At CTS, the culminating project for MDiv students is to write a “constructive theology,” which brings together a certain number of theological themes in the light of the student’s particular context and a “dialogue partner” from the tradition. In preparation for the class that walks them through this project, there is a course called “Systematic Theology,” for which I am TAing this coming semester. In the last couple years, the faculty has experimented with presenting a single theologian throughout the course — last year it was Moltmann, and this year it is going to be Calvin. This was in response to a perceived problem of students being able to bring together the various themes coherently and being able to dialogue well with their chosen figure.
It’s an ongoing experiment, and I haven’t really been closely involved with the constructive process up until now, so I’m not sure how to solve this particular pedagogical problem. Part of the problem is, of course, that many students are ignorant of the jargon and thought-structures of theology and aren’t particularly interested in learning more. The course in the history of Christian thought should help to solve this problem, but since it has to go from Clement of Rome to Menno Simons in 14 weeks, it’s difficult to get everything in — and then there’s the added problem of having to take up time giving historical context in a course that is supposed to be focused on Christian “thought” as such.
So anyway, I’m trying to think of how to do the Systematic class differently. Students seemed to respond positively to Moltmann in general, and it remains to be seen how they like Calvin, and it may very well take that kind of intensive attention to one thinker to get people to wrap their mind around the task of building a coherent systematic theology. But I think that it may be possible to achieve similar results by using a variety of theologians.
My general idea would be to divide the class into two sections, roughly ancient and contemporary. (The contemporary theological scene is currently covered by assigning the Musser and Price handbook.) For ancient, my tendency — drawing mainly on things I already am familiar with — would be to start with Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Lectures, since it seems to be the first “orthodox” systematic theology (as opposed to Origen, which would just confuse the hell out of them). Then I’d probably want to do something from Augustine, John of Damascus’s Orthodox Faith, hopefully something manageable from Aquinas, and maybe one of Luther’s catechisms. Then we could hit the contemporary scene with things like Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk (and/or Elizabeth Johnson), Cone’s God of the Oppressed, maybe Kathryn Tanner’s short systematic (to show a contemporary figure drawing on the old stuff). Maybe even the Cobb/Griffin thing on process, if people still care about process by the time I’m teaching.
I’d also want the first reading to be Barth’s Evangelical Theology — how better to set the mood?
For the exam, I’d probably ask them to critique one of the contemporary figures from the perspective of an ancient figure, then vice versa with different ones. (What would Augustine say to Ruether? The mind reels.)
Of course, it may turn out to be the case that going through Calvin’s Institutes is exactly what CTS students need. I’m basically just day-dreaming here.
UPDATE: And what about the idea of including a Jewish figure in both halves of the class? I’m thinking probably Maimonides for the ancient, but in the (largely German) Jewish literature I’m familiar with, I can’t think of anything that would fit. I could even take it a step further and add an Islamic representative for each as well, which would have the benefit of extracting me from my current pit of ignorance as regards Islam.