Friday, February 13, 2009

Systematic theology

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." --

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.


Anonymous said...

The Bible is essentially the history of redemption. It is also a random garden of theological understanding. Systematic theology is simply an orderly garden......just remember, that every garden has weeds, including the best systematic theology text. We need to pick the weeds and keep our garden purely biblical.

I always smile when people try to separate systematic theology from the Bible. If it isn't biblical, what is the point of having it?



R. L. Vaughn said...

Welcome, Bro. Jim. Haven't heard from you in awhile. Hope all is well.

You're right. If it isn't biblical, there is no point in having it. Systematic theology, of course, is biblical to the extent it follows the Bible. A problem we all have is that our theologies, systematic and otherwise, are all inadequate. It is inevitable that they will be, seeing we are sinners who are fallible. But the real problem in all this is when we don't realize they are inadequate and think we have "arrived". At that point when we study the scriptures, our systems tell us what the scriptures mean (seeing we think we already have it figured out) instead of the scriptures telling us what the truth is. There is no place to stop and rest on our laurels. Unless we are all-knowing -- and we are not -- until the day we die there is something more the Bible has to tell us. And it very well may not fit into our preconceived systems.

So study the Bible systematically; read the systems of others; but may we remember it is the text, the context, the Bible, that must have the final say.

Anonymous said...

I am well, thank you. Just getting old I guess.

I do believe that theology is biblical. If we taught more theology in churches, we might have fewer problems all around.

We never establish a doctrine on one verse or one word, as I see some argue and debate on the BB sometimes. Granted there are some areas that leave more questions than answers, but I find that biblical. I started studying the Bible at age 7 and after 75 years at it, I prolly have as many questions as I have answers in some areas. We learn something new every day.

Perhaps that is why I like your site. There are fresh challenges come along and I have to pause to think about them.

Cheers, and keep at it, mate,


R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks for the compliment. One thing I definitely want to do is cause us all to think about what we believe and why.

One of the backgrounds of this post is the frustration of seeing people read the Bible through some artificially colored lens, so that all the Bible always confirms everything they already believe. If we never learn anything from the Bible that implies we already know it all.

Some person may take what I have written here and run with it and go to seed on it. I don't mean to suggest that what Paul wrote contradicts what Peter wrote, who contradicts what James wrote, who contradicts what Jude wrote, &c. I do believe the Bible is and can be seen as a harmonious whole. But it is often not the harmonious whole in the preconceived way we assume it to be.