My pastor once invited me to take a class on systematic theology. I initially said no.
- With so much going on in my life, how could I give up three hours a week?
- How could I spend another evening away from my wife and young children?
- How can I justify the required time and energy to read 100 pages on theology each week.
But reluctantly I agreed to attend the systematic theology class. I learned a lot in those nine months. To my surprise, studying systematic theology with 20 other people in my local church had tremendous value.
Before explaining why I think you can benefit from studying systematic theology, let’s first define what is systematic theology.
What is Systematic Theology?
Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us about any given topic”? Systematic theology correlates all relevant Bible passages and presents systematically the total picture of God’s self-revelation.
So in systematic theology, you read and study what the entire Bible states about a particular topic. Here are a few examples.
- What does the Bible teach us about marriage and divorce?
- What does the Bible teach us about homosexuality?
- What does the Bible teach us about Jesus Christ?
- What does the Bible teach us about heaven?
Once you complete your study, you summarize your conclusions in an organized way. Some have spent their entire lifetime to research core topics of the Christian faith, and they recorded their research. We call these collections of writings, “systematic theologies.”
Systematic theology is related but different from three other disciplines of theology.
How Systematic Theology Relates to Other Disciplines
Biblical Theology is the theological content found within the biblical books.
Biblical theology takes a narrowing approach. It focuses on what a specific book of the Bible teaches on a specific topic.
- What does 1 John teach us about the love of God?
- What does Romans teach us about the future of Israel?
- What does Hebrews teach us about the Atonement?
Biblical theology can take a broader approach by looking at all the books of the Bible written by a specific author.
- What does Peter teach us about baptism in his epistles?
- What does Paul teach us about the Holy Spirit?
- What does the apostle John teach us about Jesus Christ?
Biblical theology involves the history of God’s progressive revelation. It studies God’s holy word in the sequence it was revealed.
We can compare the teachings of Scripture in various parts of the Bible.
- What does the Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament) teach us about the Sabbath?
- How does Jesus in the Synoptic gospels add to our understanding about the Sabbath?
- How do Paul’s epistles contribute to the Sabbath topic?
“Systematic theology of the right kind will be biblical theology. It is not simply based on biblical theology; it is biblical theology. Our goal is systematic biblical theology.” (Millard Erickson)
Historical Theology is a historical study of how Christians in different periods have understood various theological topics.
Historical theology accomplishes this by studying what the early church and theologians have written about these truths. We learn by studying the thoughts of our early church fathers. We study the history of false teachings and how the church clarified their teachings based on their study of Scripture. We analyze our doctrine by comparing them with other theologians of our historic Christian faith.
For example, the word “trinity” was not used in the New Testament. The early church coined the word “trinity” to explain the Biblical truth that “there is only one God, and He exists in three persons.” By studying the historical treatment of the doctrine of the trinity, we can prevent ourselves from straying into false teachings.
Practical Theology is theological reflection taken from Scripture with a focus on the Christian’s life and his ongoing growth in Jesus Christ.
Practical theology applies the theology to the everyday Christian life. For example, in systematic theology we can study what all the Bible passages teach about church leadership. In practical theology, we formulate leadership guidelines for our local church. Systematic theology precedes practical theology. You need to have a good systematic theology before you can create a practical theology.
Therefore, the basic reason for studying systematic theology is to enable us to teach ourselves what the whole Bible says, thus fulfilling the second part of the Great commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Systematic theology helps us overcome our wrong ideas. It helps us formulate better answers to questions of doctrine that may arise. It help us as Christians grow practically.
I want to expound on 5 specific reasons why you should study systematic theology now.
Five Reasons to Study Systematic Theology
1. Systematic theology helps us love and worship God.
God reveals Himself to us through the Bible. Through Scripture, we learn the basic teachings about God and the truths of the gospel. By failing to grasp these basic doctrines, we limit our worship of God.
