There is a growing movement within the confines of modern Christianity that would dare to suggest that our theology is in need of changing. It is suggested that the ways of the church fathers, or those of the early church, are in need of some revamping and slight modification to make it more palatable. In an effort to make everything relevant for the modern world, the tendency has been to abandon solid theology and be more encompassing and ecumenical in our mindset.
I must tell you that this is very concerning to me. The problem exists in that you cannot change truth, simply by changing our minds about it. I cannot simply re-label the colour 'green' to 'red', and from now on declare that red is green, and green is red. The honest truth of the matter exposes me as a rambling fool for thinking so. No matter how much I declare that wind is caused by trees flapping their branches, in the end, the truth exposes my folly.
So what is theology? And why is it important to have good theology?
Here is our statement of reason:
If there is a God, we'd better find out what He wants us to do, and do it…
Why Study Theology?
While there are several reasons to examine in answer to this question, this first one is the most important.
You're a Theologian Already
Theology isn't something that only exists in dusty old libraries of theological seminaries. The word theology comes from the Greek word theologiawhich comes from two words, theos meaning 'God', and logos meaning 'word'. Any time we use words to describe God, or if we even discuss God, we are in fact engaged in theology.
To put it plainly, we all believe in something about God and are therefore theologians in our own right. Of course the serious nature of this means that we need to be very sure that what we believe is correct.
We are at times careless in our pursuit of understanding who God is, and have casually said things like, "God to me is…" or "My God would never…"
Great caution should be stressed here. For if we misrepresent God, then we have created a god that does not exist. That is to say, that we have created an idol - a god modeled after our own image - or a god that we are more comfortable with.
We need to be sure of what the Bible says about God, to ensure we are presenting the real, one and only God.
It Brings us Peace
If we can understand things like, "Why is the world the way it is?", "What is my Purpose in life?" or "What does the future hold?", we are left with a sense of comfort and peace. When we look at the world today, we can be comforted to know that an all knowing, all powerful, all loving, wise and merciful God is in control of everything. God is sovereign and so when troubles occur, or things have us worried, we can stop asking the question 'Why?' and start asking the more important question, 'What?' "What is it that you require of me Lord?" "What is it that you want me to learn or do?"
To help us understand this better I'll present this cartoon done by the great theologian (jesting of course) Charles M. Schulz.
While this cartoon might make us laugh, there is great truth revealed here. Theology can be our comfort and our peace.
Because we Love the Savior
Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15) Our understanding of the commandments is directly linked to the reading, application and knowledge of the Bible. Our theology is based upon our understanding of Scripture and therefore the study of theology, or the quest for obtaining good theology, is a demonstration of that love. Allow me to demonstrate this idea with another scenario.
When we were first falling in love with our spouses, we wanted to know everything about them and wanted to spend all our time with them. We did so, because as we grew in love with them, the things that they found important, those things that they enjoyed in life, soon became important to us.
Here now in the context of theology we are dealing with our risen Lord. We are contemplating the God who loved us so much that he died for us. We have His sixty-six love letters all bound together in one volume (the Bible) and yet we generally spend less time reading them then we do reading the newspaper, watching television, exercising, etc.
"Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." - John 14:21
Like mining for gold, we can choose to haphazardly 'wade' into the water and sift through the pebbles of a stream looking for gold dust. Or we can choose to pick up the tools, walk into a mine and after some hard labour find the nuggets that will change our lives.
Christ promised that He would love us and manifest Himself to us, if only we would love Him enough to keep his commandments. And by inference this means reading and keeping His Word.
So what are we 'wading' for?
Our Doctrine Determines How We Live
No one can deny that what we believe defines how we live our lives. If we believe that man is a created being, created in the image of God and is special in that creation, then we are less likely to casually take another's life. However, if our doctrine is that man is nothing more than an evolved animal then we ourselves will have a much lower view of each other, and not recognize how special we really are.
Mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, in an interview on Dateline NBC in November of 1994 said,
"If a person doesn't think there is a God to be accountable to, then-then what's the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That's how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…"
By the grace of God, Mr. Dahmer died a Christian. Yes God saved Mr. Dahmer because he had repented and put his trust in Christ to save him. What Mr. Dahmer's words and actions proved without a doubt was that doctrine and how we are indoctrinated, are very serious and poignant talking points in how we rule our lives.
A simple and serious application of this point can be seen in our everyday lives. For example, if we believe something to be poisonous, we won't drink it.
In the application of theology, if we believe that God only speaks through His Word then you will study it diligently, however, if we believe that God continues to reveal, and speaks through feelings, and visions, then we will spend our time seeking emotional responses to our environments as "God moments". These two methods are drastic departures from each other in how an individual would ascertain God's will for their lives.
Our Discernment will be Sharpened
Jude warned, "I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 1:3) In order to contend for this faith, it is evident that we have to know what it is. We are told to know and uphold the faith (doctrine and practice) that was once for all delivered to the saints.
Jude's letter was addressing an increase in bad doctrine and unsound theology that was creeping into the church. His letter serves as a general warning to 'earnestly contend for the faith' by studying God's Word. If we do not, we will never be able to discern truth from error.
Ready to Give an Answer
The study of the Bible and the systematic ordering of its doctrines and knowledge is the only way for us to adequately "be ready to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3:15)
The Bible is sufficient for everything we need for our Christian faith and practice. It is the authority, and it is sufficient to answer the questions of any man.
It has that power because it is in fact God breathed, and therefore holds the authority of the God who wrote it.
The Importance of Systematic Theology
This fall I have been blessed and humbled to once again be teaching adult Sunday School at our local church. The topic we have chosen to talk about this session is the subject of Systematic Theology, and we've titled the class, "Theology Matters". It is the intent of the class to essentially address every portion of the doctrines of Christian faith in some way. I am hoping it will edify, encourage and strengthen all those who attend (and teach it).
The class looks at questions about systematic theology like: What is it? Does it have a biblical foundation? Should I build my theology around systems? And if so, how do I go about doing that? A more important question might even be, 'Would Jesus say that it's ok?' These questions are the beginning steps, but they are necessary to ensure we stay within the foundations of orthodoxy.
Systematic theology is essentially a process of developing, from the contents of Scripture, an orderly framework for understanding each of the subjects that the Bible teaches. We need to systematically organize the information in the Bible because the Bible itself is not necessarily in an ordered fashion. For example the Bible is not presented as a chronological book, although it does have some portions of it that are. Likewise, if you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation it seems to jump around a lot. Times, dates and even certain teachings show up in multiple places that need to be gathered and correlated to see the 'whole' picture.
The Bible is a gathering of 66 books with over 40 different authors over a period of approximately 1500 years. It was originally written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) and it contains over 40 different literary forms. The Bible contains poetry, history, proverbs, narratives, instruction, songs, letters, stories, parables, prayers, genealogies and prophecies. It is a very unique book and the point in all of this is simply to relay that the Bible is not a theology textbook. It is much more than that. God didn't reveal Scripture in a 'textbook' fashion and in that sense, the Bible could be considered 'messy'.
We're not really sure why God didn't reveal Scripture in a 'non-messy' fashion because the Bible doesn't really reveal the answer to us, but assuredly there must be a good reason because God chose to do it this way. Perhaps indirectly this method creates for us more interest. Like a good puzzle we are led to dig in and meditate on the words more than we would a different book. Like a good puzzle, some parts come together very quickly and clearly, while other parts require us to work a little harder. I believe this process shows God as personal, involved, active and working in the world and our lives. Perhaps too, it is so that each of us - at whatever stage of our walk we are in - can read the same passages of Scripture and get exactly what we need at the moment. Anyone at any level can essentially read it, and likewise understand it.
