What kinds of theology are there? Which is more important, according to the Bible?

(Note: This is an attempt at answering a practice essay question within a time constraint, so is sketchy in places.)

Theology, simply stated, is the study of God with the goal of relationship with Him. For Christians, it is to know God as He presents himself to us, particularly in the Holy Scriptures. John Calvin suggests that:

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

In saying this, he frames true wisdom within a relationship with God, who moves from being a stranger we never meet to the One we can relate to.

Christians have employed a variety of ways to analyse the teaching of Scripture. These approaches are categorised as specific types of theology, systematic, exegetical, biblical, historical and sometimes practical (or pastoral). Scripture does not privilege one over the other: rather, we see these methods used interdependently throughout the Bible.

Systematic theology aims to understand what the whole Bible has to teach us today about a particular topic. It is to ask: “What’s the bottom line?” At its best, it provides Christians (who already do systematic theology on a regular basis) with the ability to explain what the Scriptures teach about a certain topic: for example, God’s Word, God himself, creation, humanity, sin, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the work of Christ, the church, and the last things. The Scriptures show some evidence that the early NT church practised systematic theology, such as the creedal statements in 1 Tim 3:6, Phil 2:5-10, Rom 10:9 and 1 Cor 15:3-4.

Systematic theology is important because what we do is shaped by what we believe about God. Theology shapes our worship (John 4:23), witness (Acts 17:11) and discipleship (John 8:31). Our duty therefore, is to become the best theologians we can be for the glory of God. Yet what we will see is that good systematic theology is only possible in conjunction with other methods of studying the Bible.

Exegetical theology aims to understand what a particular part of the Bible teaches. It is to ask: “What’s in the line?” John reminds us in the prologue to his gospel that Jesus exegetes God for us – in other words, he makes him known to us. Exegetical theology is to seek to derive meaning out of (ex-) the text. Through careful grammatical and historical study, we seek to understand what the author intends the reader to hear. Exegetical theology is indispensable to conducting proper systematic theology and to avoid “proof-texting” a conclusion that is not actually supported by Scripture. However, exegetical theology is not sufficient, as once we understand a text, we still interpret it in light of some kind of overarching framework.

Biblical theology is a technical term referring to understanding how a doctrine moves and progresses throughout the Bible’s chronology. It is to ask: “What’s the timeline?” For example, Luke 24:27 presents how Jesus “beginning with Moses” explained what was in the Scriptures concerning himself. Stephen (Acts 6) and other evangelists self-consciously present the truths of God as part of a redemptive history. Goldsworthy explains:

“The systematic theologian is mainly interested in the finished article… the biblical theologian on the other hand is concerned rather with the progressive unfolding of truth.”

Employing biblical theology helps us to see how a doctrine is understood and applied at a certain point in the development of salvation history. The distinction is that systematic theology is broadly thematic in its treatment of God’s Word, while biblical theology is chronological or programmatic in doing so. A good systematic theologian will at times employ biblical theology, but it builds on its results to offer a collection and summary of teaching about a particular subject. For example, the writer of Hebrews offers an organised (systematic) summary of faith in Hebrews 11:1-2, but he then proceeds to go through biblical history in order to show how faith is seen from a biblical-theological perspective. The Bible therefore does not pit one against the other, but presents both as interdependent approaches.

Historical theology refers to the study of how Scripture is interpreted and doctrine is formulated by the church of the past (Allison, HT, 23). It is to ask: “What is the church’s line?” It can either be synchronic (i.e. focused on a specific time period or thinker) or diachronic (i.e. focused on how a doctrine has been understood over time). Good systematic theology is reliant on the work of brothers and sisters before us. Understanding what the church has believed in the past serves as a medicine that prevents and cures us from believing untrue things in the future. In a highly individualistic age which favours new over old, historical theology reminds us that we are members of a kingdom which transcends space and time. For example, we learn to appreciate how Christians in the past have wrestled with difficult topics (such as the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15), and how they have employed systematic theology to form statements of what they believe, such as the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession of Faith, the 1689 London Baptist Confession and so on. Each example was relevant in their time, and has much to teach us today.

Some writers distinguish practical (or pastoral) theology as asking how a particular truth is relevant to our lives. It is to ask: “What is our line?”, or, “How then shall we live?” One could argue that most of the NT epistles are examples of pastoral theology: how the truth of the gospel impacts day to day living. However, my opinion is that, rather than treating it as a separate discipline, practical theology should be the goal of any theological discipline. Without wrestling with the implications of doctrine, we run into the danger of presenting any theology as an academic exercise, with no tangible call for change in our lives.

Finally, a word of caution. In subcategorising these disciplines, we can be in danger of building unnecessary walls between them. John Frame reminds us that:

“Biblical theology is no less biblical than exegesis or systematics. Exegetical theology is no more exegetical than the others, nor is systematic theology more systematic than the others.”

In conclusion, the Bible employs a range of approaches when it comes to theology. It seems wise to employ each of these disciplines — systematic, exegetical, biblical, historical and practical — as valuable and necessary for a deeper knowledge of, and relationship with, the God revealed to us in Scripture.

(50 minutes)

Sources and other links:

  • Maddock, Ian. “Foundation.” NT601 The Knowledge of God (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Grudem, Wayne. “Introduction to Systematic Theology.” Pages 21-43 of Systematic Theology. Leiceister: IVP, 1994.
  • Calvin, John. “The Knowledge of God.” Pages 1-28 of Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated from the first French edition of 1541 by Robert White. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014.
  • Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel and Kingdom. Rydalmere: Crossroad, 1981.
  • Allison, Greg. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
  • Trueman, Carl. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
  • Frame, John. Salvation Belongs to the Lord. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006.
  • George, Timothy. “Brief Thoughts on the Future of Theological Education.” Foreword in David Dockery (ed.), A Theology, Church, and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017. Adapted version retrieved from: http://www.centerforbaptistrenewal.com/blog/2017/10/24/brief-thoughts-on-the-future-of-theological-education. (He outlines the history of our different divisions and points the finger at Scheiermacher’s 1811 publication, A Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study in 1811)


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