Why should we study systematic theology? After all, is it not theology that divides and splinters the church? Perhaps theology is a minefield best left to pastors, theologians, and those high-minded academics. Does the everyday Christian really need theology, let alone systematic theology?
Yes, everyday Christians need to study systematic theology because every Christian practices systematic theology on a daily basis. Systematic theology simply asks what the Bible says on any given subject. When you ask how you should relate to your family, how you relate to the government, and what Christ’s work means for your everyday life, you are doing the work of systematic theology. The question for each of us isn’t whether or not we do systematic theology – we do it every day! The question is: are we doing theology, including systematic theology, well?
In the following, I will run outline three ontological (or natural) reasons and three practical reasons that the worshipful study of systematic theology is needed for every Christian.
The Ontological Need for Theology
First, theology exists and is needed because God exists. In the sciences you have the fields of botany, astronomy, physics, zoology, and others which study their respective foci in order to better understand them. Plants exist, therefore, botanists study systems of humidity, light, bugs, chemicals, and more in order to better understand plants. So if the creation necessitates man’s study, how much more its Creator and Sustainer! Just as the existence of gravity warrants the study of physics, so the existence of God necessitates the glad and worshipful study of him in theology!
Second, theology exists and is needed because God has revealed himself through his Word. This is the whole point of revelation: God has spoken in the Scriptures in order that we might know, love, obey, and glorify him. Because God has revealed himself through his Word we are committed to knowing what he has told us about himself, ourselves, and the world around us.
Finally, the glad study of theology is ontologically necessary because God is glorious! The depths of God’s beauty necessitates the doxological study of him in theology! As such, the study of theology should be understood as a right response to God’s glory! This is why the study of theology is a worshipful endeavor. The reading of God’s Word is the means he has ordained for us to see and behold his illimitable glory (2 Corinthians 3:18; cf. Ephesians 3:4)!
Just as a wife seeks to know the intricate details of her husband so that she might love him more with greater intimacy and depth, so we as the people of God, Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:32ff; cf. Revelation 19:6-9), spend the rest of our days desirously growing in the knowledge of God through his Word so that we might love and cherish him more and more until our faith is made sight.
In sum, the worshipful study of God is necessary because he exists, he has revealed himself by his Word, and he is exceedingly glorious! Theology is a means to knowing, loving, obeying, savoring, and glorifying God!
The Practical Need for Systematic Theology
On top of the ontological necessity of theology, the study is critically important to the health of Christian life for at least three practical reasons.
First, there is a practical necessity for the study of theology because Christian practice is the fruit of Christian thought; we act upon what we know, what we believe.
Take, for instance, a man who believes that the gospel only justifies him and has no practical, everyday application to his life. Such a man lives a life marred by sin and defeat. Yet, the man who understands and believes that Christ is his justification, his sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30) fights for holiness knowing that Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross has purchased his freedom from sin, supplying him with the grace he needs to put remaining sin to death.
The Apostle Paul marries Christian practice to Christian theology when he tethers the Christian ethic of humility to the theology of the gospel (Philippians 2:1-11). Paul exhorts the church in Philippi to be humble because of Christ’s humility in the gospel as the very God who came to serve frail humanity. If the church was to be humble, Paul’s command shows that the will to put others before themselves must come from a belief that Christ had done the very same for them in his redemptive work. Paul exemplifies here that Christian belief produces Christian ethics, not vice versa (see 2 Corinthians 8:9ff as another example).
We must realize that orthopraxy (right practice) is inextricably married to, and the effect of, orthodoxy (right belief).
In 1 Peter 1:15, the Apostle commands the church to be holy (Christian practice) because God is holy (Christian theology). Moreover, Paul shows this truth in the negative when he lists several “ungodly” sins as those which are “contrary to sound doctrine in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:8-11). Sin itself, according to this text, is the product of erring theology.
Second, theology is a practical need for every Christian because theology is inseparable from and essential to obeying the Great Commission. Jesus commands His church to go about making disciples, baptizing them, and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). That is, the Great Commission is not completed when a convert is made, but when a disciple is made and trained to obey everything that Christ has commanded!
Moreover, as we noted, Christian thought produces Christian practice. Thus, our teaching of new disciples will inevitably include theological teaching. Since systematic theology seeks to answer what God says about any given topic, and the Great Commission includes teaching everything that Christ commands, systematic theology is a means by which the Christian himself learns Christ’s commands and subsequently teaches them to other disciples.
In short, theology and sound doctrine are intertwined with obedience to the Great Commission, and systematic theology is a method by which the Christian seeks to obey Christ’s commands so that he might teach others to do the same.
Finally, theology is critically and practically important because salvation is a matter of right belief. Matthew 16:13-20 and the book of Galatians identify that salvation rests upon right belief in who Christ is and what the gospel is, respectively.
In his epistle to the church in Galatia, Paul sharply rebukes the church for “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one… but even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:6, 8). What was this different gospel being preached in the Galatian church? It was a pseudo-gospel that preached justification by faith plus circumcision. In other words, a gospel of faith plus works of the law (5:1-6). If Matthew 16 makes salvation exclusive to right Christology (the study of who Jesus is), then Paul shows that salvation is also exclusive to belief in the right gospel, a right soteriology (the study of salvation). In both cases, error is grave and worthy of damnation because belief in a different Jesus is the belief in another god (idolatry) and to preach a gospel contrary to that of justification by grace through faith in Christ is to preach a false gospel unable to save anyone. In summary, accurate theology and precise doctrine are a matter of salvation, not indifference.
In short, the Christian pursues systematic theology as a way of knowing God, loving God, obeying God, and glorifying God. By this we see that right theology is essential to a right relationship with God, as the psalmist writes of the inseparable marriage between theology and doxology when he writes, “I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.” Glad praise from a holy heart is married to and the effect of learning God’s Word. The Christian life is much more than theology, but it is never anything less than theology. On this note, James Orr observed,
He who with his whole heart believes in Jesus as the Son of God is thereby committed to much else besides. He is committed to a view of God, a view of man, to a view of sin, to a view of Redemption, to a view of the purpose of God in creation and history, to a view of human destiny found only in Christianity.
Faith in God necessitates the worshipful study of him in order to rightly know him, rightly love him, rightly obey him, and rightly glorify him. So let us delight ourselves in going to the Scriptures not as a textbook, but as the Word of God which reveals the ineffable, resplendent glory of our God!