An Excerpt from Stephen Wellum’s Systematic Theology, Volume 1: From Canon to Concept



Theology means diverse things to people. For some it is an academic discipline that describes various theologians and their theologies, and thus only for professors or pastors, but not for the everyday Christian. For others, theology is a speculative, esoteric discipline, which often leads us away from Scripture, and which is detrimental for a vibrant relationship with the Lord. Others think of theology, especially “systematic” theology as imposing “systems” on Scripture, thus removing it from Scripture and making it less than “biblical.”

Whatever people may think theology is, sadly, in the church, it has fallen on hard times. The evidence for this claim is not hard to find. On a biennial basis since 2014, Lifeway and Ligonier have conducted “The State of Theology” poll.[1] When basic theological questions are asked of self-identified evangelicals, it is evident that many are lacking even a rudimentary theological understanding. For example, in the 2020 poll, 96% of evangelicals agreed that “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Yet 30% of these same people affirmed that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” and 65% agreed that “Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God”—a contradiction of the first statement. However we try to make sense of these paradoxical answers, it minimally reveals that our churches are lacking basic doctrinal knowledge.


However, this should not surprise us. We have privileged religious experience and pragmatics over disciplined thinking about Scripture. For many, theology is a hard “sell,” especially in the age of social media where careful thought is replaced by images and tweets. Theology has little “cash value;” what we want are instant answers to meet our felt needs. And we especially fear divisions within the church that often occur when careful theological thinking confronts false teaching.[2]

2. See the work of David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

It is imperative that these “popular” misconceptions of theology are corrected by replacing them with a proper understanding of theology. As we begin our study, the purpose of this chapter is to define what systematic theology really is. We will do so by first reflecting on what systematic theology is in Scripture before identifying some of its basic elements and its relation to the other theological disciplines. Our aim is to demonstrate that systematic theology is not optional for the church; it is fundamental to our thinking rightly about God, the self, and the world. Theology is basic to Christian discipleship, and it is the culminating discipline, which leads to worldview formation. Theology is not a discretionary exercise; it is essential for the life and health of the church, and whether we realize it or not, everyone has some kind of theology. But the most significant question for us is whether our theology is true to Scripture or not. If it is not, this is serious since wrong ideas about God and Scripture result in disastrous consequences. Ultimately, what is at stake is the issue of truth and whether the church is faithful to Scripture’s command to “demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4b-5).

Theology and Scripture

Historically, systematic theology has been viewed as the “queen of the sciences.” As the “queen,” she is the beautiful capstone and culmination of all the disciplines, especially the theological disciplines. Properly understood, theology is the “study of the triune God,” who is our Creator and Lord, and thus the source and standard of all knowledge and truth (Prov. 1:7; Isa. 46:8-10; Rom. 11:33-36). In fact, the summum bonum of knowledge is the knowledge of God. In fact, all human knowledge, whether in creation or Scripture, is grounded in God’s speech and self-disclosure. For humans to know anything, we are dependent on God’s initiative to make himself known to us.[3] For this reason, theology is not something reserved for the academic theologian, pastor, or spiritually-minded Christian. Rather it is the calling and responsibility of every human to know God as their Creator and Lord. And it is especially true for God’s redeemed people, who are re-created in Christ Jesus to know the only true God (John 17:3).

3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.1.1 (1:35), astutely notes the interrelated nature of the knowledge of God and ourselves. In fact, we cannot know who we are apart from the knowledge of first knowing who God is.

At its heart, systematic theology is the obedient task of the church to use renewed reason by reflecting faithfully on the whole of Scripture and apply its teaching to every area of life. In other words, theology is the discipline that seeks “to think God’s thoughts after him”—for the praise of his glory and the good of the church.[4] Viewed this way, theology obeys what God commands his people to do.

4. Viewing theology as “thinking God’s thoughts after him” is a helpful summary of the entire theological task. On this point, see Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1998), 220-60.

