Systematic theology excels at efficiently assembling what the whole Bible teaches on a given topic. Bible teachers who go to places experiencing theological famine often immediately teach systematic theology because it is such an efficient way to communicate core Bible teachings. It can package what the whole Bible says in clear, organized, succinct ways which can make Bible doctrine easier to understand and easier to remember. On the other hand, systematic theology can flatten out the diverse emphases in the various parts of the Bible and be guilty of irresponsible prooftexting.
Systematic theology is the discipline of looking to the entire Bible to determine what God says about a given topic. It answers the question “What does the whole Bible say about __________ [fill in the blank]?” It is a logical, systematic way of organizing truth. To be skillful, accurate theologians, we need systematic theology, but we must also be aware that its strengths are closely related to its weaknesses. Fire is valuable for producing heat and energy, yet fire’s heat and energy is exactly what makes it dangerous. The problem is not fire, but allowing fire to get out of control. This is also the case with systematic theology.
In his book How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology, Andy Naselli explains 10 strengths (and 10 corresponding dangers) of systematic theology. I’ve condensed and at times quoted it with his permission. I’ve also included a list of our personal recommendations for the best systematic theology books.
- It can enrich your understanding of a text (but also distort it).
Carefully reading a text to analyze what its author intended to communicate tends to focus on the details while systematic theology tends to focus on the big picture. The first sees the trees while the second sees the forest. You are never a neutral, objective investigator of a text because when you read, study, and interpret it you already have a systematic, theological grid through which you see it. A good reason to study systematic theology is to improve the theological grid through which you see the text. If your systematic theology is sound, then it can enrich how you interpret a particular text. But if your systematic theology is too weak, too simple, or too speculative it can actually distort how you interpret a particular text.
- It can give you an accurate theological grid (or an inaccurate one).
Systematic theology can provide Bible interpreters with an accurate theological grid. This is a tremendous gift, but a gift that can be abused. Instead of treating systematic theology as a servant, you can allow it to become the master. You can become preoccupied with a system rather than the Bible, and that’s just a step away from giving more weight to the system and letting it substitute for the Bible.
- It can precisely identify doctrinal tensions (or wrongly resolve them).
God is infinite and eternal while we are finite and fallen. God is so far beyond us that we should not expect our minds to be able to perfectly grasp his works and ways. A strength of systematic theology is that it helps you precisely identify doctrinal tensions, but a corresponding weakness is that these tensions can tempt people to wrongly or tritely resolve such tensions.
- It can help you harmonize texts (but lead you to develop a “canon within the canon”).
Bringing harmony to various Bible passages is what systematic theology is all about. It can help you correlate how a particular text harmonizes with others, but a corresponding danger is that you can develop your own “canon within the canon”—your own list of favorite passages that you think are most important and that operate like a controlling interpretive grid. When this happens, your systematic theology controls your interpretation of the text. Instead of having a “canon within the canon” we are to let Scripture interpret Scripture. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so a sound principle is that we should interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. We shouldn’t zoom in on just one text and interpret it without reference to the rest of the Bible but interpret the unclear in light of what is more clear.