Chapter OneIntroduction to
What is systematic theology?
Why should Christians study it?
How should we study it?
EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS
A. Definition of Systematic Theology
What is systematic theology? Many different definitions have been given, but for the
purposes of this book the following definition will be used: Systematic theology is any
study that answers the question, "What does the whole Bible teach us today?" about any
This definition indicates that systematic theology 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.
1. Relationship to Other Disciplines. The emphasis of this book will not therefore be onhistorical theology (a historical study of how Christians in different periods have understood
various theological topics) or philosophical theology (studying theological topics
largely without use of the Bible, but using the tools and methods of philosophical reasoning
and what can be known about God from observing the universe) or apologetics
(providing a defense of the truthfulness of the Christian faith for the purpose of convincing
unbelievers). These three subjects, which are worthwhile subjects for Christians
to pursue, are sometimes also included in a broader definition of the term systematic
theology. In fact, some consideration of historical, philosophical, and apologetic matters
will be found at points throughout this book. This is because historical study informs
us of the insights gained and the mistakes made by others previously in understanding
Scripture; philosophical study helps us understand right and wrong thought forms
common in our culture and others; and apologetic study helps us bring the teachings of
Scripture to bear on the objections raised by unbelievers. But these areas of study are not
the focus of this volume, which rather interacts directly with the biblical text in order to
understand what the Bible itself says to us about various theological subjects.
If someone prefers to use the term systematic theology in the broader sense just mentioned
instead of the narrow sense which has been defined above, it will not make much
difference. Those who use the narrower definition will agree that these other areas of
study definitely contribute in a positive way to our understanding of systematic theology,
and those who use the broader definition will certainly agree that historical theology,
philosophical theology, and apologetics can be distinguished from the process of collecting
and synthesizing all the relevant Scripture passages for various topics. Moreover,
even though historical and philosophical studies do contribute to our understanding
of theological questions, only Scripture has the final authority to define what we are to
believe, and it is therefore appropriate to spend some time focusing on the process of
analyzing the teaching of Scripture itself.
Systematic theology, as we have defined it, also differs from Old Testament theology,
New Testament theology, and biblical theology. These three disciplines organize their topics
historically and in the order the topics are presented in the Bible. Therefore, in Old
Testament theology, one might ask, "What does Deuteronomy teach about prayer?" or
"What do the Psalms teach about prayer?" or "What does Isaiah teach about prayer?"
or even, "What does the whole Old Testament teach about prayer and how is that teaching
developed over the history of the Old Testament?" In New Testament theology one
might ask, "What does John's gospel teach about prayer?" or "What does Paul teach about
prayer?" or even "What does the New Testament teach about prayer and what is the historical
development of that teaching as it progresses through the New Testament?"
"Biblical theology" has a technical meaning in theological studies. It is the larger
category that contains both Old Testament theology and New Testament theology as
we have defined them above. Biblical theology gives special attention to the teachings ofindividual authors and sections of Scripture, and to the place of each teaching in the historical
development of Scripture. So one might ask, "What is the historical development
of the teaching about prayer as it is seen throughout the history of the Old Testament and
then of the New Testament?" Of course, this question comes very close to the question,
"What does the whole Bible teach us today about prayer?" (which would be systematic
theology by our definition). It then becomes evident that the boundary lines between
these various disciplines often overlap at the edges, and parts of one study blend into the
next. Yet there is still a difference, for biblical theology traces the historical development
of a doctrine and the way in which one's place at some point in that historical development
affects one's understanding and application of that particular doctrine. Biblical
theology also focuses on the understanding of each doctrine that the biblical authors and
their original hearers or readers possessed.
Systematic theology, on the other hand, makes use of the material of biblical theology
and often builds on the results of biblical theology. At some points, especially where great
detail and care is needed in the development of a doctrine, systematic theology will even
use a biblical-theological method, analyzing the development of each doctrine through
the historical development of Scripture. But the focus of systematic theology remains different:
its focus is on the collection and then the summary of the teaching of all the biblical
passages on a particular subject. Thus systematic theology asks, for example, "What
does the whole Bible teach us today about prayer?" It attempts to summarize the teaching
of Scripture in a brief, understandable, and very carefully formulated statement.
2. Application to Life. Furthermore, systematic theology focuses on summarizing each
doctrine as it should be understood by present-day Christians. This will sometimes involve
the use of terms and even concepts that were not themselves used by any individual biblical
author, but that are the proper result of combining the teachings of two or more biblical
authors on a particular subject. The terms Trinity, incarnation, and deity of Christ, for
example, are not found in the Bible, but they usefully summarize biblical concepts.
Defining systematic theology to include "what the whole Bible teaches us today"
implies that application to life is a necessary part of the proper pursuit of systematic
theology. Thus a doctrine under consideration is seen in terms of its practical value for
living the Christian life. Nowhere in Scripture do we find doctrine studied for its own
sake or in isolation from life. The biblical writers consistently apply their teaching to life.
Therefore, any Christian reading this book should find his or her Christian life enriched
and deepened during this study; indeed, if personal spiritual growth does not occur, then
the book has not been written properly by the author or the material has not been rightly
studied by the reader.
