Systematic or Biblical Theology?
For those who are unfamiliar with the term theology or have yet to undertake a study of theology, it can be quite daunting due to the vast scope and weight of the topic. For if God is truly the self-existent, eternal, and sovereign Creator of the universe, one should expect there to be a substantial (and diverse) range of material written about God.
So to simplify the topic of theology for the beginning theology student, it can take a few forms. First, we can say that theology, which is a combination of the transliterated Greek words logos and theos, denotes “words about God,” or “thoughts about God,” or “the study of God.” These are fairly loose interpretations, but they convey a sufficient conceptual understanding. Second, theology can also denote the idea of “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” In other words, if God truly does reveal Himself to us, then how does He want us to think about Him? Moreover, how does God want us to live our lives in light of the truth He has revealed about Himself? And third, in the Reformed theological tradition, there is a well-known aphorism: “orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy,” which denotes, “right doctrine leads to right practice,” or “right thinking leads to right living.”
In other words, how we rightly (or wrongly) think about God will have an effect on how we live our lives and how we practice our faith.
Scripture passages such as Ephesians 2:8-10 and Titus 3:4-8 are instructive here. As the late Reformed theologian B. B. Warfield once noted, the character of our religion is determined by the character of our theology.
Once one begins to dive into the deep waters of theological studies, they will soon discover that there are several related branches in the field of theology, such as systematic theology, biblical theology, historical theology, pastoral theology, and even natural theology. Regarding our topic at hand, Millard Erickson defines systematic theology as: “that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in contemporary idiom, and related to the issues of life.” For another helpful definition of systematic theology, D. A. Carson states:
“The branch of theology that seeks to elaborate the whole and the parts of Scripture, demonstrating their logical (rather than their merely historical) connections and taking full cognizance of the history of doctrine and the contemporary intellectual climate and categories and queries while finding its sole ultimate authority in the Scriptures themselves, rightly interpreted.”
In contrast, the study of biblical theology has in mind a different goal. As William Klein asserts, “Biblical theology relates more closely to the development of theology within the historical development of the Bible itself…it sets forth the message of the books of the Bible in their historical setting.” Thus, we notice that the discipline of systematic theology seeks to demonstrate the significant logical connections derived from the Scriptures (hence, a system of doctrine), whereas the discipline of biblical theology seeks to demonstrate primarily historical connections as the Bible unfolded in history.
I have benefitted greatly from such systematic theologians as Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, James Montgomery Boice, and Louis Berkhof. I have also benefitted from shorter works of systematized theology, such as R. C. Sproul’s Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Since most systematic theology books are quite thick and perhaps too intimidating for a newer theology student, I highly recommend Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. It outlines all the core doctrines of Christianity in a systematic fashion, yet is at a more introductory level for those just starting out in systematic theology. Another excellent shorter work for the beginning theology student is J. I. Packer’s Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.
Most churches at some point turn to systematic theology, since most churches develop their own statement of beliefs, usually referred to as a Statement of Faith. Such statements outline the church’s views on God, the Trinity, the Scriptures, the fall of man, justification, sanctification, baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc. Oftentimes, a church’s Statement of Faith is adapted from a prior confessional standard within its denominational history. For example, the church I belong to is in the Reformed Baptist tradition; thus our Statement of Faith is adapted from the Abstract of Principles (1859). The Abstract of Principles is based upon the Second London Confession (1689), which was itself a Baptist revision of the Westminster Confession (1647).
Lastly, systematic theology is useful for both personal study as well as small group study, since it is a helpful tool which allows us to glean important biblical truths pertaining to various categories, in order to understand the overall theology of the Bible. For example, it is quite helpful to learn about biblical concepts such as “atonement”, “law”, or “the Trinity” from a work of systematic theology, since it fleshes out its various uses and implications throughout the whole of Scripture. Some caution must be taken however, since the categories used by systematic theologians are not necessarily those of the biblical writers. Secondly, there may be a tendency by some systematic theologians to “read into” the biblical material in a way that reflects their own perspective and pre-understandings, based on their particular background and theological heritage.
Ultimately we must continually pursue the truth of Scripture, whether systematically or biblically (in the theological sense), with the purpose and goal of growing deeper in love with the Lord and as a disciple of Christ.
Dan is a Consultant Business Systems Analyst at HSBC in Arlington Heights, IL. Dan is also a founding member and deacon at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL. Dan is married to Stephanie, and they have three children: Joseph, Daniel and Grace.