Why Study Theology: How Systematic Theology Helps
What comes to mind when you hear the words “systematic theology”? For many Christians, they think of the halls of academia and the debating of obscure and minor details related to God. But for most of the history of the church, systematic theology was a discipline done for the church and by churchmen because systematic theology is really just the orderly treatment of those doctrines that are found in the Bible.
Systematic theology concerns itself with presenting and discussing all that the Bible says about a particular teaching in the Bible. One might for example take the person of Jesus Christ. Systematic theology examines what the Bible says about Jesus and seeks to present the truth about who Jesus is and what He has done in a logical way. Theology begins with the text of Scripture. But a good theologian stands on the shoulders of better theologians. So, as we examine the particular teachings found in Scripture, systematic theology will be sensitive to the language of Church history, especially the creeds, so that we are sensitive the language the church has used through the ages to express the truth in Scripture.
In our postmodern world, one of the biggest objections to systematic theology is the belief that we cannot ever truly organize the truth in Scripture. Everything becomes open to subjective interpretation. Since everything is considered subjective we have no ability to arrive at any conclusion about what Scripture says on any doctrine. Many go further and say that because we cannot overcome such subjectivity the Bible itself has no organized truth in what it presents.
Yet, the Bible itself provides guidelines for systematic theology. First, God reveals himself in Scripture to be a God of order. Second, in His self-revelation, God does not lie; He cannot. His revelations reveal His character and truths about His character. God’s character is consistent and does not change. Therefore, while our understanding might not be perfect and we can err in interpretation, we can examine all that the Bible says about God and His character. Based on Scripture, we can arrive on settled conclusion and confidently say “God is thus because He has said so to us.” Finally, the Bible teaches us that there is a pattern of sound doctrine that has been given to the church (2 Tim. 1:13). This is found in Scripture itself. We are to guard it, keep it, and defend it (1 Tim. 6:12, 20; 2 Tim. 1:13; Jude 3).
So how does systematic theology help?
Systematic theology helps you guard the faith. Systematic theology helps you understand the whole of Scripture and grasp the truths that are consistent throughout. A person who has the big picture of Scripture’s teaching planted in their minds and hearts is protected from error. For example, when one encounters a Jehovah’s Witness, one needs a clear understanding of the whole of what Scripture says about Jesus. We can spot the error because we know the truth.
Systematic theology can help guard against pet interpretations of Scripture. We need to be careful that our theology is derived from the Word of God. We are not to start with an idea and impose it back upon Scripture. So if our systematic theology arises from Scripture, as it should, a good understanding of the truths of the Bible can help against wrong interpretations of particular verses. A basic truth of the Reformation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Many interpreters have gone astray on passages where Scripture says “God repented” because they did not have a good systematic theology that was able to let Scripture interpret Scripture where the Bible clearly says “God is not a man that he should repent.” Difficult though the answer may be, good theology helps us.
Systematic theology helps us instruct children. Systematic theology is not for some advance stage of Christian maturity. But the goal for every Christian is to become secure in Christ and not be tossed around by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). This is why our forefathers in the faith used catechisms: because they believed that the faith needed to be passed on in and orderly and clear manner.
Finally, systematic theology helps us worship. At the heart of the Christian life is knowing God. God desires for me to grow in my knowledge and understanding of Him. This is often reflected in how Paul prays for the church: that I am to grow in understanding and spiritual wisdom. I need to be rooted in Scripture. But as I know the Scriptures as a whole, I need to be able to see the whole of the forest and not just get “lost” in the minutia. Systematic theology helps me know God more by seeing the whole of what He has said in His revelation. It enhances my worship because I have more knowledge of God. Imagine how shallow my worship would be if I was an expert of the Minor Prophets, or the book of Philippians, but had no concept of the larger system of truth of which those books are a part.
Faithful systematic theology does not mean that I will wrap my mind around the entirety of God. That would be impossible. It does however mean that I will grow in my knowledge of God and one cannot truly know God without being lead to a deep worship of God. My Christian life will always be deficient without a good understanding of systematic theology.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.