Why study systematic theology? Dr. Michael Allen outlines four reasons to study systematic theology, explaining the need for Christians to have their assumptions corrected by Scripture.
Oftentimes I get asked, “Why study systematic theology?” Frankly, it doesn’t sound so pleasant and perhaps it sounds rather blasphemous, as though you put God in a box or you somehow construct some idol of what God must be like. Why do we value systematic theology at the center of what we do here at Reformed Theological Seminary?
Corrects our Presuppositions
We value it because we are tempted to create idols and to put God in boxes. We bring our sin when we study God or read the Bible, we bring our prejudice and assumptions, our bias and our presuppositions. And those can mislead. And we want to acknowledge and repent of that. And we want to develop protocols and practices that lead against that tendency because that can cause detriment and harm not only to ourselves but to others. Systematic theology is actually about leaning against that kind of tendency, asking not just “What does part of the Bible say?” but “What’s the whole breadth of biblical teaching on this or that issue?” so that we don’t simply return to what we know but were always challenged by the remainder of God’s word that we need to explore.
Helps Us Set Biblical Priorities
Too often we come with our questions, our urgent needs, and we don’t wait and ask God what is most necessary for us.Systematic theology also explores the priorities God’s Word itself sets for us. Too often we come with our questions, our urgent needs, and we don’t wait and ask God what is most necessary for us. But we can learn from the Bible what keeps coming up, what seems to be most emphasized, what’s primary and what’s secondary or tertiary. And so, good systematic theology is going to return to Scripture again and again, asking that our priorities be recalibrated and reordered to be more biblical, not just that we’d have the right biblical thoughts, but we’d know what are the biblical questions and concerns we ought to care about.
Teaches Us About Biblical Use of Language
Third, systematic theology is going to force us to be alert to the way in which the Bible uses the language of the common ordinary life, and yet sometimes it uses it in profoundly distinctive ways. The Bible does use language that is found elsewhere. We speak of the singular work of Christ using the language of the slave market and redemption or the law court and adoption. We use terms like just and love and goodness, and we hear those elsewhere in life, don’t we? But we use them to speak of the one living and true God, and they apply in a distinctive or analogical way here. One of the crucial tasks of systematic theology is paying attention to the distinctive use of very common language so that we don’t import presumption and prejudice from how we hear or use those terms elsewhere in life. When I say that God loves you and I say that I love basketball, those are not completely arbitrary or unrelated, but they are not the same thing. And I need Scripture to help shape my understanding of what love is so I might better appreciate the distinctive gift of God’s good love.
Calls Us to Coherence and Integrity
Fourth and finally, systematic theology beckons us to consider the coherence and integrity of Christian belief and practice. We are inconsistent and all of us, to one degree or another, lack full integrity. I need Scripture to help shape my understanding of what love is so I might better appreciate the distinctive gift of God’s good love.We think this, but we don’t always practice its full consequence. We believe this, but we don’t see how it impacts how we read that passage or believe regarding that other doctrine. Systematic theology calls us to think more coherently, to ask about the consequences and implications of this belief or that interpretation, to ask us to increasingly and repentantly commit ourselves to becoming more whole and less fragmented. Of course, this, like everything else, is a journey. We are on a theological pilgrimage. None of us will arrive in this life, and so we must repent forward, trustingly believing that God’s Word provides for us, that Christ instructs us, that the Holy Spirit enlightens us. But these practices and protocols are there to help us hear more attentively, to think more repentantly, and to grow theologically, more maturely.