Outside of a great study Bible, one of the most important study tools in a Christian’s library is a good systematic theology.
What is a Systematic Theology?
The term “systematic theology” is a scary one for a lot of people. It sounds cold and mechanical. But a good systematic theology can help inspire a greater love for the Bible and the God who inspired its writing.
Systematic theology, in broad strokes, seeks to compile everything that the Bible says about a particular doctrine (such as the Trinity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the Attributes of God, Creation, etc.) into an orderly and rational form. More simply, “systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given subject.”1
While some are uncomfortable with the idea of systematic theology, thinking of it as being a divergence from biblical theology (a critique usually made by folks who are opposed to doctrinal certainty of any sort), a good systematic theology seeks to avoid importing man-made ideas and go no further than Scripture itself. While it doesn’t ignore the historical development of doctrine or philosophical ideas surrounding them, these fields lack the authority of Scripture.
Why do I need one?
The primary reason to have a systematic theology in your reference library is so that you can gain a better understanding of and appreciation for Christian theology. We are commanded to love the Lord with all of our minds, as well as our hearts, souls and strength, and therefore the study of theology—of the attributes of God as found in Scripture, of penal substitutionary atonement, of sin, of creation and a host of other subjects—should lead us not simply to gain knowledge, but lead us to praise God for who He is.
How do I use it?
As with all things, Systematic theologies should be studied prayerfully and carefully. Keep your Bible handy, check references and make sure that what is there aligns with what Scripture clearly says. Further to that, a systematic theology is not a weapon (although some are big enough that you could defend your home with them). Studying and referencing a systematic theology is not to be an exercise in showing off intellectual prowess. If the knowledge lies merely in your head, but doesn’t move to your heart, then it’s time wasted.
Which one should I get?
There are a couple that I enjoy a great deal and am referencing with greater frequency. They are Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.
I love Grudem’s Systematic Theology because it’s easy to understand, provides thoughtful explanations, tons of notes and personal application questions (as every good book should). This is, in large part, because it’s intended to be read by students (although teachers, pastors and professors will gain much from it).
I love Calvin’s Institutes in part because of its historic value. Calvin was one of the key figures in the Protestant Reformation and it’s powerful to see how influential this masterpiece of theology has become. It’s extremely pastoral, and it is steeped in Scripture—the key reasons to purchase any book. What shines through most clearly in the Institutes is Calvin’s love for Christ, love for Scripture and love for people.
At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. There are several fantastic Systematics available; for what it’s worth though, I suspect you’ll be hard pressed to find ones better than these (at least until J.I. Packer releases one :)).
1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 21 (Zondervan, 1994)