Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Introduction: Prolegomena)

“Amazing Grace”

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

The Lord has promised good to me;

His Word my hope secures.

He will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures.

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come.

’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we’d first begun.

~John Newton (1725–1807)

stanza 5, John P. Rees (1828–1900)

Major Subjects Covered in Chapter 1  
What Is Theology?  
Why Study Theology?  
What Are the Various Major Kinds of Theology?  
What Is Systematic Theology?  
What Are the Categories of Systematic Theology?  
What Is the Relationship between Exegetical, Biblical, and Systematic Theology?  
What Are the Benefits and Limitations of Systematic Theology?  
What Is the Relationship of Systematic Theology to Doctrine?  
What Is the Overarching and Unifying Theme of Scripture?  
What Are the Major Motifs of Scripture?  
How Does Systematic Theology Relate to One’s Worldview?  
How Does Systematic Theology Relate to One’s Mind?  
How Does Systematic Theology Relate to One’s Personal Life?  
How Does Systematic Theology Relate to One’s Ministry?  

The term prolegomena originated from the combination of two Greek words, pro, meaning “before,” and legō, meaning “to say,” which together convey the general sense of “to say beforehand or “to say in advance.” A prolegomena chapter serves as a prologue or a preliminary discussion that introduces and defines the central content of the work that follows. These prefatory comments include assumptions, definitions, methodology, and purposes, thereby providing a context for understanding the subsequent content. Here the prolegomena discussion is organized by giving answers to a series of significant questions that will prepare the reader for the ensuing material, which constitutes the main body of Biblical Doctrine.

What Is Theology?

Theology—from the Greek theos, “god,” and logia, “word”—is not a uniquely Christian word. The Greek verb theologeō refers to the act of speaking about a god, while the noun theologos refers to a person who engages in theologeō, that is, a theologian. The adjective theologikos describes something theological, while the noun theologia means “a word about god”—literally, theology. These words were used in pagan religious contexts centuries before the New Testament. None of these four words are found in the New Testament or the Septuagint. The earliest known Christian use of one of these terms is a reference to the apostle John as a theologos early in the second century AD.

Christian theology is the study of the divine revelation in the Bible. It has God as its perpetual centerpiece, God’s Word as its source, and godliness as its aim. As Alva McClain puts it,

Out of God all things come—He is the origin. Through God all things exist—He is the sustainer of all things. Unto God—back to God—He is the goal. There is the circle of eternity: out, through, back.

David Wells has crafted a notable working definition of Christian theology:

Theology is the sustained effort to know the character, will, and acts of the triune God as he has disclosed and interpreted these for his people in Scripture … in order that we might know him, learn to think our thoughts after him, live our lives in his world on his terms, and by thought and action project his truth into our own time and culture.

The apostle John died in about AD 98. With his writing of Revelation, the canon of Scripture was completed and closed. It did not take long for succeeding generations to begin writing about scriptural truth. Some of the more significant authors and their volumes include the following:

•     Unknown author, The Didache (ca. 110)

•     Irenaeus (ca. 120–202), Proof of the Apostolic Preaching

•     Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–ca. 215), Stromata

•     Origen (ca. 184–ca. 254), On First Principles

•     Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 330–ca. 389), Five Theological Orations

•     Augustine (354–430), Enchiridion

•     John of Damascus (ca. 675–ca. 749), An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

•     Peter Lombard (ca. 1095–ca. 1169), Four Books of Sentences

•     Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Summa Theologica

•     John Calvin (1509–1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion

•     Thomas Watson (ca. 1620–1686), A Body of Divinity

•     Francis Turretin (1623–1687), Institutes of Elenctic Theology

•     John Gill (1697–1771), A Body of Doctrinal Divinity

•     John Dick (1764–1833), Lectures on Theology

Prominent theologies from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries are listed in the bibliography at the end of this chapter.

Why Study Theology?

