Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020

The Need for Systematic Theology in Theological Education

Many have questioned whether systematic theology is necessary for training pastors. This paper argues that systematic theology is essential for pastoral ministry and therefore indispensable for training future pastors. The argument has two steps: Firstly, we explore the nature of theological education to show its ongoing need and purpose in the life of the church. And then secondly, we examine the character of systematic theology to demonstrate its necessity for everyday practical Christian living. Given these two conclusions, we then consider the place of systematic theology in theological education. And finally, we close by answering some common criticisms of systematic theology.

Why should training for pastoral ministry bother with systematic theology? Why not simply spend the time studying books of the Bible in depth? After all, God gave us a Bible not a systematic theology. Why should future pastors impose some “system” on God-inspired Scripture?

While these questions may be well meaning they betray a misunderstanding of systematic theology. Ironically, such queries are themselves systematic theological questions. In order to understand the place and purpose of systematic theology in theological education it is critical to grasp what they both are. So, firstly, we will examine what theological education is, secondly, explore the nature of systematic theology, and thirdly, explain its role in theological education.

I. What is Theological Education?

1. Word-Gift Ministry

The nature of theological education cannot be grasped until the nature of word-gift ministry is understood first. Central to the reformers re-envisioning of church ministry and leadership was Ephesians 4:11-12:[1]

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Here we find a list of specific gifts Christ gives to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.[2] We notice, firstly, they are not just abilities but people themselves. Secondly, the gifts all have one thing in common: proclamation of the word (whether publicly or privately). And, thirdly, the purpose of these word-gifts is to “equip the saints for works of ministry”.[3] Put bluntly, God’s people will not be prepared to serve without the word-gifts in action.

No doubt, some who have word-gifts will be appointed to a church office (such as a teaching elder) whilst others will not. But either way, the word-gifts have an enabling function for the rest of the church. As Heinrich Bullinger put it, “the church is built and conserved by God’s word through ministers appointed for that purpose by the Lord”.[4] This, of course, reflects the reformers’ doctrine of the visible church as a congregation marked out by word and sacrament (where the sacraments are visible words).[5] If the church is to grow, word-gift ministry will be fundamental.[6]

2. Training for Word-Gift Ministry

The centrality of word-gift ministry for the church raises the issue of how people are trained for it. If word-gift ministry focuses on proclamation, then those who do this work need to know thoroughly the word they proclaim; one cannot declare what they do not know. Paul himself saw the need to train some people in a body of teaching when he said, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Here is the work of entrusting knowledge to others who will also go on to teach it. This entrusting is itself theological education.[7] It is a concentrated time of learning God’s word that is generally necessary for those who will exercise a word-gift ministry.

However, we do note that word-gift ministry is more than mere proclamation. Timothy was to entrust apostolic knowledge to “reliable” people (2 Tim 2:2). He exhorted Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV).

Here both doctrine and life are crucial for the ultimate salvation of God’s people. In other words, those in word-gift ministry are to provide a real-life model of Christian living (1 Tim 4:12). As Titus was told: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good” (Titus 2:7). The most effective sermon illustration is the preacher’s lifestyle. And Paul’s qualifications for the elder focus on character (1 Tim 3:2-7; Tit 1:6-9). As John Wyclif aptly said, “There are two elements that concern the pastoral position: holiness of the pastor and wholesomeness in teaching”.[8]

And so, training for word-gift ministry must concentrate on more than accumulation of biblical knowledge. Paul gave a sober warning: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1). Indeed “knowledge” can be used to destroy (1 Cor 8:11). What is essential for word-gift ministry is the way knowledge is used – from a heart that loves others.

Therefore, training for word-gift ministry or a theological education involves (at least) attention to a godly character and training in biblical understanding. We discover examples of concentrated times of training like this in the New Testament itself: Christ gave special attention to equipping the twelve over a three-year period for their future apostolic work; Paul engaged in concentrated training whilst in Ephesus. For two years he daily taught in the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9-10). And, as a result, the “entire province of Asia” heard God’s word helped by Paul’s co-workers (Acts 19:10).[9] Hence, models of theological education are not foreign to Scripture.

