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What is Systematic Theology: Scary Puzzle or Sacred Picture?

What is Systematic Theology: Scary Puzzle of Sacred Picture?

Theology is how we think of God. Everyone has a personal theology, even if it is agnostic or atheistic. But CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY is narrower than this. It is the thinking that points to that narrow way Jesus taught, the one that leads to life versus the broad way that leads to destruction, the one He warns us against.

Here is a 20th-century definition that points us toward that narrow way:

Systematic Theology is a Defined Subset of Christian Theology

As the name implies, it is an orderly way of looking at Christianity in a way that is logical, thorough, and focused. It is Bible-based and examines specific doctrines or teachings of the Bible in a complete and exhaustive way to bring the entire weight of God’s Word to a clearly defined truth on that single subject.

WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY describes Systematic Theology as “Doctrines from Scripture delivered to the church.”

What are some of the DOCTRINES AND TEACHINGS systematic theology deals with?

Broadly speaking systematic theology deals with the general topics of God, sin, and humanity. More specifically:

  • Theology Proper – the study of the doctrine of GOD.

  • Christology – the study of JESUS.

  • Pneumatology – the study of the HOLY SPIRIT.

  • Anthropology – the study of humanity.

  • Soteriology – the study of SALVATION.

  • Ecclesiology – the study of the CHURCH.

  • Eschatology – the study of last things or END TIMES.

  • Angelology – the study of angelic beings.

What is the method of systematic theology?

The first step is to identify the subject, be it doctrine, person, or another topic. Then go through the whole Bible and write down everything the scriptures say about it. Next, all the texts must be organized according to their content, studied in their immediate context, and also in their relationship to the whole.

Is a text typical or unusual? Does it take a “side” on the issue? Is each text aligned with another? Do the scripture progress or develop over time? What are the possible conclusions that can be drawn? How have other Bible scholars or theologians interpreted these scriptures? What is the unified truth that the entirety of God’s Word teaches?

Here is a beautiful articulation of this by B.B. Warfield & William Adams Brown and Gerald B. Smith:

It is the business of systematic theology to take the knowledge of God supplied to it by apologetical, exegetical, and historical theology, scrutinize it with a view to discovering the inner relations of its several elements, and set it forth in a systematic presentation,
that is to say, as an organic whole, so that it may be grasped and held in its entirety, in the due relation of its parts to one another and to the whole, and with a just distribution of emphasis among the several items of knowledge which combine to make up the totality of our knowledge of God.

Why is systematic theology important?

It is obedient to the scriptures, especially St. Peter’s direction that we should always be ready to tell others why we believe:

be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: 1 Peter 3:15

Systematic theology helps us learn the Bible and understand the Gospel message so that we can be faithful missionaries to the lost. Systematic theology also preserves the study of the great Christians of the past and gives us a clearer understanding of the doctrines of God, Salvation, and our “high calling.”

As we study and live in the Bible and communion with other saints of the past, our faith will grow as will our assurance and confidence that the Lord Jesus is surely the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

What is the history of systematic theology?

I believe that Jesus Himself outlined the process of systematic theology on the road to Emmaus:

And beginning at Moses* and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. -Luke 24:27

He repeated this teaching later in the chapter and laid down a “systematic theology” that focused on the fulfillment of the Old Testament texts that mentioned Him, specifically citing the books of Moses*, the prophets, and the Psalms.

Other theologians would develop this approach further, but Jesus set the foundation. (An asterisk following a name indicates that person is one of 200 short biographies in my book SPIRITUAL LIVES.)

The church fathers began writing and teaching about Christian doctrine as the apostolic age ended and the church was established. This material often dealt with compelling issues facing the new churches in a pagan world, especially confronting heresy. But while their writings were extensive and scriptural, they were not orderly or “systematic.”

The father of systematic theology was Origen of Alexandria* (185—254 C.E.) He was the first great Christian scholar, writing over 2,000 treatises, and founded an influential school in Caesarea.
His treatise On the First Principles is considered the first work to be called systematic theology, laying out the basic Christian doctrines, of God, the Trinity, sin, free will, and redemption.
These doctrines/subjects were to become essential elements of all of later systematic theology.

There was a great deal of theological writing in the following centuries, notably that of Boethius*, Augustine, and finally Thomas Aquinas* with his Summa Theologica, a massive compendium of all of the doctrines of the Catholic church. But massive as it is, it is not systematic, a term first used by Bartholomäus Keckermann, (1572-1609), a German Calvinist famous for his Analytic Method, and a product of the Protestant Reformation.

