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InVerse Theology

InVerse 147 - IVT Explained, Part 4 (Systematic Theology)

God is a God of order, not confusion. He expects His people to do all things decently and in order, to reflect His character to the world (1 Cor. 14.40).

He has given us the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16), and He calls us to take every thought captive and make them all serve the purposes of the Lord (2 Cor. 10.3-5). And bringing our thoughts into line with those of our Lord Jesus begins with what we believe about the most important matters of faith and life.

People tend to think systematically. Even though our daily patterns of life and work will differ, what we do each day and how we do it makes sense to us. It fits the system of our lives. And though we may not be fully conscious of what our individual system is or how it works, we know when it’s askew, and we will do what we must to try to get back to our normal methods and protocols.

It is the burden of systematic theology to help us sort out and make sense of the revelation of God. That revelation comes from three lights: The primary light of divine revelation is, of course, the Word of God. The work of Biblical theology helps us in mining the truth God has embedded there. The secondary light of divine revelation is creation and, to a lesser extent, the forms of culture we make from creation. Creational theology allows us to discern the glory of God and learn more about Him and His will from the things He has made or has allowed us to make. This is true also of historical theology. The focusing light of divine revelation is Jesus Christ, which means that not only is knowing Jesus essential to making use of the revelation in Scripture and creation, but all the revelation coming to us from those lights is intended to help us focus more clearly and consistently on Jesus.

Divine revelation provides an abundance of teaching about faith and life. To make best use of this largesse, we must organize it into a logical format, for good understanding and ready access. This is the work of systematic theology.

Systematic theology collects the truths discerned from Scripture, creation, church history, and other disciplines and, with Scripture guiding, organizes God’s truth into a system, one that makes sense and can guide us in relating the truths of God to one another and to our lives. The Holy Spirit superintends this work, for it is His calling to compare spiritual things with spiritual things (1 Cor. 2.12, 13) and to teach them to us so that we can understand, delight in, and use the truth of God for His glory.

The work of systematic theology
The work of systematic theology proceeds by asking questions about God’s revelation, especially His revelation in Scripture. In our series, The Pattern of Sound Words, we followed The Westminster Confession of Faith to layout an overview of the teaching of Scripture on important matters. In the introduction to this series, we offered the following explanation of systematic theology:

The Scriptures are the truth of God. They do
not tell us everything, just what is true
and thus foundational, that we might live
a full, abundant life, and wholly give
ourselves to God and for His glory. So
we look to Scripture, hoping both to know
God’s will and to commune with Jesus more
consistently and truly. All the store
of God’s most basic truths are to be found
in Scripture, scattered here and there, around
and all throughout the Word. And we must mine
God’s truth, discover, understand, combine,
and publish what we learn, and thus arrange
His teaching logically. The Word seems strange
and all disjointed till, as to His Spirit
we yield, He teaches us His Word, we hear it
as He intends, and we discern throughout
the whole a pattern of sound words about
the Lord and all His will. This pattern we
take as a system of theology
whereby the truth of God from all His Word
is gathered and combined into a cord
of truth and doctrine, strong, consistent, and
made clear, that all who read may understand.

We said that systematic theology proceeds by asking questions about divine revelation. While those questions are aimed primarily at Scripture, they will often also draw on the history of Christian teaching or studies in a variety of other disciplines to illustrate, clarify, or contextualize the system of doctrine which is found in Scripture. So, in The Pattern of Sound Words we began by asking questions about the Scriptures themselves:

Why do we Christians need the Bible? Just
what are the Scriptures? And why should we trust
them? What’s their purpose, and how should we make
best use of them? What do we hope to take
away from reading Scripture, and from all
our meditations in them, great or small?

The questions systematic theology pursues are arranged in a logical order, beginning with questions about God:

Who is this God, then, Who has given us
His Word, and calls on us to know and trust
in Him? What kind of Being is He? Of
what nature, substance, character, and love?
And how does He relate to everything
that is? And what to Him must creatures bring?

From there the system of doctrine revealed in Scripture takes us through discussions of creation and providence; man and the fall; Christ and redemption; justification and sanctification; good works; the Church; marriage; and last things, among many other topics.

In each case we are guided into and throughout the Scriptures in a logical manner by questions designed to answer the concerns of our heart. We rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and teach us how to answer these questions, and how best to organize Scripture’s teaching to make sense of it all, and we end up with a system of teaching than can serve to help us stay within the pattern of truth which God Himself has revealed.

The uses of systematic theology
Systematic theology provides a framework of faith that can help us in at least four important ways.

First, it can play an important role in shaping how we think about God and our salvation. Because we explore a wide range of questions and concerns in the work of systematic theology, we realize both how rich the Scriptures are and how vast, wise, and loving our God is. We learn that everything in faith intends to bring glory to God and a wide range of benefits to all who believe. Systematic theology thus encourages the further pursuit of God and His glory so that not just in our thinking but in our everyday lives we walk within the parameters of His will and do our work to honor Him and bless our neighbors.

Second, systematic theology enables us to identify, avoid, and refute false teaching. Strange winds of doctrine are always blowing into the sails of the Church. If left unrecognized and unaddressed, these false teachings can blow us off course from our calling to the Kingdom and glory of God. By comparing the teaching of various doctrines with what we have mined and systematized from Scripture, we can see where false teachers have gone wrong and instruct any who may be sailing under false winds.

Third, systematic theology helps us to understand, appreciate, and assess the work of Christian thinkers, past and present. It truly seems as if, in the Church, of the making of many books there is no end. That’s a good thing, but we must be careful about what we read, both to learn as much as we can from reliable teachers and to understand where thinkers and writers may have strayed from or misunderstood some aspect of the divine will.

Finally, systematic theology can greatly enrich our worship of God. Indeed, this is the ultimate end of all theological study, that we may better know, love, and serve God and glorify Him according to all His Word and works.

Thus, our own consideration of The Pattern of Sound Words ends in a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for God and His grace for each segment of doctrine He leads us to consider. Our study ended with this doxology:

The wonder of Your grace, O Lord, and of
Your mighty power, Your mercy, and Your love!
We rest in You and in Your promise to
return to gather us and make us new.
We long for Your appearing and to hear
You say, “Well done!” as each of us comes near.
And then, the greatest miracle of grace,
to see You as You are, yes, face to face,
and be made like You! Then forevermore
to dwell with You, to serve You and adore
You, filled with joy beyond all measure. This
our greatest treasure is, our greatest bliss!

Biblical theology provides the foundation for all theological study and thinking. Systematic theology sets the cornerstone of theological study. Laid down squarely on the foundation of Scripture, systematic theology points the way, horizontally and vertically, to a strong and lasting edifice of faith which the other forms of theological study adorn and enhance.

Systematic theology is thus the fourth window through which the variegated light of divine revelation shines.

Support for The InVerse Theology Project comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

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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 the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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