We will worship God more deeply when we study the attributes of God. We will study God’s Word more diligently when we understand its unique attributes and divine authority. We will love God more when we grasp His love for us through studying Christ’s work of atonement.
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
2. Systematic theology helps us interpret our life experiences.
Frequently, we look at our life experiences to draw conclusions. The “scientific method” states that we can arrive at truth based on our observations. Many time, our conclusions are correct. Some times they are wrong.
For example, some people look at our universe and conclude that only God can create such a vast universe. Others conclude that a random cataclysmic event caused the universe. Not all conclusions based on life experiences are true. We can be wrong.
Based on life experience, some may falsely think that a loving God cannot send people to eternal hell. Other may wrongly believe that God cannot be all-powerful when our world is filled with evil, pain, and suffering.
Our finite minds cannot perfectly interpret our life experiences. We need the objective truth of Scripture to interpret our experience, and systematic theology helps us understand these absolute truths through the Bible, God’s inerrant, infallible word.
3. Systematic theology helps us counter challenges against God’s truth.
Suppose a person comes to us and says that Jesus is a god but not the one and only God. Suppose another person states that one can lose his salvation if he sin too much. Suppose a church wants to ordain its first female pastor. How should we respond?
Systematic theology organizes what the Bible teaches. It helps us identify what Bible passages contradict these assertions. It helps us identify teachings and movements that are false and contrary to God’s truth. It protects us from false doctrine and ideology.
“So that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” (1 Timothy 1:3-4)
4. Systematic theology helps us disciple and teach others.
In my medical profession, skill acquisition involved three steps: seeing, doing, teaching.
- First, we learn the skill from someone (seeing).
- Next, we practice the learned skill (doing).
- Finally, having mastered the skill, we teach the skill to someone else (teaching).
As Christians, we follow a similar process.
- First, we start by learning the basic Christian doctrines through the help of others.
- Next, we allow these truths to change our inner being.
- Finally, we teach and disciple others by communicating these truths systematically through systematic theology.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
5. Systematic theology helps us depend on God.
We can expend great energy in the pursuit of knowledge. We can surround ourselves with gifted teachers. We may be exceptional geniuses. But without God, we cannot understand God’s spiritual truths. The study of systematic theology should humble us and reminds us that we are completely dependent on God.
- The study of systematic theology requires prayer (Psalm 119:18).
- The study of systematic theology requires humility (1 Peter 5:5).
- The study of systematic theology requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Consequently, we need to rely on others in our pursuit of studying theology. Through historical theology, we climb on the shoulders of those that preceded us. We invite others to teach us when we read good systematic theology books. We welcome the guidance of our pastors. By participating in a small group or class, we learn from teachers and other like-minded believers.
In addition, we need God to humble us and make us teachable. Often, the truths of the Christian faith may contradict our initial presuppositions. We must let Scripture correct our thinking for this pursuit to succeed.
Most important, we need to remember that our understanding of theology is wholly through the work of the Holy Spirit. Our understanding of theology is not a work of man, but a work of God.
4 Steps to Studying Systematic Theology
- Obtain a basic systematic theology that will be your initial guide and reference. A good first book is Wayne Grudem’s Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know. This book answers 20 common questions of the Christian faith. Another basic systematic theology is Michael Horton’s Core Christianity.
- Find a teacher who can help you study systematic theology. Ideally, this person is an older Christian in your church like your pastor or church leader. It could be a friend or peer who is a little further along this journey.
- Enroll in a class on systematic theology. If your church does not offer a class, find a class at a church or school nearby. There are also systematic theology classes that are available online. The Master’s Seminary and BiblicalTraining.org have online resources that are helpful.
- Remember our final destination is not to reach a certain level of knowledge. Rather, our final destination is to love, serve and worship God more. That is our goal.
My struggle continues to find time and energy to study systematic theology. But when I discipline myself and engage in this pursuit, my view of God deepens. The study of theology emboldens me to persevere in my service to our Lord Jesus Christ. I hope you join me in this journey. You will not regret it.