A Brief Introduction to Systematic Theology: Part 1 – Christ the Center of Systematic Theology

By C.L. Bolt

A Christian theology is a Christ-centered theology. It is thus appropriate to provide a systematic theology in relation to Christ Jesus.

Christology is the study of Christ. Christology falls under the category of systematic theology, as do many other “-ologies.” For example, there is anthropology (study of humans), hamartiology (study of sin), soteriology (study of salvation), ecclesiology (study of church), and eschatology (study of the end). As you can imagine, there are even more “-ologies” than those mentioned above, and they generally derive their names from Greek. For example, “anthropos” (Άνθρωπος) is the Greek word for “man” or, to bring it into our context and make it more politically correct, “human.” Hence as mentioned above “anthropology” is the study of humans. It is not altogether important for our purposes to memorize these terms, but it may be helpful as a shorthand way of referring to an entire aspect of theology when discussing theology with others who are familiar with the field. The purpose of these terms is not to confuse people or to show off one’s vocabulary or alleged spiritual maturity, but to serve as a helpful way to categorize and communicate truths within systematic theology. The purpose of their use here is to alert the reader to the approach being taken to systematic theology as a whole in this series. Christology will serve as a subcategory of systematic theology through which systematic theology is taught.

Anthropology in the sense it is being used here should not be confused with the academic discipline of anthropology in the secular context. Anthropology as a discipline in the secular academy does not explicitly view humanity in relation to Christ in the way anthropology as a subcategory of systematic theology should. The two should not be confused. The same distinction applies to all of the other categories of systematic theology. Indeed, some approaches to comparative religion take the Christian categories involved in systematic theology as a lens through which to view various other world religions. The “-ologies” of this work are to be understood as explicitly related to Christ in the overarching category of systematic theology.

Another reason for calling attention to such massive terms at the beginning of this work is to show that systematic theology shares a great deal in common with the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy, like theology, also uses the Greek based “-ologies” (e.g. ontology, epistemology, metaethics, metaphysics, logic, etc.). Philosophy tends to be systematic in nature, as systematic theology is as well (by definition). The discipline of philosophy addresses such topics as what sorts of things exist, what can be known, and how we should live. Systematic theology likewise addresses such topics, but does so upon the basis of God’s revelation to us. For example, systematic theology, following Scripture, affirms that God exists but no other gods do. It affirms that we as creatures can and do already know our Creator but that we cannot know Him comprehensively. It affirms that we should live in such a way as is pleasing to God. Philosophy and systematic theology are used to address the same subject matter, but usually are used in extremely different ways from one another. Still, philosophy plays a major role even within systematic theology, for in order to systematize the teachings of Scripture one relies upon the tools of philosophy and especially logic to organize in a coherent fashion what is derived from the text through exegesis in accordance with the unified canon as a whole. Philosophy is only used properly here as a tool, and not as some sort of extrabiblical standard by which the teachings of Scripture must be judged. Still, philosophy is a necessary part of any systematic treatment of the teachings of Scripture.

History plays a role too. Those who approach Scripture with the attitude that it is “just me, Jesus, and my Bible” place themselves upon a dangerous path that leads toward ignorance, misunderstanding, and ultimately heresy. God has given us the church for a multitude of reasons. One of the reasons God has given us the church is to assist us in our interpretation and application of the Word of God. No mere man is any better in terms of his potential to misconstrue the teachings of Scripture. It is exceedingly arrogant to think that others have nothing to add to one’s understanding of the Word of God, and it is exceedingly arrogant as well to think that one has discovered some truth from Scripture which has never been seen in some form before. “If it is ‘new,’ then it is probably not true.” There is nothing new under the sun. To say that there is nothing new to be found in the teaching of God’s Word is not to say that one may not constantly find new applications of God’s Word. Systematic theology, if it is taken to be something separate from Scripture itself, and especially if it is taken as essentially applicatory, is ever expanding and changing, but only in accordance with the unchanging truth of God’s Word.

While the church is crucial for one’s understanding of Scripture and development of systematic theology, the church does not stand as an authority that is equal to or above the authority of God’s Word. In the previous paragraph there were no doubt some who remembered Martin Luther and his stand – based solely upon Scripture – against the Roman Catholic Church of his time. Perhaps those who remembered Luther also puzzled over the seeming inconsistency between the Protestant approach to this issue and what was written above. However, the inconsistency is merely apparent, if apparent at all, for Luther and the other Reformers consulted the works of those who were writing about theology long before them. Note the implicit illustration and argument here. First, the point about the importance of history in systematic theology is illustrated through an appeal to the historical account of the Reformers’ use of the writings of prior theologians. Second, the point about the importance of history in systematic theology was called into question through an appeal to the historical account of Luther! So history helps us a great deal in our theology and should not be ignored. The mistakes and successes of those saints who have gone before us will serve us well if we will only take the time to study their thought and incorporate it into systematic theology.

It is apparent by now that systematic theology includes the systematization of the teachings of Scripture. Teachings of Scripture are systematized. In taking the teachings of Scripture systematically connections are made between texts of Scripture and other texts of Scripture, texts of Scripture and the world, and texts of Scripture and ourselves that by their very nature affect our thought life and hence, presumably, our behavior as well. For example, one might wonder what God has to say concerning divorce. The person might begin to satisfy his curiosity by treating divorce as a topic that is addressed by Scripture, locating individual texts that pertain to divorce and applying the tools of exegesis to them, seeing these diverse texts as unified, and thus systematizing them in such a way that his thoughts are changed by the Word of God with his behavior following as necessary. Systematic theology is inextricably tied to the application of the truth of Scripture to every realm of experience. It relies heavily upon the tools of philosophy and history. Other disciplines also come into play here. Systematic theology is holistic because Jesus Christ is Lord not just of philosophy and history, but of every other field, tool, and experience as well. Systematic theology takes advantage of the fact that this is God’s world and we are created in His image in order to take His special revelation given us in His Word and bring it to bear upon everything else to the glory of His name. The teachings of our Lord are carefully derived from the text of Scripture through exegesis, categorized for application through systematic theology, and held together through the biblical theology which tells us plainly along with the other two types of theology that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

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pat

Do you have any plans to complete this series in the near future?


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