I love systematic theology. I have for a long time. I plan on immersing myself in it for the rest of my life. I hope my congregation will too. I hope especially that pastors will make the study of systematic theology a lifelong pursuit. Yes, I really believe systematic theology is that important.
But, unfortunately, systematic theology often gets a bad rap. It’s not unusual to find even pastors and professors dismissing dogmatics as an inferior version of the real stuff you get from exegetical or redemptive-historical theology. Of course, those are crucial too (and every good systematic theology will be built on both), but systematic theology is just as crucial, no matter the objections.
Objection 1: Systematic theology is not even possible. While it’s certainly true that we cannot know God as God knows himself, we can nevertheless know God truly. Theologians have long made the distinction between archetypal knowledge (which only God has) and ectypal knowledge (that which we can know about God through his revelation to us). God wants to be known.
Objection 2: Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. Of course, Christianity is a life, but it is a life predicated upon a doctrine. The gospel is good news. To fill up that news with content is to immediately move in the direction of systematic theology. If you want your Christianity to be about nothing but Jesus, you still have to answer the question: Who was Jesus and what about him are you all about? Positing an answer is going to require systematic theology.
Objection 3: Systematic theology is too neat and tidy. It’s sometimes suggested that systematic theology–with all its structure and logical rigor–is a modern, Enlightenment creation. What historical nonsense! Let’s not be so full of ourselves to think we are the first people to come up with organization and structure. Besides the study of dogmatics has been around since at least Origen’s Peri Archon (218 AD). If anything, the Enlightenment encouraged a less rigorous exploration of theology, favoring the ethics of personal morality over the fine tuning of theological polemics.
Objection 4: Systematic theology is not biblical enough. This would be a fair objection if systematic theology had no interest in dealing with the text of Scripture, but the best systematic textbooks have always been those that deal carefully with the big picture and the little details of Scripture. We don’t do systematic theology to avoid exegesis, but to pull our exegetical conclusions into a coherent whole.
If those are a few objections against, what are the positive reasons for systematic theology? Let me briefly mention six.
Reason 1: The Bible’s interest in truth demands it. Systematic theology is nothing if it not the pursuit of truth, and truth is essential to biblical Christianity. Jesus said the truth will set you free (John 8:32). The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). The work of the Holy Spirit was to guide the apostles into all truth (John 16:13). Eternal life is to know the only true God (John 17:3). Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified in the truth (John 17:17). Paul warned that for those who do not obey the truth there will be wrath and fury (Rom. 2:8). We are to be transformed by understanding the truth (Rom. 12:2). People can go to hell for preaching what is not true (Gal. 1:8). People within the church should be corrected when they believe the wrong things. “[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). People are sometimes to be kept out of your house for believing what is not true (2 John 9-10). The wicked perish because they refused to love the truth (2 Thess. 2:10). The workman of God must rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). In other words, no Christian worthy of the name should be indifferent to the pursuit of right doctrine. As Louis Berkhof put it, “They who minimize the significance of the truth, and therefore ignore and neglect it, will finally come to the discovery that they have very little Christianity left” (Systematic Theology, 29).
Reason 2: Our view of Scripture demands it. All of Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). This means that everything in the Bible matters. It also means that everything in the Bible possesses a fundamental unity, coming as it does from the same author (Matt. 19:4-6; Hebrews 3:7; 2 Peter 1:21). Systematic theology seeks to make the comprehensive unity seen and savored.
Reason 3: Realism about the human intellect demands it. One way or another, we will come to conclusions about the most important religious questions. Who was Jesus? What is the human predicament? Is there a hell? How can we be saved? How should we treat each other? What does it mean to be a good person? Why is there something rather than nothing? As soon as we set out to answer these questions we are engaging in systematic theology. The human mind can’t help but synthesize and organize.
Reason 4: The history of the church demands it. Why can’t we just let the Bible speak for itself? Because that’s not what we see in the Bible or in the early church. In Nehemiah 8:8, the leaders “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul refers to the tradition they had received from him. God has always given his people teachers to not only read Scripture but to communicate and guard the truth of Scripture (2 Tim. 1:13-14). This is why the early church naturally wrote creeds and confessions. They did not consider it sub-biblical to explain, defend, and protect the truths that were handed down to them in the Bible.
Reason 5: The unity of the church demands it. True ecumenicity is not possible apart from robust theological fidelity. Church unity requires doctrinal agreement: “There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). How can we contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) if we do not have a deep understanding of that faith?
Reason 6: The duty of the church demands it. Why waste time on systematic theology when there are people who need to hear the gospel?! Because those people need to hear the true gospel. If we are to proclaim the message, we must know what that message is. We owe it each other, we owe it to other churches, and we owe it to the world to give a clear articulation of our faith. “An open statement of the truth” is what Paul called it (2 Cor. 4:2). “The Church of Jesus Christ,” Berkhof observed, should never seek refuge in camouflage, should not try to hide her identity” (31).Clarity requires carefulness, carefulness requires precision, and precision requires systematic theology. Get into it. Stick with it. Pass it on.