie, 470). The "judicious" Hooker is still its greatest theological writer, although his work is only on Ecclesiastical Polity. Bishop Burnet is the author of the Exposition of the XXXIX Articles, and Bishop Pearson of the Exposition of the Creed. Both these are common English textbooks. A recent Compendium of Dogmatic Theology, by Litton, shows a tendency to return from the usual Arminianism of the Anglican church to the old Augustinianism; so also Bishop Monte's Outlines of Christian Doctrine, and Mason's Faith of the Gospel.

5. American theology, running in two lines:

(a) The Reformed system of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), modified successively by Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790), Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), Nathanael Emmons (1745-1840), Leonard Woods (1774-1854), Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858), and Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). Calvinism, as thus modified, is often called the New England, or New School, theology [No longer Calvinism and MANY not even Christian - aal].

Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest of metaphysicians and theologians, was an idealist who held that God is the only real cause, either in the realm of matter or in the realm of mind. He regarded the chief good as happiness—a form of sensibility. Virtue was voluntary choice of this good. Hence union with Adam in acts and exercises was sufficient. Thus God's will made identity of being with Adam. This led to the exercise-system of Hopkins and Emmons, on the one hand and to Bellamy's and Dwight's denial of any imputation of Adam's sin or of inborn depravity, on the other—in which last denial agree many other New England theologians who reject the exercise-scheme, as for example, Strong, Tyler, Smalley, Burton, Woods, and Park. Dr. N. W. Taylor added a more distinctly Arminian element, the power of contrary choice—and with this tenet of the New Haven theology, Charles G. Finney, of Oberlin, substantially agreed. Horace Bushnell held to a practically Sabellian view of the Trinity and to a moral-influence theory of the atonement. Thus from certain principles admitted by Edwards, who held in the main to an Old School theology, the New School theology has been gradually developed.

Robert Hall called Edwards "the greatest of the sons of men." Dr. Chalmers regarded him as the "greatest of theologians." Dr. Fairbairn says: "He is not only the greatest of all the thinkers that America has produced, but also the highest speculative genius of the eighteenth century. In a far higher degree than Spinoza, he was a 'God-intoxicated man.'" His fundamental notion that there is no causality except the divine was made the basis of a theory of necessity which played into the hands of the deists whom he opposed and was alien not only to Christianity but even to theism. Edwards could not have gotten his idealism from Berkeley; it may have been suggested to him by the writings of Locke or Newton, Cudworth or Descartes, John Norris or Arthur Collier. See Prof. H. N. Gardiner, in Philosophical. Review, Nov. 1900:573-596; Prof. E. C. Smyth, in American Journal of Theology, Oct. 1897:956; Allen, Jonathan Edwards, 16, 308-310, and in Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1891:767; Sanborn, in Journal of Special Philosophy, Oct. 1883:401-420; G. P. Fisher, Edwards on the Trinity, 18, 19.

(b) The older Calvinism, represented by Charles Hodge the father (1797-1878 ) and A. A. Hodge the son (1823-1886), together with Henry B. Smith (1815-1877), Robert J. Breckinridge (1800-1871), Samuel J. Baird, and William G. T. Shedd (1820-1894). All these, although with minor differences, hold to views of human depravity and divine grace more nearly conformed to the doctrine of Augustine and Calvin, and are for this reason distinguished from the New England theologians and their followers by the popular title of Old School.

Old School theology, in its view of predestination, exalts God; New School theology, by emphasizing the freedom of the will, exalts man. It is yet more important to notice that Old School theology has for its characteristic tenet the guilt of inborn depravity. But among those who hold this view, some are federalists and creationists, and justify God's condemnation of all men upon the ground that Adam represented his posterity. Such are the Princeton theologians generally, including Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and the brothers Alexander. Among those who hold to the Old School doctrine of the guilt of inborn depravity, however, there are others who are traducians, and who explain the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity upon the ground of the natural union between him and them. Baird's Elohim Revealed and Shedd's essay on Original Sin (Sin a Nature and that Nature Guilt) represent this realistic conception of the relation of the race to its first father. R. J. Breckinridge, R. L. Dabney, and J. H. Thornwell assert the fact of inherent corruption and guilt, but refuse to assign any rationale for it, though they tend to realism. H. B. Smith holds guardedly to the theory of mediate imputation.


On the history of Systematic Theology in general, see Hagenbach, History of Doctrine (from which many of the facts above given are taken), and Shedd, History of Doctrine; also, Ebrard, Dogmatik, 1:44-100; Kahnis, Dogmatik, 1:1-128; Hase, Hutterus Redivivus, 24-52. Gretillat, Theologie Systematique, 3:21-120, has given an excellent history of theology, brought down to the present time. On the history of New England theology, see Fisher, Discussions and Essays, 285-354.


Return To Main Index

This Page Last Updated: 11/08/08 A. Allison Lewis aalewis@christianbeliefs.org