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 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: eschatology, 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!

29 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.

      • David A Stowell sr Reply

        I had started a study of systematic theology many years ago with our pastor, but never got an explanation of why or what it was only that he wanted to teach a class to refresh his own grasp of it. I thought it was 3 thick volumes of unpronounceable words and meanings. I never got gist of it and dropped out . I love the Bible and that’s all I need.

        • I prefer the simple Bible as it is written. I need nothing more.. One should not add large unpronounceable words and make something more difficult for non theologian people like me.Keep it simple.

  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

        • Reed Robertson Reply

          Thanks for the article. It was helpful. A person can use both methods, correct?

  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

    • I prefer the systematic theological process over the biblical theological process in times when I am looking for a particular answer to that which I am going through at that particular time. On the other hand, I prefer the biblical process over the systematic at other times when I just want to learn and spend time with our Lord at his feet!

  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.

  7. In Systematic Theology I have found in such subjects as “baptism”, that the entire discussion was in regard to different types of church or religion use of this subject revolves mostly around man’s use or beliefs regarding baptism. If one examines the dispensation of the knowledge God gives us, we are given new knowledge, that evolves from Old Testament to Acts (“earthly“ baptism), to Paul’s emphasis (after the cross) as “spiritual” baptism we receive when we believe, through faith, in the gospel according to Paul.

  8. Because I use hermeneutics in my studies, I find biblical theology more rewarding for my understanding of Scripture. When looking at discoveries made in systematic theology I still need hermeneutics to correctly exegete the passage and understand if the conclusions they made are correct. Knowing the theology of a particular book will reveal this. This is off topic but concerning hermeneutics I recommend green Osbournes hermeneutical spiral.

  9. The study of the ends times is called “eschatology,” not “soteriology.”

  10. Soteriology is the study of salvation. Eschatology is the study of end times.

    • Cierra Loux Reply

      Alan, good catch! I’m surprised no one said something sooner! It’s been fixed. 🙂

  11. Keith Jenkins Reply

    When I moved to Mobile, AL, the first thing I did was buy a street map of city and county. I studied the main highways and streets and became familiar with how they connected and intersected; I learned the neighborhoods and the easiest ways in and out. After that, I found the addresses of stores and attractions that were of special interest to me; then I marked the addresses of all the kids that were in my youth group (I was brought in as youth pastor), my favorite restaurants, particularly those that delivered. Then, over the first few weeks, I drove to as many of those places as I could, using the map routes that I had laid out in my mind, watching closely for businesses and other landmarks to help me familiarize my routes. After a few weeks, I had kids who wondered how I navigated the entire area like I had lived there all my life.
    This is analogous to the study of theology: I really need to learn what the Bible, in its entirety, teaches about the themes that run through it from Genesis to Revelation. Then, when I go to study individual books and passages, I’m much less likely to “get lost” and sidetracked by interpreting Scripture apart from the context of the entire Word.
    I believe that most error comes from people reading and interpreting a verse or passage divorced from the total context of Scripture. When I have learned the overarching teaching of God’s Word, I can better appreciate how the various pieces fit perfectly into the big picture and, when I come to a verse or passage that I have a hard time understanding, I can bring in my knowledge of Scriptural teaching. While that might not satisfy my mind in clear and confidant certainty of the understanding of my passage, it will most likely keep me from falling into error.
    IF I come to a passage that clearly and firmly goes against my “system,” instead of merely shrugging it off, I need to go back and see if, perhaps, my system is in error. “Always interpret the ambiguous passage by the explicit passage and not the clear by the blurry.” If I’m still not satisfied, I need to remember, the Bible is the revelation of the infinite God and there may be things my finite mind cannot grasp.
    Learning a systematic theology based on the whole Bible helps me more clearly understand the intricate beauty of God’s tapestry of revelation in individual books, passages, verses, phrases and words.