But what is the best context for theological education? Ideally it would be in a local church where trainees can view the coalface. But in reality, the local church is unlikely to have the resources and expertise for the needs of theological education such as a library, those skilled in biblical languages, and the like. Hence, there is a need for some training at an institution that can provide these resources, like a theological college or seminary.

II. What is Systematic Theology?

If theological education includes (amongst other things) training in God’s word, why the need for systematic theology? It is because the Bible cannot properly be understood without it. Put another way, the Bible itself demands we do systematic theology. How so? We now come to the nature of systematic theology.

1. The Nature of Doctrines

Systematic theology works with biblical topics (or doctrines). So, before we define systematic theology, we must understand the nature of biblical doctrines. There are three main reasons Scripture must be understood topically.

Firstly, Scripture itself demands the exploration of itself by topic. The writer to the Hebrews urges his readers to move beyond the “elementary teaching about Christ” (Heb 5:1). And this elementary teaching is then summarised as a series of six topics: “repentance from dead works, faith in God, teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement”. But Hebrews does not unpack these six topics. So, to understand the “elementary teaching” of Christianity we must discover what the rest of Scripture says about them. Thus, Hebrews urges the study of Scripture topically.

Secondly, studying Scripture topically is necessary because we have no Scripture without it. This is because “Scripture” is itself a topic (or doctrine). No one passage of Scripture gives us all we need to know about the Bible, not least which books make up the canon. The collection of the sixty-six books is a consequence of the biblical topic of inspiration. No doctrine, no Scripture.

Thirdly, Scripture cannot be faithfully applied without using biblical topics. For example, suppose one is preaching, or running a Bible study, on Romans 13:1-7. There we discover the importance of submitting to governing authorities because God has placed them in power. But this may give the impression that Christians must always submit to governing authorities, even tyrants like a Hitler, Stalin or Mao.

However, the work of doctrine reminds us there is more in Scripture about governing authorities than Romans 13:1-7. Amongst other things, we learn there is a place to reject a human authority that transgresses God’s ultimate authority. As Peter said, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). In other words, to properly live in relation to political authority, a Christian needs to know what the whole Bible says about that topic. Without grasping Scripture’s full presentation, we run the risk of reductionism and hence misapplication.

From this third reason we can provide a proper definition of a biblical doctrine. It is a summary of what the whole Bible says on a topic. This is because a half-truth, when taken as whole-truth, becomes an untruth. It is true from Scripture that Christ is fully human. But it is heresy if he is only human. Mark 10:1-12 has important teaching about divorce. But it does not provide all that a Christian needs to know about this subject.

A caveat is relevant here. Unlike inspired and infallible Scripture, the human work of formulating biblical topics will always be fallible and therefore constantly in need of testing and refinement.

2. The Nature of Systematic Theology

We are now in a position to understand the nature of systematic theology. When Jude urges his readers “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), he shows that Christian belief can be understood as a whole: it is “the faith”, one body of belief.[10] Moreover, when Paul says to Timothy, “that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim 4:1), he understands Christian belief as a unit: “the faith” as opposed to the plural “teachings [διδασκαλίαι] of demons”.[11] But neither Jude nor Paul explicate “the faith” of which they speak. The only way for Christians to know “the faith” is through gleaning from Scripture its major topics and how they relate to each other as a whole. This is the work of systematic theology. It seeks to discover the Bible’s own arrangement of its topics.

Christians need to grasp how biblical topics are arranged because biblical revelation urges it in two ways. Firstly, Scripture reveals that some topics are more important than others. For example, Jesus chides the Jewish leaders because they focused on the trivial at the expense of the central:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23, NIV)

Jesus speaks of the “more important matters of the law” indicating a hierarchy of topics. When Paul says, “these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love”, again we see levels of importance in biblical topics. Crucial to the task of systematic theology is discerning the importance of biblical doctrines and knowing which should be the church’s priorities.

