An Introduction to Systematic Theology

Recently, and by recently I mean a good two months or more ago, I purchased a copy of Wayne Grudem’s “Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine” and more recently (about a week ago,) I decided I should get around to reading it. Now, this book has long been a familiar sight in my father’s study (remember, he is a pastor) and while it may not be his favorite consolidated systematic theology, it is the one I am most familiar with, having seen many copies at Master’s.  I finished about 3pm Sunday afternoon, after sporadic reading through the week, and as I’d decided upon my start, I am writing a review on the chapter.

But first, an introduction to this great tome of a book. Weighing in at several pounds, almost 1,300 pages, and approximately 0.2 font size, I knew from the get go that this book would quite possibly the most ambitious undertaking I’ve had in a long time. Further, this is a systematic theology, which is ” any study that answers the question, ‘What does the Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.” The reason this book is so large and dense (trust me here; I can read Shakespeare without too much difficulty, I have a feeling I’ll be working this book like a tough bit of steak) is because of that definition, given in this first chapter. A book such as this is a sort of Christian Wikipedia; information on a great many topics, occasionally flawed and therefore most worth studying with a careful, “Borean” eye and through the lens of the Bible itself.

It would seem appropriate that the first chapter of Sys Theo (which I shall frequently abbreviate for ease of typing) is an introduction of this topic of “systematic theology.” Grudem begins the first paragraph of the official chapter with the above definition of what a systematic theology is, quoted from his mentor John Frame. Shortly thereafter he continues with a definition of “doctrine” which is “what the thole Bible teaches us today about some particular topic.” In non-Biblical terms, roughly speaking, doctrine is to systematic theology what physics is to science as a whole; a more focused part of a whole.

Wayne moves on to a short outline of the major doctrines and outline of his book; the doctrines of the Word of God, of God, of Man, of Christ and the Holy Spirit, of the Application of Redemption, of the Church, and finally, of the Future, for a total of seven major parts. The entire book is fifty seven chapters long, so at a chapter a week, I should be done about by my birthday next year, when I turn the ripe, venerable age of twenty four. This distinction of seven major doctrines brings up the need to mention the difference between major and minor doctrines, important because there are a great deal of differences in beliefs concerning both in Christianity today, and can frequently become the focus of aggression.

Major doctrine, in my words, are the real meat and potatoes, those points that I would say all true believers would agree on, or that are foundational tenants of Christianity. Among these, but not limited to, are the fallen nature of man, man’s need to be saved from this fallen nature and their inadequacy to do so themselves, and Christ’s sacrifice enabling the salvation (saving) of man. There is much more, and all of which merit much more expanding, but the general idea is presented, and all of which I will either cover in review, or expand upon myself at some point.

Minor doctrine, therefor, are the things that are less structural in a saving faith sort of way. Not quite foundational, but important in the way that they give a fuller, more perfect understanding in what the Bible teaches on said topic. Christians frequently disagree on these points, have for millennia, and likely will until the world ends. Spiritual gifts, the Millennial Kingdom, and TULIP (actually an inter-connected group of five doctrinal issues) are a few of these. Saving grace isn’t affected by these for the most part, but they do affect daily living. Minor doctrine is to major doctrine as Chemistry is to Physics in the above analogy; more specific and involved.

Back to the actual book, Grudem moves on to explain what his focus of Sys Theo is not; namely a Biblical Theology, Christian Apologia, Historical Theology, or even a study on Christian Ethics. While all of those have a finger in the pie of systematic theology, which in turn has a finger in each of theirs. I’ll cover each a bit more in depth sometime in the future, as each deserve much more than I could dedicate in this post. Systematic theology, further boiled down is what God wants us to believe and know, and a stumbling point becomes when the “total weight of the teaching of the scriptures” is applied, rather than cherry picking certain passages to fit your view of things.

Integral to any study of the Bible from a truly Christian point of view are two initial assumptions, and I’ve quoted the stated versions of them here.

  1. “That the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only absolute source for truth”
  2. “That the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says He is: the Creator of Heaven and Earth and all things in them.”

Those are powerful statements, and the entire Christian faith hangs on them, the apostle Paul himself said,

12Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15 : 12-19

As the purpose of these reviews is to study a systematic theology, and I personally believe in those assumptions, this blog will continue on holding to both of them, unashamedly.

The chapter ends with a subsection titled “How Should Christians Study Systematic Theology?” which I will outline. We, that is Christians studying sys theo, should study with Prayer, that meditation and communion with God that has been given to all Christians. Which honestly looks rather silly just reading it plain, but as the wisdom of Christ is foolishness to the world, we get to run with it, after all, basket ball players and baseball pitchers get those silly arm warmers, and we’ve been praying for over two thousand years. With Humility, there are issues here that have been under discussion, both gentle and violent, for hundreds of years, and are not likely to be “solved” pre-kingdom come. Inevitably everyone has some “baggage” (to steal a picture from my dad) that is simply wrong, and a careful, honest study of scripture will eventually point us in the correct direction if we are willing to admit we might be wrong when presented with the entirety of the facts. I struggle here personally as an extremely opinionated person; being wrong is loosing, and I hate loosing.

Reason is another part of how to study. Much of the New Testament was written in Greek-influenced areas of the world in a time when logic was the ultimate virtue, and Paul especially was a logical reasoner. Feelings are frequently a tainter of thought and can get in the way of our foundational assumptions here. If we accept those assumptions, then there will be truth only in the Bible, and while we may encounter seeming paradoxes (the Trinity being one) we must do our best to understand them and accept that there are some things that human thought simply cannot comprehend.

Aiding the reasoning process is Help from others. I have personally been blessed with an abundance of wise and godly men in my life, my father and grandfather among them, and both of whom I do not hesitate to call upon when I need the help. Along with Help is looking at All the evidence available. Properly understanding the entire context of passage, as well as all passages on any given topic is necessary to come to the most perfect conclusion possible.

Finally, Wayne Grudem gives up a final way to study; that with Rejoicing and Praising. This is only logical, anyone making a positive discovery will cheer, shout happily, fist pump, break out the champagne, or some combination thereof. While our discovery will not be anything truly previously unknown to humanity, it is rather a progression along on that journey to become closer to Christ, as we are commanded.

The chapter ends with a small slew of extra goodies, as all chapters in the book do. Questions for personal application, always beneficial to help one “dig deeper” on their own, a list of special terms to search back for, and a bibliography for further reading are the first few. A Scripture memory passage relating to the content of the previous chapter, (here Matt 28 : 18-20) and a closing Hymn, usually relating to the chapter as well, though a general hymn of praise here “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” close out the book.

As I said earlier, a chapter a week (which is doable for me) will take me just over a year and I will truly do my best to not only stick to that reading, but also to this weekly review. There may be times I flat out disagree and am totally wrong, there may be times I agree and am totally wrong, and I know there will be times I agree and am right, and times I disagree and will be right. It is my hope that going through this study I become better able to present a logical and correct systematic theology in the future and grow from this study. My hope would also be that whoever reads this blog is edified as well, and point out where I might be wrong myself in my conclusions or stated beliefs.

In closing, I do plan on having a few posts each week, and this series only one those. Even if you totally don’t care about systematic theology, either because you find it a waste of time, or just don’t believe as me, I would urge you to read along with me, and ask me some questions when you have them. I bet it won’t hurt, and you might learn a thing or two. Until next time, Adieu!

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