What makes a good systematic theology? In speaking primarily of Evangelical systematic theology, there are at least four important aspects in addition to it being derived from scripture. 1. It is comprehensive, 2. it involves coherent organization, 3. it should apply to issues of the day, and 4. it should all be done for the glory of God.
For systematic theology to be comprehensive means that it looks to see what scripture, as a whole, teaches about specific topics. Exegesis asks, what does this passage teach, Biblical theology asks, what does this author, book, or genre of literature teach within the progression of revelation. Systematic theology attempts to look at the whole and put it all together.
2. Coherent Organization
This aspect of systematic theology looks at all the details that scripture gives us and attempts to see how they are all tied together. The systematic theologian is not allowed to alter the pieces or leave any out. This coherence is sometimes frowned upon by those who think that God’s word cannot fit into any system, but this objection seems to miss the fact that there is nothing in the word of God that contradicts itself. This means that God’s revelation to us is unified and not contradictory, which means we should be able to look and see how it all goes together. One of the ways it is usually organized is as follows.
- Bibliology– The Doctrine of the Word of God
- Theology Proper– The Doctrine of God
- Anthropology– The Doctrine of Man
- Harmartiology– The Doctrine of Sin
- Christology– The Doctrine of Christ
- Soteriology– The Doctrine of Salvation
- Ecclesiology– The Doctrine of the Church
- Eschatology– The Doctrine of Last things or the future.
Looking at this list, we can see a logical progression. First, we study the doctrine of the Word of God, which tells us who God is. From there, we can move to God’s creation and learn about mankind, made in His image. Looking at mankind, we then study sin, which relates to mankind by showing us who we are and what sin is. From there, we learn about the God-man Jesus Christ who was free from sin and how he saves sinful mankind. Because we are saved, we become part of His kingdom called the Church, so we study ecclesiology. From there, we can move to the future of and the consummation of this Church, which is eschatology.
Some may arrange them differently, but what we begin to see is how it is all connected. In doing this, we begin to understand the “total weight of truth,” as Millard Erickson puts it, realizing that doctrines do not stand alone to be easily picked off by secular arguments. They are logically interwoven into each other, and a cord of many strands is not easily broken.
3. Applicable to Today’s Christian
There are many aspects of being a Christian that never change, such as God, sin, salvation, the Church, etc. But there are specific issues that become pressing for Christians to deal with at different times in history. If someone were to write a systematic theology today and spend most of their peripheral time arguing that the Catholic Church should not be selling indulgences, they would not be making theology bear on today’s issues. Although still wrong, indulgences are not a major issue anymore. Millard Erickson does a great job of addressing contemporary issues in his book on Christian doctrine by addressing problems caused by postmodernism.
4. Done for the Glory of God
Finally, we must realize the systematic theology is done for the Glory of God. We do not do it to puff ourselves up with knowledge. It should always be done in humility. We are to let God’s Word inform us, instead of us informing scripture. We desire to be followers of Christ, and systematic theology, along with Biblical theology, asks what it means to be a disciple? The more we understand, the more we will live our lives in a God-glorifying manner and teach others all that Christ commanded. In doing this, we strive to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Disclaimer: I have used the list above in my teaching for the last 10-15 years. It has been so long that I have forgotten where I derived the list. It may have been pulled together from a few different books, but I do have some recollection that Millard Erickson’s Christian Doctrine may have a heavy influence. This is my feeble attempt to give credit where credit is due.