Last night we had our first Table Talk. There was good food, drink, and hearty fellowship, and we really did sit around a table to talk about theology. We’re using the outline of systematic theology to guide our discussion, with each of our gatherings taking a specific subpoint under the various general headings. For last night we talked about “prolegomena,” or the first things which need to be considered before you can move on to theology, Christology, soteriology, or eschatology. All of those “ologies” might sound a little foreboding, but don’t worry. We’ll explain them as we go along, and I think we made a good start at keeping everything accessible and understandable.
At the very beginning of the discussion, however, we considered the very basic question, “Why should we study systematic theology?” We are, after all, committing to an extended series on this topic. So, why?
To answer that question, we need to first say what systematic theology is. Like many things in life, there are different “levels” of systematic theology. Some people engage in systematic theology on a very sophisticated and technical level, slicing and dicing questions in such a way that only the trained experts and licensed professional can handle. “Pass the lapsarian scalpel, please.” That is not what we are doing.
On the most basic level, systematic theology means to study God and His word in a logical and coherent way. The “system” is simply one truth leading to another the way that basic logic would require. For instance, if God is present in all places, then it follows that He is present in this place or that place. Or, if the Bible is the actual Word of God, then it is as dependable as He is. If Jesus is God, then He is eternal and all-powerful. But if He is also man, then hmm… Important questions can and do show up in these discussion.
The basic reason to do this is to ensure that we are thinking about God consistently and clearly. It’s easy to hold to contradictions simply by not reflecting on things much. And so systematic theology helps to discipline our minds, even when it comes to spiritual matters. It helps us to take all that we know about God and put the various thoughts together in a consistent way.
Now, systematic theology must be biblical. We should be coming to our various conclusions because the text of the Scriptures leads to them. So we ought not try to build a great system out of speculations or generic ideas which we come across in our other studies. And yet, it is also true that no one can really read the Bible without also creating a sort of systematic theology. We all take one verse, combine it with another, and try to reach some cumulative conclusion. This is just how our brain works, and so the question is not whether or not to have a systematic theology but whether to have a good one or a bad one, whether to have one that is consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible or one that is inconsistent with it. This isn’t always an easy task, but it is a necessary and inescapable one.
We even see systematic thinking in various places in the Bible. For instance, when the Apostle Paul asks the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Galatians 3:2), he expects them to think about what the way that they received the Holy Spirit implied about the nature of their continued Christian walk. There’s also the case of Abraham:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
In these verses we see that Abraham took the things which God said to him– things which may have appeared to be contradictory– and formed a consistent conclusion. The text even uses that word “concluding,” which can also be translated “reasoned.” God had promised that Isaac would carry the promised line of descendants, and yet God also commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac as a human sacrifice. What could this mean? “Well,” supposed Abraham, “I guess God plans to resurrect him then!” It was the only thing that made any sense.
The goal of systematic theology really is to take the things we know about God from His word, put them together, and see what else we can learn from consistent analysis. It is a very helpful exercise for Christians to do, and it can generate some good and even fun discussion. Anyone who would like is free to join us at these meetings, and we will be having Table Talks on a monthly basis. Just check our events page to stay updated.