The good news of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he accomplished by his death, resurrection, and exaltation—is simply incoherent unless certain structures are already in place. You cannot make heads or tails of the real Jesus unless you have categories for the personal/transcendent God of the Bible; the nature of human beings made in the image of God; the sheer odium of rebellion against him; the curse that our rebellion has attracted; the spiritual, personal, familial, and social effects of our transgression; the nature of salvation; the holiness and wrath and love of God. One cannot make sense of the Bible’s plot line without such basic ingredients; one cannot make sense of the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus without such blocks in place.
Theology means diverse things to people. For some it is an academic discipline that describes various theologians and their theologies, and thus only for professors or pastors, but not for the everyday Christian. For others, theology is a speculative, esoteric discipline, which often leads us away from Scripture, and which is detrimental for a vibrant relationship with the Lord. Others think of theology, especially “systematic” theology as imposing “systems” on Scripture, thus removing it from Scripture and making it less than “biblical.”
Whatever people may think theology is, sadly, in the church, it has fallen on hard times. The evidence for this claim is not hard to find. On a biennial basis since 2014, Lifeway and Ligonier have conducted “The State of Theology” poll. When basic theological questions are asked of self-identified evangelicals, it is evident that many are lacking even a rudimentary theological understanding. For example, in the 2020 poll, 96% of evangelicals agreed that “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Yet 30% of these same people affirmed that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” and 65% agreed that “Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God”—a contradiction of the first statement. However we try to make sense of these paradoxical answers, it minimally reveals that our churches are lacking basic doctrinal knowledge.
However, this should not surprise us. We have privileged religious experience and pragmatics over disciplined thinking about Scripture. For many, theology is a hard “sell,” especially in the age of social media where careful thought is replaced by images and tweets. Theology has little “cash value;” what we want are instant answers to meet our felt needs. And we especially fear divisions within the church that often occur when careful theological thinking confronts false teaching.
It is imperative that these “popular” misconceptions of theology are corrected by replacing them with a proper understanding of theology. As we begin our study, the purpose of this chapter is to define what systematic theology really is. We will do so by first reflecting on what systematic theology is in Scripture before identifying some of its basic elements and its relation to the other theological disciplines. Our aim is to demonstrate that systematic theology is not optional for the church; it is fundamental to our thinking rightly about God, the self, and the world. Theology is basic to Christian discipleship, and it is the culminating discipline, which leads to worldview formation. Theology is not a discretionary exercise; it is essential for the life and health of the church, and whether we realize it or not, everyone has some kind of theology. But the most significant question for us is whether our theology is true to Scripture or not. If it is not, this is serious since wrong ideas about God and Scripture result in disastrous consequences. Ultimately, what is at stake is the issue of truth and whether the church is faithful to Scripture’s command to “demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4b-5).
Theology and Scripture
Historically, systematic theology has been viewed as the “queen of the sciences.” As the “queen,” she is the beautiful capstone and culmination of all the disciplines, especially the theological disciplines. Properly understood, theology is the “study of the triune God,” who is our Creator and Lord, and thus the source and standard of all knowledge and truth (Prov. 1:7; Isa. 46:8-10; Rom. 11:33-36). In fact, the summum bonum of knowledge is the knowledge of God. In fact, all human knowledge, whether in creation or Scripture, is grounded in God’s speech and self-disclosure. For humans to know anything, we are dependent on God’s initiative to make himself known to us. For this reason, theology is not something reserved for the academic theologian, pastor, or spiritually-minded Christian. Rather it is the calling and responsibility of every human to know God as their Creator and Lord. And it is especially true for God’s redeemed people, who are re-created in Christ Jesus to know the only true God (John 17:3).
At its heart, systematic theology is the obedient task of the church to use renewed reason by reflecting faithfully on the whole of Scripture and apply its teaching to every area of life. In other words, theology is the discipline that seeks “to think God’s thoughts after him”—for the praise of his glory and the good of the church. Viewed this way, theology obeys what God commands his people to do.
