to Systematic Theology
Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership
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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 .
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 .
We will define Systematic theology further in this lesson. This is the approach
we will be using for this term.
3. Dogmatic Theology
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 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
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 .
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 .
- Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of
Theology , (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 20.
- Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology ,
(Victor Books, 1987), 14.
- Erickson, 29.
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