Grace Institute: Systematic Theology: Introduction: Categories of Theology

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership

Introduction to Systematic Theology

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership

Winter 2006

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II. Categories of Theology

A. Branches of Theology

There are four classic categories of theology. These categories build upon one another and each have value for the student.

1. Biblical Theology

Biblical theology uses the scriptures alone as its source. But more than just limiting the source, it also specifies how to approach this source. Biblical theology looks at a given period of history or at a given author within the bible and tries to understand how that author or period of time saw God and His revelation. Biblical theology emphasizes the historical context into which the author was writing. Biblical theology recognizes that God reveals himself differently at different times in history and seeks to understand specifically how this is demonstrated in the progression of the Bible [1].

Biblical theology is the basis of all other approaches to theology. We must first understand the intent and purpose of the original author and understand exactly how God revealed himself in specific situations at specific points in history to properly develop our own theology. We must understand the methodology employed by biblical theologians to ensure that we are properly observing, interpreting, and applying God's word. Biblical theology is the approach we take in the Grace Institute in the Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament classes.

The only significant danger in biblical theology is to miss the forest for the trees. That is to say, we can narrowly look at what Isaiah says about the Messiah, and miss how that relates to what the Gospel of John says about Jesus Christ. We must constantly compare various scriptures and see how any particular passage relates to the whole of scripture.

2. Systematic Theology

Systematic theology also uses the Bible as its primary source. However, it attempts to compare and relate all of scripture and create a systematized statement on what the whole Bible says about particular issues. While biblical theology sees God reveal himself in a progressive manner in scripture, systematic theology combines this progression and seeks to make a statement about God and his revelation that transcends history. According to Charles Ryrie,

Systematic theology correlates the data of biblical revelation as a whole in order to exhibit systematically the total picture of God's self-revelation [2].

We will define Systematic theology further in this lesson. This is the approach we will be using for this term.

3. Dogmatic Theology

All Christian theology begins with Biblical Theology.  As biblical theology is compared and organized it becomes Systematic Theology.  Systematic Theology that is esteemed either by edict or through the test of time becomes Dogmatic Theology. The evolution of Dogmatic Theology throughout history becomes Historic Theology.Dogmatic theology uses as its primary sources the creeds or statements of faith (i.e. dogma). Dogmas are formal statements of systematic theology created by a particular denomination or theologian. Dogmatic theology concentrates on studying the various dogmas. For example, this approach would study the creeds of the Roman Catholic Church or the Westminster Confession. Dogmatic theology emphasizes the contrast between movements, like Calvinism and Armenianism, or Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.

Creeds and statements of faith are usually well thought out consistent approaches to theology in a systematic way. Dogmatic theology helps us test our own beliefs for consistency and rationality. Furthermore, by looking at contrasting viewpoints, we can be challenged in our own thinking and forced to decide for ourselves what we believe on various points.

The danger in dogmatic theology is to argue our personal doctrine using the well-developed arguments of the great theologians instead of using scripture. It is easier to prove a particular viewpoint using the definitive answers given by someone like John Calvin or Arminius than to prove a point that is only vaguely discussed in the Bible. But to do so runs the risk of adding to scripture and speaking authoritatively (or dare I say, “dogmatically”) on a subject on which the Bible is relatively silent. Finally, dogmatic theology is hearsay evidence based on second or third hand information. It is like asking your friends how they liked a movie and what the plot of the movie was, but never going to see the movie for yourself. You can gain an interesting perspective and find truthful information in the second hand report, but until you buy a ticket and watch it for yourself, you can't really understand what the movie is all about.

4. Historical Theology

Historical theology uses as its primary sources the traditions and historic statements of the church and other theologians. Historical theology traces the development of theological ideas through the centuries and gleans from these historic creeds, opinions, and treatises a proper understanding of God and his relation to the universe.

There is value in historical theology. The historic traditions of the church cannot be ignored when developing a theological framework. Furthermore, there is significant value in reading the early church fathers and the great theologians through the centuries. We would do well to understand the development of certain theological ideas. For example, examining the events and ideas that led to Martin Luther's break from the Roman church gives us a clearer understanding of such ideas as justification by faith.

However, there is also a great danger in historical theology. The church fathers and theologians throughout the centuries are not inerrant. The fact that theology has changed and developed reveals that historical theology is more subjective and relativistic than other approaches to theology.

B. Sub-categories of Systematic Theology

While the key definition of theology is the study of God, because God has involved himself in His creation, theology also is concerned with God's interaction with His creation. Therefore, Systematic Theology has numerous sub-categories, which investigate various aspects of God's creation and His interaction with creation. The following are some of the major sub-categories of Systematic Theology:

  • Theology Proper – The study of the character of God.
  • Bibliology – The study of the bible.
  • Christology – The study of Christ.
  • Pneumatology – The study of the Holy Spirit.
  • Soteriology – The study of salvation.
  • Anthropology – The study of the nature of humanity.
  • Angelology – The study of angels.
  • Ecclesiology – The study of the church.
  • Eschatology – The study of the end times.

C. Comparing Theology with Other Areas of Study

1. Systematic Theology vs. Apologetics

Systematic theology tries to clearly communicate ones belief about a particular doctrines. The goal of systematic theology is to help the believer clarify and systematize their own beliefs and ensure that those beliefs are consistent and rational.

Apologetics tries to communicate beliefs to non-believers. The goal of apologetics is to defend beliefs to those who do not share them. Apologetics takes note of objections to one's theology and responds to the objections in a manner that will convince the unbeliever [3].

2. Systematic Theology vs. Philosophy

Philosophy is the examination of fundamental beliefs. Beliefs are examined against tests of logic and other rational thought. Theology is the articulation of beliefs regarding the nature of God and His interaction with creation.

Philosophy can be used to defend or scrutinize theological concepts by providing a rational framework for establishing truth. However, while philosophy serves a useful purpose in providing consistency and logic, it cannot compare to the special revelation of God and must be made a priority, or theology merely becomes a branch of theology [4].

Footnotes

  1. Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology , (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 20.
  2. Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology , (Victor Books, 1987), 14.
  3. Encarta.
  4. Erickson, 29.

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