Systematic Theology: The Blessed Truth of Being Theologically Organized
If all your paperwork rolled like a sea upon your desk, you’d struggle to navigate and prepare your tax returns. If you blanketed your computer’s desktop with all your digital files, you’d smother the writing of a departmental report. So is any unorganized library a maze of confusion.
This is why our cabinets, computers, and shelves have filing systems. And this is why we need systematic theology.
As an amateur photographer, I’ve learned that I need to group my digital picture files by subject and date so that later I don’t have to go scrolling for the big catch that essentially got away from me for lack of hard drive organization. As well, online tutorials often advise reading the camera’s user manual. True, the company designed and built the camera into a flow of working parts, yet it has grouped them by category in the manual to help the photographer make it work best. While we wander down many paths of inquiry we capture and store our discoveries in topical cards of memory along the way; and when it comes time to share we generally access one card at a time.
My daughters collect shells and rocks while strolling the seashore and they organize and display them by similar types. This is the way God has wired us to reflect His way of thinking, Who is a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that in them is, in broad and specific categories during six literal and topical days of division. He made organisms according to their kinds. So Jesus ends the Bible with a retelling of The Revelation in seven related groups of sevens.
To assist us in reasoning and speaking theology we organize it. We group the main emphases of God’s Word into patterned thoughts and references. To make the most of the Scriptures for day-to-day use we systematize. We index by topic. We place the shells of justification in one bucket and lay the rocks of sanctification in another. We remember where we found each along the way and talk about them together on the whole within our Father’s World.
What we label “systematic theology” today was in earlier times called “common places”. This we see even in Isaac Watts’ book, A Guide to Prayer, where he instructs us to “set down in writing all these parts of prayer into commonplaces, and all the observable passages that occur in reading the Holy Scripture or other authors. Or such passages as we hear delivered in prayer that are very affecting to our souls should be written down and registered under those heads. This would preserve in our memories the thoughts and expressions which have had a peculiar quickening influence upon us.” He goes on to recommend books that have topically arranged prayers from the Bible for ease of reference and use: an “oldie but a goodie” by Bishop Wilkins and one “hot-off the press” by Matthew Henry as a contemporary to his own publication. I find using such books has better structured my prayerful thoughts and utterances both within my closet and behind the pulpit.
Our Westminster Confession of Faith is systematic theology. It groups the main emphases of Biblical teachings by category with Scripture proofs. Reflecting its first chapter, John Murray writes, “Since there is in Scripture the consent of all the parts and the unity of the whole, there is what has been called the analogy of the faith or in other words, a system of truth. Creedal statement can and should take account of this and formulate its creed accordingly. This is the principle that governed the representative creeds of the 16th-century Reformation.”
When people come to me with questions about what the Bible teaches they almost always ask about a subject, and I defer to referencing its superb handling in the Westminster Standards. The response is always a smile that seems to say, “Eureka!” How blessed we are with such a resource that answers the common questions about what the Bible mainly teaches regarding faith and life—orderly gathered together in a logical system for quick, practical, and good use.
Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010. A widower, he is the adoring father of his four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.
 Isaac Watts, A Guide to Prayer (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011) , 51. Italics, GVL.
 John Murray, “The Creedal Basis of Union in the Church,” in The Claims of Truth, vol. 1 of Collected Writings of John Murray (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976) , 284.