When I was entering Bible college, I had no clue there was a difference between biblical and systematic theology. In fact, if you asked me to define systematic theology and theology separately, I wouldn’t have known how. So, fantastic resources like the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible or the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, would have seemed odd to me.

Are you in the same boat? Here’s an easy 3-part description of biblical and systematic theology. There’s even a video! ?

FIRST THINGS FIRST, WHAT IS THEOLOGY?

Before we talk about different types of theology, we should nail this down. What is theology?

The dictionary gives us a basic answer:

the study of the nature of God and religious belief

That’s a sufficient definition, but it’s rather dry. Also, it doesn’t tell us the why—why study theology? What does it accomplish? Instead, let’s use a definition I often heard around my alma mater:

Theology is the study of God and the words we use to talk about Him.

The difference between these two definitions lies in the process. The first seeks to study the nature of God to know more about God. But the second seeks to pay very close attention to the words chosen to describe God. Then, after carefully selecting words, we can begin to build upon our knowledge of God in a consistent, coherent way.

Additionally, there are different processes for choosing which words to use. This is where systematic theology and biblical theology differ. So, let’s start off learning what makes systematic theology systematic.

WHAT IS SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY?

Truth be told, you have most likely practiced systematic theology. Don’t believe me? See if you’ve ever said one of the following:

The Bible says that God is…

In the Bible, we learn that sin is…

The Bible says that marriage is…

I know the what the Gospel is because the Bible says…

The Bible describes angels as…

If you have ever made one of these statements, or anything similar to them, you have practiced systematic theology. That’s because systematic theology is the practice of making statements about God and Christianity, based off the entire Biblical canon.

AN ILLUSTRATION

Picture it this way: You have a bunch of buckets. They are labeled things like the end times, holy spirit, and Jesus Christ. (Which, these have their own special names in theology: soteriology, pneumatology, and christology, respectively).

Systematic Theology: Buckets

Then, you cut out big portions of Scripture that talk about these topics in context. You put the passages in their respective buckets. Lastly, you go bucket-by-bucket, researching those passages. You write a few short, concise paragraphs describing your findings.

How does this process help us build on our knowledge of God in a consistent and coherent way?

The Bible cannot contradict itself—it is inerrant. So, we can confidently take all these different passages and use them to show us the big picture.

LISTEN TO WAYNE GRUDEM

Wayne Grudem is a fantastic theologian and Greek scholar. Listen to him simply explain systematic theology and why it is important in this short video.

WHAT IS BIBLICAL THEOLOGY?

Setting the bucket illustration aside, another way to imagine systematic theology is that it is a 15,000ft view of the Bible. Imagine you are on top of a mountain, and below you is scripture laid out from beginning to end. You can make a lot of connections this way!

Systematic Theology: 15,000 Ft View

TREKKING THE TERRAIN

But biblical theology takes a different approach. This time, you are seeing the Bible from the ground. You traverse hills, wander in the desert, and cross rivers. Instead of plucking ideas from Genesis, Matthew, and Revelation to make one statement about God, you only make statements based on what is right in front of you at a given moment.

Biblical Theology: Traversing Terrain

However it may sound, this isn’t a less-researched method. Instead, those who study biblical theology go deep into the history, culture, and context of the passage they are reading. Verse-by-verse, they trudge through waist-deep research. Then, once they are very sure of their surroundings, they make a statement about God.

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY PER D.A. CARSON

Want a better explanation? D.A. Carson explains the “three faces” of biblical theology in the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible:

Face One

Here one seeks to understand, e.g., the theology of Jeremiah, of Luke-Acts, of the Pentateuch, or of Hebrews. Textbooks abound with the words “Theology of the New Testament” in the title. In most cases these are books with discrete chapters devoted to the distinctive theological emphases of each book or corpus in the NT. The best of these chapters locate the biblical book or corpus within the Bible’s entire narrative, not just within the narrative of the NT, and thus they are rightly considered biblical-theological studies.

Face Two

Alternatively, one may trace certain themes running through the entire Bible, carefully observing how the passage of time enlarges and enriches them. Many of the ensuing articles in this study Bible are devoted to that kind of biblical theology. For example, the study of how the theme of the temple develops across time within the Bible not only generates insight on that theme but also enables us to see more clearly how the entire Bible holds together.

Face Three

Some writers have recently studied a particular biblical book, then carefully noted how that book uses earlier biblical material, and then examined how later biblical books cite or allude to that book. For example, one might study the theology of the book of Daniel, paying close attention to the ways in which Daniel picks up themes and specific passages from earlier OT material, and then study how Daniel is cited and used in the rest of the Bible. This is another way of saying that even though biblical theology sometimes focuses initially on one book of the Bible or on one theme running through the Bible, sooner or later it is interested in understanding how the Bible holds together, how in God’s providence it develops across time to become what we hold in our hands today.

START STUDYING THEOLOGY

Theology can seem overwhelming if you have never been introduced to it before. However, we should work to become aware of the power and importance of the words we use to describe God. An easy way to get started is by picking up a resource like the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible or the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible. These resources are a great place to start!

Do you prefer systematic or biblical theology? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!

11 Comments

  1. Hanna Baker Reply

    Systematic theology, please! I want the big – picture view of each topic so as to better understand where each piece of scripture fits into that picture.

  2. Systematic theology is of the most interest because it gets me the the focus of the Bible. I get to know the central themes in the Bible

  3. Larry Peckham Reply

    In the context of teaching God’s “Dual Revelation”, I begin by defining the definition of Theology and Science as follows:

    Theology is man’s attempt to define God’s revelation in His Word. Science is man’s attempt to define God’s revelation in His World. And, “properly understood”, they should never be in conflict. And if there is a conflict the scientist needs to go back and re-evaluate his positions or the theologian needs to go back and examine his teaching.

    In this context, the definition of theology is as noted above; that is, “man’s attempt to define God’s revelation in His Word”.

    Regards,

    • Thank you; that’s very well said; simply stated and clear. I just found this post when i was looking up the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology for a class i’m taking. I didn’t even know there was a difference, and I like the definition you gave for both science and theology.

      Stacey

  4. I think I’ve come to prefer the biblical theology style. Though, I appreciate that you put “in context” in bold letters when describing systematically organizing scriptures by topic. I don’t suppose I’ve read any books of either, but the way I like to read and respond to the Bible these days isn’t to try to gain a better set of doctrinal statements so I can be confident in my own understanding (which used to be the case), but to understand and receive the message each writer was trying to convey: not studying their words like a puzzle so I can put it all together, but seeking to humble myself to them, to be the audience they were writing a letter to, to allow them to instruct, correct, and warn me, sharing with me what they themselves received, that I might believe what they believe and know God like they know Him. Not that I don’t still hop around the Bible within a topic, but I guess I’ve found that knowledge without obedience only puffs up, and that puts distance between my heart and God.

  5. John Edward Langston Reply

    Both….I want the big picture and the particular….both will provide revelation.

    John

  6. Jordan Shepherd Reply

    By default, I defer to systematic theology. Systematic theology seems to equip me for apologetic (I’m evangelist and philosopher); biblical theology equips me to relate to historical culture and real life application and therefore serves to live my life with a clear and consistent understanding of God’s nature. The former is about principles; the latter, application. I need both.

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