What is Systematic Theology? Why is it important? These two questions form the basis for our study of Bible Doctrine. When starting any study, it’s necessary to define your terms. This is especially true when it comes to the study of Scripture. The lack of definition (or worse, the avoidance of definition) will always lead to a lack of clarity, which will always lead to a lack of understanding, which will always lead to defective practice. We see this illustrated in Proverbs 4:7 – “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” If wisdom is the application of knowledge, then it follows that the more clear our knowledge or understanding, the better our practice should be. We also see this in Hosea 4:6 – “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee…” Here our standing with God is conditioned on our knowledge, or lack thereof. However, it’s not just ignorance that is condemned, but the attitude, as well. So if attitudes and actions are the results of how we think about God and His Word, then it is most important to have a strong understanding of what that Word is and what it means.
Systematic Theology is any study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us about any particular topic?” Notice what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean we scour the Bible looking to find out if Donald Trump or Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ. It doesn’t mean that we try to live by the rules of the Old Testament today without reference to the New Testament. But it does mean that we take all of Scripture seriously and let it speak to us. There is a balance in our study, consistent with Christian beliefs throughout history.
Accuracy and precision are very important in studying the Bible. The details matter. We should not think of the way we study Scripture as less important than the way we study anything else. When I was being treated for oral cancer of the tongue, precision was very important in the surgery and the radiation that followed. One wrong move could have disastrous results. The same is true in theology. One wrong assumption, one wrong definition, or one misunderstanding could have disastrous, eternal results. So always beware of those who downplay precision and clarity and those who say that it doesn’t really matter as long as you believe. But, believe what? When you start to answer that question, you have just stepped into the world of systematic theology, because you’re now giving a definition and explanation of what you believe and we can watch your life to see if you’re serious about it or just giving lip service.
Not all doctrine is the same. There are some beliefs that are more important than others. Major doctrine is that set of beliefs that have to do with our eternal salvation. Belief in God is major, the person of Christ is major, the doctrine of sin is major, and heaven and hell are major. Minor beliefs are important, but not necessarily of eternal significance. Whether music is used in worship is minor, mode or subject of baptism is minor, and form of church government is minor. And where these things are made major, you will always have division, which Scripture say we should avoid (1 Corinthians 1:11-17).
A systematic study also means that it’s organized. We’re not opening the Bible at random to get our word from God today. All of Scripture is God’s Word, and God Himself organized it into books. The books of Moses are different from the Psalms, and the Prophets are different from the Apostles. If we ignore God’s own divisions, how can we learn what God is teaching? Organization simply means order and many of us need the discipline of an orderly, organized study of God’s Word, not just focusing on our favorite parts, but all parts in their place.
The purpose in all of this is the practical outcome we get from an organized, detailed, defined study of Scripture. As we think about God and His character and His creation, we are transformed in our attitudes and actions. If people truly meditated upon the seriousness of their sin against God and each other, and the ultimate outcome of that sin, they would certainly try to alter their courses. But when people ignore those things, we get the world that we presently live in with murder, theft, lying, assault, etc. Most people are looking for joy, happiness, and peace, but few find it because they’re looking in the wrong places and we can easily see the results of that. Jesus Christ says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” – and that is a tangible, practical effect that comes from a systematic study of theology.
Please note: For 17 years, I taught the Bible Doctrine course at Zion Christian Academy in Columbia, Tennessee. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am now not able to do this. Since I have no students to teach for the first time since the year 2000, I’ve decided to write (or at least try to write) what I would have said in class and post it here. This is intended for students around 16 to 18 years of age, and is mostly based on Wayne Grudem’s book, Bible Doctrine. Outlines of this course can be found at www.bibledoctrine.club.