We’ve all seen them. They consume copious amounts of space in seminary libraries and on our pastors’ bookshelves. We are told we should read it at some point in our Christian walk, but its size is beyond daunting. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous systematic theology. It’s the type of book everyday Christians believe should be relegated to the realm of Bible college and seminary.
But what if I told you every Christian is a theologian? Would you believe me? You might hesitate and grant me that one. But, what if I said reading a systematic theology is not beyond your reach as a Christian? Stop the presses! What in the world are you saying, LaRosa?! Well, yes, this too is a true statement!
Over the course of this Bible study tip we will demystify the realm of systematic theologies and show you that it’s something every Christian can and should approach. You’ll learn what a systematic theology is, what’s inside, how to use it in your studies, and finally some systematic theology resources to get you started.
Let’s start with some definitions.
The first thing we need to define is the word “theology.” The word itself is derived from a combination of two Greek words: “theos” (god) + “logos” (reason/word). Thus, theology is a study of the nature of God, and religious belief by proxy. With such a succinct definition, it is safe to say that anyone who takes up the task of learning about God is a theologian. Therefore, as a Christian, you, my friend, are a theologian. Cool, huh?!
Now, granted, there are some who dedicate their lives to this subject and earn degrees in it. Their learning does not make you any less of a theologian. It simply means they are professional or vocational theologians. But, you are still an everyday theologian because you study and learn about God.As a Christian, you, my friend, are a theologian! Click To Tweet
Now that I’ve proven we’re all theologians, let’s discuss this thing called a systematic theology. We will examine both its broad and narrow definitions.
Systematic theology is a discipline of Christian study that seeks to account for the doctrines of the Christian faith in a coherent, orderly, and rational manner. The field of study can include broad categories such as historical theology, philosophical theology, and apologetics. Historical theology focuses on tracing & understanding the formation of Christian doctrine throughout history. Philosophical theology seeks to understand what can be known of God through reason and the world around us. And apologetics is the defense of the truthfulness of Christianity. All of these rightfully fall under the category of systematic theology as a discipline.
Other disciplines like biblical theology, Old Testament theology, and New Testament theology would also be included in the broad sense of the term.
In the introduction to his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem provides a succinct definition for the narrow view of systematic theology:
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.
So, when we look at a book called a “systematic theology,” we are looking at something with the above objective. Its aim is to present the Bible’s teachings on a specific subject in an orderly fashion. Therefore, when you want to learn about something like, say, the Holy Spirit, a systematic theology will give you everything you need to know while mentioning all the relevant Bible verses to support its claim.
One goal of systematic theologies is helping Christians apply biblical doctrines in the present day. Each area of doctrine has a practical outworking in the life of the believer, and a good systematic theology will bring this to the forefront as you study. It’s not just learned theology, it’s applied theology.
With definitions out of the way, let’s talk about what you can expect to find in a systematic theology.
Now, systematic theologies come in many shapes & sizes. They can be as small as a paperback book to something as large as a multi-volume magnum opus. Some are written for scholars and pastors, while others are written to a more general audience. One systematic theology will give you every single verse that mentions a doctrine and discuss it in all its detail. Another might only give you the most important verses and present the information at a very high level. The field is vast.
Personally, I’ve read all kinds. As part of my ministry training I had to read the entirety of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s 8-volume Systematic Theology. More recently I’ve read through A Puritan Theology, a systematic theology from the writings of the Puritans. I’ve even read parts of others like Geisler and Bavinck. I’ve even read many shorter ones that deal with one specific area of systematic theology.
The beauty of systematic theologies is each is as unique as its author. Seeing the scriptural support each author uses to support their claims is insightful as well. Yet, for all their differences, they all generally cover the same topics.
Here’s what you can expect to find in most systematic theology works.
Prolegomena is simply a fancy way of saying introduction. Many systematic theology volumes include some kind of introductory discourse explaining why they wrote the work, their approach, and what to expect.
While tempting to skip over, there is always lots of important information in these sections that will help you get the most out of what you’re reading. So, be sure to take time to at least skim through this section.
Depending on the systematic theology, this section might get included as part of the introduction. At times it is omitted altogether. Bibliology is the study of Scripture and builds a defense for why Christians believe it to be God’s Word. Such a discussion typically includes subjects like inspiration and inerrancy, as well as discourse on how the Bible came to be. It might also contain topics such as genre, clarity, sufficiency, and how to interpret Scripture.
