Systematic theology is an organized, comprehensive approach to defining Christian doctrine and beliefs. It draws on all available resources for developing a holistic perspective on theological thought. The approach relies on detailed, evidence-based investigations into questions of religious thought to develop the best-informed answers.
Systematic theology represents the big tent in Christian theological methods. It attempts to take information from all possible sources of Christian faith and practice:
The key feature of systematic theology is that it attempts to integrate all sources of information and thought about an article of faith. This is a powerful defense against later charges of inconsistency or refutation. It’s one of the elements that makes systematic theology so important to Christian apologetics.
Two Different Paths Lead Systematic Theologists Into Major and Minor Christian Doctrine
Determining what is systematic theology and what is not depends on who is using the term. It always includes an organized approach to theological scholarship, but it can refer to explorations that differ in terms of scope.
In one sense, systematic theology can describe any effort to cohesively bring together all sources of information in a particular theme of theological study. Those can be very narrow, such as all references to or mentions of angels, or very broad, such as all writings and thoughts on the subject of sin. The work of systematic theology attempts to describe the entire body of that work and conclusions that may be drawn from it.
But systematic theology can also be much broader. Drawing on all those sources, systematic theology attempts to tie all of Christian theology into a coherent whole—a complete system of Christian faith, as the name implies.
By relying on a holistic, data-driven form of analysis, systematic theology is well-suited to supporting ministries such as:
Systematic theology is often taught in Christian degree programs, particularly as a core part of degree programs in theology and divinity, since it offers a common framework for evaluating and discussing various theological ideas.
The History of Systematic Theology Has Built Today’s Christianity
Since it’s human nature to attempt to categorize and make sense of the whole of things, systematic theology has been practiced in one form or another almost since the beginning of the church.
Early statements of faith and confessions that led to common creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed show signs of systematic analysis of Scripture and faith. This sort of thinking helped lead to early distinctions between the Trinity and other common articles of faith. Mentioned nowhere in the Bible, things the existence and relationships of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were developed through a systematic analysis of the statements that were made about them separately.
Rise of Systematic Christian Theology in the 8th Century
John of Damascus really kicked off systematic Christian theology in the 8th century with a treatise titled “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.” This was a summary of writings by earlier prophets and fathers of the church which created a bedrock foundation for Eastern Orthodoxy and heavily influenced other later denominations.
Systematic theology has grown into a discipline that can both advance new ideas and interpretations in theology, and catalog the existing range of thought on theological topics.
John’s work, or any effort in systematic theology, was not easy. It requires amassing a great deal of information on the subject of study, and taking the time to examine it and draw logical conclusions.
By the time of the Reformation, these tasks usually fell to groups of scholars rather than inspired individuals. Elaborate works, such as the landmark Westminster Confession of Faith, were drawn up by synods and other gatherings of the learned. These massive discourses on Christianity distilled tradition and Scriptural knowledge into doctrine covering:
The enduring reliance on these works points to the power of the approach of systematic theology.
Breaking Down Systematic Theology Into Specific Areas of Study
Systematic theology breaks the broad scope of Christian belief down using categorical approaches that are familiar in most secular academic studies. Although the method of tying everything together across the spectrum of spirituality and ethics can lead to grand unified theories of Christianity, many systematic theologists concentrate their use of the method within a specific area or category of the religion.
Although there are no real limits on the theological subjects that can be studied through systematic theology, there are certain common categories that scholars typically use:
Systematic theology is widely used in Christian theological circles, but its uses aren’t restricted only to Christianity. Because of the organized, systematic analysis of doctrinal traditions and developments within a religion, systematic theology can be applied to any organized faith.
Although these are common division of study in Christian systematic theology, many categories can draw on writings and doctrine from other religions. Comparative theology can play an important role in systematic theological thought, contrasting, for example, Hindu conceptions of the end times with the Christian view of the apocalypse.
Systematic theology has been one of the most influential developments in Christian theological thought and will continue to play an important role in religious thinking. For that reason, it’s also going to continue to be an important part of many different types of Christian degrees.