Systematic theology and the Bible.
Anyone who purchases and peruses a Systematic Theology will recognize a vast difference in structure, appearance, style and organization between it and the Bible. Why? Is that good, bad or indifferent?
What is Systematic Theology?
A sampling from the internet indicates a hodge-podge of ideas that have a core agreement. For a concise definition, Norman Manzon says the goal of systematic theology "is to address and arrange all Bible subjects topically in a formal, systematic arrangement."
"Systematic theology is a discipline of Christian theology that attempts to formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith and beliefs. Inherent to a system of theological thought is that a method is developed, one which can be applied both broadly and particularly." -- Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia
"Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?' about any given topic.
"This definition indicates that systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic." -- Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, pg. 13)
According to John Stevenson, systematic theology is "the study that follows an analytically devised scheme to organize into a single system all of the truth that we have about God and His universe."
"The word theology means 'study of God'. Systematic refers to something being put into a system. Systematic theology is, therefore, the division of theology into systems that explain its various areas. For example, many books of the Bible give information about the angels. No one book gives all the information about the angels. Systematic theology takes all the information about angels from all the books of the Bible, and organizes it into a system - angelology. That is what systematic theology is all about - organizing the teachings of the Bible into categorical systems." -- GotQuestions.org
The benefits of Systematic Theology
The practical benefit of systematic theology is the collecting of all the information on any particular topic and studying it as a unit -- all the Bible says about creation, all it says about redemption, all it says about the church, all it says about baptism, &c. In that sense systematic theology is Bible study and based on the Bible. When placed in book form there is usually a summarization of the various subjects by chapter. It is ordered and presented in a logical (and sometimes "chronological") fashion to attempt to make it easy for the human mind to grasp.
The pitfalls of Systematic Theology
When we describe a Systematic Theology as a presentation that makes it easy for the mind to grasp, that brings up a question. Given the vast difference between a Systematic Theology and the Bible, do we then conclude that God has presented the Bible in a way that is difficult for the human mind to grasp? If the answer is no, then why do we need systematic theology? If the answer is yes, then (1) did God intend to present His truth in a comprehendible fashion, but did not, or (2) are we foolishly trying to make easy something God has purposefully made difficult? I'm not sure I have the answers to these questions.
Perhaps the most dangerous element of systematic theology is not the system itself, but how the individual Christian responds to it. The individual may allow the theologian to do his or her studying of the entire range of the Bible on any given subject. Once he falls into that trap, he may then study the Bible not with a "what does this mean" attitude, but with a "how does this fit my (adopted) theology" attitude. (And this can even be a problem if we have our own systematic theology.) John Stevenson wrote, "We must recognize that God and the Scriptures rule over our theology and not the other way around." For many individuals, their system rules the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures forming their system. Sometimes this happens by forming a system without taking into account all the Scriptures have to say on a given subject. With the preconceived ideas in tow, each verse or paragraph or chapter is forced through the theological grid we've developed. We effectively inoculate ourselves from the Scripture rule as we hide safely behind our system. "It can't mean that!" "That would contradict what I believe about ...." (Maybe what I believe about .... needs to be contradicted.)
Probably speaking of other systems, Alfred Lord Tennyson nevertheless speaks truth to the fate of our theological systems:
Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be.
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, are more than they.
("In Memoriam", 1850)
May our systematic theology be the theology of the Bible.