For example, think of our Lord’s command in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Under the authority of King Jesus, we are to “make disciples of all nations,” baptizing them into the name of the triune God, and “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” To obey our Lord’s command requires careful biblical and theological thinking, knowing the Scripture, rightly thinking of who the Father, Son, and Spirit are, and faithfully applying all of Scripture to people’s lives. This is what theology is. Paul exhorts Timothy to “pay close attention to [his] life and [his] teaching,” which has life and death implications (1 Tim. 4:16). He is commanded to “be diligent to present [himself] to God as one approved, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Titus is exhorted to hold “to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). All of these exhortations require that theology must be done. One must first understand Scripture to have correct teaching (or doctrine), and one must refute error by applying the teaching of Scripture properly. However, it is not only leaders in the church who must know sound theology; all believers must be able to be “ready at any time to give a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). To obey this command, all believers must first know sound teaching in order to defend it against various objections. All of this requires rigorous and sound biblical and theological instruction.
So what, then, is systematic theology? In its most basic sense, systematic theology is the orderly, comprehensive “study of the triune God” and all things in relationship to him (Gk. theos [God] + logos [words, study of]). John Webster states it this way: Christian theology is the work of renewed, biblical reasoning to consider a twofold object: “first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son, and Spirit and his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him.” B. B. Warfield defined theology in a similar way: “Theology … is that science which treats of God in himself and in his relations” to humans and the world. An older term to describe systematic theology is “dogmatic theology.” In this work, we will use these terms interchangeably, although technically dogmatic theology refers to “core biblical doctrines officially established in a church’s confessional statements,” and as such reflects the conclusions of a particular community or tradition’s biblical reasoning from Scripture.
If this is what systematic theology is, we can now see why there is no higher calling or study. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the famous question: “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In Scripture, central to our glorifying God is the knowledge of God. In fact, the purpose of our creation is to know and love God as his image-bearers and covenant people (Matt. 22:37-40). Think of how the new covenant relationship is described between God and his people: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD” (Jer. 31:34a). There is no higher calling and nothing more urgent than for humans as God’s creatures, and especially God’s redeemed people in Christ, than to know our triune God in all of his majesty, beauty, and holy splendor (Ps. 89:16; Isa. 11:9; John 17:3). The life and health of the church is directly dependent on our knowledge of God, and thus the doing of theology.
In fact, as Herman Bavinck rightly reminds us, theology is really nothing but the knowledge of God, which is then applied to every area of life. Bavinck writes: “So, then, the knowledge of God is the only dogma, the exclusive content, of the entire field of dogmatics [theology]. All the doctrines treated in dogmatics—whether they concern the universe, humanity, Christ, and so forth—are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point. Dogmatics is always called upon to ponder and describe God and God alone… It is the knowledge of him alone that dogmatics must put on display.”
The assumption undergirding such a view of theology is that it is an objective discipline or science, grounded in the triune God who is truly there and who has made himself known to us. This understanding of theology stands in contrast to “liberal” theology that broadly views theology as the study of “religion” or “faith”—a “subjectivist” idea. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s understanding of theology is a good example of this. For Schleiermacher, theology is the analysis of the religious consciousness, the feeling of absolute dependence. As we will note in chapters 2-3, the problem with such a view is that theology is made independent of Scripture, and its source is not directly grounded in God’s divine speech but in one’s personal experience that is mediated through the communion of saints. But personal experience, even mediated through the church, is never the final authority for the theologian. In fact, this view of theology suspends the question of objective truth. “Religion” is more about our experience of and search for the divine. But for such a view, God becomes an aspect of human experience, a view contrary to historic Christian theology. Theology is not about us finding a way to talk about God from the fabric of human experience; instead, it is about the triune God choosing to make himself known to us.
In addition, John Frame defines systematic theology as “the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life.” The focus on “application” is important because it reiterates what people often forget about theology, namely, that theology applies to every area of our lives. If we combine the definitions of Webster and Frame, we can say that systematic theology is the study of the triune God and all things in relationship to him which involves the application of God’s Word to all areas of life. Furthermore, Frame’s introduction of “application” into the definition of theology not only helps us think about what theology is but also how it is done. Although we will say more about theological method in chapter 4, at this point, working with our definition of theology, we can say that the doing of systematic theology minimally involves two steps.
First, theology requires that we apply God’s Word. This not only assumes that Scripture, as God’s Word written, is first-order and thus foundational for our theology, but also that a right reading of Scripture is central to the doing of theology. The Bible is more than a collection of isolated texts from ancient history. Instead, Scripture is God’s unfolding revelation of his eternal plan that moves from creation to the new creation, centered in the coming of Christ. Thus, a correct reading of Scripture requires that individual texts be located in relation to the Bible’s unfolding covenantal story and ultimately in light of the entire canon fulfilled in Christ. Careful attention must be given to the Bible’s own presentation of its content, categories, and teaching, which, as we will note below, involves the doing of biblical theology.
