What is Systematic Theology?

Posted On September 22, 2017

Systematic theology has fallen on hard times. For some, it imposes unbiblical categories on the text of Scripture. For others, it represents antiquated methods of teaching people the Bible. Still others criticize it for having little benefit for life and ministry. The implication is that systematic theology should give way to theological approaches that are presumably more exegetically sound, culturally nuanced, or devotionally useful. While these criticisms may at times have merit, we should not conclude that systematic theology is irrelevant for the people of God.

To help us think through the value of systematic theology, I want to highlight an article by B.B. Warfield on “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology.” Although written over a century ago, it provides a good starting point for understanding the importance of systematic theology.

For Warfield, in order to appreciate systematic theology, we need to grasp how it differs from other ways of doing theology. Along these lines, he identifies five different departments of theology. Each discipline contributes to our knowledge of God.

The first discipline Warfield features is apologetical theology. It considers questions about God’s existence and how He can be known. Building on this foundation, exegetical theology investigates God’s revelation and extrapolates information about God from His Word. Historical theology surveys previous attempts at knowing God by examining the way our forebears engaged Scripture. Learning from the past, practical theology grapples with how the knowledge of God is “best applied to human needs.” Finally, systematic theology gathers what is gleaned from these other disciplines and attempts to present the knowledge of God as an organic whole.

According to Warfield, systematic theology represents “the culminating department of theological science.” He argues, “It is the goal to which apologetical, exegetical, and historical theology lead up; and it provides the matter which practical theology employs.” Each theological discipline attempts to present the knowledge of God revealed in Scripture. In apologetical theology, we defend the knowledge of God. In exegetical theology, we study the “scattered fragments” (disjecta membra) of the knowledge of God. In historical theology, we listen to previous reflections on the knowledge of God. In practical theology, we proclaim the knowledge of God. And in systematic theology, we summarize the knowledge of God.

From this perspective, the study of systematic theology is not contrary to other theological disciplines. Rather it coordinates with them to articulate the unified message of Scripture concerning the knowledge of God. Anytime we ask the question, “what does the Bible say about X, Y, or Z,” we invariably draw from these disciplines in order to articulate what Warfield calls “the systematized knowledge of God.” In conversation with other theological disciplines, therefore, systematic theology considers the testimony of the whole Bible on subjects such as revelation, God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and last things. This is why Warfield, in his clunky way, suggests that systematic theology is the “department or section of theological science which is concerned with setting forth systematically, that is to say, as a concatenated whole, what is known concerning God.”

Since God is infinite, we will never exhaust the potential of systematic theology. Far from being stale or stagnate, systematic theology is “a progressive science,” to borrow again from Warfield. As students of God’s Word, we are called to grow in our knowledge of God. It is the job of systematic theology to help us do just that. The value of systematic theology is that it builds upon the findings of other theological disciplines in order to set forth accurately the knowledge of God as it is revealed in Scripture. But we fall short in our work as theologians if we stop there. The goal of theology is knowing God not systematizing the knowledge of God. But to know God, we must know his Word. For this task, systematic theology is indispensable.

Dr. John Tweeddale is Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College.