“Oh dear,” he muttered, his features rearranging themselves into a mask of poorly-concealed dismay.
All I had said, in response to him asking what subject I taught, was “systematic theology.” But those two words, those eight syllables, obviously worked like some kind of incantation on my new acquaintance. I’m not sure what grey specter of deadening soul-bane my words had conjured in his mind, but I know this wasn’t the first party I had spoiled this way.
It’s not exactly the most inviting phrase, systematic theology. It apparently hits the average ear with the grace of a diagnosis. And these are Christian ears I’m talking about: people who trust God, love the Bible, and want to grow in their knowledge of the God and his ways. Apparently even to such fellow-believers, “systematic theology” sounds about as inviting and urgent as phrases like grammatical analysis, differential equations, or recreational domestic taxidermy.
I admit it’s a prickly-sounding set of syllables. But if you are one of the people I just described—a Christian who trusts God, loves the Bible, and desires growth in knowledge of God and his ways—I think you should warm up to systematic theology.
Here are three reasons to make systematic theology a part of your Bible study:
1. To get an overview of the Bible.
By overview, I don’t mean a survey of what’s in each book, or of the timeline of salvation history. Those are good, too. But what systematic theology offers is a way of surveying the essential content of the entire Bible on the most important topics.
What systematic theology offers is a way of surveying the essential content of the entire Bible.
This kind of summary lets you see from a higher level the same content you’ll be experiencing in detail as you read through the text. Both the overview (systematic theology) and the line-by-line reading (what we usually think of as Bible study) are ways of engaging the content of Scripture. One is doctrinal and more like a grasp of the big picture; the other is textual and more like a running commentary.
2. Because you’re probably already doing systematic theology anyway.
Maybe you’ve never had a single thought about how the various things we read in Scripture go together. But most people begin to cobble together some kind of subconscious account of how the variety of things we hear from God in Scripture fit into a larger whole. And generally these accounts that we put together in the backgrounds of our minds are pretty sloppy: they may contain internal contradictions, and they may sound silly as soon as we say them out loud.
Giving focused attention to careful, time-tested doctrinal categories is a much more serious and responsible way of seeing how the truths of Scripture cohere. Bad systematic theology tends to seep into our minds or arise from our own private mental associations. Good systematic theology takes some explicit teaching.
3. To be able to teach.
Mature Christians will find themselves in situations where they need to be able to communicate the truth of God’s revelation to others. We should all strive to have that characteristic that Paul says a minister must have: we should be “able to teach” (2 Tim. 2:24). The goal of systematic theology is to take the things God has revealed to us and restate them in categories that we can grasp and articulate. If somebody asks you what the Bible teaches about the nature of God, you shouldn’t have to respond, “Sit down with me and let’s read this entire book cover to cover to see what we can make of it.” You should be able to state the essential truths clearly, coherently, and concisely.
Zacharius Ursinus, who wrote not only the handy little Heidelberg Catechism but also a massive commentary on it (expanding the teaching tool into, you guessed it, systematic theology), said that the purpose of studying Christian doctrine at the systematic level is
that we may be well prepared for the reading, understanding, and exposition of the holy Scriptures. For as the doctrines . . . are taken out of the Scriptures, and are directed by them as their rule, so they again lead us, as it were, by the hand to the Scriptures.
The comprehensive grasp of doctrinal truth that systematic theology makes possible has to be found on this path: it must arise from Scripture and lead back to it. When it does that, it belongs on our desks and in our minds as an instrument of our growth in the knowledge of God through his Word.
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Biblical theology provides the basis for understanding how texts in one part of the Bible relate to all other texts.
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