What is Systematic Theology and Why we need it?

I’m a nerd. Do you want to know how nerdy? I love reading systematic theologies. Currently, I’m working through John M. Frame’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. However, I also have Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology on my bookshelf, and of course Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (There might be a few more lying around that I didn’t mention.) 

What is Systematic Theology? I offer a few different definitions given by various theologians. First, Louis Berkhof writes, “Systematic theology seeks to give a systematic presentation of all the doctrinal truths of the Christian religion.” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Ch. 4).Next, John M. Frame states, “Systematic theology seeks to apply Scripture by asking what the whole Bible teaches about any subject.” (Frame, Systematic Theology, Ch. 1). Finally, Grudem similarly argues that systematic theology seeks to answer the question, “What does the whole Bible say to us today about any given topic?” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, Ch. 1). For example, what does the whole Bible say about God, man, or angels, etc?

Why do we need systematic theology? Can’t we just read the Bible? If you’ve ever read the Bible, you’ll realize it is a vast book, and it is not a theological treatise. God didn’t inspire a textbook, but a beautiful literary work that comprises differing genres, like poetry, narrative, and discourse. Systematic theology helps synthesize all the teachings of the Bible and presents them in an orderly fashion. When you consider this, the benefit of this discipline becomes apparent, because it provides “handles” with which we can properly hold the teaching of the Scriptures. In other words, it gives us summary statements on Christian beliefs.

3 Responses to God’s Goodness and Severity

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God in a Systematic Theology class. I’ve tried to read slow, taking notes, and making highlights as I work through the pages of this classic. Some pages in my book seem as if a rainbow exploded on the pages from all my highlights. If you haven’t read this one yet, I recommend you grabbing a copy and settling in with a cup of coffee (or tea). You won’t regret it, because it is deep, but at the same time accessible.

In Chapter 16, Packer deals with the seemingly contrary concepts of God’s goodness and His severity (see Rom 11:22). Although I risk oversimplifying his work, Packer argues many focus on the goodness of God to the neglect of the severity of God. In short, this fixation creates a “Santa Claus theology” that misrepresents the God of the Bible. We must remember God is good, but it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God” (Heb 10:31).

Packer gives three responses to the both the goodness and severity of God. I would like to share these responses with some of my own thoughts.

1. Appreciate the goodness of God.

God is good, and all good things come from Him (Jms 1:17). There is not a blessing you and I receive that doesn’t pass through our Father’s hand. We should be grateful for even the smallest blessing.

2. Appreciate the patience of God.

Next, we are to appreciate God’s patience. The scariest declaration in the Bible is that God is good. Why? Because we are not good. We are rebellious creatures and if we do not repent and be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the wrath of God will be poured out on us. Therefore, when we understand the goodness of God, we should also be grateful for His patience towards us.

3. Appreciate the discipline of God

Finally, it is God’s goodness that causes Him to chastise us. Much like a loving parent, disciplining us for our betterment, God uses events and situations to conform us to the image of His son. When we realize this, we can appreciate both God’s goodness and severity.

J.I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 158-166.

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Noteworthy Quote from “God’s Design.”

Considering the political and social climate in the United States and the cry of liberationists on every street corner, I found the following quote by biblical theologian Elmer A. Martens’ noteworthy. He writes,

The exodus event was a political event since it involved the escape of a people from Pharaoh, a political power. But the liberation pointed forward to a life with Yahweh, to a covenant community, to a life enriched by Yahweh. This goal of a religious and spiritual nature is crucial. Freedom in the exodus story points to a life under the lordship of Yahweh. Elimination of social injustice is important, but the liberation movement, if it is to be theologically underpinned, must ask, freedom for what? [emphasis added] If liberationist will appeal to the exodus event for justification of social and political action, then the whole of exodus must be kept in mind. Yoder put it well: “Exodus is not a paradigm for how all kinds of people with all kinds of values can attain all kinds of salvation.[i]

In a nutshell, before you can claim a biblical precedent for social or political action – which is vital – you must adhere to the full biblical model. One cannot pick and choose the portions that conveniently suit their agenda.

 

[i] Elmer A. Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 66.