by Scott R. Swain & Michael Allen
Systematic theology” is a label with admittedly clinical connotations.
It conjures a picture of the theologian as someone who takes in hand the living Word of God only to dissect and dismember the body of biblical truth into various pieces so that he might label (often in Latin!) and arrange those pieces in categories of his own meticulous devising. Though such a connotation of systematic theology is not uncommon in popular Christian culture, it does not represent what most Christian theologians have intended by the label. Far from attempting to divide the seamless garment of biblical truth, systematic theology considers what “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) teaches on any given topic and reflects upon the divinely revealed relations between the Bible’s various topics.
In systematic theology, we not only ask, “What does the Bible teach about salvation?” or “What does the Bible teach about good works?” We also ask, “How does the Bible relate salvation and good works?” The Bible’s answer to the latter question, of course, is that salvation does not follow from good works (Eph. 2:8–9). Rather, salvation precedes good works (v. 10). That salvation precedes rather than follows good works is just as vital for understanding the nature of salvation and good works as it is for understanding salvation and good works as isolated topics. Indeed, one cannot have a biblical understanding of either topic without understanding the relationship between them.
Systematic theology thus contemplates the body of biblical teaching as a living organism, offering loving attention to its various members and tracing their organic relations to each another. Ultimately, systematic theology helps us better understand God and all things in relation to God, a relation that is encapsulated in the living bond between Jesus Christ, “the head,” and the church, “which is his body” (Eph. 1:22–23). In what follows we will consider how systematic theology may serve the church and inform the Christian life: (1) by shaping a mind characterized by wonder and (2) by directing a life characterized by worship and witness.
WISDOM THAT PROMOTES WONDER
Systematic theology can be classified as a species of biblical “wisdom.” According to Augustine, wisdom involves more than the knowledge of distinct objects and more than the practical “know-how” needed to navigate different circumstances. For Augustine, true wisdom involves a contemplative awareness of the relationship between temporal and eternal realities, the relationship between creatures and the triune God, who is the author and end of all creatures.
In describing wisdom in this manner, Augustine captures something significant about the way the Bible teaches us about various topics. When Moses begins his account of creation, he begins with God: “In the beginning God” (Gen. 1:1). When John begins his account of salvation, he too begins with God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The psalmist contemplates the marvelous variety of God’s creatures and, yet, for all their variety, he discerns in them a unified chorus, ready to praise the name of the Lord (Ps. 148). Having considered the mysterious outworking of God’s plan of salvation for Jew and Gentile through the manifold twists and turns of redemptive history, Paul bursts forth in awe and wonder before the God “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
As a species of biblical wisdom, systematic theology considers the triune God, the supreme subject matter of biblical teaching, and all things in relation to God. Systematic theology contemplates God the Holy Trinity: it considers God in his being, perfection, persons, counsel, and works. Systematic theology also contemplates all things: it considers creation, sin, Christ, and so forth. In considering the latter topics, systematic theology is always concerned to view them in relation to God, their author and end. Systematic theology thus exhibits a God-centered organizing principle.
Herman Bavinck well summarizes the nature of systematic theology in this regard. According to Bavinck, systematic theology “describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end—God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name.” Given its focus on God and all things relative to him, Bavinck continues, systematic theology “is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God’s virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a ‘glory to God in the highest’ (Luke 2:14).” Systematic theology, we might say, is for singing. Dogmatics (another name of systematic theology) serves doxology. In sum, systematic theology is biblical wisdom that promotes God-centered wonder.
WISDOM THAT DIRECTS WORSHIP AND WITNESS
Systematic theology not only shapes wisdom, but that wisdom also enables a life of worship and witness. Paul’s words to the Romans turn in just this direction. After those lofty praises found in Romans 11:33–36, the Apostle turns toward moral guidance: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2).
God desires worship, the offering of one’s own self in its entirety. In this regard, surely the mention of “your bodies” is meant to suggest that even the most base or mundane element of the self—this wretched body that suffers and will die due to the effects of sin and curse—may and can be offered unto God in praise. Paul follows the instruction of Deuteronomy 6here, wherein the singularity of God (v. 4) beckons forth the whole-hearted, all-inclusive devotion of self to God’s service in worship: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). God desires not merely tithes and offerings, rites and ceremonies, but a “living sacrifice” entailing one’s whole being.
Such devotion does not come unopposed. First, of course, Paul warns against the encroachments of a godless culture: “Do not be conformed to this world.” The Apostle calls us to put a spiritual stiff-arm between our souls and the devious pressures of the devil and this sinful world. Whether in Egypt, Canaan, first-century Rome, or the twenty-first century West, we can see how cultures lead astray, and we are called to be alert. But it is not merely a godless culture that might draw innocents into its sway. We are ourselves a part of the problem, for we see that Paul continues, “But be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” We dare not be drawn into the sinful cycles of the world, but we must also be drawn from the evil inclinations of our own hearts. Our spiritual status quo is not acceptable; we must be sanctified and transformed within.
If these external and internal threats lurk, how does Paul suggest we fend them off and pursue the kind of worship and witness for which we were made? Our minds must be renewed, he says, so that we might be discerning. The “renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2)involves reorienting your frame of mind to God and to God’s merciful work done on your behalf already (Rom. 11:33–36). That is why the moral call of Romans 12:1–2 follows logically from the preceding exposition of God’s glorious grace in Romans 1–11. (This relationship is alluded to by the transitional word therefore in Rom. 12:1). “By the mercies of God,” we are to worship God in reasonable ways, thereby renouncing the foolish and futile worship of the world (1:21–23). Systematic theology displaces and relocates our obedience, reminding us always to see ourselves through the lens of God’s mercy. Only when we know ourselves and our calling in that framework, are we capable of discerning “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Paul is sketching a form of intellectual discipleship by which we are enabled and matured unto wise and godly discernment so that we can honor God with our worship and attest God by our witness, pouring forth the fame of His abundant goodness and singing aloud of His righteousness (Ps. 145:7).
To sum up, then, the Christian life is a life of “reasonable worship” (Rom. 12:1; translation ours). As one called to a life of “worship,” the Christian is called to be a “living sacrifice” (12:1), to dedicate his life to the glory of God and the good of his neighbor. As one called to a life of “reasonable worship,” the Christian learns what it means to dedicate his life to God and neighbor through the “renewal” of his “mind” (12:2). Systematic theology is especially suited to assist us in the call to “reasonable worship.” Systematic theology shapes a mind of wisdom and wonder by helping us view reality from a God-centered perspective. Systematic theology also directs a life of worship and witness by helping us consider how all things (not least our own redeemed selves) relate to God as their author and end: “to him be glory forever” (Rom. 11:36).
This article first appeared at Tabletalk