"For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints." - 1Co 14:33
"I rejoice at Your word As one who finds great treasure." - Psalms 119:162
The stories are interesting, the material is unique. The study of Theologycan be very rewarding, but honestly reading a textbook on it may somewhat overload and cause springs to pop out of our head. But the Bible, when approached with the understanding that it is God revealing Himself to us, keeps us interested in ways that no textbook on life or theology ever could.
Just because God didn't deliver the Bible in a systematized and organized framework should not mean that we cannot reason through the process (aided by the Holy Spirit) ourselves. The onus still remains on us to collate the teachings on subjects from all the assorted material passages in the Bible.
Why we are here? Why did God make us? Why did He save us? What's going on in the world? These are all questions answered when we imbed ourselves, or see ourselves imbedded in this broader story of redemption. This is what makes our faith personal. The portrayal of God's salvation plan from Creation, the Fall and then to salvation through Jesus Christ throughout the pages of Scripture tells the complete story in a more memorable and personal way.
Where to Begin?
To create an orderly framework to better and more clearly understand biblical doctrine we need to start where any good researcher would. Like a good detective, we need to gather all the facts, and then come up with the most logical conclusions that the evidence would lead us to. We must collect all the biblical material on any given subject and as we arrange the results, we can draw principles from the material. If we look at the Bible as a collection of evidence, we can then organize the evidence under headings based on the subjects that come from our exegesis of those passages. All the pieces of the puzzle eventually provide the big picture. Each thread of Scripture provides the complete picture of the tapestry when methodically put together.
Great care and attention needs to be given during this process and we need to be consistent in our reasoning. All kinds of wild doctrines can be extrapolated out of the Bible by carelessly ignoring one verse, or perhaps taking it out of context. Context is a very important aspect of biblical study and it needs to be addressed before we continue.
Take for example, John 3:16.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." - John 3:16
If we are truly seeking the meaning of this passage we have to look at the first word and ask the question, "What's the 'for' for?"
The 'for' drives us back further in the chapter, perhaps to verse 15 or even 14 to give us a better understanding, or rather a correct understanding of what the verse really means. The content of verse 16 is important, but proper understanding can only be derived if we look to the passages surrounding it to ascertain the true meaning.
Another example of contextual importance is when we look at a verse like Revelation 3:20. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me." - Rev 3:20 Many people use this passage as an 'altar call' unto salvation. They infer that Jesus stands at the unbeliever's heart knocking at the door. I am sure we have all heard this passage used in this way. I myself have heard it many times in witnessing encounters.
The trouble really is context. If we examine the surrounding passages we quickly find out that this verse is not talking about salvation at all. Rather this verse is talking directly to the Church. It is a call to repentance, as we can see from the passages immediately following, with direct indication of the hearer of the declaration found in verse 22, "... let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Now I don't think we can say using Revelation 3:20 in our witnessing encounters is completely wrong, but the argument can be made that it is not completely correct either. The real power in the Word of God is when we read and apply it within the context it was intended. There are many other verses we can utilize, that are indeed 'salvation verses', so we do not need to contextually misapply verses from other portions of Scripture.
The greatest benefit of Systematic Theology is that it gives us a better understanding of what God wanted us to know on a certain subject.
For instance, the Doctrine of Soteriology. The word soteriology comes from two Greek terms, namely sotermeaning 'savior' or 'deliverer' and logosmeaning 'word', 'matter', or 'thing'. In Christianity it is used to refer to the study of the biblical doctrine of salvation.
The doctrine of salvation is incredibly important because if we don't have the correct understanding of salvation, we cannot possibly be saved. We need to know what salvation is in order to come out from under God's wrath and enjoy God's presence forever. As we have been discussing in the previous paragraphs, we know that we are not necessarily going to get a good understanding on a given subject from just one verse. We need to be presented with a broader picture which can only be done through the studying of all relevant verses on the subject and putting them all together in a systematic way.