In this regard, Charles Hodge’s well-known definition of theology requires modification, along with Wayne Grudem’s definition that is dependent on Hodge. For example, Hodge defines theology as “the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.” Likewise, Wayne Grudem defines theology as the study that answers the question: “‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic,” which involves “collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.”
No doubt there is truth in what Hodge and Grudem say. Systematic theology does seek to know what the entirety of Scripture teaches on any given topic, hence the term “systematic.” Yet, the problem with such definitions is that they fail to do justice to what Scripture actually is. Scripture is not a theological dictionary or a storehouse of propositions and facts, although it is thoroughly propositional. Instead, Scripture is first-order God-given language that is comprised of many literary forms that require careful interpretation, and it is an unfolding revelation given to us over time, a point we will develop in chapter 4. Theology, then, does not simply collect texts and arrange them properly as if we remove texts out of their immediate and overall canonical context. Instead, Scripture, as God’s unfolding revelation over time comes to us in a specific order and within its own interpretive framework. Texts have to be interpreted and made sense of in light of their redemptive-historical context and ultimately in terms of a closed canon. Our task is to understand individual texts in light of the entirety of Scripture and then to “put together” Scripture and all that it teaches “on its own terms.”
Another way of stating this is that Scripture is a word-act revelation. It not only recounts God’s mighty actions in history; it is also God’s interpretation of his redemptive acts, through human authors, and thus true, objective, and authoritative. For this reason, Scripture’s own interpretations and descriptions are infallible and they serve as our “interpretive framework” or “spectacles” for thinking about God, the world, and ourselves. Thus, to apply Scripture first entails that we interpret Scripture correctly as an entire canon.
Second, theology requires that we apply Scripture to all areas of life. This entails that theology is more than repeating Scripture; instead, theology has a “constructive” element to it. This “constructive” element not only “puts together” all that Scripture teaches; it also involves application to every area of life. For this reason, theology is foundational for worldview formation, as it seeks to integrate God’s revelation in nature and Scripture as an exercise of “faith seeking understanding.” As we take the Bible’s first-order description, we seek to understand Scripture in terms of application, logical implications, and metaphysical entailments. No doubt, we do so with help from the past, but we also seek to apply Scripture to the issues of our day in order to teach the church sound doctrine and refute the errors of both the past and present age. God has not given us his Word for only one aspect of our lives; God’s Word applies to every area of life, just as Christ’s Lordship is over everything. Abraham Kuyper captured this point well with his famous words: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
We will return to this point in subsequent chapters, but let me briefly illustrate what this second step looks like in the doing of Christology. To answer the question of who Jesus is, we first turn to the entire canon of Scripture. After we do so, we discover that the Jesus of the Bible is utterly unique; he is God the Son from eternity who, in the incarnation, added a human nature to himself (John 1:1, 14). Yet, this biblical presentation raises some legitimate theological questions that require understanding and theological construction, even the use of extra-biblical language, concepts, and judgments. For example, how should we think of the relation between Jesus as the Son and the Father and Spirit? Or, how should we understand the relationship between the Son’s deity and humanity, given the Creator-creature distinction (Phil. 2:6-11)? Or, how do we make sense of Jesus’s statement that he does not know certain things, if he is God the Son and thus omniscient (Mark 13:32)? To answer these questions, the “constructive” element of theology is done, which seeks to “understand” Scripture and “put together” the biblical teaching in such a way that accounts for all the biblical data. It is not enough to repeat Scripture, we must also “make sense” of it in order to disciple believers in the truth and to obey Scripture’s exhortation to always be ready to give a reasoned defense for what we believe.
In the end, the purpose of theology is to help God’s people understand Scripture better so that we can rightly know God’s Word, apply it to our lives, and to fulfill our calling as the church to know God and to make him known. As Christians, we are called to bring all of our life, language, and thought into conformity with God’s Word. As we do, we also formulate a well-thought out biblical worldview so that we obey Scripture’s command: “Do not conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12:2).
Theology in Scripture
With this basic idea of what systematic theology is in place, let us now turn to a biblical example of theology being done before our eyes. Sometimes it is easier to grasp what theology is by seeing it practiced, and it also has the added advantage of letting Scripture serve as the paradigm for our thinking about what theology is and how it is to be done. No doubt, in Scripture there are many examples of the doing of theology, yet Paul’s Athenian address is most instructive for us today for a variety of reasons (Acts 17:16-32).