Scottish pastor and theologian John Dick answered this penetrating query with seven profound responses. A better and more succinct answer would be difficult to come by:

       1.    “To ascertain the character of God in its aspect towards us”

       2.    “To contemplate the display of his attributes in his works and dispensations”

       3.    “To discover his designs toward man in his original and his present state”

       4.    “To know this mighty Being, as far as he may be known, [which] is the noblest aim of the human understanding”

       5.    “To learn our duty to him, the means of enjoying his favor, the hopes which we are authorized to entertain, and the wonderful expedient by which our fallen race is restored to purity and happiness”

       6.    “To love him, the most worthy exercise of our affections”

       7.    “To serve him, the most honourable and delightful purpose to which we can devote our time and talents”

What Are the Various Major Kinds of Theology?

       1.    Biblical theology: The organization of Scripture thematically by biblical chronology or by biblical author with respect to the progressive revelation of the Bible (properly a component of systematic theology)

       2.    Dogmatic theology: The organization of Scripture with an emphasis on favored or selected church creeds

       3.    Exegetical theology: The methodical organization of Scripture by dealing exegetically with individual texts of the Bible (properly a component of both biblical and systematic theology)

       4.    Historical theology: The historical study of doctrinal developments after the apostolic era to the present time

       5.    Natural theology: The study of what can be known about God by human reason alone through the empirical study of the natural world

       6.    Pastoral/practical theology: The organization of Scripture with an emphasis on the personal application of doctrinal truth in the lives of the church and individual Christians

       7.    Systematic theology: The organization of Scripture by a synthesis of scriptural teaching, summarized using major categories that encompass the entirety of God’s written revelation (developed from exegetical and biblical theology)

What Is Systematic Theology?

The term systematic comes from the compound Greek word made up of syn, “together,” and histanai, “to set up,” meaning “to set up together” or “to systematize.” As noted above, theology comes from the Greek word theologia, “a word about god,” meaning “theology.” Etymologically, systematic theology involves the orderly bringing together of words about God or a bringing together of theology in an organized fashion. Consider Charles Spurgeon’s response to those who object to a systematic approach to theology:

Systematic theology is to the Bible what science is to nature. To suppose that all the other works of God are orderly and systematic, and the greater the work the more perfect the system: and that the greatest of all His works, in which all His perfections are transcendently displayed, should have no plan or system, is altogether absurd.

Systematic theology answers the question, what does the completed canon of Scripture teach about any one theme or topic? For example, what does the Bible teach from Genesis to Revelation about the deity of Jesus Christ? A basic definition of systematic theology, then, would be “the ordered exposition of Christian doctrines.”

A systematic theology must display (1) hermeneutical integrity, (2) doctrinal coherence, (3) ethical relevance, (4) worldview explicability, and (5) traditional continuity. Where these are present and operative, one will find a good systematizing that will be of value to the expositor. As he carefully examines every detail of the text in preparation to expound it, systematic theology allows him to also view the whole theological picture—one that has taken into account not only the studied conclusions from church history but also the progress of revelation culminating in the complete revelation of God. (For a chronological overview of the progress of revelation, see the appendix).

One’s understanding of systematic theology could be framed by the following observations from John Murray:

When we properly weigh the proposition that the Scriptures are the deposit of special revelation, that they are the oracles of God, that in them God encounters and addresses us, discloses to us his incomprehensible majesty, summons us to the knowledge and fulfillment of his will, unveils to us the mystery of his counsel, and unfolds the purposes of his grace, then systematic theology, of all sciences and disciplines, is seen to be the most noble, not one of cold, impassioned reflection but one that stirs adoring wonder and claims the most consecrated exercise of all our powers. It is the most noble of all studies because its province is the whole counsel of God and seeks, as no other discipline, to set forth the riches of God’s revelation in the orderly and embracive manner which is its peculiar method and function. All other departments of theological discipline contribute their findings to systematic theology and it brings all the wealth of knowledge derived from these disciplines to bear upon the more inclusive systemization which it undertakes.

