What is Systematic Theology?
I teach an introduction to systematic theology class as part of a part-time bible handling course alongside pastoring a church. The folks who attend the course come from various backgrounds; some have pastoral and teaching responsibilities in their churches, while others simply want to learn to read and apply God’s word faithfully. Some of the students come from confessional churches (both Presbyterian and Baptist), but most don’t. They are always very enthusiastic and hungry to learn. The thing that has struck me over the years is that not many know very much about the discipline and practice of systematic theology or why it is biblical.
If this is a widespread issue (and I think it is), then the case for confessionalism is harder to make. Suppose the practise of identifying, summarising and placing the doctrines of scripture into a systematic order that reflects their material order and connections, as an integral part of the exegetical process, is a mystery to people or is seen as unnecessary. In that case, a confession of faith will seem both mysterious and unnecessary.
There are many reasons why systematics has fallen out of favour, and we won’t rehearse them here. However, it is enough to note that the reasons are not primarily laziness but often grounded in a set of heart-felt assumptions about how biblical knowledge works, what it means to be gospel-centred and even, in some cases, the primacy of narrative in our post-modern culture’s approach to reality and identity.
Instead of rehearsing the maladies of modern and post-modern theology in the church, I want to make a small, but I hope positive, contribution in these blogs to reintroducing thinking Christians to the idea of systematic theology and how we might describe it to others. Those in the academy and pastors need to find ways of showing the church that all Christians are theologians who use systematics even when we don’t realise it.
Those in the academy and pastors need to find ways of showing the church that all Christians are theologians who use systematics even when we don’t realise it. We use systematics when we read and interpret our bibles or tackle issues in life and popular culture. Paraphrasing R. C. Sproul, the issue is not whether you are a theologian but whether you are a good theologian?
Those who are confessional know that using a confession in the church is key to enabling Christians, from the pew to the academy, to be good theologians and reason well with scripture. A good confession enables Christians to grasp hold of the whole counsel of God and bring it to bear on their lives.
Broken Wharfe has asked me to write a series of blogs reflecting on aspects of confessional Baptist doctrine. What I will share in these opening blogs are my reflections on and attempts to explain, in class and church, why we do systematics at all. I want to start by reflecting on some basic questions: why do we have doctrine at all, and why would we spend time identifying and arranging teachings from the bible into a system? How do we arrive at the topics in the first place, and what benefit is there for the whole exercise?
I think that those of us who might have ready answers to these questions need the intellectual challenge of finding ways of communicating these things to those who are not convinced or who are convinced by alternative approaches to the relationship of the gospel to the exegetical, pastoral and worship practices of the Christian life. For me, that has involved going back to the literature to rediscover the basics. In what follows, I am heavily indebted to Richard Muller’s work. We will start by (re)discovering what the term systematic theology refers to.
“Systematic” refers to the idea that theology (we will come to what theology means in a moment) has an order to it. This means that theology is a body of teaching made up of different “bits” (doctrines and topics, also called loci) that fit together into an ordered system. Each doctrine has its rightful place in the system and its right set of relationships to the other doctrines in the system. So, systematic theology is concerned with:
- explaining or describing individual doctrines,
- identifying their correct place within the system, and
- showing the correct relationships between doctrines.
Systematic theology: theology as the word of God and words about God.
The word “theology” does not appear in the bible. The word contains two Greek words: theos meaning ‘God’ and logos meaning ‘word’. Historically the word theology has been used to refer to the concepts of words of God or words about God. Although the word theology doesn’t appear in the bible, these concepts do appear. For instance, in Romans 3:2, 1 Peter 4:11, Hebrews 5:12, we have variations on the phrase “words of God.”
These uses of the concept of the word of God show us that God has revealed himself through his word, and his word has been delivered to us as a body of knowledge to be studied and passed on.
The word ‘theology’ came to refer to both the words of God and words about God. These two are connected. The Reformed theologian Francis Turretin wrote:
“The term theologia used adequately among Christians… indicates both the word of God and the word about God, which two are conjoined, since we cannot speak of God apart from God. Thus it may be observed of doctrine that originally it is from God, objectively deals with God, terminatively looks toward God and leads to God, as Thomas Aquinas not at all badly explains, Theology is taught by God, teaches of God and leads to God. Thus the twofold ground of theology is embraced by this usage: the one, the ground of being (essendi), which is God; the other the ground of knowing (cognoscendi), which is his Word.”
We will come back to the “two-fold ground of theology” in a later blog. The key thing to note here is that the term ‘theology’ refers both to God’s self-revelation (he speaks to us about himself, giving us a body of knowledge or truth to learn and pass on) and to the study and teaching about God’s self-revelation. Theology is taught by God, teaches of God and leads to God.
As well as the scriptural references to the word of God and words about God, the Bible speaks of a body of knowledge about God, through which God speaks, which exists to be taught. Consider the following texts:
- 2 Peter 1:20-21; scripture is not just speech about God but proceeds from God.
- 2 Timothy 1:13; Timothy is charged with maintaining and teaching the standard or form of sound words he received from Paul. The apostolic teaching was passed on in standardised “forms of words.”
- 1 Timothy 6:3; there is a body of doctrine which conforms to the sound words of Christ and that sets the standard against which false doctrine must be tested.
- Titus 1:1; Paul is a servant of God and Jesus Christ for the knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.
- Titus 1:9; elders must be able to exhort in sound doctrine.
- Titus 2:1; Titus must teach people to live a life that fits with sound doctrine. He is to pass on the knowledge of the truth that fits with godliness that Paul was charged with (Titus 1:1).
- Jude 3: the church is called to contend for ‘the faith’ once handed down to the saints. The faith refers to a body of knowledge.
- Romans 6:17; believers obey from the heart because they are being conformed to a form or standard of teaching.
Therefore, the practice of Systematic Theology refers to listening to the word of God. This practise includes:
- the reading and exegesis of scripture,
- the identification and summarisation of doctrines,
- and passing on standardised truths as forms of sound words.
We will finish this instalment with a summary definition of theology from the very influential post-reformation theologian Franciscus Junius (1545—1602) from his Treatise on True Theology, thesis 1:
 Turretin, Inst. theol. I.i.7. cited in Muller, Richard A. Post – Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.) Volume I, pp 154.
 Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, with the life of Franciscus Junius, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) pp 92.