Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Does systematic theology belong in the church?

What?? Does systematic theology belong in the church? What kind of question is that? Well, it's an important one, I believe. Many will read such a question and jump immediately to a conclusion. "Yes, of course" or "Absolutely not". Before I answer the question, let's get a quick clarification on what we're talking about.

When the phrase "systematic theology" is uttered, something comes to mind. For many, it is the academic professor with the tweed jacket (with elbow patches, of course), working away in his isolated study (pipe clinched between his teeth), and he is writing incomprehensible and irrelevant thoughts about God with a feather he has dipped in ink. Though that is an interesting picture and you may be tempted to look over his shoulder to try and read what he's writing, let's go in a different direction.

What is systematic theology? Wayne Grudem defined it nicely when he wrote, "Systematic Theology is any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?' about any given topic." It is not so much a look at the development of Christian understanding through the centuries (historical theology). It is not the study of God apart from the Bible, using only philosophical reasoning and observations of the universe (philosophical theology). It is not just a look at what the Old Testament or New Testament or some biblical author has said on a given subject (biblical theology). It is a look at the whole of Scripture to understand what God would have us know about Christ, the Trinity, prayer, the church, end times, etc. (i.e.- doctrine).

Many believe systematic theology is some form of heresy or extrabiblical teaching, when it is not. It is simply saying what the whole Bible says on a given topic. After all, the word "trinity" appears nowhere in the Scripture, and yet we understand that God is one in essence and has revealed Himself in three persons - the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Using the word "trinity" is an act of systematic theology. The same is true when we say that "the whole Bible points us to Christ." We know that the Old Testament predicts Him, the Gospels portray Him, the epistles explain Him, and the apocalyptic literature declares He will come again. That is systematic theology...no getting around it. A final example may be the most powerful...that of salvation. What are the ABC's of salvation everyone? Admit, Believe, Confess (or Commit). That is a simple outline...we must Admit we are sinners, we must Believe that Jesus Christ died for us and was raised from the dead, and we must Confess Him as Lord, Committing our lives to Him. Do you know what that is? It is systematic theology...it is a study that teaches us what the whole Bible says about salvation.

Now, before going on, I want to be clear on one thing. If we were trapped on the proverbial desert island and only had a Bible, would we have all that we need to know about God? Absolutely...because God's Word is clear and sufficient and is able to make us wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). So, is it necessary to do systematic theology? No. (I know what you're thinking... "where is he going with this?") We must believe these things if we are to have a right view of Scripture. That God's Word is clear and sufficient are two statements of systematic theology. So, though systematic theology is not necessary as a discipline, it is an amazingly useful teaching tool for believers to better understand, love, and serve God.

This makes our question much easier to answer. Does systematic theology belong in the church? I would say (without hesitation) "Yes". Part of God's great commission to the disciples in Matthew 28 was to teach people all that He commanded them. If teaching is our aim, then we must use the best teaching tools that there are. Should we use video clips, drama, or visual aids? Maybe...depending on our audience. There are times when they are appropriate and times when they are not so appropriate. However, it is always appropriate to help people understand what the whole Bible teaches us about each aspect of God's revealed truth. Therefore, it is always appropriate to use systematic theology.

This is probably enough for now, but let me close with an example of how systematic theology is beneficial. Children are amazing in their ability to learn, and certainly families and churches ought to take advantage of these "sponge-like" years. Most Tuesdays, I do a chapel with our day care kids, in which I am teaching them a catechism (a series of questions and answers designed to teach children about God). When I ask, "Who made you?" They yell, "God made me." When I ask, "What else did God make?" They chant, "God made (clap clap) all things (clap clap)." When I ask, "How many gods are there?" They sing, "There is only one God" (to the na-na-na-na-boo-boo melody) We have been memorizing one verse with each of these answers, though many could be used.

So, what am I doing on Tuesday mornings? Am I really teaching 3-4 year olds systematic theology? You bet your life I am. Why? Well, they may not be members of our church, and they may not hear a sermon for a long time. However, a mom approached me at a birthday party recently and told me that her 4-year-old had been talking to her about how God made him and that there is only one God, giving her goose bumps and making her thrilled he is in our day care. You know what gave her goose bumps? I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count. That's right...systematic theology.

So, now...ask yourself...does systematic theology belong in the church?