What is Theology? —Going Systematic

By Timothy, Smarty McSmartypants who’s about to really impress you

theology1Last week we talked about the discipline of theology as a whole. This week we will discuss the specific subset discipline of systematic theology. I must confess that this is probably my favorite discipline of theology, the one that I have decided to pursue at an academic level (along with historical theology, which we’ll discuss later).

Systematic theology is the discipline that sets out to organize Christian faith and doctrines in a coherent and logical way. Generally speaking, this discipline is the most common discipline to find. It is often called “theology proper,” and it’s also routinely the most intimidating version of theology.

Systematic theology books can total in the thousands of pages. In fact, Karl Barth’s famous systematic theology, the Church Dogmatics, easily numbers in the tens of thousands of pages and was unfinished at the time of his death. Other famous systematic theologians include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Wolfhart Pannenberg. However, systematic theology really isn’t all that intimidating when it is translated out of academia for the sake of the church.

For example, one of the most popular subsets within systematic theology is Christology, the branch that focuses on the person and work of Christ. This discipline also has subsets such as soteriology, which has to do with salvation (i.e. who is saved, to what extent are we saved, what are we saved from, etc).

I know it’s all sounding scary and complicated right now but stick with me.

The fact is that we all have our own beliefs about these things. The job of systematic theology is to set out to organize these beliefs into a coherent system. While in the organization and systematization phase it can become (and I would argue, must become) highly academic, the best theologians then take that academic theology and distill it down to be understood by the masses.

For example, the earliest systematic theologians set out to write down what the base line of Christian belief was in order to counter certain heresies that had arisen. What resulted was the Nicene Creed, written roughly in 325 A.D. and finalized in 381 A.D. This Creed sets out the basics of Christian theology that almost any student of Scripture could articulate today.

For example, this Creed sets out the fact that God is the Creator, that Jesus is his eternal son who was born of a virgin Mary, who was both fully God and fully man, who was crucified, died and was buried but on the third day rose again. It also asserts the unity of the church, the importance of baptism and life everlasting. This Creed, while simple, is astonishingly complex especially when you look at the background literature. St. Athanasius, the hero of Nicaea, wrote astonishingly beautiful but complex works of theology that he later helped to translate into the very basic language of the Creed.

In the end the best theology adheres to this Creed. It may use hard words that won’t make sense outside of academic training, but it’s attempting to work out complexities so that those theological complexities can then be translated into the life of the church. The academic precision and complexity is essential so that Christian practice can be as accurate as possible.

So next time you see a multi-volume systematic theology that intimidates you, don’t be afraid. Know that the work in that volume is an attempt to assist the church in it’s efforts to live out the gospel and that many faithful men and women are studying that theology with the goal of fostering true faith in the church.


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