Systematic theology aims to expound in a comprehensive and thematically organized fashion the biblical doctrines focused on the persons of the triune God, their purposes, and their plans in relationship to the world and humanity. It begins with informing the intellect (knowing and understanding). The intellect shapes what we believe and love in our heart. Our will desires what we love and repudiates what we hate. Our actions then accord with what we want most. The mind shapes the affections, which shape the will, which directs the actions. Theology is not fully finished until it has warmed the heart (affections) and prompted the volition (will) to act in obedience to its content.

What Are the Categories of Systematic Theology?

       1.    Bibliology: The doctrine of the inspiration, inerrancy, authority, and canonicity of the Bible (Gk. biblion, “book”)

       2.    Theology proper: The doctrine of the existence and being of God, including the triunity of God (Gk. theos, “God”)

       3.    Christology: The doctrine of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Gk. christos, “Christ”)

       4.    Pneumatology: The doctrine of the person and work of the Holy Spirit (Gk. pneuma, “Spirit”)

       5.    Anthropology: The doctrine of humanity (Gk. anthrōpos, “man”)

       6.    Hamartiology: The doctrine of sin (Gk. hamartia, “sin”)

       7.    Soteriology: The doctrine of salvation (Gk. sōtēria, “salvation”)

       8.    Angelology: The doctrine of holy angels, Satan, and fallen angels (Gk. angelos, “angel”)

       9.    Ecclesiology: The doctrine of the church, universal and local (Gk. ekklēsia, “assembly” or “church”)

     10.    Eschatology: The doctrine concerning the entire scope of biblical predictive prophecy, especially end-time events, including the destination for both saved and unsaved people, heaven and hell (Gk. eschatos, “last things”)

What Is the Relationship between Exegetical, Biblical, and Systematic Theology?

All biblical theology is systematic in nature; all systematic theology is biblical in content; and both biblical and systematic theology are exegetical in the interpretive process. Therefore, the key question is not which one is the best approach to theology but rather, how do the three interrelate with each other?

To use a construction metaphor,

•     exegetical theology supplies the building material for the foundation and structure;

•     biblical theology provides the foundational support for the structure; and

•     systematic theology serves as the structure built on the foundation.

Exegetical theology involves the methodical organization of Scripture by dealing exegetically with the individual texts of the Bible. This is properly an initial component of both biblical and systematic theology. As a result, every word, sentence, and paragraph of Scripture is examined in detail.

Biblical theology is characterized by the organization of Scripture thematically by biblical chronology or biblical author with respect to the progressive revelation of the Bible. This is properly a component of systematic theology. It serves as a bridge from exegetical theology to systematic theology.

Systematic theology is the organization of Scripture by a synthesis of scriptural teaching, summarized by major categories that encompass the entirety of God’s written revelation. Systematic theology develops out of exegetical and biblical theology and pulls all the teaching of Scripture together as a whole. Again, Murray is helpful in making sense of these connections:

Hence exposition of the Scripture is basic to systematic theology. Its task is not simply the exposition of particular passages. That is the task of exegesis. Systematics must coordinate the teaching of particular passages and systematize this teaching under the appropriate topics. There is thus a synthesis that belongs to systematics that does not belong to exegesis as such. But to the extent to which systematic theology synthesizes the teaching of Scripture, and this is its main purpose, it is apparent how dependent it is upon the science of exegesis. It cannot coordinate and relate the teaching of particular passages without knowing what the teaching is. So exegesis is basic to its objective. This needs to be emphasized. Systematic theology has gravely suffered, indeed has deserted its vocation, when it has been divorced from meticulous attention to biblical exegesis. This is one reason why the charge mentioned above has so much to yield support to the indictment. Systematics becomes lifeless and fails in its mandate just to the extent to which it has become detached from exegesis. And the guarantee against a stereotyped dogmatics is that systematic theology be constantly enriched, deepened, and expanded by the treasures increasingly drawn from the Word of God. Exegesis keeps systematics not only in direct contact with the Word but it ever imparts to systematics the power which is derived from that Word. The Word is living and powerful.

One other approach to theology should be added. Historical theology examines how exegetical and theological convictions developed over time. It takes into consideration the conclusions reached by prior generations of godly interpreters of Scripture.[1]

[1] MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 33–39). Crossway.