For example, think of our Lord’s command in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Under the authority of King Jesus, we are to “make disciples of all nations,” baptizing them into the name of the triune God, and “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” To obey our Lord’s command requires careful biblical and theological thinking, knowing the Scripture, rightly thinking of who the Father, Son, and Spirit are, and faithfully applying all of Scripture to people’s lives. This is what theology is. Paul exhorts Timothy to “pay close attention to [his] life and [his] teaching,” which has life and death implications (1 Tim. 4:16). He is commanded to “be diligent to present [himself] to God as one approved, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Titus is exhorted to hold “to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). All of these exhortations require that theology must be done. One must first understand Scripture to have correct teaching (or doctrine), and one must refute error by applying the teaching of Scripture properly. However, it is not only leaders in the church who must know sound theology; all believers must be able to be “ready at any time to give a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). To obey this command, all believers must first know sound teaching in order to defend it against various objections. All of this requires rigorous and sound biblical and theological instruction.

So what, then, is systematic theology? In its most basic sense, systematic theology is the orderly, comprehensive “study of the triune God” and all things in relationship to him (Gk. theos [God] + logos [words, study of]). John Webster states it this way: Christian theology is the work of renewed, biblical reasoning[5] to consider a twofold object: “first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son, and Spirit and his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him.”[6] B. B. Warfield defined theology in a similar way: “Theology … is that science which treats of God in himself and in his relations”[7] to humans and the world. An older term to describe systematic theology is “dogmatic theology.” In this work, we will use these terms interchangeably, although technically dogmatic theology refers to “core biblical doctrines officially established in a church’s confessional statements,”[8] and as such reflects the conclusions of a particular community or tradition’s biblical reasoning from Scripture.

5. John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 115.

6. John Webster, God Without Measure, vol. 1, God and the Works of God (New York: T&T Clark, 2016), 3. Elsewhere, Webster unpacks the nature of theology in terms of theology’s object and cognitive principles: “The Holy Trinity is the ontological principle of Christian systematic theology. Its external or objective cognitive principle is the divine Word, by which … God’s incommunicable self-knowledge is accommodated to saints. The internal or subjective cognitive principle is the redeemed intelligence of the saints. Systematic theology is thus ectypal knowledge … Its matter is twofold: God, and all things in God” (“Principles of Systematic Theology,” IJST 11:1 [2009]: 56).

7. B. B. Warfield, “Theology a Science,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 2 vols., ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1973), 2:207.

8. Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Revelation and God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 42.

If this is what systematic theology is, we can now see why there is no higher calling or study. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the famous question: “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In Scripture, central to our glorifying God is the knowledge of God. In fact, the purpose of our creation is to know and love God as his image-bearers and covenant people (Matt. 22:37-40). Think of how the new covenant relationship is described between God and his people: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD” (Jer. 31:34a). There is no higher calling and nothing more urgent than for humans as God’s creatures, and especially God’s redeemed people in Christ, than to know our triune God in all of his majesty, beauty, and holy splendor (Ps. 89:16; Isa. 11:9; John 17:3). The life and health of the church is directly dependent on our knowledge of God, and thus the doing of theology.

In fact, as Herman Bavinck rightly reminds us, theology is really nothing but the knowledge of God, which is then applied to every area of life. Bavinck writes: “So, then, the knowledge of God is the only dogma, the exclusive content, of the entire field of dogmatics [theology]. All the doctrines treated in dogmatics—whether they concern the universe, humanity, Christ, and so forth—are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point. Dogmatics is always called upon to ponder and describe God and God alone… It is the knowledge of him alone that dogmatics must put on display.”[9]

9. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 29.

The assumption undergirding such a view of theology is that it is an objective discipline or science, grounded in the triune God who is truly there and who has made himself known to us. This understanding of theology stands in contrast to “liberal” theology that broadly views theology as the study of “religion” or “faith”—a “subjectivist” idea. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s understanding of theology is a good example of this. For Schleiermacher, theology is the analysis of the religious consciousness, the feeling of absolute dependence.[10] As we will note in chapters 2-3, the problem with such a view is that theology is made independent of Scripture, and its source is not directly grounded in God’s divine speech but in one’s personal experience that is mediated through the communion of saints. But personal experience, even mediated through the church, is never the final authority for the theologian. In fact, this view of theology suspends the question of objective truth. “Religion” is more about our experience of and search for the divine. But for such a view, God becomes an aspect of human experience, a view contrary to historic Christian theology. Theology is not about us finding a way to talk about God from the fabric of human experience; instead, it is about the triune God choosing to make himself known to us.

10. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (1830; New York: T&T Clark, 1999), 3-128.

In addition, John Frame defines systematic theology as “the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life.”[11] The focus on “application” is important because it reiterates what people often forget about theology, namely, that theology applies to every area of our lives. If we combine the definitions of Webster and Frame, we can say that systematic theology is the study of the triune God and all things in relationship to him which involves the application of God’s Word to all areas of life.[12] Furthermore, Frame’s introduction of “application” into the definition of theology not only helps us think about what theology is but also how it is done. Although we will say more about theological method in chapter 4, at this point, working with our definition of theology, we can say that the doing of systematic theology minimally involves two steps.

11. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 76.

12. See Frame, 81-88.

First, theology requires that we apply God’s Word. This not only assumes that Scripture, as God’s Word written, is first-order and thus foundational for our theology, but also that a right reading of Scripture is central to the doing of theology. The Bible is more than a collection of isolated texts from ancient history. Instead, Scripture is God’s unfolding revelation of his eternal plan that moves from creation to the new creation, centered in the coming of Christ. Thus, a correct reading of Scripture requires that individual texts be located in relation to the Bible’s unfolding covenantal story and ultimately in light of the entire canon fulfilled in Christ. Careful attention must be given to the Bible’s own presentation of its content, categories, and teaching, which, as we will note below, involves the doing of biblical theology.

In this regard, Charles Hodge’s well-known definition of theology requires modification, along with Wayne Grudem’s definition that is dependent on Hodge. For example, Hodge defines theology as “the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.”[13] Likewise, Wayne Grudem defines theology as the study that answers the question: “‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic,” which involves “collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic.”[14]

13. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 1:19.

14. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 1 (emphasis removed).

No doubt there is truth in what Hodge and Grudem say. Systematic theology does seek to know what the entirety of Scripture teaches on any given topic, hence the term “systematic.” Yet, the problem with such definitions is that they fail to do justice to what Scripture actually is. Scripture is not a theological dictionary or a storehouse of propositions and facts, although it is thoroughly propositional. Instead, Scripture is first-order God-given language that is comprised of many literary forms that require careful interpretation, and it is an unfolding revelation given to us over time, a point we will develop in chapter 4. Theology, then, does not simply collect texts and arrange them properly as if we remove texts out of their immediate and overall canonical context. Instead, Scripture, as God’s unfolding revelation over time comes to us in a specific order and within its own interpretive framework. Texts have to be interpreted and made sense of in light of their redemptive-historical context and ultimately in terms of a closed canon. Our task is to understand individual texts in light of the entirety of Scripture and then to “put together” Scripture and all that it teaches “on its own terms.”[15]

15. For a similar critique of Charles Hodge’s use of Scripture and theological method, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 93-94.

Another way of stating this is that Scripture is a word-act revelation. It not only recounts God’s mighty actions in history; it is also God’s interpretation of his redemptive acts, through human authors, and thus true, objective, and authoritative. For this reason, Scripture’s own interpretations and descriptions are infallible and they serve as our “interpretive framework” or “spectacles” for thinking about God, the world, and ourselves.[16] Thus, to apply Scripture first entails that we interpret Scripture correctly as an entire canon.

16. See Calvin, Institutes, 1.6.1-4 (1:69-74).

Second, theology requires that we apply Scripture to all areas of life. This entails that theology is more than repeating Scripture; instead, theology has a “constructive” element to it. This “constructive” element not only “puts together” all that Scripture teaches; it also involves application to every area of life. For this reason, theology is foundational for worldview formation, as it seeks to integrate God’s revelation in nature and Scripture as an exercise of “faith seeking understanding.” As we take the Bible’s first-order description, we seek to understand Scripture in terms of application, logical implications, and metaphysical entailments. No doubt, we do so with help from the past, but we also seek to apply Scripture to the issues of our day in order to teach the church sound doctrine and refute the errors of both the past and present age. God has not given us his Word for only one aspect of our lives; God’s Word applies to every area of life, just as Christ’s Lordship is over everything. Abraham Kuyper captured this point well with his famous words: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”[17]

17. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

We will return to this point in subsequent chapters, but let me briefly illustrate what this second step looks like in the doing of Christology. To answer the question of who Jesus is, we first turn to the entire canon of Scripture. After we do so, we discover that the Jesus of the Bible is utterly unique; he is God the Son from eternity who, in the incarnation, added a human nature to himself (John 1:1, 14). Yet, this biblical presentation raises some legitimate theological questions that require understanding and theological construction, even the use of extra-biblical language, concepts, and judgments. For example, how should we think of the relation between Jesus as the Son and the Father and Spirit? Or, how should we understand the relationship between the Son’s deity and humanity, given the Creator-creature distinction (Phil. 2:6-11)? Or, how do we make sense of Jesus’s statement that he does not know certain things, if he is God the Son and thus omniscient (Mark 13:32)? To answer these questions, the “constructive” element of theology is done, which seeks to “understand” Scripture and “put together” the biblical teaching in such a way that accounts for all the biblical data. It is not enough to repeat Scripture, we must also “make sense” of it in order to disciple believers in the truth and to obey Scripture’s exhortation to always be ready to give a reasoned defense for what we believe.

In the end, the purpose of theology is to help God’s people understand Scripture better so that we can rightly know God’s Word, apply it to our lives, and to fulfill our calling as the church to know God and to make him known.[18] As Christians, we are called to bring all of our life, language, and thought into conformity with God’s Word. As we do, we also formulate a well-thought out biblical worldview so that we obey Scripture’s command: “Do not conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12:2).

18. See Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 76-85.

Theology in Scripture

With this basic idea of what systematic theology is in place, let us now turn to a biblical example of theology being done before our eyes. Sometimes it is easier to grasp what theology is by seeing it practiced, and it also has the added advantage of letting Scripture serve as the paradigm for our thinking about what theology is and how it is to be done. No doubt, in Scripture there are many examples of the doing of theology, yet Paul’s Athenian address is most instructive for us today for a variety of reasons (Acts 17:16-32).[19]

19. My discussion of Acts 17 is indebted to D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 384-398.

First, Paul’s reasoning illustrates that theology is biblical in that it is grounded in the Bible’s unfolding story from creation to Christ. Even more: the Bible’s content, categories, and theological framework serve as the interpretive matrix by which he explains the gospel, interprets the world, diagnoses the human problem, gives its solution in Christ, and applies the truth of Scripture to his hearers. Second, building on the first point, Paul’s reasoning illustrates that theology presents a well-thought out worldview or philosophy, that is, a total perspective on life, or a grand metanarrative, which allows him to interpret and critique all other theologies or worldviews. Scripture’s own description of reality provides the “spectacles” by which Paul thinks and acts. Theology, then, is not only “constructive” in describing and explaining the Bible’s message; it is also “apologetic” by calling non-Christians to repent of their thinking and suppression of the truth and to turn to the only source of truth, the triune God of Scripture and his Word. Third, Paul’s reasoning illustrates that theology is contextual, that is, it addresses a specific context and people and it is applied to that context in precision and power. Theology is not merely interested in giving us a list of timeless propositions; it is interested in applying God’s authoritative Word to specific people and bringing God’s truth to bear on every area of life.

Each of these points is important to understand what theology is and how it is to be done. Yet, the third point links what Paul is doing in his day and encourages us to do likewise today. Why? For this reason: in many ways, our present cultural context is parallel to what Paul faced at Athens in the first century, and how he approaches the theological task is instructive for us. As we will discuss in chapter 2, our present context is pluralistic, postmodern, secular, and post-Christian. Central to the thinking of our age is a denial of objective truth, largely due to the embrace of viewpoints that cannot account for a proper ground for objective truth, in contrast to Christian theology. Specifically in the West, this has resulted in the acceptance of a multiplicity of worldviews other than Christianity and a corresponding biblical and theological illiteracy along with a rising syncretism. Our context is much more similar to what Paul faced at Athens, except for the post-Christian aspect of it. This is why Paul’s Athenian address and biblical reasoning is so instructive for us; he teaches us how to present the truth of the gospel in terms of an entire biblical-theological framework rooted in the Bible’s story, which illustrates for us the theological task.