  12. Thank you for putting a name to this method. I didn’t know I’ve been using something like it in my study of the Bible for many years. I’m disabled and have more time than many to devote to God’s word. By incorporating cultural background resources and original languages, led by the Holy Spirit, my study is so rich. Your method sounds thorough and could streamline my efforts. The only thing that holds me back is that both of these translations don’t use reverential pronouns. I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory rationale for abandoning this expression of honor toward God. I mean, it requires a decision not to use them. If other Bibles were used in your system, I’d say sign me up!

    • Cierra Loux Reply

      Hey, Clarice! In the app, you can use any translation with study notes. So, although the notes themselves in these study Bibles may reference the NIV or ESV, you can use them with the KJV or other translation open in the main window. Hope this helps!

  13. I like systematic theology because when you study a particular characteristic of God; e.g. he’s holy, he’s righteous, he’s merciful, he’s just, he’s sovereign, and he has an elective purpose-you can see the various characteristics peppered throughout all of scripture, and not just in one specific book, Testament, or verse. Seeing this throughout enhances the specific trait of God in your studies.

  14. The process I felt led to use when the Lord would give me something to study, e.g., “salt” was to look up every reference to salt and group the references— salt as preservative, salt that can lose its taste, etc. Sounds like a systematic approach. Then I would ask the Lord for specific direction to an event in Scripture that He wanted me to use to develop a theme He wanted to highlight. In that way, I could bring my listeners into the event, demonstrate its significance in our lives, and be certain I hadn’t missed any inputs. I could also show where God used that meaning in other settings expanding its meaning for us. At times, after many hours of research, I would go before the Lord and ask Him how I was to present the theme, and He would turn me to another approach entirely. Asking God for His will for the word requires flexibility and humility, assuring my study of His leadings never “puffed” me up with Biblical information rather than revelation.

  15. There is a need for clarification here. Your bucket illustration is amazingly good by the way. If you find yourself reading the Bible, then putting your interpretation into pre-established buckets of: “End-Times” (eschatology) or ‘Salvation’ (soteriology) etc. then you are prioritizing systematic theology. Your established thought buckets are in place first – said another way: You first have a system of thinking in terms of categories to place bible verses into. “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis); a systematic theologian with a Trinitarian bucket firmly in place before reading, will see Trinity in this passage. The bible verse fits into their established systematic theology. A Biblical Theologian will not first have a systematic bucket to put the text in but ask first: What did this text mean when it was written, what was within the culture that made this concept important to the writer in that day; what was the writers style or personal experience in the issue, with the recipients etc. These things are not systematic theology categories and may not even speak to a specific Systematic bucket. A biblical Theologian thinks of the text and its context first and maybe come up with other things to talk about than the pre-established buckets. IE reading a text on the Temple, a Biblical Theologian doesn’t immediately drop it into Ecclesiology (16th-20th century theology term regarding ‘church’) but the Biblical Theologian lets the Jewish world of the text determine what “Temple” is all about. That’s why Carson talks about Biblical themes from the text. Biblical Themes are not Systematic categories. You have to remember that Grudem is a very conservative (Bible First) systematic theologian so for him to do Systematics as a Conservative Evangelical, he must use the text to fill the systematics buckets but he has his buckets established first, and sees the text speaking to them – arguing for his Systematic positions. That’s totally fine for Grudem and others to do but don’t kid yourself, he is putting a very ancient text into very contemporary buckets of systematic theology. I’m sure the authors of the text did not have these buckets in mind when they wrote. Even God might not so easily fit within our systematic constructs. That’s why we need Biblical Theologians to help us think beyond our pre-established buckets.

    • Timothy Webber Reply

      I see not one scripture reference to systemising scripture. However, here is scripture to support
      interpretation through biblical revolation.

      that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him,
      Ephesians 1:17 NKJV

  16. Thank you so much for this! I prefer the biblical-theological study. When I study systematically, I most times have the tendency to not find my way back to the beginning, sort speak. In biblical-theological studying, my thoughts seem to stay gathered in one place. Once I start, I prefer to conclude that thought.
    The breakdown here was just what I needed for a more in-depth understanding. The Biblical theology was very on point for me!

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