What is the value of systematic theology?
Question from a reader:
What is the value of systematic theology? Isn’t there a risk of misinterpretation because of trying to process all of God’s Word through a system rather than letting it speak for itself?
Answer from Randy Alcorn:
I think that it’s impossible to teach theology without teaching worldview and impossible to teach worldview without teaching theology, and in particular systematic theology. A doctrine is a teaching that is a way of summarizing or viewing truth. Hence the “view” in worldview amounts to a doctrinal lens, a belief system through which you see the world. It applies to everything from money to sex to abortion to work to leisure. There is a theology of heaven and money and sex and gambling and nearly everything else. It’s “what God has to say about this subject in His Word.” And always it requires that we examine the whole counsel of God, the larger picture, lest we leave out something vital that is not recorded in Titus or Hebrews or Joshua or Proverbs (or whatever book may partially address a given issue). Ours shouldn’t be just a view based on a single passage or book of Scripture, but based on the whole counsel of God, which offers us checks and balances that we would not be aware of from a single book or chapter or paragraph of Scripture.
Isn’t it virtually impossible even to “share the gospel” without systematic theology? Even if you don’t choose to use a tract or gospel booklet, you must do what they do—selectively choose Bible portions and summarize their points in a way that is educated by, and true to, the whole of Scripture. “We have all sinned.” “God loves us.” “We need the price paid for our sins in order to be acceptable to God.” “Jesus went to the cross to pay for our sins.” “We must place our faith in Christ.”
The closest thing to doing this while restricting yourself to a single book of Scripture may be Romans 1-11, but even then you will end up skipping from Romans 3:23 to 6:23 to 10:9,10 and summarizing your main points of creation, fall, sin and death and curse, Christ’s death and resurrection and faith in the grace Christ offers us.
Along the way, to make the message fuller and more complete, you will probably import a number of passages from the Old Testament prophets, gospels, and other epistles. In other words, you will do systematic theology, pulling together Scripture to express an overall biblical teaching.
Of course, one’s systematic theology should never dictate his understanding of Scripture. But there is a chicken and egg aspect to this. The fact is that everyone brings assumptions and an interpretive grid to the text of Scripture. In fact, that’s their worldview. So everyone comes to Scripture with a systematic theology—it’s just that often it’s wrong and full of holes and not biblically based.
We have a thirst for knowledge, and knowledge consists of seeing truths in relationship to each other. We do not just need the individual pearls of truths; we need the string that ties them together. Without the larger picture of God’s unfolding drama of redemption, and without systematic theology, we as pastors are constantly throwing out pearls to our people, but they have no string to put them on and hold them together, and keep them in relation to each other. So we think we’re giving our people a string of pearls, but because we left out the string, the pearls are jumbled and rolling around, and eventually get mixed up with things of lesser value, and many of them are lost completely in the confusion of the onslaughts of worldviews that come at them in everything from Internet billboards to car commercials.
Consequently, I think it is impossible and unwise to simply study parts of God’s Word as individual entities without laboring to demonstrate their relationship to the larger whole (in other words to systematize). Now we can over-systematize of course, and strip Scripture of paradox and mystery and wonder, but that is not inherent to systematic theology when it is well done. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I have heard people argue, “But God didn’t reveal himself to us in a systematic theology. Therefore it’s wrong to construct one.” But this is like saying “God didn’t reveal mathematics or chemistry or physics, so it’s wrong to construct them as a science.” Not only is it not wrong, it is vital for progress and inevitable considering the way God has created our minds. If these sciences hadn’t been constructed to organize observations and truths in relation to each other, people would be a lot more ignorant about the subject matters and society would have ground to a halt.
I’ll make a comparison with my favorite science, astronomy. God has revealed to us many truths in the process of a history of redemption that involves many characters and stories. Likewise, the history of stars and planets and our observations of them involve many components. Astronomy is a way of gathering this vast realm of isolated facts and making them no longer isolated, so they make sense and can be learned and discussed and theories can be explored and tested.
Rather than just learning isolated facts about the stars and planets, interesting though they be, these facts are studied and organized and put into categories into a science called astronomy so that understanding can deepen and be better grasped and utilized and applied and raised in conversations.
Isn’t that exactly what can happen in systematic theology? It’s what happened in my life, and I’ve seen it in the lives of many people.
Isolated facts about astronomy leave people initially excited but confused and ultimately disinterested because “it just doesn’t make sense.” Isolated Bible facts leave people initially excited, but eventually confused and ultimately disinterested because “it just doesn’t make sense.” God has made the human mind to desire things to make sense, and to try to labor to organize them in a way that does make sense.
This is what astronomy and physics and psychology and sociology and systematic theology have in common. All are prone to overgeneralization and error of course, but the difference is that systematic theology begins with the Bible, which is true. So while the Bible didn’t come to us in systematic form, that doesn’t mean it is wrong to study its truths and try to organize them in relationship to each other, just like we do in every area in which we seek knowledge and understanding. And shouldn’t we labor all the harder to systematize with care and accuracy because of the inspired nature of what’s been entrusted to us?