If you want to do something well, from running a company, to training for a marathon, to passing classes, keeping a house, raising kids, or cooking meals, it helps to have a system. Yet some of us have been told this our whole lives, and still resist doing things, “systematically”. We prefer to “go with the flow” and “see what happens”, perhaps in search of the illusory “carefree life”, or in hopes of staying flexible, so when “something better” comes along, we can step into it. However, that approach quickly becomes defeating to actually keeping jobs, passing classes, or generally living life to the fullest. You begin to find that time is wasted and that you’re not sure what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, or where your life is headed.
The truth is that for anything we do, we have a system, even if that system is, “I get up when I wake up, I see what comes to mind, and I do it … or not.” Many approach their thinking about God the same way: “I have ideas; I’m not sure what they are; I listen to other ideas; and I’ll see what I come up with in the end.” But for something as important as our thoughts about God, which tell us not only how to live our lives, but what we expect to happen when they ends, it helps to think systematically – that is, carefully, and in a way that dependably fits together.
The goal of Systematic Theology is to organize our thoughts about God (and his Word) in a system, which generally means explaining the truths of the Bible by topics, like, “What does the Bible say about … Jesus?” or “how one can be saved?” or “how to run the church?” or “what is the Bible?” Systematic Theology also tries to relate these different topics to each other, explaining the system of truth that undergirds the Bible as a whole. For example, if the statements “the Bible is the Word of God” and “Jesus is the Word of God” are true, what do they mean, and how do they relate?
Obviously, Systematic Theology is a monumental task, and for that reason, many Christians would like to bypass it altogether, or otherwise give it short shrift. But we do so to our detriment, even as the person who neglects to clean his room because it’s overwhelming may soon find himself buried in mismatched socks. If we go to church regularly, and perhaps even attend a Bible study or small group, the reality is that we engage with Systematic Theology all the time. But what’s is our system? And where is it headed? How do we fit together, and keep together, our varied thoughts about God and the Bible so that we don’t contradict ourselves or live with vague uncertainty about the God we claim to base our lives and hopes of eternity on.
The Bible, as we all know, contains many different books, by many different authors, with many different styles and emphases, who write at different times in history to different audiences with different problems. All this difference can add up to a great deal of confusion, especially when one author seems to contradict another, or even the same author himself. In Biblical Studies (which looks at the Biblical literature itself in its historical settings), this variety often leads to the assumption that the Bible is full of contradictions. While these problems can be resolved within Biblical Studies itself, they also are the purview of Systematic Theology, which can suggest ways in which seemingly disparate parts of Scripture fit together in a unified whole.
In the end, the goal of Systematic Theology is to have a clear and consistent account of what the Bible says about God and other topics it addresses (i.e., everything necessary for faith and life), and an account that we can live by. Because the goal of all knowledge is never knowledge itself, but love (1Co 13). If we can’t account for who God is or what his will is for our lives, or if we must remain uncertain and fluctuating about it, we will make very little headway in living for him. But if we know what his Word says, and if it speaks with an unmistakable, unified voice, then we have a direction in which to plow forward for his glory. And that is ultimate goal of all theology, and life: to live for God’s glory. So pastors should read, write, and teach their people Systematic Theology, and everyone should strive to grow in their understanding of it, because it’s all part of getting organized.
Steven McCarthy is pastor of Walton Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is enjoying life with his wife and son in the Catskill region of Upstate New York.