You’ve decided to get serious about your studies—wonderful! So where do you get started? We’ve already looked at a few basics surrounding study Bibles, but there are a few more tools that a student of the Word should have in his or her tool belt. One of the most helpful? A good systematic theology.
What is a systematic theology?
The term “systematic theology” is a scary one for a lot of people. It sounds cold and mechanical. But a good systematic theology can help inspire a greater love for the Bible and the God who inspired its writing.
Systematic theology, in broad strokes, seeks to compile everything that the Bible says about a particular doctrine (such as the Trinity, penal substitutionary atonement, the attributes of God, creation, etc.) into an orderly and rational form. More simply, “systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given subject.”[1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (21)]
While some are uncomfortable with the idea of systematic theology, thinking of it as being a divergence from biblical theology (a critique usually made by folks who are opposed to doctrinal certainty of any sort), a good systematic theology seeks to avoid importing man-made ideas and go no further than Scripture itself. While it doesn’t ignore the historical development of doctrine or philosophical ideas surrounding them, these fields lack the authority of Scripture.
In other words, consistent systematic theology is biblical theology.
Why do I need one?
The primary reason to have a systematic theology in your reference library is so that you can gain a better understanding of and appreciation for Christian theology. We are commanded to love the Lord with all of our minds, as well as our hearts, souls and strength, and therefore the study of theology should lead us not simply to gain knowledge, but lead us to praise God for who He is.
How do I use it?
As with all things, systematic theologies should be studied prayerfully and carefully. Keep your Bible handy, check references and make sure that what is there aligns with what Scripture clearly says. Further to that, a systematic theology is not a weapon—unless you need something to defend your home (some of these things are pretty hefty!).
Studying and referencing a systematic theology is not to be an exercise in showing off intellectual prowess. If the knowledge lies merely in your head, but doesn’t move to your heart, then it’s time wasted.
What’s the right systematic theology for me?
Just as with a study Bible, there’s an element of preference here. But it’s important to be understand that systematic theologies will always reflect the author’s particular emphases. Because of this, it’s actually helpful (to some degree) to have access to multiple systematic texts. Here are a few modern-ish editions to check out:
Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof:
This landmark edition combines Berkhof’s standard, systematic treatment of the doctrines of the Reformed faith—his magnum opus—with his Introduction to Systematic Theology. Written in a scholarly yet simple style, and completely outlined and indexed, the work includes a thorough bibliography, and questions for further study follow each section.
Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by R.C. Sproul:
For those who yearn for a deeper walk in faith, their journey can begin here. Dr. Sproul takes theology down off of the dusty shelves of theological libraries and expounds in clear and simple terms over one hundred major Christian doctrines. He offers readers a basic understanding of the Christian faith that will kindle a lifelong love for truth, which is foundational to maturity in Christ. Here are theologically sound explanations of the biblical concepts every Christian should know, written in a way that we can all understand. Sproul’s homespun analogies and illustrations from everyday life make this book interesting, informative, and easy to read.
The Christian Faith by Michael Horton:
Michael Horton’s highly anticipated The Christian Faith represents his magnum opus and will be viewed as one of—if not the—most important systematic theologies since Louis Berkhof wrote his in 1932. A prolific, award-winning author and theologian, Professor Horton views this volume as ‘doctrine that can be preached, experienced, and lived, as well as understood, clarified, and articulated.’ It is written for a growing cast of pilgrims making their way together and will be especially welcomed by professors, pastors, students, and armchair theologians.
A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones:
A Puritan Theology … explores Puritan teachings on biblical interpretation, God, predestination, providence, angels, sin, the covenants, the gospel, Christ, preparation for conversion, regeneration, coming to Christ, justification, adoption, church government, the Sabbath, preaching, baptism, heaven, hell, and many other topics…. The goal of A Puritan Theology is to increase knowledge in the mind and godliness in the soul. It was written for theologians, historians, pastors, and educated laymen who seek to learn more about Puritan theology.
(Learn more or buy it at Westminster Books or Amazon.)
Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John Frame:
Systematic Theology is the culmination and creative synthesis of John Frame’s writing on, teaching about, and studying of the Word of God. This magisterial opus—at once biblical, clear, cogent, readable, accessible, and practical—summarizes the mature thought of one of the most important and original Reformed theologians of the last hundred years. It will enable you to see clearly how the Bible explains God’s great, sweeping plan for mankind.
Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem:
The Christian church has a long tradition of systematic theology, that is, studying theology and doctrine organized around fairly standard categories such as the Word of God, redemption, and Jesus Christ. This introduction to systematic theology has several distinctive features: – A strong emphasis on the scriptural basis for each doctrine and teaching – Clear writing, with technical terms kept to a minimum – A contemporary approach, treating subjects of special interest to the church today – A friendly tone, appealing to the emotions and the spirit as well as the intellect – Frequent application to life – Resources for worship with each chapter – Bibliographies with each chapter that cross-reference subjects to a wide range of other systematic theologies.
Again, those are just a few of the many available out there. There are also volumes by R.L. Dabney and Charles Hodge, Calvin’s Institutes, Erickson’s Christian Theology, as well as Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, and a ton of others. Every systematic theology is going to have its own strengths and weaknesses, but really, if you had one or two of the volumes on this list, I suspect you’d be set (at least until Packer finally releases one).