Why Study Theology: Five Reasons
Benjamin B. Warfield wrote a little article for the Homiletic Review in 1897 titled, "The Indispensableness of Systematic Theology to the Preacher." As anything written by Warfield, it is a thoughtful and edifying piece with a clear aim. According to the Lion of Old Princeton, it is through Gospel truth that souls are saved. Thus, it is the prime business of the preacher, who possesses and is possessed by this truth, to proclaim it to men, women, and children. And so, says Warfield, systematic theology is an aid to the preacher in this great work because systematic theology "is nothing other than the saving truth of God presented in systematic form."
There are those today who would take issue with Warfield. Exegetes believe themselves to be purists. Biblical theologians believe themselves to be first cousins of the exegete. But the systematician is often looked upon as the ugly step sister. The one-time Queen of the Sciences has seen better days. Warfield found the situation to be the same in his day. He once quipped that Biblical theology "tosses her fine young head and announces of her more settled sister (i.e. systematic theology) that her day is over."[i] Opponents of the Systematic Sister never weary of accusing her of splitting her hairs and engaging in windy profitless discussion. So, perhaps it might be a good idea to remember why systematic theology is indispensible to the preacher.
First, systematic theology is rooted in God's word. As Warfield said, "Scripture forms the only sufficing source of theology."[ii] In fact, the principle of all Reformed systematic theology can be distilled in a little phrase: God has said it. One can see the obvious correlation between writing a sermon and writing a systematic paper or text. The pastor and the theologian must begin with the Bible.
Second, systematic theology is not an independent and autonomous discipline. According to Warfield, "He who says, 'Systematic Theology' says theological discipline, and calls to mind its correlates in the other theological disciplines."[iii] In other words, systematic theology, queen though she may be, is not independent of exegesis, Biblical theology, and historical theology. As Warfield understood the matter, exegesis leads to Biblical theology or the organization of the scattered results of continuous exegesis into a concatenated whole. The fruit of Biblical theology is taken up by systematic theology and organized into a unified system. Thus, systematic theology takes the truths harvested from the theological disciplines in order to answer the question, "What does the Bible say about x?
Third, the preacher preaches what he knows. This may seem straightforward enough but it needs to be said because too many believe that all one needs to be a preacher is a heart aflame. This is true. But if the flame of the heart passes through a mind deficient of fuel the mouth has a tendency to issue forth smoke. Related to this is the problem of categorization. Some men know more than they seem able to communicate because they have not taken the time to organize or systematize what they have studied in God's word.
Fourth, preaching produces living. Over the years the congregation often begins to resemble the preacher and his preaching. For example, if a pastor places a heavy emphasis on law over against grace in his preaching the congregation will have a tendency to do the same. If he emphasizes grace to the exclusion of law it too will have an effect. Therefore, it is important that the pastor not only know systematic theology but use it to instruct his congregation. The old adage "right doctrine produces right living" is an old adage for a reason.
Fifth, and related to the first point, systematic theology is neither one man's opinion nor the church's creation. Since systematic theology arises from the Bible it is the truth of God which is to be confessed by the church and incorporated into her consciousness. This means that it is the preacher’s duty to know systematic theology in order to preserve, proclaim, and protect the truth of God once delivered to the saints.
Let us end with a final word from Warfield. He said that when systematic theology is "undertaken as the means of acquiring a thorough and precise knowledge of those truths which are fitted to "make wise unto salvation," it will assuredly bear its fruit in the preacher's own heart in a fine skill in rightly dividing the word of truth, and in the lives of the hearers as a power within them working a right attitude before God and building them up in the fullness of the stature of symmetrical manhood in Christ."[iv]
Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.
[i] Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ:P&R Publishing, 2005), 220.
[ii] Benjamin B. Warfield, Studies in Theology, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 63.
[iv] Warfield, 2.288.