Systematic Theology

We all do a little bit of it, so we should learn to do it better.

The Disciplines of Knowing: Theology (5)

The fourth window onto divine revelation establishes a framework for all the rest.

For to which of the angels did He ever say:
“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”?
And again:
“I will be to Him a Father,
And He shall be to Me a Son”? Hebrews 1.5

Putting it all together
In Hebrews 1, the writer begins a powerful argument for the supremacy of our Lord Jesus Christ. He wants to give his readers – who are drifting from their firm confession of faith in Jesus – solid food to digest, to help them recover their former witness.

He begins by showing that Jesus is more exalted than angels. That’s the logical place to begin, because if Jesus is greater than angels, He’s greater than everything else, including Moses, the Law, the sacrifices, the Levitical priesthood, and even the persecutions we may have to endure for His sake.

To accomplish his objective in chapter 1, the writer draws from a wide range of Scriptures – in the Law, the psalms, the histories of the Old Testament, and the prophets. What he has done, in essence, is ask a question: “Just Who is Jesus Christ?” His intention was to answer that question from throughout the Scriptures of the Old Testament, in a thorough and systematic manner, so as to remove all doubt concerning the supremacy of Jesus over the old Jewish ways of seeking God, and to restore his readers to a place of firm confidence in the Lord.

To do so, the writer of Hebrews makes use of his broad Biblical knowledge (Biblical theology) and his understanding of history (historical theology) to put together from throughout Scripture an argument that will answer his question thoroughly and convincingly. He is doing, in other words, the work of systematic theology.

Questions and answers

The aim of systematic theology is to seek from the Scriptures answers for the most foundational questions of life, and to arrange those answers in a logical order, so that the teaching of Scripture is organized into a system of faith. The method is to search the Scriptures on whatever question we may be addressing (the analogy of Scripture), and to look to respected theologians of the past and present to help guide our search (the analogy of faith). Whatever our question, this approach enables us to gain reliable answers and helpful guidance.

With respect to the Christian faith, the basic questions to be answered are:

How can we know God?
Who is God?
Who are we, and what are we here for?
Why are things the way they are?
Who is Jesus Christ, and why does He matter?
How can we be saved?
For what purpose does God save people?
How shall we live as saved people?
Where is all this headed?

These questions, thoroughly pursued by concentrating on the issue, comparing and combining Scripture, and seeking the wisdom of our forebears in the faith, provide the content for the classic “heads” of systematic theology: Prolegomena, Theology Proper, Anthropology and Hamartiology, Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Eschatology.

Under these headings we may explore a wide range of related topics, to develop our way of thinking about the faith with ever-increasing fullness, and grow in the knowledge of Christ as we do.

The writer of Hebrews is dealing with only one aspect of Christology, the supremacy of Christ. We have many other questions about Jesus, and a fuller Christology will outline and flesh out each one of them, until we have a thorough mapping of the teaching of Scripture about the second Person of the Trinity. Systematic theologians do the same for all the other heads of doctrine in our system, and this explains why books on systematic theology can be so very thick!

A place to start
Anyone who has ever taught a topic from Scripture has practiced systematic theology. So has anyone who has ever used a concordance or Bible dictionary to search out the teaching of Scripture on such everyday topics as marriage, work, raising children, growing in the Lord, and many, many more. Since we all do the work of systematic theology at some level, it behooves us to have a working knowledge of the overall system of doctrine, so that our own studies in these areas can fit within a framework and pattern of sound teaching.

One effective place to begin in gaining a grasp of the whole subject of systematic theology is by becoming familiar with some of the great confessions written during the period of the Reformation (16th and 17th centuries). By reading and meditating on such confessions as The Westminster Confession of Faith, we can become familiar with the scope of systematic theology, and learn how the various heads of doctrine – which outline primary themes of Scripture – relate to one another and come together as a coherent whole.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-1648) is arranged by chapters and paragraphs, supported by a sampling of the texts that are the sources for the content. My practice is to read and meditate on a paragraph daily, looking at the proof texts and journaling a few thoughts, as the Lord leads. Daily reading in a confession like this can help us appreciate the overall framework of the teaching of Scripture about Jesus, and serve as a guide for our daily reading and study of God’s Word.

Many excellent and accessible books are also available addressing different aspects of the system of doctrine. One can also find dictionaries of theology which offer concise discussions of the many questions addressed by this window of theological study.

The teaching of Scripture makes sense and is logical. Systematic theology helps us to see the logic of Scripture, the framework of doctrine and instruction, and the broad scope of the teaching of God’s Word for every aspect of life and faith. It can be a reliable window on divine revelation that can help us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Reflection
1. Why do we say that this kind of study of God’s Word is systematic?

2. Why is it important that every believer should have some grasp of the overall system of doctrine taught in the Bible?

3. What benefits would you expect to gain by adding some work in systematic theology to your study of God’s Word?

Next Steps – Preparation: Download a copy of The Westminster Confession of Faith and read it through over the next several days. How might regular re-reading of this, in smaller chunks, help you to grow in the Lord?

T. M. Moore

Our book, To Know Him, provides additional insights into how we can delight in the Lord more consistently. Order your copy by clicking here. Our book, The Joy and Rejoicing of My Heart, is a good place to start in making better use of God’s Word for all aspects of your life in Him (click here).

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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