In a previous article I answered the question, “What is theology?” with the hope of helping you understand how theology is biblically/theological, and practical. In this article I want to help you understand what systematic theology is and why it is important. Ever since the dawn of the Church, Christians have been keen to engage in theology. Doctrine seeks to take what the Bible teaches and elaborate on it while theology is the application of our doctrine from the Word. Both doctrine and theology are to be grounded in the Word of God. As Dr. John Frame states in his systematic theology book, “Theology must be in accord with Scripture.”
The Point of Systematic Theology
In my first article titled, What is Theology, I explained that theology is the study of God. Since the time of the Apostles, the apologists of the early Church sought to take what they read in the Scriptures—the Old Testament writings—together with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, and explain it in ways that the people would understand. Theologian’s today aim to do the same thing. With systematic theology theologians aim to take the biblical teaching on certain topics and put them into specific categories. Some people today get so hung up on the categories themselves that they miss the point of systematic theology which is the synthesizing of biblical doctrine.
Being involved at my local church has taught me that speaking clearly, especially about theology is vitally important. For example, typically, what ends up happening in my small group is that we talk about what we’ve been saved from (sin), but hardly ever discuss what we’ve been saved to, namely to a new identity in Christ for the purpose of growing in His grace, culminating in glorification. With that said, in this article, I want to help you think in clear doctrinal and theological categories with the goal being that you can communicate orthodox doctrine matched with a life that reflects sound doctrine (orthopraxy).
Before I begin on this endeavor, however, let me share a personal story. As a freshman in high school, I began my study of systematic theology. In our youth Sunday school class, we studied systematic theology. Honestly, at first I didn’t get any of the terms; I struggled with the terms for a long time and kept going over and over what the words meant, until I could explain them. Today I have no problem explaining what the words mean. This took time, though, and I mention it because I understand how hard it can be to learn hard doctrinal and theological terms. It is important to keep in mind that what is most important is not the terms themselves, but being able to communicate the truth behind the words.
A few years ago I was known for correcting people when they would communicate something about theology that I thought they needed to be able to explain better. I then realized that while correcting them if they got the teaching wrong was appropriate (in a kind way), what I needed to understand was that everyone is at different levels in their knowledge and understanding. I’ll be honest—sometimes I even correct people today in the wrong way—after all old habits die hard, as the saying goes.
My point is that to be a good theologian one has not only to speak correctly about the theology, but also live by what he/she preaches. Many people know the right answers to theological matters, but live contrary to the teaching of the Word of God, and thus tear down what they espouse. In other words, as my mom tends to wisely says, “Actions speak louder than words.” Friends, we must not only believe the right things, but our lives must match what we believe. Theologians call this orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
That means that we have the right belief leading to a life that reflects the theology. Put another way, right theology should shape and transform our lives. When what we believe doesn’t change the way we behave, think, and live, then we are guilty of being hypocrites.
Dr. Ligon Duncan once stated, “Biblical theology and systematic theology, done rightly are friends. They need each other. They complement one another.” The modern understanding of systematic theology has needed to change and is changing as more and more biblical theologians are writing at a popular level for lay people regarding the storyline of Scripture. Biblical theology done rightly as Dr. Duncan states “complements one another”. This is an important point because when biblical theology doesn’t inform systematic theology, our theology takes the place of doctrine (becoming a serious problem). When this happens the relationship between doctrine and theology are confused and even separated, which causes a lot of issues as seen in a lot of our seminaries today.
Systematic theology rightly understood is informed by biblical theology. The goal of biblical theology is to inform the study of systematic theology, since systematic theology seeks to synthesize the biblical teaching on a particular doctrine. Systematic theology isn’t only for the ivory towers and theological nerds. While often it is perceived that way, and according to many a systematic theology book that view seems justified, I intend to explain why having theoretical systematic theologies is eminently practical.
Systematic theology, as I’ve stated in this article, aims to synthesize biblical doctrine. It does this by taking the clear teaching of Scripture and then putting it into categories where one can observe clearly and consider the topic at hand. To some people what I just said justifies their view: that theology is better left to the professionals. The fact is, however, that everyone is a theologian—even your atheist neighbor who espouses that God is dead. To make the statement that God is dead is to make a theological statement which reflects one’s view of God. We could continue on this vein of thought for some time, demonstrating how people make theological statements, but the point is that everyone has a theology which means everyone is a theologian to some degree or another. Systematic theology aids our understanding of biblical doctrine by expanding on it.