Going back to our example of John 3:16; while this is indeed a salvation verse, is it really all we need to know for salvation? What about:
- Romans 6:23
- Hebrews 9:27
- 1 John 9-10
- Colossians 2:113-14
- Mark 1:14-15
- Romans 3:23-25
- John 3:14-15
- John 14:6
- Ephesians 2:8-9.
- Exodus 20
- Numbers 21:8-9
- Romans 10:9
I would suggest to you that all of these verses tie into the understanding of soteriology. Although this is only a sampling of the verses in reference to salvation, each one contributes to the doctrine as a whole and interestingly enough the doctrine as a whole now gives more understanding to each individual verse as well. It is a spiral of knowledge.
With the example of soteriology before us, we need to back up for a minute and look at an important aspect of our quest for theological knowledge. Before you can begin systematically organizing doctrines of the Bible, there are some presuppositions that we need to have. A presupposition, or prolegomenon as the theologians say, is our pre-understandings or commitments that we have made in our heart and mind about the subject we are about to learn or study. Everyone has presuppositions, even if we haven't explicitly outlined them.
One blatant example is the Theory of Evolution and how prevalent it is in our society. The presupposition that most people now have is that science has proven evolution. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason we are raised in our school systems to believe evolution is because of the damaging presuppositions of the current and past evolutionary scientists.
"Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it only because the only alternative is special creation which is unthinkable" - Arthur Keith (Scottish anatomist and anthologist)
Mr. Keith does not stand alone in this belief. When you analyze the writings and works of the evolutionary proponents, they all reveal the presupposition that there is no special creation. Regardless now of what the evidence says before them, they will still refuse to see 'the forest for the trees'.
The Greatest Blunder
During the Great Depression, an astronomer named Edwin Hubble made an astounding discovery. Using his 100 inch telescope at Mt. Wilson in California, Edwin discovered other galaxies far beyond our own. This discovery forced humanity to realize that the Universe was far larger than ever imagined. By carefully observing these galaxies, Edwin Hubble then made an even more astounding observation. In 1929, Edwin Hubble announced that almost all galaxies appeared to be moving away from us. In fact, he found that the universe was expanding - with all of the galaxies moving away from each other. This phenomenon was observed as a redshift of a galaxy's spectrum. This redshift appeared to be larger for faint, presumably farther, galaxies. Hence, the farther a galaxy, the faster it is receding from the Earth.
What this meant to a shocked scientific community was that the Universe was not static, and the evidence suggested therefore that it was also not eternal. The galaxies Hubble observed from the top of Mount Wilson told a story never conceived, described or predicted by any scientist or astronomer. Well, perhaps except one.
Previous to Hubble's discovery, a young Albert Einstein while working through his equations and theory of general relativity had discovered through his equations that the Universe was expanding. When Einstein first realized that the solution to his equations on general relatively, subject to the constraints of the cosmological principle led to universes that were not static, he was dismayed. Regardless of what the equations revealed, Einstein had presupposed that the Universe had to be static. To get a static Universe, Einstein added an artificial term to his field equations that stabilized the Universe against expansion or contraction. This term has come to be known as the cosmological constantor the vacuum energy density.
After Hubble's discovery was published, however, Albert Einstein abandoned his work on the cosmological constant. He later termed this portion of work his "greatest blunder" since it was his incorrect presumption of a static universe that had caused him to fail to accept what could be seen in his concepts and equations of general relativity.
Einstein made a famous trip to Mount Wilson in 1931 to thank Hubble for providing the observational basis for modern cosmology
It is the opinion of this writer that many of the world's scientists are themselves creating what will one day be called the 'greatest of blunders' by assuming that there is no special creation.
