Over the years I’ve been asked from time to time what systematic theology I recommend. That short answer is: it depends. It depends on who is asking the question (college student? seminary student? lay leader? pastor?), and it depends on what the person wants out of a systematic theology (an introduction? a reference book? an influential classic?).
The good news is there are plenty of good resources that have served the church well and will strengthen your understanding of the faith. With only 5 to 10 minutes a day, you could read through an entire systematic theology in the course of a year.
Below you’ll find my brief evaluation of several systematic theologies, with the reading level noted for each (Beginner, Medium, Hard). I’ll start with my three favorites and then move on to the others in a few different categories.
In making this list, I’ve limited myself to systematic theologies that (1) I have read through or have used before, (2) are readily available, and (3) are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. This means, almost everything on my list is Reformed (point #1), are in print and available for easy purchase online (point #2), and are helpful and edifying (point #3).
My Top Three
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559). Historians might argue it’s not exactly a systematic theology, but it’s theology at its best. It’s the one I read first and have read most. Much more readable than you might think and filled with beautiful passages that will inspire as well as inform. Level: Medium (two volumes)
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1679-1685). This was the textbook at Old Princeton until Charles Hodge wrote his own. It’s hard to overstate the influence Turretin has had on the development and transmission of Reformed theology. Some of the debates will seem overly philosophical and arcane. But for comprehensiveness and careful delineation of categories, you will not find anything better. Level: Hard (three volumes)
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1938). A model of order, precision, and (relative) brevity. Yes, it’s often a distillation of Bavinck, but you will not find a better one-volume systematic theology in the Reformed tradition. I re-read Berkhof as much anything else on this list. Level: Medium (one volume)
Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology (1698). With only the first of seven volumes published, I’m not able to give a proper assessment of this massive work. But we know that Jonathan Edwards considered it superior to Turretin and the best book on divinity besides the Bible. Mastricht treats each topic exegetically, dogmatically, elenctically (polemically), and practically. The work is both highly technical and rigorously doxological, with a complex outline, moments of eloquence, and (at times) very long lists. Level: Hard (one volume currently, with six others planned)
Willhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700). This four-volume work deserves more attention than it normally receives, for it combines the mature fruit of Protestant Scholasticism with the rich piety of the Dutch Second Reformation. Unique among systematic theologies, the last two volumes are almost entirely devoted to sanctification, covering topics like contentment, self-denial, patience, and prayer. Level: Medium (four volumes)
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871-1873). It’s unfortunate that Hodge has been caricatured as an unfeeling “nothing but the facts” theologian, because personally he was warm, and pastoral and theologically he is never dry and dusty (save for the untranslated Latin paragraphs!). I’ve always found Hodge helpful on questions of reason and revelation. Level: Medium (three volumes)
Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (1896). Just published for the first time in English, this work represents theological exploration from a gifted young man who would later make his mark in the field of biblical theology (as opposed to systematics). Vos employs a catechetical question-and-answer approach, making his theology read like lecture notes more than continuous prose (a feature that some will appreciate and others will not). Level: Medium (five volumes)
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (1906-1911). If you think Bavinck belongs in the top three, I won’t complain. Bavinck is a brilliant exegete, historian, philosopher, and theologian. Berkhof is basically a summary of Bavinck, so if you want to go deeper and wider and fuller, you need these four volumes. For the best multi-volume Reformed dogmatics, I’d take Turretin, Bavinck, and à Brakel. Also check out Bavinck’s smaller work Our Reasonable Faith. Level: Medium (four volumes)
Richard Muller, Post-Reformed Reformed Dogmatics (2003). No one know the theology of the Reformed Orthodox period better than Muller. His command of the original sources (usually in Latin) is amazing. Not for the faint of heart, but worth having and consulting often. Level: Hard (four volumes)
Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology (2012). A tremendous achievement. Beeke and Jones go through the traditional loci explaining what major Puritan thinkers taught on each topic. Harder to use than a traditional systematic theology, but still useful. Beeke and Jones know their stuff. Level: Hard (one volume)
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (1994). An unlikely bestseller, but if you find a college student reading systematic theology for fun, he’s probably reading Grudem. As a Presbyterian appreciative of classic theism, I don’t agree with all of Grudem’s conclusions, but he’s hard to beat for clarity, accessibility, and readability. You may also want to use Bible Doctrine or Christian Beliefs. Level: Beginner (one volume)
Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (2011). While the organization and layout are not as user-friendly as Grudem, Horton is a much more sophisticated theologian. Horton is especially good if you want a reliable contemporary writer who is conversant with the history of theology and with the best theologians from other traditions. See also Horton’s shorter Pilgrim Theology and Core Christianity. Level: Medium (one volume)
Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (2012). Bray’s approach is unique in that (1) he has organized an entire systematic theology around the love of God and (2) he cites nothing but the Bible. Whether this is the book’s greatest strength or its Achilles’ heel depends on what you are hoping for in a systematic theology. One can see the influence of Anglicanism’s “basic” or “mere” Christianity. Level: Beginner (one volume)
John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2013). Like all of Frame’s other works, the strength of this one is that it is biblical and readable. I wish Frame were more in line with classic Reformed theology on certain points, but I appreciate Frame’s eagerness to be practical and scriptural. A final assessment of the book likely depends on whether you find tri-perspectivalism incredibly helpful or a bit tenuous. Level: Beginner (one volume)
R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian (2014). This is the book I recommend to Christians who are completely new to systematic theology. It’s a great, relatively brief, introductory volume with Sproul’s typical energy and clarity. Level: Beginner (one volume)
Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology (2008, 2014). Centered on the doctrine of the Trinity, Kelly weaves together an impressive array of theologians from the early church through the medieval period and the Reformation down to the present. The plethora of block quotes, not too mention Kelly’s own brilliance, make for hard reading at times, but there is plenty here to repay serious reflection. Level: Hard (two volumes)
Coming Soon: Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Volume One: Revelation and God (March 2019) (the first volume of a multi-volume work) and Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (November 2019). These promise to be strong additions to the stable of Reformed theologies.
Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (1986), Saved by Grace (1989), The Bible and the Future (1979). I’ve always found the structure in these volumes intuitive and the exegesis particularly careful. Excellent and easy to use in pieces if you don’t want to read the whole thing. Level: Medium
Contours of Christian Theology (1993-2002). This series, edited by Gerald Bray, is one of the best things IVP ever published. Each volume tackles a single loci in 250 to 300 pages: The Doctrine of God (Gerald Bray), The Work of Christ (Robert Letham), The Providence of God (Paul Helm), The Doctrine of Humanity (Charles Sherlock), The Holy Spirit (Sinclair Ferguson), The Person of Christ (Donald MacLeod), The Revelation of God (Peter Jensen), The Church (Edmund Clowney). For my money, the Letham and Ferguson volumes are the strongest and Sherlock is the weakest. Level: Medium