This section is always valuable in helping the believer defend the Bible as the Word of God.
Theology proper is the study of the doctrine of God. This area of theology has many facets, such as: the existence of God, how he makes himself known, his character, the Trinity, and his attributes, to name a few. Theology proper looks at God generally as he is revealed in Scripture, and often takes a look at the specifics of the personhood of God the Father within the Trinity. Along with soteriology (see below), this doctrine is often the largest within any systematic theology. God is the central character of the Bible, so it only makes sense that one would spend the majority of their time in a systematic theology learning about God. Theology is the study of God, after all.Theology is the study of God Click To Tweet
Sometimes combined with the doctrine of God, angelology and demonology look at the subjects of angels and demons, including Satan. While seemingly sporadic characters in the biblical narrative, you’ll be surprised to know that a systematic can have a lot to say about these higher beings; but, it does so without all the fluff and misinformation. Read and learn exactly what the Bible says about them.
Anthropology as a worldly science looks at the study of human societies and their development. Biblical anthropology, on the other hand, looks at the human race from a different perspective. It looks at how and why God created mankind in his image. The doctrine delves into the nature of man with discussions on “soul” and “spirit” and if they are the same of different parts of man. It also looks at things like the Fall and the current human condition of being dead in sin.
A right view of man sets the stage for the next area of theology.
With man’s fallen condition, the next logical area of study is soteriology, which is the doctrine of salvation. This is a vast subject that covers things like: God’s common grace, the gospel call, and the order of events in salvation (the ordo salutis). It also covers the different stages of salvation which include: justification (regeneration/conversion), sanctification (daily salvation from sin and spiritual growth), and glorification (future salvation). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If you want to know the in’s & out’s of salvation, this is the section to read.
The Greek word for church is ekklesia. That means ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church. Ecclesiology covers material specific to the current operation and function of the Church from the time of the apostles to the present age. It covers things such as: the nature and purpose of the church, its offices, the church’s authority in the life of the believer, the means of grace, baptism, the Lord’s supper, spiritual gifts, and worship.
If you want to know how the church should function from a biblical perspective, this is where you’ll want to spend some time.
The doctrine of “last things” is called eschatology. This doctrine concerns the remaining prophetic events in the biblical corpus. Here you will find thorough teaching on the return of Jesus Christ, the Millennium (1,000 years), final judgment, and the new heavens and earth. Because of its discussion on final things, the subjects of heaven and hell are also discussed. These are topics we’re all interested in as Christians, but are easily intimidated by. After you finish reading through the eschatology portion of a systematic theology it will make a lot more sense.
While Jesus is part of the Godhead and discussed in part in theology proper, he is discussed in detail in Christology. As its name suggests, Christology is an in-depth look at the person and work of Jesus the Christ. Such discussions of Christ often include: Old Testament appearances (or theophanies/christophanies), his role in creation, his nature as both fully God and man, his atoning work on the cross, and the resurrection. Another important study in Christology is understanding Jesus’ tripartite role as prophet, priest, and king.
Want to know all you can about Jesus? Christology is where you want to spend your time.
Last, but definitely not least, is pneumatology. Pneumatology is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. You cannot study two-thirds of the Trinity without giving equal attention to the third member. This section looks at the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the entirety of the Bible and how he works in believers today. You’ll learn that he’s not just some magic force, but just as much God as Jesus and God the Father.
As a Christian, there’s no getting around it, theology matters. But, why does it matter?
Many great men throughout history have debated theology. They did so because knowing the truth about God is paramount. Improper views about God and the Bible are the doorway to false teachings and heresy. What might seem like a minor issue could lead to apostasy and abandoning the faith.As a Christian, there’s no getting around it, theology matters. Click To Tweet
Think about it. Do we want to know what the Bible says or what we think the Bible says on a matter? What if what we think is in the Bible is so far off that it’s a damnable heresy that leads us to hell?
Yes, that’s extreme, but it shows the importance of doctrine and theology in the life of the Christian. We should want to know what the Bible teaches on these issues so they can inform & strengthen our faith.
As such, a systematic theology should be a regular part of our Bible study repertoire.
Now that you know what a systematic theology is and why you should use it, let’s talk about how to use them in your Bible study. There are several ways to incorporate them, but I will give you four ways you can use them with relative ease.
The first way to use a systematic theology is to simply read it like a book. This is the most straightforward way to use them, but it can prove daunting for some. Don’t let that stop you from giving it a try. Here are the steps I follow when using this approach:
This method has served me well and is the one I use when tackling a new systematic theology resource.
