By Jessica Udall, Crosswalk.com
The Bible is an extraordinary book. In multiple genres, across centuries of human history, the story of a holy God lovingly pursuing His sinful people sings across the pages. Yet when attempting to understand Christian doctrine and teachings by simply reading the Bible from cover to cover, an eager student can run into roadblocks and end up confused and discouraged. How are we to find answers to our questions and guidance for our times in this multi-layered treasure chest bursting with goodness?
Perhaps the answer lies in how we would handle an actual treasure chest if we dug it up in our backyard! After feasting our eyes on the beauty of the mounds of treasure, we would undertake a careful study of the contents, probably by sorting through and putting “like with like” so we could get an idea of “what kind” and “how much” and “how many” and could get our heads around the contents in such a way that we could describe them to others even when the treasure chest was closed. “Organizing the treasure chest” is one way to think about the task of systematic theology.
Are There Different Types of Theology?
“Theology” is a broad, over-arching term that refers to “the study of God.” But when it comes to the study of God, there are many different ways to undertake it, and each provides different lenses with which to see the Word of God more profoundly and perceptively. Types of theology include:
Biblical theology – focusing on the biblical writers and their environments, intentions, word choices, and flow of ideas
Historical theology – focusing on how people throughout the ages have interpreted Scripture, comparing and contrasting different people or schools of thought.
Systematic theology – focusing on a topic or question and gathering all that the Bible has to say on that topic or question to form Christian doctrines and teachings.
How Is Systematic Theology Different from Regular Theology?
Systematic Theology is not different than regular Theology – instead, it’s a subset of Theology. Someone might say, “I’m studying God.” This is doing Theology. But when that person answers the question, “How are you going about studying God?” their method will generally fall into one of the three categories: Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, or Systematic Theology. In other words, Systematic Theology is simply one of a few different ways of doing Theology.
What Is an Example of Systematic Theology?
Imagine that your boss is asking you to lie in order to protect the company. He believes that if no one gets hurt, it can’t be wrong. But you are not so sure. When you get home that night, you open your Bible, but where do you start? This is when engaging in Systematic Theology yourself or reading the work of someone else who has done so can be very helpful in understanding the whole counsel of God on whatever subject you are thinking about. In studying lying, you would embark on a complete Bible survey of what God has to say about what sin is. You would see that God cares about integrity and holiness. The Proverbs would warn you with words like “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9) and “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways” (Proverbs 28:6). You would learn that “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (Proverbs 12:22). These Proverbs are helpful and sobering, but if you stopped there, you would miss the richness of what God’s Word has to say on the subject of sin in general and how Jesus fits into it all.
You would be reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), which includes Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3), and every single one of us humans until today, including you, with one exception: Jesus. You would be comforted by the fact that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Jesus taught: “‘One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). In studying more of Jesus’ teachings, you would discover that he radically internalized the law, making sin a matter of the heart, not simply an infraction of a rule. “I have not come to abolish (the Law or the Prophets) but to fulfill them,” (Matthew 5:17) he said, and summed up the whole law by saying, “Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Paul explains this further when he says, “whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). You start to ask yourself, “What would love look like in this situation?”
You would see that Christians are to be known by their love, leading to honorable conduct. Peter urges you to have “a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16). Paul told Titus to “show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (Titus 2:7). James warns: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Your study at this point has not exhaustively found every single verse on the subject of sin. Still, you have developed a pretty good idea of what God has to say on the subject, and you feel more confident about how to walk in integrity at your job, even if it costs you.
How Is Systematic Theology Helpful?
Systematic Theology is helpful to believers in many ways:
1. Systematic Theology helps us see Scripture as a unified whole.
As we study all of Scripture looking to understand, for example, what it teaches about sin, we will find that the many voices we hear are all speaking a unified message, though they may all nuance it in different ways. And attending to all these voices to summarize them into Christian doctrine to be taught to disciples will give us a full-orbed understanding of complex topics that cannot be adequately grasped through one verse or even one author’s words on the topic.
2. Systematic Theology helps us organize what the Bible says in ways we can remember it.
While encountering Scripture on its own terms is necessary and edifying, as humans, we need to organize, categorize, and sort so we can understand. And Scripture stands up to this kind of careful study and making of connections. Doing Systematic Theology makes possible curricula development that can teach Christian doctrine to the next generation and beyond.
3. Systematic Theology helps us apply God’s Word to our questions and situations.
As we move through our lives in the culture and period where God has placed us, we will encounter questions that we will need to search the Scriptures for to handle. And we will likely not be able to pull out a silver bullet of a passage that provides all we need to address the situation at hand. Instead, we will need to search the Scriptures in-depth and with a mindset of aggregating wisdom to walk wisely in our particular time and place.
It should be noted that while Systematic Theology is incredibly helpful, it can also have pitfalls if engaged in exclusively. If we only seek to organize the Bible in ways that we feel we can master, we may be tempted to pride. We must remember that we will never master Theology–it (or its subject, He) must master us. We should also remember to engage in Historical Theology to benefit from the rich legacy of wisdom throughout the millennia produced by people who loved God and sought to know Him more deeply through His Word. And we should also engage in Biblical Theology to have the experience of encountering God on His terms and enjoying the wild beauty of the unfiltered, unorganized Scriptures, which remind us that God remains mysterious in many ways. We must rest in the fact only when we are in heaven with him will we “know fully, even as [we are] fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The Bible is like a treasure trove, full to the brim with a multitude of wonderful things. Sometimes, we can feast on the beauty of the contents, taking it as it comes (Biblical Theology). Sometimes, we can read what others throughout history have written about the contents (Historical Theology). But sometimes, we need to take the contents out and sort through it, finding what we need for discipleship today. This is Systematic Theology, and it is well worth engaging in to come to a deeper understanding of the whole counsel of God and how it relates to our beliefs and daily lives today.
Jessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.