DEFINING THEOLOGY AND SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY

The purpose of this articles was to have a personal working definition for theology and systematic theology. Here is my attempt:

Theology comes from the Greek words theos (God) and logos (words); it is commonly thought of as word or words about God or gods. Theology is often defined as the study of God, as Alister McGrath states, it is a “discourse about God”[1]. It provides a doctrine that divides what is true from that which is false. Theology requires balance and it is always open. At the very center of theology it invokes a person to respond to God, as a response to God’s divine revelation whether that is to believe in Him or not. Thus, theology is found in any discussion about God. One can never stop doing theology because it needs to be measured against truth.

Many tend to think that theology is primarily a Christian discipline because it is something that must be consistent with Scripture and is a response to divine revelation. Although McGrath states that there is debate about whether a non-Christian can do theology, for the purpose of this exercise, the term theology must be further defined from the modern definition of a “study of religion”, to a more precise and specific definition about Christian theology[2].

Christian theology is the pursuit of God. It is the pursuit of understanding, building and strengthening faith, which is the right and proper foundation for a Christian. It is reflecting on God and responding the Creator’s divine revelation. Christian theology causes Christians to reflect on God, to seek God and think rightly of Him. It teaches the Christian to ask proper questions to help them know what the most important thing is and prepares them to do it well.

Christian theology is vital to the life of a believer. It calls the Christian to revere God and requires humility in the sense that it helps the Christian become more comfortable with God being God and the believer not being God. As an individual studies Christian theology more, and if one is not cautious, the theology, the intellect, the knowledge can destroy faith and cause one to worship knowledge more than God. A good Christian theology is not finished until it is applied and lived out what one has studied about the Almighty. While it is good and proper to study and reflect on God and respond to His revelation, the believer must not spend their whole time in reflection being disconnected from the world around him; disconnection can cause a believer to be irrelevant and worthless. For Christian theology to be vital and worthwhile, it can never cause one to forget the practice of Christian evangelism.

“A Christian theology is reflecting on and articulating the God-centered life and beliefs that Christians share as followers of Jesus Christ and it is done that God may be glorified in all Christians are and do.”[3] Christian theology starts with the ultimate and primary source of the Bible. “Christianity is about belief in a person (Jesus Christ), rather than belief in a text (the Bible). Nevertheless, the two are closely interlocked.”[4] For one to be a Christian, one must have faith. Thus to better define what Christian theology is, faith must be defined. Faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”[5] The Bible gives the believer the greatest amount of knowledge and information about God and who He is. In it, God reveals Himself to all people, but only those who read and respond to God can truly become believers. In Hebrews 11:6, God shares with people about faith and how it is displayed: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

If faith is the foundation of Christian theology, faith is also the tool that is used to ask questions of God and seek God to greater strengthen one’s belief and have knowledge as to why one believes what they believe. Faith causes the believer to reflect and meditate on God, on what He has revealed in Scripture, on the revelations of God, and on the experiences that one has had with God. These actions lead the believer to an expression of those meditations in some form or context. Good Christian theology leads the believer to see that no matter how much knowledge one gains about God, the more they realize they know so little about the infinite God. It invokes the believer to see God for who He is and the gap that is between Him and His perfection and the Christian and their imperfection. Christian theology if it is good and done right is simply the seeking of God in studying Him and being led by Him, to pursue and strengthen the faith of the Christian. Taking all of this information into account, my opinion of Christian theology is the pursuit of any believer to know and trust God by living in submission to His will that results in a life that exemplifies, praises, worships and desires God.

Christian theology is a multidimensional discipline that has at least six different complementary responsibilities, as Stott defines, they are: revelation, tradition, reason, ethics, mission and worship.[6] These responsibilities are not only responses to pursuing God, but challenges to the Christian to live out their faith; it is important to remember that these are individual parts of Christian theology, and not the sources. This leads to the four main sources of systematic theology proposed by McGrath: Scripture, tradition, reason and religious experience. Each of these sources has a distinct contribution to make within the discipline of theology[7].

