Navigating the Pilgrim's Path
Introduction to Theology: Biblical, Systematic, and Historic Theology
In the Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan—an allegorical tale which mirrors the path we all take as Christians—a character named faithful says the following:
“Heavenly knowledge…is the gift of God;
no man attaineth to them by human industry,
or only by the talk of them.”
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Navigating that truth, that theology—the study of God—comes ultimately from God, that it is good and right that we should handle and sink our teeth into it, but that mere talk of it is not enough, presents something of an issue. Does this mean that each Christian reads the Bible alone, receives the gift of faith, and then never speaks of it to another? Not at all! On the other side, if we are to discuss it, how do we differentiate between mere talk—or even contention—and talk which builds us up in the faith? I think the answer is, to paraphrase Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “[That] too many men talk about theology, and not enough talk theology.”
To help explore what it means to study, learn, and then talk theology rightly, I thought it would be good to write about the differences, relationships, and confusions between Biblical, Systematic, and Historical theology, each of which represent a category of theology which has stood the test of time throughout Church History, and still help us to understand the Bible, ethics, our place in society and the church, as well as— most important of all—our God.
Though there’s plenty of literature out there on these different categories of theology, they tend to be long-winded, academic, and therefore largely inaccessible for most people, despite the fact that whether we know it or not, each of us has a personal relationship to each, and have formed Biblical, Systematic, and—most likely—historical positions we hold to, potentially without basis, or knowing we’re doing so. I’m not only including Christians in that statement either, but each and every member of the human race.
In the following weeks, we’ll look in further detail at each category, how we can be wise in how we deal with each one, and some next steps to help you do so. Today though we’’ look simply at some misunderstandings, and misapprehensions, and also how each one builds off of Biblical Theology, and why it must!
The primary way in which we learn theology is—or should always be—the Bible. If we had no commentaries, no books, and no sermons, the Bible would still be sufficient. With that said, we should be thankful that while this is true, we are truly blessed, especially as literature, internet-dwelling beings that we have access to such a library as the world has never seen before, and the Christians throughout history who have made it their mission to open up the Bible to the people of God, and to speak words of life to them, or to make clear the elements which on the surface are incredibly difficult to understand. I don’t know where or from who, but I once heard the gospel described as a well, accessible enough that even a child can draw water, but one so deep that if you spent your whole life diving down into it, you would never reach the bottom. The Bible, the word of God is a well which does not run dry, is not weathered down or away by new thinking or philosophy, but rather proves it’s potency in the lives of the saints every day; and will do so until Christ comes again.
Each of us is somewhere on that scale, between the child drawing water for the first time, and the lifelong diver. Some of you may well go on to write—or have already written—biblical theologies of particular books or passages for instance, some of you read and listen to the Bible each day, but you’ll never write down a note about what you’re reading, and others have just come to faith, regardless we have all developed a biblical theology and will continue to do so.
As Christians, the most important thing we can do to aid in this endeavour is—and I’m aware this is groundbreaking news—read the Bible, and listen, and re-read, and re-listen. While reading blogs, listening to sermons online, or picking up the latest book recommendation are good things to do, we start here, as Spurgeon is often quoted as saying, “visit many good books, but live in the Bible.” All the while asking one main question: “What does the Bible say?” This is the heart of Biblical Theology.
By the Bible, I mean the whole Bible. The greatest danger we face with regard to Biblical Theology is refraining from—or even casting aside—books, passages, and verses from the Bible due to difficulty, unease, or even boredom. Every verse in the Bible should be read, preached, and absorbed by Christians, nothing is off-limits; not the Song of Solomon, Leviticus, Genealogies, Prophecies, or lists of laws, all of these are "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17) When we make a habit of laying aside any part of the Bible—either in preaching or in personal reading—we lay bricks on the path to heresy.
While starting with the Gospels is a good idea, and it may take some time, especially for newborn Christians to make their way through those, we should not read the Bible looking for whatever is simple, whatever is palatable, or whatever we already know.
I recommend taking time each day to look in deeper detail at one passage or verse you read each day, and then in addition read or listen broadly to everything else. Taking this big picture, fine detail approach means that you’ll begin asking questions in the finer times which might be answered in the broader ones—you may have no idea who Melchizedek is, for instance, if you’re reading Hebrews, but then find out whilst listening to Genesis. As questions turn into answers, as you have conversations with others, you begin to form a greater understanding of the Bible. With the aid of Study Bibles and commentaries, you might even look deeper into why we have the books of the Bible we have, the way they’ve been ordered in the past and the present, or even study Biblical languages.
However your path looks, you’ll end up with either physical or mental notes, some of which connect passages to one another, some of which you’re still confused about, but all of which answer to one degree or another the question I mentioned earlier, “what does the Bible say?”
Side Note: I feel it is necessary that I begin with the biggest misunderstanding I hear about Systematic Theology.
Systematic Theology isn’t simply a big book written by a guy named Robert, John, Louis, or Wayne. These books, though interesting, are usually collections of individual studies in Systematic Theology, bound together under one cover, usually by one or two theologians. Some of these are helpful, some are not. In a couple of weeks I’ll make specific suggestions about which books of Systematic Theology I recommend—either individual subject books or collections—but for today I will simply say that I would generally recommend making sure that if you are buying one of these larger volumes that you’ve thoroughly vetted whether or not the theologian has a good track record.