A second reason why systematic theology is necessary is because scriptural topics are connected. If we change one topic, it will have implications upon those related to it. For example, Paul says, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21, NIV).

Paul here shows that the doctrines of God’s grace, Christ’s death and human Torah-righteousness are connected. If Torah-righteousness comes by human performance, it lessens the need for Christ’s death, and in turn diminishes God’s grace. Put simply, change human Torah-righteousness and God’s grace will be changed. And so, another task of systematic theology is discerning the connections between biblical topics, and so understanding how the topics are related.

Two qualifiers need to be made about systematic theology here. Firstly, like the work of formulating doctrines, systematic theology is a human enterprise. Therefore, it is fallible and will always need to be tested and refined against the ultimate norm of Scripture. Secondly, it is tempting to arrange the biblical topics in a way that seems fitting to us. But a scriptural systematic theology must discover the Bible’s own arrangement of its topics.

3. The Need of Other Disciplines

It must be noted that systematic theology itself is dependent on other disciplines such as (at least) exegesis, biblical theology, hermeneutics and historical theology. For example, exegesis is necessary in ascertaining the meaning of scriptural texts.[12] It provides the raw material for the formulation and exploration of biblical topics. And good exegesis will, of course, use the biblical languages. Hence, those being trained for in-depth systematic theology will need a level of proficiency with the biblical languages.

Another example is the need systematic theology has for biblical theology. The difference between the two is that biblical theology is diachronic whereas systematic theology is synchronic. Biblical theology explores topics according to the Bible’s canonical ordering and storyline, whereas systematic theology summarises scriptural topics.[13] For example, a biblical theology of sin will show how the topic of sin unfolds according to the books and storyline of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation;[14] a systematic theology of sin will present a definition of sin and its parts, and show its relation to other scriptural topics. So, the synthesising work of systematic theology depends upon the inductive work of biblical theology.

The various disciplines should not be played off against each because they are all needed. For example, whilst systematic theology relies on biblical theology, biblical theology depends on a doctrine of Scripture provided by systematic theology.

III. The Necessity of Systematic Theology in Theological Education

We have argued that systematic theology is necessary to understand, teach and apply Scripture faithfully. Therefore, systematic theology will be critical for a well-balanced theological education. But how, practically, would this affect pastoral (or word-gift) ministry?

Firstly, if systematic theology works with biblical topics then how can it not help shepherding work which so often relies on them? For example, any pastoral problem that relates to issues like divorce, sexuality, career, child rearing, will proceed from a biblical understanding of those topics.

Additionally, knowledge of biblical topics is essential in evangelism. Many of the questions non-Christians have are not about the meaning of Bible texts but what Christians believe topically: why would a good God allow evil? Why is sex confined to marriage? How can a loving God send people to hell? Indeed, sharing the gospel with unbelievers requires a knowledge of foundational topics like God, sin, judgment and the like.

Secondly, because systematic theology explores the hierarchy of biblical topics it helps Christians find right priorities about all aspects of life. What church should I attend? How do I balance home and work life? What activities are most important for the church? These are questions that systematic theology answers.

Thirdly, seeing that systematic theology considers the relationship between biblical doctrines, it enables those in pastoral ministry to shed light on subjects that Scripture does not directly address.  For example, Scripture nowhere explicitly speaks of the use of antidepressants or embryonic stem-cell research. But it does contain topics that will relate to them and thus shed light on how we should think about them. This is the work of systematic theology.

Fourthly, if systematic theology engages with Christian truth as a whole, then it particularly informs a Christian’s worldview. A worldview is that pair of conceptual spectacles through which a person views and understands the world. Every person is marinated in a particular culture with its accompanying worldview, and Christians are no exception. And all worldviews have unbelieving biases. A great struggle for every Christian is simply to be aware of their unbelieving cultural biases and blindspots, let alone rectify them. It is too easy to look through our cultural spectacles not at them. Systematic theology is especially positioned to help with this.

