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Systematic theology is telling what the whole Bible says about any given topic. What does the whole Bible say about the deity of Christ or the humanity of Christ? What does the whole Bible say about sin, or about prayer, or about angels or demons, or heaven or hell? Those are questions, and many others, that Christians are often interested in and they look at the Bible and they say, Wow, there's a lot of material here in the Old Testament—in different parts of it—and in the New Testament—in different parts of the New Testament—how can I put it all together and find out what the Bible wants me to believe? And systematic theology is really doing that: it's trying to take all the appropriate verses from different parts of the Bible and saying, well here's what a summary is of what God wants us to believe on this topic.
Does the Bible contain a system of theology, is a question that sometimes people ask. Well, I like to say that the Bible fits together and is consistent—it isn't contradictory—because it's written both by human beings and by God, and in God's mind it all fits together and it's truthful and it makes sense. So in that sense we could say there is a system in that it's all internally consistent and the parts relate to each other, reinforce each other, never contradict each other. But because the Bible has so much wisdom from God in it, the more we study it the more we can discover more and more truth that God has put there in His Word.
Sometimes people ask, well why should I study topically, different topics in the Bible—and study systematic theology, in other words—why shouldn't I just read from Genesis all the way to the end to Revelation and then start again? Now that's a good practice, and I do that, too, every day—reading a part of my Bible from the beginning all the way to the end, some in the Old Testament and some in the New Testament. But there are times when you wonder, Now what does the Bible say about the second coming of Christ? And I'll tell you, if you start in Genesis and start reading, it will be a long time before you get to the parts that talk about the second coming. And then you've got a whole bunch of other questions. So I think in addition to just reading from beginning to end, it's good that Christians take some time aside and study the different topics that they're interested in, and when they do that and put the different verses that talk about that together, they're doing systematic theology. Now, over the course of many centuries, many Christians have done this and they've sort of found and collected and thought and talked about the different verses that go into teaching us on different topics, and so we have resources in the teaching ministry in the church, resources that are available to give us a good start anyway in studying those different topics.
I suppose there are dangers that come up when people begin to study systematic theology. One danger is that it just becomes so interesting, it just becomes an intellectual activity, and some people get fascinated just by thinking about so many ideas, forgetting that whenever the Bible talks about theology, it also makes application to life. You know, one time I started to think, Does the Bible ever talk about theology without application? And I thought, Well, what are the most theological books in the New Testament? How about the book of Romans? Wow, there's a lot of application to life in Romans. Ephesians is the same. Or you take the book of Hebrews, which has a lot of theology in it, but Hebrews has much application to life as well. And so I thought, if the New Testament authors didn't ever teach theology without applying it to people's lives, then why should we think we could do that? So a danger is just making it an intellectual exercise, but the solution to that—and what I've tried to do in my book Systematic Theology, for instance, and what I've always tried to do in my classes—is teach about a topic and then say, now how does that apply to our lives?
Another danger might be if people were just careless and just took ideas sort of randomly from the culture and maybe a verse here or there, and didn't really think about or understand the way that different people in the history of the Church have made mistakes about the topics in theology—mistakes about the Trinity or the Person of Christ or sin or what is coming in the future—and when people don't have at least some awareness of the mistakes that people have made before, they'll perhaps end up making those same mistakes and leading other people astray and harming their Christian lives. So I think that's another reason why systematic theology is important, and it helps us to guard against making foolish kinds of mistakes.
What happens in reading the Bible every day—as Christians do, and as I do: I read 1 Kings 4 or 5 this morning, I can't quite remember, and then Matthew 28—what happens in reading through a chapter of the Bible is that you hit idea after idea after idea, and there's so much to process, and you're wondering, Now how do I put all of this together with everything else that the Bible says about this topic? But then in another verse you've got another topic and another topic, and our minds—being finite—just can't put it together all at once or over the course of many days of reading. We have instincts of what is right and wrong, what the Bible teaches, but maybe we haven't ever tried to kind of thoughtfully and kind of consistently put it all together into, here's what the Bible says about effective prayer or here's what the Bible says about the work of the Holy Spirit or spiritual gifts or what it is to be born again or any of a thousand other topics. But studying systematic theology gives us more confidence that we know what the Bible wants us to believe and we can believe that more firmly, and then it increases our faith, increases our level of obedience to God and our—I think—our ability to pray rightly and live in a way that God is pleased with.
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