A 2008 documentary titled, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed takes a hard look at the phenomenon in our present culture of those scientists who are discovering evidences for intelligent design, and are being shunned and silenced by their international peers for suggesting such a thing. I would encourage all of our readers to obtain a copy of this video and watch it with their friends and family. The film which is hosted by Ben Stein is a potent reminder of the dangers of presuppositions, and the defiance of man against God as declared in Romans chapter one. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools… who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen." - Romans 1:18-22,25 (emphasis mine)
Now that we've looked at the importance of recognizing the existence of Prolegomena (Presuppositions), we need to set the framework for our study of the Bible.
While the examples I have cited in previous paragraphs were for the most part negative, our prolegomena can in fact be helpful in many cases during discussion and everyday interaction. A presupposition must be mutually known or assumed by both the speaker and the hearer in order for the words to be considered appropriate in the context of the discussion. For the purposes of Systematic Theology I would suggest the following are our starting Prolegomena.
- The Authority of the Bible- the Bible is absolutely authoritative in what it teaches to us. (We do not seek to master the Bible, we seek to be mastered by it)
- The Bible is Unified- It comes from the mind of a SINGLE god - the Christian God. It is God's very Word and God breathed. It is His Word, and therefore we draw the conclusion that it is unified, and not indecisive. If God wrote it, then it can't contradict, and the teachings and secrets revealed within must be unified. This leads into our third prolegomenon;
- The Coherence of Scripture- If Scripture is a reflection of the divine mind and God doesn't lie, then there will be a coherence within the teachings of Scripture. Where the Bible teaches on any given subject there will be an expected consistency in the teachings.
What Would Jesus Do?
You may remember that previously in this article, we asked the question about whether Jesus would approve of systematically arranging Scripture into doctrines of theology.
The fact is that Jesus himself demonstrated this very process and nowhere more prevalently than in Luke 24:13-45. In this passage Christ appeared to two disciples as they travelled down the road to Emmaus. The setting was the day of the Resurrection - the tomb was empty, and these two men were discussing the events over the last couple of days. Jesus was not recognized by the men, and He joined in on their conversation. When the two disciples (one of them Cleopas) express confusion and shock about the transpired events, Christ says, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!"(vs 25) He then, beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, expounded to them through all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. In other words, Jesus gave these two men a systematic walk through where Christ was revealed throughout Scripture. Jesus himself used systematic methods to show them theology they had not completely understood before.
Later on that day Christ appeared again to all the disciples while they were meeting together. Prior to delivering to them what is considered to be the Great Commission, Christ expounds, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me." (Luke 24:44) Notice here the listing of the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. To the hearers this constituted the entire known and revealed Bible. Verse 45 then continues, "And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures."
It is very clear from these passages that the methodology and means by which Christ expounded on the Scriptures was exactly that of Systematic Theology. Prior to Jesus systematically showing them and opening their minds, they didn't really understand the full meaning of the Bible. When it was revealed to them all of the pieces began to fall together more clearly. Their under-standing became more complete and more to the true teaching of God's Word. At the end of the day they could all confidently declare, "Ah! You are the Christ! You are the One! And You are what the Bible is all about!"
I can imagine there were amazing things that Christ revealed to them on that day, and I'm sure even our own study of these same Scriptures would only provide a sampling of what was revealed that day.
Are you ready to give an answer to every man of the hope that is within you? Perhaps some of us are not as ready as we once thought. Through the study of theology and systematically arranging it in an orderly framework I myself have become better equipped to share my faith, to share Christ and to speak light into an ever darkening world. If we take the time to organize our theology systematically in accordance with truth, we will be more able to concisely and clearly explain to others who Christ is, and what we believe. To encourage our study and perseverance in truth I would suggest that Systematic theology is "Trying to create an orderly framework from Scripture to better understand the mind of God on a subject, so that we can better present Jesus."2
And that is a most noble and worthy cause.
1. Drive By Theology audio series co-hosted by Pastor R.W. Glen and Todd Friel available from WretchedRadio.com
2. Direct quote from Todd Friel from the Drive By Theology series co-hosted with pastor R.W. Glen and available from WretchedRadio.com