For example, half a century ago, in countries like England and Australia, same-sex marriage was unthinkable for the majority of the population. The prevailing worldview made it difficult to accept. But in recent times the dominant worldview has so shifted that a majority now see same-sex marriage as obvious, indeed just and right. Why? What is it about the current worldview that makes same-sex marriage so plausible? Given that systematic theology explores the whole of Christian belief with its interrelated parts, it is the appropriate tool to analyse and respond to a worldview paradigm shift like this. Word-gift ministry is to use systematic theology to unmask the prevailing culture, demonstrate its inadequacies, and show how a Christian worldview makes much better sense of reality.

IV. Criticisms of Systematic Theology

If systematic theology plays such a fundamental role in pastoral ministry, why do some speak so negatively about it? Let us examine four popular criticisms.

The first is that systematic theological writings often explicate doctrines with little reference to Scripture. For example, John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch contains, ironically, very few references to Scripture within its pages. Yet if a systematic theological work pays scant attention to Scripture, it is not the problem with the discipline itself but of systematic theology done badly. Systematic theology should relentlessly show how its topics and arrangement of them are anchored in Scripture.

A second criticism is that systematic theology cannot account for the large amount of narrative that makes up Scripture. For example, the Gospels present theology in story form and to extract the theology from the narrative ruins the latter’s purpose. But this is to confuse apples and oranges; systematic theology is not a replacement for biblical narrative but a companion to it. Biblical narrative informs the development of systematic theology. And systematic theology provides a context to enhance our understanding of biblical narrative. The two are recursive.

A third criticism is that systematic theology creates a framework which is then read into Scripture rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. That is, the systematic framework encourages eisegesis (reading into) rather than exegesis (reading out of). And so, a biblical text is used to prove a doctrine which in fact makes no such point, the classic problem of “proof-texting”. For example, it is common for systematicians to prove that sin is fundamentally a breaking of God’s law. And a common verse used to prove such is, “… sin is lawlessness (ἀνομία)” (1 John 3:4).[15] However in the context of this verse, ἀνομία does not mean simply a breaking of God’s law but a wholesale rejection of God himself.[16] Sin here is an attitude of independence from God rather than an illegal action.

But once again this is not a problem with systematic theology itself but with it being done badly. Firstly, systematic theology uses and depends upon the proper practise of exegesis. Bad exegesis is not the problem of systematic theology but of bad exegesis. And secondly as argued above, the (human) work of systematic theology is a fallible affair, and one’s system needs continual re-evaluation and refinement against the ultimate norm of Scripture.

The real problem here, perhaps, is an ever-increasing specialisation in the theological disciplines such as Old Testament, New Testament, biblical languages, biblical theology, hermeneutics and so forth. For example, take the discipline of New Testament studies: The secondary literature on Romans is now so vast that any person game to teach it in a theological college or seminary will need some time to master it – and that is only Romans. What about the Gospels let alone the rest of the NT? The result of such specialisation is a growing chasm both within and between the disciplines. And the less contact the disciplines have with each other, the more likely they each become idiosyncratic. If the knowledge of God is unified, which it must be if God is one and true, then the disciplines need to work with and not against each other. Systematic theology will rely on good exegetical practice provided by the disciplines of Old and New Testament. But, at the same time, these disciplines depend on a doctrine of Scripture that systematic theology provides.

A final criticism of systematic theology is that it can become so focused on controversies in its own discipline that it loses sight of what is important to Scripture. A classic example is the doctrine of resurrection: It is central to the Christian faith, but many systems of theology give it little or no attention. For example, in Millard Erickson’s section on the work of Christ in his large Christian Theology[17] the resurrection is all but absent. Surely such a critical doctrine should be central in any such volume. But, again, lopsided systematic theology should not be used to denigrate the discipline altogether.

V. Conclusion

Like any discipline, systematic theology will have its excesses. But its misuse does not justify its abandonment. We have seen that systematic theology is necessary for Christian living and godliness. And if this is so, it is indispensable for a theological education. The need of the hour, especially in the seminaries, is to do systematic theology that is anchored in the Scripture and applied to practical Christian living.


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