“What are your working on?” “My latest Gentle Reformation article.” “What’s it about?” “Why to read systematic theology.” “Ugh.” True story. Really.
Recently I started reading a set of books that have been on my shelves for years. Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology is a massive tome of over 2300 pages laid out in three hefty volumes. I had read parts of the book—even large parts—while in seminary, but I wanted to dig deeper and to learn more from Turretin, so here we are. I am half way through the second volume after 2 months of slow reading.
Frequently I encourage my congregation to pick up a theology book and to slowly work through it. Why would I encourage them to that end? What is the value of a dusty old theology book to the average worshiper of God? I believe there are several reasons that you should get your hands on a good sound systematic theology, and I am going to share five of them with you.
Knowing What You Believe
Many reformed Christians know a lot about theology and about the Bible. But why do you know that? When I was a young Christian, the woman that led me to the Lord was fond of saying, “You don’t believe anything unless you own it.” Can you say that you own what you believe, or have you merely inherited a system of Christian belief? Working through a good and recommended systematic theology will aid in you understanding what you believe and more importantly, help you to know why you believe it. Recently my 14 year-old daughter was having a conversation about multiplication and telling her hearer why something times zero is zero. Truthfully (disclosure: If you know me, I am not a math guy), I had never questioned it—I only knew that zero times something is zero. Reading a systematic theology will help you along those lines—what do I believe and why? Even if you disagree with the conclusion on a point, it will help you to better understand the position and help you to be able to articulate the why. Know what you believe.
Secondly, and of primary importance in the Christian life, reading a good systematic theology will help you to know God. Systematic theologies are filled with biblical references and teach the reader how to connect the proverbial dots in the Word of God. This practice, for the believer, will aid in devotion to and in contemplation of the God of the Bible. This may be something that is, as my old seminary professor was fond of saying, “better felt than telt” so I would encourage you to pick up a well-loved systematic theology to help you to know God in ways that you have yet to know him.
Defending the Faith
Peter tells us to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us. That goes beyond knowing the Bible stories. When you begin to fill your mind with the renewed riches and depth of Christian doctrine, you will be better equipped at sharing the gospel with your neighbors as well as talking through some of the ethical questions of the day—all from the teaching of God’s Word. This is true for the student in the classroom and the mother in the home and the father at the office—or any other combination thereof. Systematic theology will bring you in contact with answers to questions that your post-Christian neighbors have about your faith and why it is that you believe certain truths.
Getting More out of Public Worship
How many of your pastors use words that sometimes you don’t understand? The need for pastors to explain the meaning of words is another article, but let’s face it, sometimes your pastor assumes that you, like him, are reading hundreds of pages of theology a week. This is a difficulty in our circles, and has proven to be a barrier for new converts in reformed circles (again, a topic for another article—maybe Jared can write that one.).
Reading a systematic theology will help you to understand how your pastor’s theological brain is organized as well as give you a familiar system for thinking about the preaching and reading of the Word. Those of you that are married know the experience of being able to read a facial expression of your spouse, or hearing him or her say something in a conversation that is much more multi-layered than what the hearer hears. It is the same way in public worship. As your pastor chooses songs and Scripture texts that relate to his sermon, you will know the “why” of those selections more readily. And as he preaches, you will have categories and pigeon holes to place what he is talking about. I promise you will get more out of public worship if you are reading a systematic theology.
Seeing the Depths of God’s Word
Besides public worship, your Bible reading at home will benefit from the study of systematic theology. As you read the Word of God, sometimes the connections between passages are not clearly seen. Sometimes the continuity between Old and New Testaments is lost on the reader when he or she does not have the tools for properly understanding the Scriptures. Now I am not saying that you cannot understand the Word of God without Berkhof or Calvin, but what I am saying is that your Bible reading will improve and you will get more out of the Scriptures when you have read a systematic theology. The Word of God may come alive to you in a way that you have never experienced.
The How of Dusting Off a Theology Book (With Two Suggestions)
Doesn’t that give you the encouragement to try? Or at least the desire to want to try? These five reasons maybe have encouraged you to pick up a systemic theology, but it may also be intimidating to you as many are the thickness of a brick. Maybe these five reasons are just daunting? In a culture that is used to tweets and video images, maybe a book that is hundreds of pages long is something that is intimidating and just a bit out of reach for you (I understand—no judgment here).
Here’s what I tell my congregation… One way to tackle a systematic theology is to begin with a topic that most interests you within the systematic theology (I suggest Christology to my congregation, the doctrine of Jesus). All systematics deal with the same basic topics: First Things: What is theological method? What is revelation? What is the Word of God? What is the Trinity? How does God speak? These sort of topics.
Doctrine of God: This discusses his attributes or his character. It discusses his covenant (decree) and his creation. It also discusses the doctrine of providence.
Doctrine of Man: How was man created? What is man, male and female? What is the image of God? What was mankind like in the Garden? What was the fall? How did it effect him? What is the covenant of grace?
Doctrine of Jesus: What are the names in the Bible for Christ? What are his natures? What about his personality? What does Jesus’s humiliation mean? What is exaltation? What are his offices? What is the atonement? Doctrine of Salvation: What is the work of the Holy Spirit? How does union with Christ work? What is calling and regeneration? What is faith? What does justified mean? What is perseverance of the saints?
Doctrine of the Church: What is the church? What are the marks of the church (plug here for Dr. York’s new book)? How is the church governed in the Bible? Does the church have power? Who holds that power? What are the means of grace? Why do we baptize babies? What’s the Lord’s Supper really mean? The Last Things: What happens when people die? Is heaven real? Is hell eternal? Does the soul live forever? Is Jesus coming back? What is “the millennium”? What do we mean by resurrection of the dead?
So you can pick a topic and start working through it. Before you know it, you will have finished that topic and you can move on to another topic. I would recommend reading with pencil, notebook, and maybe even a dictionary on hand. This is reading at a higher level than some are used to, but it is good for you. You may want to write down questions and ask your pastor—make him earn his living.
But another way that you can read a systematic theology is by starting at the beginning and pacing your journey. Map it out, plan your course. The copy of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology that is before me right now is 738 pages. That may sound daunting to you, but if you read 5 pages a day (and only five) you will be finished reading it in less than 5 months. Five months is not really too much time when you are only reading 5 pages a day.
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (McNeill edition) is 1800 pages long. If you have been wanting to read this as long as you can remember, you only need to read 5 pages a day to have the work read in less than a year. Think of that—one year from today, you could say that you’ve read all of Calvin’s Institutes.
Charles Hodge’s 3-volume Systematic Theology is a whopping 2400 pages (similar to Turretin’s Elenctic Theology that I mentioned in the opening paragraph). Hodge or Turretin, although they are fat three volume editions that may intimidate you, will only take you one year if you are reading 7 pages a day. When you break down the reading into short page goals and longer time goals for readings, you see that you are able to work through a massive book. It takes commitment, but it is quite manageable for the average reader to achieve this goal.
So five reasons to read systematic theology and a couple of ways to make it happen. Please let me know what you are planning on starting to read. And let our readers know what your favorite systematic theology is and why.