Your Systematic Theology Is Showing
Just as biology is the study of life, anthropology is the study of humanity, and psychology is the study of human behavior, theology is the study of God. The suffix –ology refers to the study of a certain topic. It comes from the Greek word logos, which means “word” or “reason.” The Greek word theos means “god.” So in a broad sense, theology is how we view God. Thus, everyone is a theologian in that everyone forms a conclusion about God (often really, really bad conclusions). But in a specific sense, theology is the study of God Himself and what He has said. Certainly all Christians must view themselves as theologians because all Christians care about God and His revelation.
But some commonly think, “Theology is for academics,” or, “Theology isn’t as important as loving Jesus and treating people kindly.” These sentiments should make us fear for the future of the church. Theology is not some abstract academic discipline. Theology is not some nebulous, complicated study reserved only for those trained in some seminary or preaching school. Knowing the definition of theology, we see that everyone does theology every day. Therefore, is it not worth the effort to get it right?
Shouldn’t the things we say, write, and think concerning God be grounded in His Word? If we are to worship God, are we not to make sure we know Who God Is? To worship a God you have made up in your mind is idolatry – even if you have peppered your understanding of that God with the occasional scripture. We must worship the God revealed in scripture and worship Him as revealed in scripture.
Obviously, we need to make sure our theology is good theology, because not everyone’s theology is equally valid.
Good Theology Is Practical
Theology is just as practical as it is intellectual. James says, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jas. 4:17). John says, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). In other words, what we believe about God and His Word should influence how we live.
Theology should change your life. It has an impact on who you are, what you do, and why you do it. Paul says,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
When you come to know God, obey His Son, and follow the Spirit by following His Word, how you view the world changes. This “renewal of the mind” is real, noticeable and practical. We must first be convicted about the truth of God’s Word, and then those convictions must turn into actions.
Does this mean it is more important for a person to read a book or get into theological discussions than it is to feed the poor? No, but understanding God and His Word is just as important as feeding the poor. And if you understand Who God is, then God – not some moral therapeutic feeling – will be the reason why you feed the poor.
Theology is the foundation of our faith. Without it, we cannot know God, we cannot know sin, and we cannot know the beauty of the Cross. Thus, when a person says, “Theology isn’t for me,” they are actually saying, “God is not important to me, nor is He worthy of my time.” Your theology should fuel Your devotion to God and your passion for sharing the gospel to others.
Good Theology Is Systematic
If something is systematic, that means it has method or order to it. Thus systematic theology is the process of bringing together what the Bible says about a certain subject. It organizes everything God has said in His Word so our finite minds can begin to understand an infinite God.
A systematic theology study of baptism, for example, takes everything the Bible says about baptism, examines the context, puts it all together, and comes to a well-balanced, objective conclusion about what the Bible says about baptism. Makes sense, right?
If your theology is not systematic, that means it doesn’t fit together. One spiritual conviction may contradict another. Those who love and fear God, however, consider the whole extent of God’s Word and try to figure out how it all fits together (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15). After all, God is utterly consistent. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). His Words are flawless (Psa. 12:6). He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). There is no fault or contradiction in what He has said. Therefore, should we not try to figure out how it all fits together?
I am convinced that we can never have an absolutely perfect understanding of the Bible. However, the intricate coherence of Scripture should impress us. When God speaks, every word He utters has a bearing on everything else He has said. Our task it to meditate on them throughout our lives (Psa. 119:97) and apply them as we walk closer to Him (Psa. 119:105).
Good Theology Is Right
In some emerging circles of Christendom, “systematic theology” is a dirty word. They prefer to see the Bible as a “mystery” or “narrative,” and studying everything the Bible says about a certain subject is somehow a bad thing. A system, they argue, tampers with the meaning of the text. Brian McLaren, a leader in these circles, says it this way,
In Christian theology, this anti-emergent thinking is expressed in systematic theologies that claim (overtly, covertly, or unconsciously) to have final orthodoxy nailed down, freeze-dried, and shrink-wrapped forever. (325)
Another emergent leader, Leonard Sweet, writes,
Too often, our systematic theologies represent the typically modern attempt to capture all knowable truth in propositions, organized in a master outline, holding for all times and places and people the universal abstractions extracted from the narratives of Scripture. […] Systematic theologies will someday remind us of a bygone modern Christian rationalism that quaintly (or arrogantly) believed it was encoding the absolute and universal truth for all time (282)
Ironically, in their books, both McLaren and Sweet attempt to answer questions by “nailing down” what the Bible says about certain topics. Perhaps they just don’t like “systematic theologies” that expose their own beliefs as wrong.
Now I’m not too proud to say I might get some things wrong. But if God’s Word really is true, timeless, and complete (cf. Psa. 33:5; Prov. 30:5; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), then is it so “arrogant” to claim we can know what the Bible says about a certain topic? Are we not allowed to ask, “What does the Bible say?” and then study everything the Bible actually says? Can we not ask, “Who is God?” “How did we get here?” “How should I pray?” “What is evil?” This is systematic theology. Did not the inspired authors of the Bible themselves try to explain God’s Word as a system?
In our postmodern, pluralistic, politically-correct and morally-dishonest age, there is a particular animosity towards the idea of a “system.” Yet, if we are undergoing brain surgery, we prefer our surgeon to hold to some idea of “systematic neuroscience” – instead of some sort of relative, convoluted impulse he wants to follow that particular day. If we are buying a house, we hope the architect and contractors who designed and built the house believed in some sort of “systematic engineering,” and didn’t just build the house on a whim. As important as brain surgery and structural soundness are to us, how much more important should matters of eternity be? Do we not have an obligation to thoroughly study what God has revealed to us in Scripture?
If we are systematic in our theology, we will not try to fit the Bible into a preconceived system. Rather, if we are honest, we will listen to the Word of God and seek to understand it on its own terms.
Systematic theology is not only biblical – it is undeniable. Everyone has tried to make sense of theological issues in his/her own mind. The question now is: Is your theology true or false? How well do your beliefs line up with God’s Word?
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Mclaren, Brian D. A Generous Orthodoxy. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2004.
Sweet, Leonard. Brian D. McLaren, Jerry Haselmayer. The Language of the Emerging Church. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. 2003.