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Let's Get Integrative! What is "Integrative Theology" and How Will It Benefit You?

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

I must confess, before Monday I had heard of neither the concept of integrative theology as a method nor the 3-volume set that bears its name, Integrative Theology, by Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest.

But I have to say: I like what I see; I want to get integrative!

As I wrote on Tuesday, integrative theology weaves together historical, biblical, systematic, apologetical, and ethical theologies into one coherent system through which to do theology.

But what does integrative theology mean? Why do you need this particular method? How does it compare to the more familiar systematic theology? The excerpt below from the first volume will help answer these questions.

After working through several sections of Lewis’s and Demarest’s work, I just might start calling myself an "integrative theologian"! Read the excerpt below to see how what they devised over twenty-five years ago will benefit your theological work.

And why you should get integrative, too.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


The Need for Integrative Thinking

We seldom find time to put all the bits and pieces of our learning together in a meaningful whole. The rapid growth of knowledge makes it difficult to keep up in one field, let alone develop a unified world view encompassing all fields of knowledge.

The diversity of experiences and cultures accessible to us adds to the difficulty of comprehensive knowledge. The radically different kinds of experiences of people in East and West, North and South complicate the challenge of relating areas of learning cohesively on a shrinking globe. And even within the same culture people’s interests vary greatly.

Difficult as it may be for us, with a multiplicity of experiences and interests in an exploding information age, to “put it all together,” we need to relate our thinking about our particular specialty to reliable thought about other areas…

A coherent world view and way of life provides a necessary context for our ethical decision making in general. Without the “big picture” it is difficult to determine wisely what values are worth living and dying for in a fast-moving, pluralistic world. Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the basic problem of Christians in America in this way: “They have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.” In the social issues of life it is important to be able to detect the underlying assumptions about reality (metaphysics) and about how we know reality (epistemology)…

Developing a theology that relates biblically revealed truth to humanity and nature is not an elective for Christians who believe in the Lord of all, but a requirement. God knows, sustains, and gives purpose to all that is. God provides a focal point not only for our limited personal experiences of special interests but for all thought. The question for Christians is not whether they will relate all their fields of knowledge to God’s purposes, but whether they, as stewards of God’s truth, will do so poorly or well.

The Meaning of “Integrative Theology”

Integrative theology utilizes a distinctive verification method of decision making as it defines a major topic, surveys influential alternative answers in the church, amasses relevant biblical data in their chronological development, formulates a comprehensive conclusion, defends it against competing alternatives, and exhibits its relevance for life and ministry.

Integrative theology is a science. On the basis of the entirety of special and general revelation, it develops a comprehensive, noncontradictory set of convictions on topics significant to the Christian life and service. As a comprehensive science, integrative theology, like synthetic philosophy, tries to draw upon relevant lines of evidence from God’s eternal world as responsibly interpreted by the empirical sciences, and from internal experience as responsibly interpreted by psychology, axiology, ethics, epistemology, and ontology.

Like other sciences integrative theology works with interrelated criteria of truth (logical noncontradiction, empirical adequacy, and existential viability), accepting only those hypotheses that upon testing are discovered to be (1) noncontradictory, (2) supported by adequate evidence, and (3) affirmable without hypocrisy.

Integrative theology is not only a comprehensive science but also an art that requires student participation. It is one thing to learn a field by reading the research of others. It is quite another thing to do theological research for oneself. The art of research in integrative theology employs a consciously chosen methodology that answers the charge of starting with a priori presuppositions and imposing these on Scripture. The use of a research methodology assumes that Christians are illumined by the Holy Spirit, not only in preaching and teaching but also in their stewardship of Bible college and seminary assignments and in personal study. We seek to provide the data that will enable readers to follow these steps and integrate their won thinking for themselves. In the final analysis, no one can integrate other people’s thinking for them.