To underscore this point, think about how Paul, in the book of Acts, proclaims the truth of the gospel—including an entire theology—depending on his audience. Normally, when Paul went to a city, he first went to the synagogue where he reasoned with the Jews and God-fearers, and his proclamation of the gospel followed a basic pattern: he reasoned from the Old Testament that Jesus is the promised Messiah, who in his life, death, resurrection, and in his sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost had ushered in the long-awaited kingdom of God and new covenant era (see Acts 13:5, 14-41, 44-45; 14:1; 17:2, 10, 17). Paul could begin this way because he and his Jewish audience had a common theology. They both believed the Old Testament, and thus, when Paul spoke about “God,” “Messiah,” “covenants,” “sin,” and so on, he spoke to people with a common worldview.

At Athens, however, Paul’s audience and context was quite different. The Athenians did not accept the Old Testament; they were steeped in idolatry, pluralistic in their outlook, and ignorant of the biblical teaching and worldview necessary to understand even the most rudimentary truths that Paul needed to communicate. Paul’s preaching of Christ and the entire biblical worldview in the midst of the Areopagus, therefore, had a different starting place and structure than his preaching in the synagogues.

In Athens, Paul’s gospel reasoning did not immediately begin with Jesus as the Messiah. Instead, he first built a biblical and theological frame of reference so that his proclamation of Christ would make sense on the Bible’s own terms and within its own categories. This does not deny that Paul and the Athenians had natural revelation in common, a point Paul makes clear in Romans 1. However, the point is that the Athenians in suppressing the truth could not fully understand Paul’s message apart from placing it within the conceptual framework of Scripture.[20] Later on, we will identify this approach as intratexual, or a “theology from above,” i.e., theology’s starting point is from the standpoint of God’s revelation to us. Paul knows that his presentation of Christ only makes sense within the Bible’s view of reality (metaphysics), grounded in a specific theory of knowledge (epistemology), which results in a specific view of moral obligation (ethics). The Athenians interpret and explain the world and themselves by an alien worldview framework due to a suppression of the truth of natural revelation, or what we will identify as an extratextual conceptual scheme. Paul does not start on some neutral ground where both he and the Athenians have a common epistemological agreement. No doubt, the Athenians are image-bearers of God like Paul and commonly share in the created order, but their interpretation of the world is dependent on their overall philosophy. This is why Paul first sets the entire Christian position as true over against the opposing non-Christian views; and only then, and only from within the biblical worldview, as governed by the “spectacles” of Scripture, does Paul proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior.

20. On this point, see the interaction between C. Kavin Rowe, “God, Greek Philosophy, and the Bible: A Response to Matthew Levering,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 5 (2011): 69-80, and his interaction with Matthew Levering, “God and Greek Philosophy in Contemporary Scholarship,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 4 (2010): 169-85, and the helpful discussion by Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 63-72.

This is instructive for us, especially in thinking about what theology is. In fact, in Paul’s gospel presentation, he develops the two interrelated steps mentioned above. First, Paul lays down six building blocks that are foundational to the biblical worldview and essential to the correct exposition and defense of Jesus’s identity as the Christ. In laying down these building blocks, he erects the Bible’s own interpretive framework by which he interprets the world. And it is from within this theological framework that Paul proclaims the message of the gospel. Paul also does the second step; he applies Scripture by setting the biblical view over against its competitors, and in this case, does so by calling his audience to repentance and faith in Christ as the only Lord and Savior. Let us look briefly at these six building blocks that are essential to making sense of the Bible’s view of the world, and within which theology is done, before we apply what Paul is doing to our thinking of the nature of the theological task.

First, Paul begins with the triune God of creation, where all Christian theology must begin (v. 24). He frames his entire discussion of Christ and the gospel within a theistic universe and he immediately establishes the most fundamental fact of reality, the Creator-creature distinction. As he explains to the Athenians, this world is not the result of blind chance (contra Epicureans and naturalism) or the evolution of a world-spirit (contra Stoicism and pantheism), but it is the creation of one sovereign, personal God who alone reigns as the Lord of heaven and earth.