If Biblical Theology asks ‘What does the Bible say?” Christian Systematic Theology asks “What does the Bible have to say about [insert subject]?” While we ask questions of the Bible in the first category, these questions are about getting to the heart of what has been written (What did the author mean? What culture was dominant at the time? Who were the Sadducees? etc) whereas, in the second category, we are able to begin asking questions of the broader text which come from living in the world as a Christian. Technology in Biblical times was nothing like it is today, for instance, and so whilst we might read certain passages and learn principles which directly speak to our relationship with social media for example, in Systematic Theology we get to ask questions like, “What does the Bible have to say about adopting new technology?” In fact, there have been a number of books written on this subject over the past few years, as well as ongoing blogs and newsletters which deal with the finer points from a Christian perspective. In addition, Systematic Theology also deals with broader theological topics like the role of men and women, apologetics, the Trinity, and the attributes of God, as well as refutations of heretical teachings which claim to be biblically based. This is a huge remit of course, but each comes from asking questions of the Bible. This is a less-than-complete explanation, but hopefully, it goes 80% of the way towards illustrating the place of Systematic thinking in the realm of Theology.
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Earlier I mentioned that whether or not someone is a Christian, they will have developed a Biblical, Systematic, and more often than not, Historical theology in their own lives, but how can that be if they potentially haven’t ever read, seen, or heard of a Bible?
Take, for example, an agnostic schoolboy who has decided that whilst Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam might be somewhat true, none of their holy books can be trusted. That in itself is a Biblical Theology, it will affect how he views God, how he views himself—disinterested in faith and not in need of salvation—and this, as a result, will mean that when he asks hard questions in life like the meaning of it, whether there is an afterlife, or how to handle technology, his systematic approach will likely be to do so without the Bible, and therefore he will form a system based on his own experience, his teachers, possibly parents, and other outside sources. He may even then go on to back up those theories with history, possibly even as simply as “pre-modern era = bad, progress = good.”
Far worse, as we previously mentioned, is the case of a Christian who was told by a pastor that she needn’t read Leviticus, the minor prophets, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation—after all the pastor would never preach from them—she has now developed an incomplete view of the Bible, and a weak Biblical Theology. When she then goes on to ask deeper questions then, like “how should I think about my sexuality?” she will find herself answering those questions with;
a. Scepticism about the importance of the canon of Scripture
b. A lack of understanding of the basics of the faith
c. Little knowledge of the shape and overarching story of Scripture
For this reason and many others, we must make sure our Biblical Theology is not undervalued, and that our System of theology after that is not unduly influenced more by the world than by the Bible.
“Biblical study is incomplete until biblical theology has been done.”
B. S. Rosner, New dictionary of biblical theology, 2000, 4.
I began by saying how important it is that we hold both of the following to be true:
The Bible is sufficient
It is a mighty blessing that we have such a huge library of Christians throughout history at our fingertips to draw and learn from
Historical Theology is where we exercise our thankfulness for the cloud of witnesses who have come before us and walk their paths after they’ve left them behind. In the last category, I used the example of technology, which has sped up at a rate we’ve never seen before. With that said, it isn’t like technological advances have never happened before, Chris Martin from Terms of Service was originally inspired to write about Social Media because of Neil Postman’s book on the rise of the television! Throughout Martin’s book, he also references other historical advances such as the printing press, to help us understand how to view what he calls “the Social Internet.”
Whether we’re talking about political perspectives, heretical views, Church movements, or a host of other subjects, looking at history can help us to understand that we’re far from the first Christians to face this kind of opposition or positions, and others have done good work in understanding what the Bible has to say in response before we have.
Historical Theology allows us to find answers our fellow brothers and sisters have given to various questions in history, track the potency and veracity of usefulness and effect of the Bible throughout time, and then finally, perhaps most importantly, check our own work against what’s come before.
I’ve said it before but the more of Church History and its theologians that I read, the more I’m convinced of Ecclesiastes 1:9:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
We ought to assume that the paths we have ahead of us have already been traversed, perhaps even fought through, by Christians before us. What’s more, in their kindest, they have left behind them signposts and instructions along the way to help us along, how foolish must we be if we were to ignore them?
With that said, we must always weigh history on the scales of Scripture, not vice versa.
Biblical → Systematic & Historical
The first two articles in this series are out now, and the final part is coming soon. In summary, when we talk about Biblical, Systematic, and Historical Theology, here’s what we mean:
Biblical Theology: “What does the Bible say?”
Systematic Theology: “What does the Bible have to say about [insert subject here]?”
Historical Theology: “What has the Church historically believed about X, and how has the Church answered questions and faced opposition in the past?”
If you have more questions about any of these, please drop them in the comment section below and I’ll make sure to respond to them in upcoming articles, either in the body of the article, or as an FAQ/Q&R. The most crucial thing to remember, beyond anything else, is to read your Bible, to study God throughout it, and to keep your eyes fixed on God.
You can find the first two articles here:
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Wow, this is so helpful! Thank you