The method used here seeks to involve the reader in six distinct steps: (1) defining and distinguishing one distinct topic of problem for inquiry; (2) learning alternative approaches to it from a survey of Spirit-led scholars in the history of the church; (3) discovering and formulating from both the Old and the New Testament a coherent summary of relevant biblical teaching by making use of sound principles of hermeneutics, worthy commentaries, and biblical theologies; (4) formulating on the basis of the relevant data a cohesive doctrine and relating it without contradiction to other biblically founded doctrines and other knowledge; (5) defending this formulating of rev elated truth in interaction with contradictory options in theology, philosophy, science, religion, and cults; and (6) applying these convictions to Christian life and ministry in the present generation…

Integrative Theology and Systematic Theology

Consider how integrative theology preserves the values of systematic theology and avoids its weaknesses:

1. If systematic theology involves reading an a priori central organizing idea into the Bible, an integrated, verificational approach, by contrast, seeks coherence at the end of its investigation, not by eisegesis, but by exegesis. The methodology of integrative theology does not start with indefensible presuppositions or axioms. The logical starting point in verificational research discourse alternative hypotheses to be tested. It will accept only those proposals that cohere with adequate evidence from special revelation or general revelation. Several checks and balances in the method help a person avoid a contrived interrelatedness (historical surveys of alternatives, surveys of biblical evidence, and interaction with conflicting views). The criteria are designed to permit only as much integration as the data of Scripture and experience permit…

2. If systematic theology fails to distinguish human interpretations of the divine revelation from the revelation as given, integrative theology’s method requires this distinction. This integrative approach to theology assumes (from the argumentation of apologetics and evidence concerning revelation) that God can reveal information to people who are created in his image to think his thought after him. Nevertheless, the method emphasizes the difference between what is given in divine revelation and what is taken from it by human interpreters. We seek to avoid premature claims to finality of interpretations, or conclusiveness on every point beyond reasonable doubt. Interpretive conclusions have degrees of probability according to the extent and the present state of clarity of their supporting evidence. Thus the attempt to state our partial understanding of revealed truth without logical contradiction involves no claim to our full comprehension of any complex reality such as God, humans, historical events, or the church.

3. If systematic theology begins study of each doctrine presupposing the conclusion, integrative theology begins by surveying the historical and contemporary options as hypotheses. Hypotheses may be confirmed or invalidated upon testing. This survey of options helps people to interact consciously with alternatives other than the one most influential in their lives up to this point. And it asks people to consider their own position as one among many hypotheses to be verified or invalidated.

4. If systematic theology involves a closed system, integrative theology does not. Integrative theology can never be completely finished and its content as presently formulated can never become a final and closed system. It is always open to new discoveries about the significance of God’s Word and God’s world. The verificational method sees all truth as God’s truth, wherever it is found. And all truth is ours (1 Cor. 3:21-23). On this approach one need not fear the reexamination of any doctrine. If what has been held is not true, it ought to be revised; if what has been held is true, it will stand reexamination.

5. If systematic theology is taught by indoctrination, integrative theology is not. Given its methodology, it cannot be communicated by sheer indoctrination, but only be challenging the coming generation to become sharers of the adventure of doing theology for themselves. The appropriate philosophy of education for communicating integrative theology calls for the participation of students in each step of the research methodology. To gain most from their study of theology, students will struggle with the issues, consider alternative answers, examine the relevant data, arrive at their own conclusions, and think through the import of these conclusions for their own lives and ministries.

6. If systematic theology fails to exhibit its relevance, integrative theology has a built-in demand to do so. The approach endeavors to exhibit the practical significance for Christian life and service of the doctrine it establishes. It endeavors to display the contemporary relevance of the doctrines formulated without reducing theology to a trendy tract for the fleeting times.

Integrative Theology, Volume 1—Knowing Ultimate Reality: The Living God

By Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest

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Integrative Theology, Volume 2—Our Primary Need: Christ's Atoning Provisions

Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest

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Integrative Theology, Volume 3—Spirit-Given Life: God's People, Present And Future

Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest

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