First, Paul’s reasoning illustrates that theology is biblical in that it is grounded in the Bible’s unfolding story from creation to Christ. Even more: the Bible’s content, categories, and theological framework serve as the interpretive matrix by which he explains the gospel, interprets the world, diagnoses the human problem, gives its solution in Christ, and applies the truth of Scripture to his hearers. Second, building on the first point, Paul’s reasoning illustrates that theology presents a well-thought out worldview or philosophy, that is, a total perspective on life, or a grand metanarrative, which allows him to interpret and critique all other theologies or worldviews. Scripture’s own description of reality provides the “spectacles” by which Paul thinks and acts. Theology, then, is not only “constructive” in describing and explaining the Bible’s message; it is also “apologetic” by calling non-Christians to repent of their thinking and suppression of the truth and to turn to the only source of truth, the triune God of Scripture and his Word. Third, Paul’s reasoning illustrates that theology is contextual, that is, it addresses a specific context and people and it is applied to that context in precision and power. Theology is not merely interested in giving us a list of timeless propositions; it is interested in applying God’s authoritative Word to specific people and bringing God’s truth to bear on every area of life.
Each of these points is important to understand what theology is and how it is to be done. Yet, the third point links what Paul is doing in his day and encourages us to do likewise today. Why? For this reason: in many ways, our present cultural context is parallel to what Paul faced at Athens in the first century, and how he approaches the theological task is instructive for us. As we will discuss in chapter 2, our present context is pluralistic, postmodern, secular, and post-Christian. Central to the thinking of our age is a denial of objective truth, largely due to the embrace of viewpoints that cannot account for a proper ground for objective truth, in contrast to Christian theology. Specifically in the West, this has resulted in the acceptance of a multiplicity of worldviews other than Christianity and a corresponding biblical and theological illiteracy along with a rising syncretism. Our context is much more similar to what Paul faced at Athens, except for the post-Christian aspect of it. This is why Paul’s Athenian address and biblical reasoning is so instructive for us; he teaches us how to present the truth of the gospel in terms of an entire biblical-theological framework rooted in the Bible’s story, which illustrates for us the theological task.
To underscore this point, think about how Paul, in the book of Acts, proclaims the truth of the gospel—including an entire theology—depending on his audience. Normally, when Paul went to a city, he first went to the synagogue where he reasoned with the Jews and God-fearers, and his proclamation of the gospel followed a basic pattern: he reasoned from the Old Testament that Jesus is the promised Messiah, who in his life, death, resurrection, and in his sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost had ushered in the long-awaited kingdom of God and new covenant era (see Acts 13:5, 14-41, 44-45; 14:1; 17:2, 10, 17). Paul could begin this way because he and his Jewish audience had a common theology. They both believed the Old Testament, and thus, when Paul spoke about “God,” “Messiah,” “covenants,” “sin,” and so on, he spoke to people with a common worldview.
At Athens, however, Paul’s audience and context was quite different. The Athenians did not accept the Old Testament; they were steeped in idolatry, pluralistic in their outlook, and ignorant of the biblical teaching and worldview necessary to understand even the most rudimentary truths that Paul needed to communicate. Paul’s preaching of Christ and the entire biblical worldview in the midst of the Areopagus, therefore, had a different starting place and structure than his preaching in the synagogues.
In Athens, Paul’s gospel reasoning did not immediately begin with Jesus as the Messiah. Instead, he first built a biblical and theological frame of reference so that his proclamation of Christ would make sense on the Bible’s own terms and within its own categories. This does not deny that Paul and the Athenians had natural revelation in common, a point Paul makes clear in Romans 1. However, the point is that the Athenians in suppressing the truth could not fully understand Paul’s message apart from placing it within the conceptual framework of Scripture. Later on, we will identify this approach as intratexual, or a “theology from above,” i.e., theology’s starting point is from the standpoint of God’s revelation to us. Paul knows that his presentation of Christ only makes sense within the Bible’s view of reality (metaphysics), grounded in a specific theory of knowledge (epistemology), which results in a specific view of moral obligation (ethics). The Athenians interpret and explain the world and themselves by an alien worldview framework due to a suppression of the truth of natural revelation, or what we will identify as an extratextual conceptual scheme.