To answer the first question first, when we discuss theology, we are discussing God Himself, and the way He relates to all things. “B’reshit bara Elohim…” In the beginning, God created. This is the absolute foundation to all theology. Here we have it: God and creation. What else is there within theology to examine? Theos istself means God, and any study of God will lead us directly to the study of the creation as well. The wisdom of God is itself relationships. He relates to Himself, to creation, to His people, and even to the heavenly beings. To seek God in His relationships is to seek God, just as much as to seek Him directly through our relationship unto Him.
We find here that our primary task is to study God. In fact, if we take seriously this definition, in all of our studying we are studying God. Dogmatics, or as some would rather call it, “systematic theology”, has as the zenith a view of God. Θεος is the very first word present within “theology”, the second being λογος. I have decided to title these volumes Christian Theology, because I personally don’t enjoy the term “systematic theology”. If we’re studying God, who is personal and indeed a living Being, there can be very little “systematic” about it. The older term is dogmatics, which also bears with it the idea of dogma – a conviction of a principle or set of principles as undeniably true.
The idea is that theology can be studied in various compartments, called systems. We can divide the subject matter of theology into various smaller subjects. Christian theology, as such, is specifically the study of Christian theology. In no manner am I going to explore apologetics, at least not in a means to defend the faith against other religions or “non-religions”. Theology comes from the Greek θεολογεω (discourse on the gods and cosmology), θεολογια (the science of things divine), and θεολογος (one who discourses of the gods). What all of these words have in common is the prefix theos – God – and the some derivative of logos – word, or speech.
I find it intriguing that God created from His speaking, and here we call the study of God “God-speech” (of course this isn’t the exact definition by any means). Theology is itself tied together with “In the beginning…” Our concepts of God and dogmatic can form from no other plane. In one sense, theology exists simply because God and His creation exist. In another sense, theology is specifically the human response to God revealing Himself by searching Him out and understanding that which He has revealed. In revelation, there are of course the personal and experienced revelations and the revealing of God through Scripture. Both of these are personal, and both of these are experiential, but one of them demands the scrutiny of others. Our interpretation of the Bible is not something we alone can come to, but must come alongside of others and seek with them.
Our personal experience, even down to the day that Christ was shed abroad in the heart, is something that others cannot comment on to diminish, nor to magnify. It is entirely personal, and outside perspective only goes so far. Scripture is not this way. While it is personal and experienced, that does not negate that others have equally as much ability to comment and correct. Thus, the study of Scripture must be something that is done communally. Through the wrestling together of many counselors, wisdom is established, and through the instructing of the wise, wisdom is enacted.
With our delving into theology, we dive headlong into a plethora of subjects: angels and demons, humanity, sin and death, freedom and salvation, etc. God has a certain mindset, and certain way of thinking. I call this a “wisdom”. The wisdom of God is relationship, and for that reason the study of God touches all of these other subjects. When we study the various “systems” of theology, we root our understanding first and foremost in the character of God, and then secondarily in our reason and logical deduction from Scripture.
For systematic theology, the Bible is the most critical text and source that we use, but it is not the sole agent of understanding. As opposed to other various types of theology, systematic theology should be the culmination of all other theological efforts. Biblical theology is related to our exegesis of Scripture, where we seek to understand the original intention of each passage in relation to the whole of the book, the theology of the author, and the context of the rest of Scripture. Practical theology is sometimes called “pastoral” theology, because it seeks to give theology in a manner that it expresses how we ought to live. Denominational theology, sometimes called dogmatic theology, is a study of various denominational bends. Apologetics is the defending of the faith. Philosophical theology would be to seek to understand God through the grid of philosophy. It is arguably not theology to consider the history of doctrine, which some call historic theology. Similarly, natural theology doesn’t seem to fall into a true “theological enquiry”. Again, polemic theology is the study of differing opinions, which doesn’t seem to actually be a study of God at all.1
In studying systematic theology, we desire to come to each subject as its own piece in a very large puzzle.2 All aspects of theology fit together, and we desire to understand the harmony of all aspects.3 Thus, we take each subject and pursue to understand it via the verses and passages that speak to such a subject. In this, we “systematize” our view and understanding. Each subject is a system, and within each system would be a series of smaller subjects and pieces of Scripture that come together to express a full understanding. Biblical theology does not work with systems in this manner. Biblical theology seeks to understand the Bible via the author, the audience, the context, etc.
Systematic theology cannot speak to the individual verses as precisely as biblical theology. When we’re struggling to understand the meaning of, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we turn to biblical theology. The reason for this is simple. This is an isolated verse, and when brought into the context of the rest of the passage, we already see the obvious interpretation. However, biblical theology wouldn’t stop there. Biblical theology would look at the context of the whole of Romans, and then seek to understand the point of Romans chapter 3 in the context of the whole, and then shrink down more and more until we come unto that specific verse. Systematic theology just doesn’t work this way.
A good systematic theology should take into account biblical theology, and from the foundation of biblical theology build up its systems. Often, though, theologians use “proof texts” instead of truly diving into each verse and each passage to understand the context, whether it does or does not speak to the issue being expressed. None of the biblical authors did this. Every time that a certain verse or passage is quoted in the New Testament, the context is being thought of and not simply the one verse. The authors want you to either know the context or look it up to better understand what they’re saying. For the sake of following their pattern, and for the sake of “good scholarship”, I have attempted in all quotations to follow suit.
It is necessary to note that the Bible does not speak systematically. Over two thirds is written in narrative. Because we are sifting through stories for the majority of the Bible, and another large portion consists of prayers, letters, and poems of the saints, our systematic theology is an extrapolation from the context, and is not to be taken as commentary to the Scripture. We are forming together pieces that are scattered throughout the text into one topic and/or subject at a time, and not the expositing of these passages.
While it is true that our systematic theology will help us to understand the passages of the Bible, we should understand that our systematic theology comes after the foundation of proper exegesis, and not the other way around. Proper understanding of the texts of Scripture should come first, and systematizing the Scripture second. With certain aspects that are more difficult, we can first examine what we do know, whether in the realm of biblical theology or systematic theology, and from there seek to build a more intimate understanding and awareness of the rare baffling nuances and verses. So, with this I conclude our first discussion. Let us now begin to explore the depths of theology and how it relates to us.
1 For a much more concise and thorough examination of these various fields in theology, I highly recommend Christian Theology Volume I by H. Orton Wiley, pages 20-32.
2 These “pieces” are the “systems” from which we get the term “systematic theology”.
3D. A. Carson has said that our theology is like a puzzle. He implied that this puzzle has 9000 pieces, and yet we only have 5000 of those pieces. We know the pieces fit together, but we’ll never come to a completion of the puzzle to see the whole picture. I don’t agree. I believe it is much more like building a house. You first put down the foundation; this would be the doctrines that Scripture gives us much information regarding. From there you build the less solid, but still dependable, walls and roof. We continue to put on the siding, the shingles, the plaster, the drywall, any brick or stone, and finally coming to the more minute details of adding in the counters, the type of flooring, the type of sink, the bathtub or shower, etc. The more intimate the details are, the less Scripture we have to build from. It is also like ice on a pond. There is much Scripture to base the existence of angels on, and so we build their existence upon the “thick ice”. But, when it comes to the intimate details, like when or how angels were created, we are building upon “thinner ice”. You don’t put too much weight, or interpretation, upon the thin ice. Our understanding comes from the thick ice, and the smaller details are then worked out via what we already know.
From a first draft of my Christian Theology Vol I