Second, Paul establishes the nature of the God of creation as the one who is independent and self-sufficient (divine aseity). God is one (singularity and simplicity) and thus by definition in a different category than everything else. God alone is the source of all existence, the standard of truth, and the criterion of goodness. As such, God gives humans all things but he receives nothing from us to help him rule as the Lord of all history and providence (vv. 25-26). For this reason, God cannot be bribed or cajoled; he judges justly and righteously, with his own will and character as the standard of justice, morality, and goodness. If we receive anything from him, it is not because we deserve it; instead it is solely due to his sovereign choice to act in grace.

Third, Paul explains that God is a talking God who takes the initiative to make himself known to us, creating us in his image (“offspring”), and sovereignly locating us in our exact places, so that we may know him as Lord of heaven and earth (vv. 26-29). The Athenians had constructed an idol to the “Unknown god,” but Paul is clear that God is known and ought to be worshipped as God. Our not knowing God is our fault, not his, which raises the issue of the human problem as sin before the known Creator and Lord. God is not removed from this world and unknown; instead he is active in it to reveal himself in truth (vv. 25, 28). In fact, due to creation, which all people have in common, God is universally known. As such, there is no supposed ignorance of him. In addition, God is also known to his covenant people by his specific revelation of himself in word and deed, which Paul is now proclaiming.

Fourth, Paul establishes the basis for human responsibility in not knowing God in truth. By starting with the doctrine of God and then placing humans in their proper frame of reference, Paul demonstrates that by nature and by choice we are alienated from God and justly condemned because we have turned from the truth about our Creator and Lord and his universe. This is why humans stand guilty under divine judgment and in need of redemption (vv. 30-31). As image-bearers of God, descended from one man (v. 26), we not only have a common creation but also a common problem: we have all willfully rebelled against the one God, who alone gives us our very life and breath. We are without excuse. But apart from this framework, it is difficult to account for such truths. Whether in the first or the twenty-first century, one of the great challenges we face in presenting the truth of Scripture, who Jesus is, and why we need him is communicating a biblical sense of human depravity before this God.

Fifth, given the theocentric nature of the universe and humanity’s rebellion, Paul declares that all people are commanded to repent before the coming day of God’s final judgment (vv. 29-31). Note how discussion of final judgment is placed in an overall context that makes sense of it on the Bible’s own terms. On that day, all humans, given their common creation and common problem, will stand before the one true and living God in either repentance or rebellion. If there is hope at all, it will not be found in us, either individually or corporately; it is only found in God the righteous who must act in sovereign grace to provide salvation for us. Since God is one, the only Creator and Lord, he alone can redeem and he alone must initiate. In the end and in keeping with his character, God will act in both judgment on the rebels and grace toward the repentant.

Sixth, after constructing the Bible’s basic theological framework tied to its overall storyline, Paul finally arrives at a point where he now is able to proclaim Jesus as the man (yet more than a mere man), whom God raised from the dead to judge the world in righteousness (v. 31).

For our purposes, as we reflect on how Paul’s address instructs us regarding the nature of the theological task, what is crucial to note is how much time Paul spends in first constructing the Bible’s own theological categories before he preaches Christ. Why? Because the Jesus of the Bible can only be understood as the unique and incomparable Lord and Savior by first placing him within the theology and worldview of Scripture, not the extratextual framework of the Athenians. For example, just think of Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s bodily resurrection. For the Greeks, bodily resurrections were impossible and undesirable.[21] But given the biblical conceptual scheme and worldview Paul has placed Jesus within; a bodily resurrection is not only possible but also entirely plausible and desirable. After all, given who God is, it is entirely reasonable to think that the Creator and Lord is actively involved in history, and able to bring about the bodily resurrection of Christ. In fact, given who God is, and God’s choice to save a fallen humanity, it makes total sense that the only one who can redeem us is utterly unique. By first erecting the biblical worldview of God, self, and the world, Paul is able to communicate Christ’s true identity within the theology and plausibility structures of Scripture. Conversely, apart from the Bible’s worldview, Jesus’s identity will inevitably be misunderstood, distorted, and rejected as implausible. D. A. Carson captures this crucial point:

