Biblical and Systematic Theology: Foundations

All philosophical and theological or doctrinal work revolves around definitions of terms and the concepts expressed by the use of those terms. Everyone, Christian or not, engages in theology, and has doctrine. This is because all humans are created in God’s image, make knowledge claims and live them out in God’s creation. If we can distinguish between theology and doctrine, that distinction is, to say the least, thin. Theology can be briefly defined in a Christian way as the study of the Triune God and the beliefs and actions that feed and result from this study.

This definition expresses a union between beliefs and actions, and highlights a moral component. This union was created by the Triune God, because he created us in his image, so study of him will reveal this union. We do not choose to unite beliefs and actions, nor can we choose to actually separate them. We can think and act as if they are separated, but this does not actually separate them, although it does have serious consequences for those who act as if they are separated.

Since God is Triune—Three Persons in One Being—and he is seen or experienced in and through creation, we cannot avoid thinking and living in a unitary system marked by distinctions between realities. We learn and know truth in the very act of distinguishing one reality from another, while understanding their relationship to each other, and to other realities. Because God created time and space and placed us in it, we think and live in an historical progression. These truths are foundational for systematic and biblical theology.

Christian theology must be governed by God’s revelation of himself through his word written and made flesh—the Lord Jesus. Christian theology is a secondary discipline. That is, in order to engage in it one must do something prior to it, namely, read the Bible. While reading the Bible is necessary for Christian theology, it is not sufficient for completing the task of theology. Theology is taking what is in the Bible and organizing that content in a particular way, and then expressing what one believes is true about it by what one says and does. The latter includes not simply what we do that others can see, but how we feel; even our feelings are subject to God’s revelation in his word written, made flesh and the whole physical creation.

For centuries, Christian theologians have organized theology around various branches or categories. Exegetical, canonical, historical, systematic, and biblical are some of the more popular ways to subdivide the work of theology. Each of these can be further subdivided. While these branches are interrelated and effect each other, they are each marked by different features.  

The term biblical in biblical theology does not mean that it is simply faithful to the bible. All Christian theology in all its branches seeks faithfulness to Scripture. The term biblical in biblical theology is being used in a precise or technical sense. Biblical theology traces the progressive, historical and organic development of the main story of Scripture as that story progressed in history from Genesis to Revelation. Systematic theology organizes and expresses theological content by various doctrinal categories such as Scripture, God, Man, Christ, Salvation, the Church, and Last Things. Each category can be further sub-divided as the relationships between the categories and in the categories are identified.

In recent years, the union between biblical and systematic theology has been emphasized. This has meant showing how particular themes and categories within Christian theology are progressively revealed, expanded upon and given precise expression from Genesis to Revelation. Most of us likely recognize that Adam sinned in the Garden, as recorded in Genesis 3. Yet, as we continue reading Scripture we can gain a clearer and more expansive view of sin. All the organic properties of the doctrine of sin are present in the Garden of Eden account, but the fuller, more precise picture of sin is only grasped by us as we keep reading about God’s work in saving a covenant community for the worship of himself. The communal elements to sin that were present with Adam and Eve are given fuller expression in Old Covenant Israel’s life and even more so in the life of the church in the New Covenant era. All the categories or topics that fit within the study of systematic theology can be traced through the biblical storyline; systematic and biblical theology do go together.

David P. Smith, M.Div. (Covenant Seminary), Ph.D. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.   

David Smith