What’s Systematic Theology and Why Bother?

Systematic theology means answering the question: “What does the whole Bible say to us today about any given topic?”

It means searching the Bible to find all the verses pertaining to a given topic of study. Then, we put all the verses together to understand what God wants us to believe. “Systematic” means “carefully organized by topics.” Thus, it’s different from random theology or disorganized theology.

You’re a Theologian

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Even if you haven’t written a systematic theology—or even if you don’t consider yourself a theologian—you’re still doing systematic theology in some sense. Everyone has beliefs about who God is, who Jesus is, what salvation is, and how we should live as Christians. We’re all synthesizing those beliefs together.

So if you’re a Christian, you’re doing systematic theology, whether you’re aware of it or not. If you’re not aware of it, then your theology may not be very well organized, or it may not take into account verses from the whole Bible. There may be a verse here or there, or from certain parts of Scripture, but it’s not the entirety of what God reveals about a particular doctrine.

That’s why it’s important to study systematic theology—to understand what God says and what the Bible says.

How to Study Systematic Theology

Here are five ways we should approach systematic theology:

1. With prayer.

We should imitate the psalmist, who prays, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18).

2. With humility.

Both Peter and James say God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. Of those two categories of people, I think we all want to be among those to whom God gives grace.

A word of caution is appropriate: Be careful when you talk with others about theological topics, that you don’t let your temper run wild. That isn’t the way God wants us to talk about him:

The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, and the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17)

We must study systematic theology with humility and seek peace with others.

3. With reason.

Contradictions aren’t acceptable in the study of systematic theology, since there aren’t any contradictions in the Bible. 

Psalm 119:160 says “the sum of your words is truth.” The sum—when you put all God’s words together. There are many times we need to acknowledge mystery, paradox, and things we can’t fully understand. But that’s different from saying there’s a contradiction. God never asks us to believe a contradiction.

4. With help from others.

I have learned much about theology through conversations with others—in the library, in the hallway, or in the seminary lunchroom when talking with other students. Seek help from others as you study.

We use help from others when we read books on theology, since God has gifted the church with teachers (1 Cor. 12:28). We can learn about him from them.

5. With rejoicing and praise.

There should be joy in our hearts as we study these topics, and it should result in praise to our King.

Psalm 139:17 says, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God. How vast is the sum of them.” The psalmist is overwhelmed with joy and praise for what God has revealed about himself and his deeds. This should be our response as well.

Why Study Systematic Theology

Studying theology is one of most important things we can do, since there is a relationship between what we believe and how we live.

The Bible speaks of doctrine that accords with godliness. For example, Paul encourages the Ephesian Christians to grow up into Christ so they won’t be tossed by every wind of doctrine, but will have stability and grow into maturity (Eph. 4:14).

On the other hand, if false teaching comes into the church—if people lose sight of true theology—then it can be harmful and turn people away from the faith. Paul warned the elders at the church in Ephesus:

For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:27–30)

Paul warns that false doctrine would come from believers within the church who adopt wrong teachings and are destructive in their influence. Damage comes from neglecting theology and allowing churches and organizations to stray into false teaching about the truths of God’s Word.

Studying systematic theology is important. We should do it with intentionality and purpose.

How to Teach Systematic Theology

Here are four ways I approach it in my online course in systematic theology, and I commend this method to students:  

1. Seek a biblical basis for doctrines.

I quote Scripture often and at length, since the Word of God alone has the power to change minds and hearts.

2. Seek to explain the doctrines clearly.

There is no value in writing a book or teaching a course that baffles people or is difficult to grasp. God wrote his Word so that we would understand it. There is merit in teaching a course in which people say, “Yes, I am able to understand this.” 

3. Seek to apply theology to life.

After reading the most theologically heavy books such as Romans, Ephesians, or Hebrews, we could ask: Is there any application to life in those books? Yes! All of those books have application to life and immense value for the Christian life. If New Testament authors thought they had to include application to life when teaching theology, then I should as well.

4. Seek to experience it for yourself.

I have worked with Zondervan Academic to create a free mini-course titled “Introduction to the Bible: The Doctrine of Scripture.” It includes video lectures and reading materials from the larger Systematic Theology online course.

Fruitful First Hour

Here is what the course covers just in the first hour:

  • How we can know the Bible really is God’s Word
  • How the biblical canon was formed
  • The different forms of the Word of God
  • How we can know the Bible is inerrant

This mini-course is free for a limited time, so I encourage you to sign up

Many have told me that as they’ve studied systematic theology they were surprised to find it not only deepened their understanding of the Bible, but also led them to a closer relationship with God.  

I hope the Systematic Theology online course will have the same result in your life.

 

Editors’ note: This article is made possible by support from readers and Zondervan in accord with TGC's confessional statement and theological vision.

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