Thursday, June 18, 2015

Systematic Theology: Some Introductory Comments

* Here are the notes from an introductory lecture about systematic theology I did a few years ago for a high school class.

What is Systematic Theology and Why does is matter?

1.     Definitions:

a.     “Systematic theology is any study that answers the questions, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.”  Wayne Grudem ST, p. 21

b.     “The attempt to summarize religious truth or the belief system of a religious group (such as Christianity) through an organized system of thought carried out within a particular cultural and intellectual context (see method of theology).”  Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, p. 111

c.      “Evangelical theology can be defined as systematic reflection on scripture and tradition and the mission of the church in mutual relation, with scripture as the norm.[1]

d.     John Frame: “theology is the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life.”[2]

e.     “Theology, then, must be a secondary description, a reinterpretation and reproclamation of Scripture, both of its propositional and of its nonpropositional content.  Why do we need such a reinterpretation?  To meet human needs.  The job of theology is to help people understand the Bible better, not to give some sort of abstractly perfect account of the truth as such, regardless of whether anyone understands it or not.  Rather, the job of theology is to teach people the truth of God.  Although Scripture is clear, for various reasons people fail to understand and use it properly.  Theology is justified not merely by its correspondence with the truth—if that were the criterion, theology could do no better than simply to repeat Scripture—but theology is justified by the help it brings to people, by its success in helping people to use the truth.”[3]

f.      “It is all too easy for us to imagine that we have a higher task than merely that of helping people.  Our pride constantly opposes the servant model.  And it is all too easy for us to think of theological formulations as something more than truth-for-people, as a kind of special insight into God himself (which the biblical writers would have written about, had they known as much as we)… Our theologies are merely attempts to help people, generally and in specific times and places, to use Scripture better.”[4]

2.     Goals of systematic theology:

a.     Task-oriented theology

The ultimate aim of theological reflection is to assist in the church’s task of bringing about the “obedience of faith…among all the nations” (Rom. 1:5).  Evangelical theology is task-oriented reflection upon scripture in light of the practical needs of ministry and mission.  Evangelical theology’s task is to be the church’s servant in the extension of the kingdom of God in the world and in the believer’s heart.[5]

Theology should never be a merely academic enterprise, but rather the search for biblical understanding in the context of the ministry and mission of the church.  The point of theological reflection is to “let the earth hear His voice.”  Evangelical theology is properly “task theology,” i.e., theology hammered out in response to the challenges posed by the Great Commission.[6]
Systematic theology is a tool for extending God’s dominion in the world; it is dominion-oriented.[7]

3.     Relationship to other branches of theology:

a.     Biblical Theology: 

“Biblical theology gives special attention to the teachings of individual authors and sections of Scripture, and to the place of each teaching in the historical development of Scripture.”  Wayne Grudem ST, p. 22

·      Two crucial ideas: process and progress

“The first term (process) teaches us that both the character and task of Biblical theology is that of tracing the great themes of salvation history according to their historical order of unfolding.  The second  (progress) informs us that the focal point of Biblical theology is not only the historical unfolding of God’s self-revelation but also the expansion and upward movement of that revelation.”[8]

b.     Historical Theology: “a historical study of how Christians in different periods have understood various theological topics” Grudem, p. 21

c.      Philosophical Theology: “studying theological topics largely without use of the Bible, but using the tools and methods of philosophical reasoning and what can be known about God from observing the universe”  Grudem, p. 21

d.     Triangle: Biblical studies --> Systematic Theology --> Apologetics

·      Need to understand the what the Bible says before we can accurately do systematic theology
·      Need to know what we believe (systematic theology) before we can accurately defend it

4.     Why study systematic theology?

a.     Know God better: John 17.3

b.     Protect the church: 1 Timothy 4.11-16; 2 Timothy 2.14-18; 4.1-5; Titus 1.9-11

c.      Worship: Psalm 145; Revelation 4 and 5

·      Rev 4.11: praise (“Worthy”) for God the Creator

·      Rev 5.9, 12:  praise (“Worthy”) for Lamb as Redeemer

5.     How should we study systematic theology?

a.     Prayerfully

“Men who know their God are before anything else men who pray, and the first point where their zeal and energy for God’s glory come to expression is in their prayers….Yet the invariable fruit of true knowledge of God is energy to pray for God’s cause—energy, indeed, which can only find an outlet and a relief of inner tension when channeled into such prayer—and the more knowledge, the more energy!  By this we may test ourselves.”  J. I. Packer Knowing God, p. 24

b.     With help from others—especially teachers in the church

·       Ephesians 4.8-12 (teachers as gifts from Christ to the Church!  This includes teachers from the past!)

c.      With rejoicing and praise: Psalm 139.17
·      Psalm 19.8; 119.14, 103, 111, 162
·      Romans 11.33-36

d.     With obedience

·      Matthew 7.24-27

“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility?  Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God.  I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it.  If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God?”  Thomas a Kempis The Imitation of Christ (book one, chapter one)

[1] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 43.
[2] John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 76, 81.
[3] John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 79-80.
[4] John Frame The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 80.
[5] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 9.
[6] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 45.
[7] John Jefferson Davis Foundations of Evangelical Theology, 47.
[8] Don Garlington, “The Biblical-Theological Method” in Exegetical Essays (3rd ed.), Wifp and Stock, 2003, p. 1.