At the very heart, systematic theology is a discipline that takes all the information God has revealed about Himself, primarily through Scripture but also other sources, and formulates it into an organized structure. Systematic theology as Kenneth Kantzer reveals “is an eminently practical discipline.”[8] Kantzer quotes from eighteenth century theologian David Hollaz who wrote: “[Systematic] theology must be defined: [It is an] eminently practical system, teaching from the revealed Word of God all things which sinful man, who is to be saved, needs to know and do, in order to attain true faith in Christ and holiness  of life.”[9] Systematic theology must be done practically that the Christian may know God intimately and seek God’s Will for their life. While Hollaz only mentions the “Word of God”, to do the discipline right, the Christian must look to other sources. God does not just limit Himself to the Bible, but He reveals Himself through different forms of revelation, natural and general. Stott’s also mentions tradition as another source that illuminates a way to know God more and respond to Him. To not look at all possible areas in which God has revealed Himself and made Himself known is to limit God and limit one’s view of God.

The task of systematic theology is a complete, coherent and comprehensive task. It is a discipline that is both academic and spiritual. It is “Organized on the basis of educational or presentational concerns” and “… on the basis of presuppositions about method.”[10] As Christians, the only way for us to learn the truths God has revealed through Scripture and other sources is by dependence on the Holy Spirit. We must then allow the Spirit to guide our lives in applying those teachings while still being reminded of our constant need for God’s great grace.

Millard Erikson writes: “Systematic theology is a discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, looks for a coherent statement based primarily upon the Scriptures.”[11] Similarly, Lewis Sperry Chafer adds, “Systematic theology is a science which follows a humanly-devised scheme or order of doctrinal development and which purports to incorporate into its system all of the truth about God.”[12] Thus, for the Christian to have true, proper and right systematic theology, they must not limit themselves just to the Bible, but to every available source that God has revealed Himself to us so that the theology is coherent and not contradictory.

The study of theology, both Christian and systematic, can lead to many dangers in one’s life. It can destroy faith and make it something harder than it simply is. It can cause someone to reflect too much instead of act. This study can also lead to pride and cause us to depend too much on our own knowledge, boasting in ourselves instead of complete humility and boasting in Christ and what He has done. Right study of theology requires dependence on the Holy Spirit and recognizing that this is a lifelong journey. The Spirit will teach and guide us, but for theology and faith in Christ to be done right, it must not be a disconnected, worthless time of reflection. Theology and faith must be lived, applied, and organized into a way of communicating those ideas to the masses and follow the call that Jesus left His disciples with in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In a sermon delivered on the immutability of God, 20 year-old Charles Spurgeon reminds us about true and proper study:

The proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. […] But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. […] The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.[13]

J.I. Packer writes, “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you.”[14] Finally, the study of God should lead the Christian along the path of learning, meditating, humility and ultimately to praising God. Based on the evidence provided, it is my belief that systematic theology is the complete study of the doctrines of Christian faith with the purpose of using every method or system possible to pursue all the truths about God that is humanly possible with a humble dependence on the Holy Spirit.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 102.

[2] Ibid, 111-112.

[3] Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 47

[4] McGrath, 105.

[5] Heb 11:1 (NIV)

[6] John R. W. Stott, “Theology: A Multidimensional Discipline” in Doing Theology for the People of God, ed. David Lewis and Alister McGrath (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 4-16.

[7] McGrath, 120.

[8] Kenneth S. Kantzer, “Systematic Theology as a Practical Discipline” in Doing Theology for the People of God, ed. David Lewis and Alister McGrath (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 21.

[9] Kantzer, 21.

[10] McGrath, 105.

[11] Millard J. Erikson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 21.

[12] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, (Dallas: Dallas Seminary, 1947), 6.

[13] Charles Spurgeon, “The Immutability of God: Malachi 3:6,” in Knowing God, ed. J.I. Packer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 17-18.

[14] J.I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 19.

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology. Dallas: Dallas Seminary, 1947.

Erikson, Millard J.. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.

Grenz, Stanley, and Roger Olson. Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Kantzer, Kenneth. “Systematic Theology as a Practical Discipline.” In Doing Theology for the People of God, edited by David Lewis and Alister McGrath, 21-41. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

McGrath, Alister E.. Christian Theology: An Introduction. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Packer, J.I.. Knowing God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973.

Spurgeon, Charles. “The Immutability of God: Malachi 3:6.” In Knowing God, edited by Packer, J.I.. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973.

Stott, John R. W.. “Theology: A Multidimensional Discipline.” In Doing Theology for the People of God, edited by David Lewis and Alister McGrath, 3-19. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

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