21. See David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 486-505.

The good news of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he accomplished by his death, resurrection, and exaltation—is simply incoherent unless certain structures are already in place. You cannot make heads or tails of the real Jesus unless you have categories for the personal/transcendent God of the Bible; the nature of human beings made in the image of God; the sheer odium of rebellion against him; the curse that our rebellion has attracted; the spiritual, personal, familial, and social effects of our transgression; the nature of salvation; the holiness and wrath and love of God. One cannot make sense of the Bible’s plot line without such basic ingredients; one cannot make sense of the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus without such blocks in place.[22]

22. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” 386.

Carson’s point is important. However, it is not only noteworthy for grasping Jesus’s identity, or in the doing of Christology, it is also critical in the construction of all Christian doctrines. Biblical truth does not come to us in a vacuum; it comes to us embedded within the specific theology of Scripture. Or, as J. I. Packer reminded us, “theology is a seamless web, a circle within which everything links up with everything else through its common grounding in God.”[23] As a web, biblical truths are interrelated and to understand Christian doctrine, one must locate doctrines within the content, categories, and framework of Scripture. This is why Paul’s Athenian address is an important illustration of systematic theology in practice. Specifically, it demonstrates the doing of theology that consists of the two interrelated steps discussed above.

23. J. I. Packer, “Encountering Present-Day Views of Scripture,” in The Foundation of Biblical Authority, ed. James Montgomery Boice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 61.

First, theology begins by constructing the biblical worldview, or what we have labelled the biblical-theological framework rooted in the Bible’s unfolding covenantal storyline. In so doing, it begins where Scripture begins: first, the triune God within himself (ad intra), and then the triune God in action outside of himself (ad extra) in creation, providence, redemption, and consummation. In tracing out the Bible’s covenantal story from creation to the new creation, centered in Christ, theology presents the Bible’s view of reality, knowledge, and ethics. And it is from within the entire canon that doctrines are formulated according to Scripture’s presentation of them. In this first step, the role of biblical theology is vital since it allows us “to interpret the biblical texts ‘on their own terms,’”[24] and guarantee that our doctrine is from all of Scripture.

24. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Exegesis and Hermeneutics,” in NDBT, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 52.

Second, theology then applies Scripture to every area of life. As an exercise in “faith seeking understanding,” theology seeks to “make sense” of the biblical teaching on specific points on the Bible’s own terms. In so doing, theology also gives us a well-thought out worldview, grounded in the Bible’s overarching metanarrative, by which we interpret and critique all other views. Theology, then, gives us truth as it applies Scripture to all areas of life—salvation, science, psychology, marriage, children, ethics, etc. In the end, systematic theology is the high calling of every Christian and the sacred responsibility of the church to learn anew “to think God’s thoughts after him” and to be both “hearers and doers of the Word” (James 1:22-25).

The Discipline of Systematic Theology

We have described systematic theology as the discipline that the church undertakes to apply renewed reason to the study of the triune God and all things in relation to him. In this section, we want to develop more the nature of systematic theology by first, describing four elements that constitute the discipline, and second, its relationship to the other theological disciplines and why systematic theology is the capstone and culmination of those disciplines.

The Elements of Systematic Theology

As a discipline, systematic theology submits to the magisterial authority of Scripture, attends to the ministerial authority of the historical witness of the church, and then engages perennial and contemporary issues. As such, at least four elements comprise the discipline.

First, systematic theology is grounded and warranted by Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). Given that Scripture is God’s Word written, it alone is first-order, the epistemological warrant and foundation for our theology. All of our theological conclusions, what we say about God, ourselves, and the world, must be true to Scripture. To be “biblical” is not to “proof text” Scripture, namely, interpret texts out of context. Instead, it is to interpret texts first in their immediate context, then in terms of the Bible’s unfolding covenantal story, and finally in light of the entire canon fulfilled in Christ. Furthermore, sola Scriptura means that Scripture is our final, sufficient authority, not our only (“solo”) authority.[25] There are other “ministerial” authorities, such as historical and philosophical theology that serve a vital role. Yet, as important as these authorities are they are never sufficient: Scripture alone is the final, “magisterial” authority, the “ruling rule” (norma normans) for all of our theological formulations.

