What is Systematic Theology?

Chris —  April 29, 2014

Christians should be able to define systematic theology. Sunday (D.V.) I will begin a new preaching unit on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This will be a study in systematic theology – – though it will build on exposition of Scripture. Below is an overview of what is meant by “systematic theology.”

We first need to understand the definition of systematic theology (ST) and it’s relationship to other theological disciplines. Stated succinctly, though not with complete thoroughness or precision, ST considers the overall and systematic teaching of Scripture on particular points of doctrine.

Comprehensive textbooks on systematic theology run thousands of pages (see “How some recent evangelical theologians have organized systematic theology,” below). From its beginning, the Church recognized the necessity of confessional or creedal statements. Some portions of Scripture itself are even thought to quote ancient statements or hymns. See for instance, Colossians 1:15-20 or Philippians 2.

A church doctrinal statement identifies to distill only the most essential points of doctrine. Hence, there is a deliberate attempt to keep it brief.

The most ancient widely accepted statement of faith is the Apostles Creed. See below in this document. The Apostles Creed has remained largely unchanged since 700 A.D. and probably as early as the second century.

Having said that, the Apostles Creed is not Scripture. So the Church has scrutinized it for thousands of year and most now accept the change of not saying explicitly that Christ descended to Hades. (For more on this point see Grudem’s Systematic Theology). So it goes with ST – – the church is always reforming (semper reformanda).

The Relationship of Systematic Theology to other Theological Disciplines

Relationship of Theological DisciplinesThe willingness to consider changes to even the Apostles Creed offers a transition to discuss the relationship of ST to other disciplines is illustrated below. Notice the other disciplines which uphold systematic theology or are foundational to it.

Much could be said about each of the disciplines under and above ST in the above diagram. One thing to notice for our discussion is the place of historical theology. No orthodox church sets out to build a doctrinal statement from “scratch.” Instead, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. None of us would be qualified to make major revisions in systematic theology, nor would any single theologian. No local church can reproduce in 10 years or even 150 years what it has taken the church thousands of years to achieve. Doctrines such as the Trinity or the substitutionary atonement were formulated only after hundreds of years of study and reflection.

In addition to the Apostles Creed, other important theological statements include the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Westminster Standards, and the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Organization of Systematic Theology

The overall study of ST is generally organized in the following way. “Orthodoxy” refers to those points that must be upheld, to deny a point of orthodoxy is tantamount to a denial of the Christian faith. The doctrine of revelation or of how we know God is sometimes considered first. Likewise, the doctrine of humanity is sometimes considered third.

Area of Doctrine Description Major points of orthodoxy
God Doctrine of God Creator of all that existsAttributes: holiness etcTrinity 

Sovereignty/Providence/Plan

Revelation / Bibliology Doctrine of how God reveals Himself Books that make up the Bible (Canonicity)InspirationInerrancy
Christology Doctrine of Christ 100 % Deity and 100% humanity of ChristThat the Christ of the Bible is the historical Jesus – hence reference to Pontius PilateWork of Christ which includes sinless life, death, burial, and resurrection. 
Pneumatology Doctrine of the Holy Spirit Personhood of the SpiritRole in salvation and indwelling
Anthropology / Hamartiology Doctrine of humanity and sin Historicity of AdamImageOriginal sin 

Total lostness/depravity

Soteriology Doctrine of Salvation Faith / repentance – the need to receive the gift of eternal life.Regeneration, Justification, Sanctification, glorificationSubstitutionary atonement
Ecclesiology Doctrine of the Church Marks: Ordinances/sacraments: baptism and communion, disciplineMission
Angelology / Satanology Doctrine of Angels and Satan Reality of Satan and powers of darkness.
Eschatology Doctrine of the final redemptive work of Christ and eternal state Return of Christ / Judgment / ResurrectionEternal states

How Some Recent Evangelical Theologians have Organized Systematic Theology

It is useful to notice how recent evangelical theologians have chosen to organize systematic theology. It is also instructive to see the number of pages that have been written. Here is just a sample from some of the books on doctrine in my library.

Wayne Grudem (Zondervan, 1264 pages) organizes his larger systematic theology as follows: (1)Word of God (2) Doctrine of God (3) Doctrine of Man (4) Christology and Pneumatology (5) Soteriology (6) Ecclesiology (7) Eschatology.

Millard Erickson (Baker, 1302 pages) organizes his systematic theology into: (1)Prolegomena (2) Revelation/Scripture (3) God (4) Works of God (5) Doctrine of Man (6) Sin / Hamartiology (7) Christology (8) Work of Christ (9) Holy Spirit/Pneumatology (10) Soteriology (11) Ecclesiology (12) Eschatology

Robert Reymond (Thomas Nelson, 1302 pages) (1) Revelation/Scripture and Pneumatology (2) God and Man (3) Soteriology and Christology (4) Ecclesiology (5) Eschatology

Michael Horton (Zondervan, 1052 pages): (1) Knowing God/Revelation/Scripture (2) God (3) Works of God which include both creation and providence, doctrine of Man (4) Soteriology, the God who rescues (5) Soteriology and Ecclesiology (6) Eschatology. Horton gives these six sections the following wonderful headings:

1. Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology
2. God Who Lives
3. God Who Creates
4. God Who Rescues
5. God Who Reigns in Grace
6. God Who Reigns in Glory

The Apostles Creed – One of the First Systematic Theology Statements

The Apostles Creed shows how from very early days the church saw the need to confess important doctrines in creedal statements. For our purposes, notice how the Apostles Creed begins, “I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth. . .”

The Apostles Creed concludes with an emphasis on life everlasting.

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,**
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended to the dead*
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God
the Father Almighty.
From thence He shall come to judge the quick
and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy ***universal Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

*This change suggested by Cranfield, Apostles Creed: A Faith to Live By, Grand Rapids (Eerdmans, 1993), page 3. It was first suggested by the International Consultation on English Texts and published in 1970.
** “Spirit” for “Ghost”
*** “universal” for “catholic.

 

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3 responses to What is Systematic Theology?

  1. Have you interacted with Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology?

  2. I have not Daniel. Do you rec it?

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