Systematic Theology

For many in our postmodern age, the term "systematic theology" conjures everything modern and distasteful. The term theology is bad enough—theologians make statements of certainty, and for postmodernists (or anti-modernists, in many ways a more fitting title) there is nothing so arrogant, so dull, and so used to oppress the weak as certainty.

But it's the qualifying word systematic that postmoderns really hate. For those thoroughly awash in the prevailing worldview, there is more virtue in messiness and confusion than in order and assurance, and anything systematic is simply a modernist ploy to impose order on that which by nature is organic and disordered.

What else can we expect when a civilization gives up the idea of a creator God who runs things according to his will? If all we are is a mixture of chemicals and atoms who came to be what we are as the result of cosmic chance, then everything really is just a big mess, and any semblance of order or intentionality is simply an illusion or a lie.

It's hard to blame people who accept naturalistic materialism for rejecting anything orderly or list-oriented. What's much more difficult is to see how people who claim faith in Jesus Christ can join in this rejection. Do we not believe that Christ is God revealed in human flesh, that the Bible is his word to us, and that we are to receive this word in faith?

Any Christian by implication believes these things. Christians believe that we can't know anything exhaustively (certainly not God!), but that we can know things truly because God himself has revealed them to us. We believe that there is order in the universe and the world because an orderly God created them, and that he has given human beings the ability to know things and not to wander around in the false humility of uncertainty.

Theology is the study of God; systematic theology is that study organized by topic. It's as simple as that, though the actual content of such study is often quite difficult to understand. Studying the things of God by general topic, however, makes the whole task much less daunting and approachable.

In order to actually get anything out of systematic theology, though, it's essential that one actually believe that things can be known about God, and that those things are to be found in the Bible. It won't do to group doctrines into categories like theology, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. if you think those are ultimately empty jars that must remain empty in the interest of postmodern uncertainty.

Many Christian thinkers in the postmodern world have begun to rethink systematic theology, and many have moved toward biblical theology as a substitute. Biblical theology (not identical with narrative theology, though similar in many ways) attempts to construct theology out of the narrative of Scripture, moving from Genesis to Revelation in order to understand God, redemption, and eschatology.

Biblical theology is deeply important, and has at various times in human history been sadly overlooked and undervalued. The Bible does contain a narrative, and God does unfold his revelation gradually through the stories of his people and his dealings with them and what are generally called "the nations."

Yet it's important to remember that the Bible is not only a narrative. God makes many propositional statements about himself through the writers of the Old and New Testaments ("God is love" being the most famous), and these give us a clue about one of the many ways we ought to think about God—as a God who speaks truths that can be analyzed and understood.

In some ways, biblical theology can only exist with the help of systematic theology. Theologians have long recognized the truth that the clear passages of Scripture interpret the less clear or more difficult passages, and systematic theology excels at organizing the clear passages in an accessible whole.

There's also a third method of theological study that balances the other two. If it was better known, it would probably incur more ire even than systematic theology, but it's indispensable for understanding both systematic and biblical theology, especially in the context of the various denominations and biblical interpretations.

The third method is called dogmatic theology. Dogmatic theology is that which studies the doctrines formulated by the church based on study of God's word. These doctrines are often not explicitly stated in the Bible but are clearly present in it, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. Dogmatics are usually associated with a particular branch of Christianity, such as Herman Bavinck's classic Reformed Dogmatics which is a multi-volume exploration of the central teachings of the Reformed church.

None of these three approaches to theology is sufficient by itself. All three work together and are essential for full appreciation and understanding of God's word. Yet systematic theology is usually the best place to start. All of the important topics within the study of theology are presented under the general heading of systematic theology, and provide the basis for understanding more nuanced methods of study.

You'll find both systematic and dogmatic theology in this section. In a sense, dogmatics are more confession-specific exercises in systematic theology, though there are a lot fewer examples of dogmatic theology than systematic theology. The study of God is essential for any confessing the Christian faith, and these books are excellent entry points into the historic stream of theological study.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.


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