Dr. Wayne Grudem helpfully points out in his book, Systematic Theology, “Any Christian should find his or her Christian life enriched and deepened studying systematic theology.” During small group one time while examining Romans 5:12-21, I made the comment that what we were talking about in that passage should lead us to worship of God. The goal of theology is not just to gain more knowledge, but rather to have heady truth impact the way we live. This is why sound theology leads to sound living. This is also why, as I’ve been explaining in this article, thinking clearly about these issues is so vital.
As Grudem so aptly states, “A Christian should find his or her Christian life deepened by studying systematic theology”, for the simple reason that thinking deeply about these issues does matter. We live in a time when many approach the Christian life in the wrong way. Instead of viewing doctrine and theology as important to the Christian life, we instead see how some Christians in our local churches emphasize “how they feel” or “what they got out of the blog post or teaching”. The real problem is that people are not “feasting” on the preaching of the Word of God, although this may not be because of the preacher as is so often said. When we approach the Christian life in terms of what we feel, we come to worship service with the expectation that only what we “get out of the service” is what matters. This approach is the wrong one to take and is precisely what leads to the problem that I’ve been describing in this article—namely that doctrine and theology are not for the ivory tower academic, but rather for the local church, and for every Christian.
Every single Christian is a theologian. We all come to the Word, seeking to understand what it says and desiring to make sense of it for our own lives. With that said, Christians do have an objective standard by which to measure what they believe in the Word of God. As Drs. Frame and Grudem have made abundantly clear, systematic theology is to be derived from the Word of God.
Doctrine divorced from discipleship means discipleship ceases. Doctrine is the fuel that propels discipleship forward to the glory of God. This is why confusing the categories of biblical and systematical theology is so dangerous. We can become so focused on systematic categories that we begin to impose our theology on the Bible rather than have our doctrine inform our theology. Yet, often the emphasis in seminary is the opposite of this. The danger here is that if we know our systematic theology more than what the Bible teaches we will begin to impose our systematic theology on the text of Scripture. This is not how we are to treat the Word of God as Christians. As believers we are taught to handle the Word of God with great care (2 Timothy 2:15). This means that biblical theology should inform our systematic theology. Biblical theology provides the framework for systematic theology to build its categories.
If you were to walk into my office you would be confronted with five bookshelves, along with several degrees on the wall, a TV, a stand with a collection of books, a printer and my desk. Every single one of us walks into different rooms every day and we are confronted with what is there. The same is true with biblical and systematic theology. We come into the world of the Bible in biblical theology. We come to read, meditate on, study, reflect on, and obey what the Bible says. We are to live in this world and have our heads and hearts deeply affected and shaped by what it teaches. Yet, often we would rather do the opposite. We would rather hold to our own thoughts about topics rather than engaging what the Bible says. And thus we rush into the room of theology before we’ve spend time in the world of the Bible. When this happens (and it does happen) people emphasize their thoughts and feelings above the Word of God, instead of humbly submitting to the Bible.
Sound doctrine is to affect the way we live. If it doesn’t then let’s just be honest and admit we either don’t know it or don’t believe it. Either way we need to study doctrine and theology, as we are called to be workmen who are not ashamed. We are to handle the Word of God well and not be sloppy servants of the Word.
Understanding the relationship between biblical and systematic theology is eminently practical and vitally important. In conclusion here are two helpful takeaways from this article. First, understand that biblical theology informs systematic theology. Ground your heart, and mind in the truth of the Word of God. Second, grow in your understanding of systematic theology by reading good books on it. Start with Dr. Horton Pilgrim Theology Core Doctrines of the Christian Life. Then move onto Wayne Grudem’s Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Don’t just stay stagnant in your understanding of systematic theology, but continue to progress onto more advanced works like Calvin’s Institutes and many other works of like mind. Read broadly and widely on the subject even among those whom you may not agree with on a wide variety of subjects. By doing so you will grow not only in your understanding of what the Bible teaches, but be conversant with what others have said and are saying about these matters. I also urge you to open your Bible as you read and be a Berean, a workman not ashamed, rightly handling the Word of God.
- John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (New Jersey: P&R, 2013), 6.
Ii. Ligon Duncan, Proclaiming a Cross-centered Theology (Wheatoon, Crossway), 32.
Iii. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction To Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1995), 23.