by Dr. John M. Frame
Professor of Systematic Theology & Philosophy
First, what is theology? “Theology” is not found in the English translations of Scripture, but it is best related to New Testament terms like “teaching” (the didasko root). To teach, in the New Testament, is to explain the word of God in such a way as to promote spiritual health (the “sound” doctrine of 1 Tim. 1:10). Hence the definition of theology that I most prefer: the application of the word of God by persons to all areas of life.
Over the years, however, “theology” has come to refer either to the “the study of God” (the etymological meaning of the term), or “the knowledge of God” (Kuyper), or “the knowledge needed for the Christian ministry.” The first and third of these have sometimes been understood as academic disciplines, to be taught in university or seminary classrooms.
But the academicizing of theology has sometimes drawn the concept away from the New Testament concept of “teaching.” Academic theology has been deflected to purposes other than the promotion of spiritual health, and it has been a fertile ground for the development of heresy. We should consider ways of disciplining, modifying, or even abandoning the academic model of theological teaching.
Traditionally, theology has been divided into various sub-disciplines: Exegetical theology, the teaching of individual Bible passages; Biblical theology, which teaches the Bible as a history of redemption; Historical theology, which teaches the ways in which the church has taught Scripture through the centuries. The form of theology I practice most often is Systematic theology.
Some have tried to understand this as the exposition of a “system of truth” which somehow lies behind the biblical text. I cannot make much sense out of this idea. God’s word to us is the biblical text itself, not some system that lies behind it. When we go looking for such a system, we are often tempted to speculate.
Rather, I think the best way to understand systematics is this: teaching that asks what the whole Bible says on a particular subject. That subject may be divine love, creation, sin, atonement, or it may be a question about a modern issue like stem cell research.
Since systematics is theology, it is application, a practical discipline. It answers our questions, encourages our hearts, eases our anxieties, and builds our relationships to Christ. I cannot think of a way to use our minds that is more edifying.