Strictly speaking, the famous theological works of Luther*, Cranmer* and Calvin* are not systematic, influential, and important as they are. Their primary purpose was to order and defend the reformed church.

But out of these came the systematic expressions of Christian faith that are still with us and essential today, LUTHER’S CATECHISM, CRANMER’S 39 ARTICLES, and the WESTMINSTER CONFESSION of Faith.

After this, systematic theology became more of an academic discipline focusing more on theology’s relationship to cultural and philosophical trends than on teaching the gospel.

The leading figure in this was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) the “father of modern liberal theology,” whose work attempted to reconcile the thoughts of the enlightenment with Protestant Christianity. A skeptic himself, he rejected orthodox Christianity and the authority of the Bible and was a pioneer in what would come to be known as “higher criticism.”

His work dominated Protestantism throughout the 19th century until it was challenged in the 20th century by Karl Barth and expanded upon by Paul Tillich. Neither Barth nor Tillich was an evangelical Christian, but their work dominated 20th-century theology and is still a powerful force in seminaries today.

Of course, Biblical theology has had its champions during that time, but these have been preachers, and popular writers, like G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and C.S. Lewis, not systematic theologians. God has raised such a man in Wayne Grudem, born in 1948, whose Systematic Theology (1994) and ESV Study Bible (2008) have brought theology back to the Gospel and has established evangelical theology as a significant and powerful force in the 21st century.

Systematic Theology in My Life

My mother never heard of systematic theology, but she taught me it. She taught me to read the Bible, every word, and gave me two pencils, one red and the other yellow. The red was to underline every commandment, and the yellow every promise. I do this to this day and see on nearly every page of the Bible God’s authority and goodness.

That was for my own edification and discipline, but she had another method she used for herself. I still have copies of the typed sheets she created in the 1940s with every verse containing the word “tongue” copied out. Then she looked at all the good and bad comments on the tongue and applied them to her life. She always used her tongue to bless and heal and never to demean or harm.

I have learned my system from her and have been blessed to live in an age where the task of gathering all the scripture on a topic has been facilitated by the computer and Bible software that lets us list every verse with the word “tongue” in a moment: 129 tongues in 126 verses. I do this regularly when issues come up in my life dealing with love, children, fear, faith, or care about tomorrow.

Often just looking at the verses brings blessing, but when I pray over them and ask the Lord to accomplish His word in my life that blessing is compounded. So this system is useful, but it is the word of God itself, the anointing it brings, and the interaction with the Holy Ghost that far outweighs the importance of the system.

What Value is Systematic Theology to Me?

That, of course, depends on where you stand. Do you know the plan of salvation and the call God has made upon your life? If you do, praise God, and just keep reading His Word and make use of the kind of “system” I have described above.

If you do not know the fundamentals of the faith or are not sure you do, read Luther’s shorter catechism or Anglicans’ 39 articles, or the Westminster Confession to gain a better grasp. Then check out what you don’t understand in one of the theologians to get a better understanding of what the scriptures and the church have had to say about that issue.

Systematic Theology is not easy to read. It is often long and takes a great deal of time to get through. For this reason, some have questioned its value. Others have pointed out that God’s theology and revelation are NOT systematic but come in episodic flashes. Keep this in mind, and always PUT THE BIBLE FIRST.

As Systematic Theology has weighted the system more heavily than the scriptures and divine inspiration, it has drifted from its original purpose and moved into the realm of the academic and the worldly. Wayne Grudem has made a noble and successful effort to return systematic theology to its earlier uses and make theology a thing of beauty like Calvin did with his Institutes.

Use systematic theology, profession, or personal, to obey St. Peter’s dictum to be able to give those who ask you about your faith good reasons why you believe. Ultimately, I believe, the value of theology, systematic or otherwise, will be its efficacy in fulfilling the Gospel commission: That sinners be converted and God glorified!

A Warning and a Promise

Stay away from Schleiermacher and the modern, liberal, systematic theologians. It cost them their faith, led them into unbelief, and will lead you into confusion, futile arguments, and away from the simple faith of the Bible. That is the place to do your systematic theology. Your faith will be deepened, the Holy Ghost will lead you into His truth, and you will come to know Jesus better every day.

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