3. Systematic Theology and Disorganized Theology. If we use this definition of systematic
theology, it will be seen that most Christians actually do systematic theology
(or at least make systematic-theological statements) many times a week. For example:
"The Bible says that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved." "The Bible says
that Jesus Christ is the only way to God." "The Bible says that Jesus is coming again."
These are all summaries of what Scripture says and, as such, they are systematic-theological
statements. In fact, every time a Christian says something about what the
whole Bible says, he or she is in a sense doing "systematic theology"-according to our
definition-by thinking about various topics and answering the question, "What does
the whole Bible teach us today?"
How then does this book differ from the "systematic theology" that most Christians
do? First, it treats biblical topics in a carefully organized way to guarantee that all important
topics will receive thorough consideration. This organization also provides one
sort of check against inaccurate analysis of individual topics, for it means that all other
doctrines that are treated can be compared with each topic for consistency in methodology
and absence of contradictions in the relationships between the doctrines. This also
helps to ensure balanced consideration of complementary doctrines: Christ's deity and
humanity are studied together, for example, as are God's sovereignty and man's responsibility,
so that wrong conclusions will not be drawn from an imbalanced emphasis on
only one aspect of the full biblical presentation.
In fact, the adjective systematic in systematic theology should be understood to mean
something like "carefully organized by topics," with the understanding that the topics
studied will be seen to fit together in a consistent way, and will include all the major
doctrinal topics of the Bible. Thus "systematic" should be thought of as the opposite of
"randomly arranged" or "disorganized." In systematic theology topics are treated in an
orderly or "systematic" way.
A second difference between this book and the way most Christians do systematic
theology is that it treats topics in much more detail than most Christians do. For example,
an ordinary Christian as a result of regular reading of the Bible may make the theological
statement, "The Bible says that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ will be saved." That
is a perfectly true summary of a major biblical teaching. However, in this book we devote
several pages to elaborating more precisely what it means to "believe in Jesus Christ,"
and twelve chapters (chapters 32-43) will be devoted to explaining what it means to "be
saved" in all of the many implications of that term.
Third, a formal study of systematic theology will make it possible to formulate
summaries of biblical teachings with much more accuracy than Christians would
normally arrive at without such a study. In systematic theology, summaries of biblical
teachings must be worded precisely to guard against misunderstandings and to exclude
Fourth, a good theological analysis must find and treat fairly all the relevant Bible
passages for each particular topic, not just some or a few of the relevant passages. This
often means that it must depend on the results of careful exegesis (or interpretation) of
Scripture generally agreed upon by evangelical interpreters or, where there are significant
differences of interpretation, systematic theology will include detailed exegesis at certain
Because of the large number of topics covered in a study of systematic theology and
because of the great detail with which these topics are analyzed, it is inevitable that someone
studying a systematic theology text or taking a course in systematic theology for
the first time will have many of his or her own personal beliefs challenged or modified,
refined or enriched. It is of utmost importance therefore that each person beginning such
a course firmly resolve in his or her own mind to abandon as false any idea which is found
to be clearly contradicted by the teaching of Scripture. But it is also very important for
each person to resolve not to believe any individual doctrine simply because this textbook
or some other textbook or teacher says that it is true, unless this book or the instructor in
a course can convince the student from the text of Scripture itself. It is Scripture alone,
not "conservative evangelical tradition" or any other human authority, that must
function as the normative authority for the definition of what we should believe.
4. What Are Doctrines? In this book, the word doctrine will be understood in the following
way: A doctrine is what the whole Bible teaches us today about some particular topic.
This definition is directly related to our earlier definition of systematic theology, since it
shows that a "doctrine" is simply the result of the process of doing systematic theology
with regard to one particular topic. Understood in this way, doctrines can be very broad or
very narrow. We can speak of "the doctrine of God" as a major doctrinal category, including
a summary of all that the Bible teaches us today about God. Such a doctrine would be
exceptionally large. On the other hand, we may also speak more narrowly of the doctrine
of God's eternity, or the doctrine of the Trinity, or the doctrine of God's justice.
The book is divided into seven major sections according to seven major "doctrines"
or areas of study:
Part 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God
Part 2: The Doctrine of God
Part 3: The Doctrine of Man
Part 4: The Doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit
Part 5: The Doctrine of the Application of Redemption
Part 6: The Doctrine of the Church
Part 7: The Doctrine of the Future
Within each of these major doctrinal categories many more specific teachings have been
selected as appropriate for inclusion. Generally these meet at least one of the following
three criteria: (1) they are doctrines that are most emphasized in Scripture; (2) they
are doctrines that have been most significant throughout the history of the church and
have been important for all Christians at all times; (3) they are doctrines that have
become important for Christians in the present situation in the history of the church
(even though some of these doctrines may not have been of such great interest earlier in
church history). Some examples of doctrines in the third category would be the doctrine
of the inerrancy of Scripture, the doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of
Satan and demons with particular reference to spiritual warfare, the doctrine of spiritual
gifts in the New Testament age, and the doctrine of the creation of man as male and
female in relation to the understanding of roles appropriate to men and women today.
Because of their relevance to the contemporary situation, doctrines such as these have
received more emphasis in the present volume than in most traditional textbooks of
systematic theology. (Continues.)