Another approach is studying a topic on your own. Use methods outlined in previous Bible study tips, such as a cross-reference or concordance study, and study like you normally would. When you’ve finished your study, consult a systematic theology to double check your findings.
For example, let’s say you are doing a study on baptism. This would likely include concordance work, cross-references, and even a word study. Once you’ve done all you can with your resources, a next step would be to read the section(s) on baptism in your systematic theology. Follow all the steps from the method above. Note anything you missed or misunderstood in your own study, and then go back and study more.
This is a great method for those who are ambitious in their studies and want a deep dive without necessarily using a systematic theology first in their studies.
The third way to use a systematic theology is as reference guide, much like you would a commentary or dictionary. This is similar to the previous method, but uses it purely as a reference book. It works best when you’ve already read through a systematic theology and want to reference it in your studies.
Often times when I’m studying a passage or subject, I will use the index to see if it is mentioned. If so, I will then turn to those pages and glean the information I need. Instead of reading entire chapters, I’ll only read the pertinent sections or paragraphs. This works great when you’ve taken the time to make highlights and notes, because they can draw your attention to what you found important in prior readings.
For any systematic theology I’ve read in full, this is how it continues to be useful in my studies.
Theology that is not applied is useless theology. Anything we learn about God and the Bible should lead to better worship and personal holiness. Therefore, we should not overlook this aspect when we read or study a systematic theology. Every time we approach a systematic theology we should look for how we can apply it to our lives. Whether we’re reading recreationally or using one of the above methods, if we cannot apply what we’ve learned, then we’ve failed in our study.Theology that is not applied is useless theology. Click To Tweet
So, you’re ready to dive into the world of systematic theologies, but you don’t know where to start? That’s okay, I’ve got you covered. Below are some of my favorite systematic theology resources. I have some for those who are just getting started, as well as those that want a bit of a deeper dive.
A Little Book for New Theologians isn’t a systematic theology at all, but it’s a great read for anyone who wants to get their feet wet in this area of Bible study. I read through this book as part of a book club. We were embarking on a long series of books that were the “best of” on each subject in a systematic theology, and this book served as our primer. You can read it in a day or two. By time you’re done, you’ll be more than equipped to take the next steps.
The 5 Minute Theologian is a great resource for those who are not ready to read through a thick systematic theology. The approach of this book is to take the core material of what you would find in a systematic theology and breaks it down into daily 5-minute readings. Its primary focus is giving you a high level understanding of each area of doctrine. I read through this book a few years ago as a daily devotional alongside my Bible reading and was greatly encouraged by it.
R.C. Sproul’s Everyone’s a Theologian is another great book to read if you’re not quite ready for the depths of a systematic theology. In many ways this book is a systematic theology lite. It covers all the areas you would find in a typical theology book, but does so in a way that’s easy to understand and in more manageable chunks. This is the perfect book to get started with for someone that wants more than a brief overview.
Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is one I’ve read through and have enjoyed. Like Sproul, Grudem is an easy read and is quite understandable. Whether you’re a novice or seasoned theologian, this is a one volume systematic theology that anyone can use in their studies. If you want a taste of a full-fledged theology resource, this is the book to go with. It’s the systematic theology many recommend because it’s thorough, easy to read, and focuses on application.
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion has been a go to systematic theology resource for centuries. For anyone in the Reformed tradition that is looking for a good systematic theology to read, this is a good one to go with.
Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is another that every Christian should read at some point. This is a historically grounded work that is broadly catholic in its teachings (catholic meaning the church universal, not Roman Catholic). While decidedly Reformed, any Christian, regardless of theological inclination, can use it to deepen their understanding of God and theology. It comes in 4-volumes or you can read the one-volume abridged edition.
A Puritan Theology is a systematic theology that looks at doctrine as it was understood by the Puritans. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones did a masterful job of sourcing Puritan writings and building a comprehensive theological resource from that era. It is a thick seminary level read, but it is very good.
There are many other resources I could recommend, but these are the ones I would urge you to consider first.
I hope you now realize that, as a Christian, you are indeed a theologian. Don’t believe the lie that theology is relegated to the realm of academics. You can study theology with the best of them!
Resolve to include systematic theologies as part of your Bible study and add at least one title to your library in the coming weeks. I’d love to hear which one(s) you’re considering purchasing. Leave a comment below or send me an email.
This week, meditate and journal on the following passages:
 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 21.