Many LDS thinkers are skeptical of “systematic” theology (e.g. Richard Bushman, whose posts we so enjoyed recently). Here’s a stab at a compromise. Thomas Kuhn presented a powerful way of understanding the development of scientific theories a few decades back in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; here’s a first pass at appropriating his work to think about how our knowledge of God and his ways might develop, in a way that is friendly to continuing revelation and eternal progression.
I think a lot of why systematic theology has bad rap in the LDS community is just bad associations: all the prominent examples of it are in what we call apostate religion (e.g. Thomas Aquinas). But there are more substantial reasons to have doubts. The systematic method typically aspires to produce a closed, complete, univocal system of conceptual beliefs. But a closed system would presuppose that everything important has already been revealed. Perhaps closure to revelation is what makes the “creeds an abomination” as Christ says to Joseph Smith. And univocal, conceptual beliefs seem bound to leave out much of the richness and ambiguity (as Jim F. says, “polyphony”) of the scriptures, and hence to leave out some of the truth they bear. There is also the concern that building a system involves inordinately emphasizing belief over action, and over relationships with God and with our brothers and sisters, in the religious life. I think a Kuhnian approach to theology addresses all these concerns to a degree; let’s give it a look at how it might go, with bloggish presumption and quasi-precision!
For Kuhn, scientific inquiry is practiced by communities of individuals who share certain assumptions and methodologies (a research paradigm), and try to work up theories that explain some set of phenomena. Any given theory will be more helpful explaining some phenomena than others. The fact that it doesn’t help with some phenomena doesn’t keep it from being valuable, though; within its sphere it is helpful. “Normal science” is a mode of activity wherein a scientific community works with a given theory, tweaking it to try to extend it to help explain a wider range of phenomena, or to do a better job with those it already applies to. While one group is tweaking their theory (e.g. corpuscular theory of light), another group may be tweaking another (theory of light as a wave in the ether). People have their loyalties and their faith in a given theory, but nobody assumes they have the ultimate, all-explanatory theory; there is just too much going on in the natural world to think that. Sometimes theory A’s advocates manage to extend it so that it pretty much explains the stuff theory B explains, plus a chunk of other stuff theory B doesn’t help with. Then people may ditch theory B in favor of theory A. General relativity, for example, explains the usual stuff people explained with Newtonian gravity, plus some other things like the way light bends around massive objects like the sun. A lot of the time, though, different theories just have their different merits, and their different advocates, or people even switch back and forth depending on the context they’re trying to deal with. So today people use both general relativity and quantum mechanics, depending on what they’re dealing with, even though these theories conceptually can’t fit with each other. And heck, most engineers don’t use a relativistic conception of gravitation even though they know it’s more accurate than Newton.
So, on a Kuhnian model one tries to make one’s theory as comprehensive as possible, but one doesn’t assume any given theory is the last word on its own subject, let alone the complete explanation of everything. Each theory is more or less univocal, but the conception of inquiry is inherently pluralistic, and the manifold of nature receives the attention of a plurality of overlapping and developing theoretical views, which address its polyphony in concert. Further, the construction, development, and deployment of a theory or a paradigm is a matter of community practice, with a history. What if we could say the same things about theological inquiry? The phenomena to be explained would include religious texts, religious experiences, and morally relevant features of human life and society and such, with nucleotides and dark matter pretty well neglected, but it seems to me much of the structure and expectations of the process of inquiry could carry over pretty well. Here is a role for systematic explanation, in a context that addresses in significant ways the above-mentioned concerns about how LDS need to approach theology.
On this model, importantly, we can say that there is something right about both payment theories and empathy theories of the atonement. I might overall prefer one, but on occasion talk in terms of the other because on some questions or in some contexts it really is more helpful. And we can do this without implying that it’s all subjective; rather, we may suppose that in some eschatological sense the truth in each can be reconciled with the truth of the other, though we don’t see how at the moment, like people suppose there is some way of reconciling what is true in QM and GR, though we don’t see how.
We can also have revolutionary progression in knowledge, while continuing to talk about gravitation, light, etc. or, in the case of theology, the Son of God, repentance, faith, salvation etc.