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on systematic theology


"For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand." (C. S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius' On The Incarnation

"And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'" (Matthew 22:37) 

My special focus of study in seminary was systematic theology. This has become a lifelong pursuit and passion for me. Systematic theology (also called Christian dogmatics) is biblical truth, articulated and arranged by subject into a logical and inter-connected order. It is a compilation of "sound doctrine" (Titus 1:9; 2:1) which makes up the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). 

Through the years many have said to me, "I'm not interested in theology, I just want to follow Jesus." Or, “Don't give me theology, give me something practical." The implication is that the study of theology is an impractical pursuit, something which is merely academic, speculative, and pride-producing. 

The study of Christian theology can indeed become a purely mental exercise, focusing only on content and controversies. That is a real danger, becoming merely scholastic defenders of correct doctrine. But the other danger is that we think we can do without doctrine -- that we can follow God without any mental effort or organization. We "just trust God," but may fall into a kind of mysticism or subjectivism which opens us up to deception or false teaching. 

God would have us know and love him with our whole being, which includes our minds (Deut 6:4-9; Matt 22:36-40). It does not end there, of course, because we are called to actively love our neighbors, too. But love for God begins with the mind -- hearing and understanding his words, knowing his commandments, thinking about his character, and trusting his promises. If we do not think rightly about God we will become idolaters (Ex 20:3-7; 1 John 5:20-21). Systematic theology is stating and connecting these truths in a reasonable way into a consistent worldview. 

Now, everybody has a particular view of God, of salvation, of humanity, of the world, of the future -- it may be fuzzy, or faulty, or disconnected -- but in that sense all of us are theologians, whether good or bad. R. C. Sproul writes, “The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to Him. That is why we engage in theology.” (R. C. Sproul, Everyone's a Theologian)

In my next post I will show how a clear understanding of each area of systematic theology affects our spiritual life. Like Lewis, I too have found that doctrinal books have stimulated more devotional thoughts in my heart than many so-called devotional books. 


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