What is Systematic Theology?

Theology Seeking Coherence

In this inaugural post on systematic theology, we begin by asking a foundational question: What is systematic theology? Asking the right preliminary questions is key if one is to ultimately arrive at sound theological conclusions. One way to understand systematic theology is to consider what it is not: Systematic theology does not focus merely on interpreting individual texts of Scripture (exegetical theology), nor does just it analyze Scripture in its historical and progressively-revealed dimensions (biblical theology), nor can it be thought of as simply the study of what previous theologians have written throughout church history (historical theology), though it utilizes aspects of all these approaches. Rather, systematic theology tries to look at Scripture as a whole, synthesizing the various parts into a coherent “system.” While more certainly must be said, this introduction at least begins to move us in the right direction. This post will offer a definition of systematic theology and will attempt to probe the unique features that distinguish it from other disciplines.

Definition

This definition will guide the remainder of the article: Systematic theology seeks a conceptual exposition of Christian claims found throughout Scripture, in which interrelations between doctrines are traced out and the results are often ordered logically by topic.

Looking at Scripture as a Whole

The chief characteristics of systematic theology are synthesis and coherence. The systematic theologian aims to look at the whole of Scripture in order to show how the various parts cohere and hang together. His goal is to integrate the various parts of the Bible into a unified “system.” Many would say that systematic theology answers the question, “What does the entire Bible say about ______?” While this can be a helpful starting place, it does not say quite enough. We might be able to plug “creation” or “angels” into that formula, scour the Bible for verse references, and end up with a deeper understanding of those topics. However, systematic theology seeks to do more than merely assemble verses about a given subject. The systematic theologian’s task is, in the words of Stephen Holmes, to “imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true.”[1] It requires a certain level of conceptual creativity and imagination in order to put the pieces of the Bible together faithfully. Returning to the question above, we can see the limitations when we insert, say, “Trinity” into the formula. Obviously, no verse references will be forthcoming. In order to express what the Bible teaches about the triune God, one must coordinate several doctrines and biblical texts in order to produce a fitting conceptual representation. At its best, systematic theology offers innovative proposals for exegetical impasses, providing new avenues for understanding and interpretation. In sum, the goal of systematic theology is to look at Scripture as a whole in order to demonstrate the coherence of biblical truth.

Using Concepts

In order to perform this task described above, the systematic theologian must speak in a conceptual idiom. In other words, systematic theology utilizes concepts and a certain level of abstraction. Throughout the process of synthesizing and coordinating various doctrines and texts, the systematic theologian offers conceptual schemes and representations that allow for seeing Scripture’s unity and coherence. Obvious examples would include the two natures of Christ, the attributes of God, or the order of salvation, though all the topics covered by systematic theology are conceptual inventions to some degree. The order of salvation cannot be read off a single page of Scripture; rather, it is a conceptual articulation of the whole Bible’s teaching on the process of salvation in the life of a believer. For some, this is considered the great weakness of systematic theology: The push toward abstraction and conceptualization means that systematic theology moves away from the “dynamic” and historical character of the Bible. On this view, Scripture is irreducibly historical and, therefore, distorted when considered from a different vantage point. What might be said in response? First, this critique can be answered by recognizing the unique responsibilities of biblical and systematic theology. Michael Horton argues that this line of criticism “fails to appreciate the distinct operations of biblical and systematic theology, the former unfolding redemptive revelation sequentially, underscoring its organic development in history, the latter seeking to recognize the coherence of Christian assertions that arise in the course of this development.”[2] Systematic theology should not be criticized for failing to do what biblical theology sets out to do. There should be no competition between these disciplines; both are needed for a robust understanding of Scripture. Second, we should also note that the concepts employed by systematic theology are meant to serve a ministerial function. They are not meant to impose foreign meanings on the text. They are to aid in the process of biblical interpretation, demonstrating the coherence and unity of the canon. Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully points out, “Concepts are useful for asking questions both about the meaning of what is happening within one literary form and about the connection between literary forms. Concepts are tools for drawing distinctions and for making connections.”[3] It is this “connection-making” function that is particularly apparent with systematic theology since its aim is to demonstrate the coherence of biblical truth.

Ordered by Topic

Finally, a word is in order about organization. Systematic theology texts are typically divided up by topics such as “God,” “creation,” “the church,” and so on. The goal is to present a wide-ranging—though not totally comprehensive—exposition of Christian claims about the two topics of Christian theology: God and all things in relation to God. As we have already noted, these topical distinctions are conceptual tools, designed to highlight the unity of biblical revelation and to help the reader easily access the material. That said, this formal aspect of the text should not be confused for an essential feature. Many systematic theologies have been ordered by topical categories, but this need not necessarily be the case. What truly characterizes systematic theology is the desire for coherence across the biblical canon and conceptual ingenuity, not the form that the work of theology takes. Indeed, it is possible to approach a given text or topic from a “systematic” vantage point without offering a full treatment of all doctrinal topics.

Conclusion

Systematic theology is chiefly a synthetic discipline. It queries the biblical text at various points and seeks to bring disparate parts into conversation with one another in order to construct a coherent (i.e., inter-connected) “system.” The systematic theologian seeks to make necessary distinctions and propose fitting connections through conceptual representation, though always aware that his constructions are answerable to the biblical text. At its best, systematic theology has the potential to transform the reader’s worldview by offering a panoramic view of God and all things in relation to God.



[1] Stephen Holmes, “The Place of Theology in Exegesis: Reflections Inspired by Kevin DeYoung,” last modified March 6, 2012, http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=989.

[2] Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 221.

[3] Kevin Vanhoozer, “From Canon to Concept: ‘Same’ and ‘Other’ in the Relation Between Biblical and Systematic Theology,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12 (Autumn 1994): 118.