What is systematic theology?
Basically, it’s a manner of studying Scripture from a thematic approach. Meaning, we form systems of theology as we study specific topics or themes within the Bible. For example, Christology is the specific study of Christ throughout the Scriptures (i.e., one would probably start in Genesis 3:15). Or anthropology is the specific doctrine of humanity as found in the whole of Scripture (coming from the Greek anthropos). Eschatology is the specific study of last things (coming from the Greek eschaton). And so on and so forth.
For me, that was my meat and potatoes with studying Scripture.
On the flip side of the coin, there is biblical theology. This is more about studying Scripture book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. It is about starting in Genesis and understanding Genesis from chapter 1 right through chapter 50, doing this verse by verse. Or with Romans or Isaiah, etc. Actually, this approach would be better known amongst Bible students as exegetical theology. But I am looking to keep the terms more simplified.
So, though one cannot do this in the purest of senses, when we read a specific verse that makes a specific point, in biblical theology, we are not so much concerned about what other passages in Scripture say to form a system about that specific point and topic. We allow that specific passage that we are reading right there to inform us.
Now, of course, there are other approaches to theology such as historical theology, practical (or pastoral) theology, etc. But, in our approach to studying Scripture, biblical and systematic theology become the two main perspectives.
Neither are bad. Actually, both are good and help balance each other out. But, what I have found personally in my life is a shift more into biblical theology, moving more towards a centre and away from a heavy emphasis on systematic theology.
For some, the idea of systematic theology is scary. Systematising can make some think of incredibly boxed theology. So I want to go ahead and say we don’t need to chuck it out all at once, the whole proverbial baby with the bath water. But what I have come to realise is that systematic theology can rob one of allowing a particular author within a particular context to speak forth the revelation of God as intended within that particular passage. It can become a roadblock whether we want to admit it or not.
Case in point – We are reading Genesis 3 about ‘the fall’. What do we want to do? Probably jump to Psalm 51:5, Romans 5:12-21 and other passages, to construct a doctrine of sin, or even more, ‘original sin’. Again, such is not problematic in the bigger scheme of understanding the complete revelation of God in Scripture. But such can be problematic in allowing God to communicate via Genesis 3. We jump ahead when we should be putting the brakes on and allow Genesis 3 to speak to us as Genesis 3.
The worst that systematic theology can lead us into is extremely tight formed theological boxes. We all have them, me included. But biblical theology becomes a helpful remedy in guarding against this. Again, systematic theology is a good and helpful discipline within theological studies. I still have four systematic books sitting on my shelves, of which Wayne Grudem’s is the most well-known. But, I have realised increasingly that systematic theology can only take us so far in our studies. Or, systematic theology can become a roadblock towards a faithful understanding of God’s progressive revelation as laid out in Scripture.
So, let us embrace the text of Scripture. And even, at times, let us embrace a particular part or verse of Scripture as is, without turning to other parts and authors to inform us. God just might speak to us in that difficult passage or awkward reading.