25. On this point, see Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

Second, systematic theology is historically informed. As Winston Churchill wisely reminded us, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is not only true in the political realm but also in the study of theology. Our present context is pluralistic, postmodern, and secular. With the loss of an agreed-on metanarrative and the rejection of cultural traditions, we are committed to what C. S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery.” We are bent on self-destruction; anything from the past is rejected as biased and oppressive, including the wisdom of the past.[26] This mentality has sadly crept into the church, contrary to how the church has viewed the importance of tradition. The Reformers, for example, were not committed to theological iconoclasm but theological retrieval; they did not reject tradition but sought to reform it in light of Scripture. As Carl Trueman notes, “Sacred text and ecclesiastical history were agreed-on authorities for both. The question was not whether they were to be rejected but how they were to be understood.”[27]

26. See Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 73-102.

27. Trueman, 91.

Historical theology and the confessional tradition of the church serve a critical “ministerial” role in our theologizing; we ignore them to our peril. We do not approach Christian theology de novo; rather we stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from the past’s mistakes and from its constructive dogmatic formulations. Theology must listen to its forefathers and not simply think that our only creed is the Bible. We stand within the tradition of the church and of the “faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3).

In this regard, we need to distinguish between different kinds of tradition. On the one end, there is the Roman Catholic Church that argues for two sources of divine revelation: Scripture and tradition (Tradition II).[28] According to this view, Scripture is not sufficient to determine correct interpretation or to establish doctrine; Christ has established the magisterium of the church for that purpose.[29] On the other end is “biblicism” or “solo Scriptura. This view argues that we can interpret the Bible and establish doctrine without the benefit of tradition: “No creed but the Bible” (Tradition 0).[30] However, the more consistent view held by the church fathers and the Reformers is Tradition I. There is only one source of revelation, namely Scripture, but tradition as given in the “rules of faith” provides a “single exegetical tradition of interpreted Scripture.”[31] In other words, Scripture is the final authority, yet tradition often rightly interprets Scripture and makes theological judgments true to Scripture. In the laboratory of history, theological ideas are tested as to their faithfulness to Scripture, and especially doctrinal formulations that have received “catholic” (universal) consent are rightly viewed as “rules of faith” for the church.

28. See Heiko A. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought, trans. Paul L. Nyhus (London: Lutterworth, 1967), 58.

29. See Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 71-116.

30. See Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 144-45.

31. See Heiko A. Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Modern Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 280.

This is why the Reformers did not reject the early church councils, given their “catholicity.”[32] Nicaea, Chalcedon, and the Christological conclusions of Constantinople II and III were viewed as faithful to the entirety of Scripture, albeit in theological language, as the church sought to conceptualize (“faith seeking understanding”) and defend (apologetics) what Scripture teaches. These early councils established the parameters for Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy as “ruled rules” (norma normata) for the church.

Within evangelical theology today, there is a healthy emphasis on “retrieval theology.”[33] Retrieval theology is “theological discernment that looks back in order to move forward.”[34] It does more than repeat; it reforms—by Scripture and the tradition. This renewed emphasis in evangelical theology on the role of tradition is strongly encouraged. Yet, it is also true that “retrieval” works best in the doctrinal areas of “catholic” agreement (e.g., Trinity, Christology) associated with Nicaea and Chalcedon given that they accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture. However, in other doctrinal areas where disagreement still resides (e.g., the nature of sin, the atonement, soteriology, ecclesiology, and some aspects of eschatology), tradition is instructive, but not sufficient. In these latter areas, where our Confessions materially differ, we are reminded that tradition is “ministerial” but Scripture is “magisterial.” In fact, even in areas of “catholic” agreement (Trinity and Christology), there are still areas of disagreement that can only be resolved by testing our exegesis and theological formulations by Scripture. For this reason systematic theology is informed by tradition, but Scripture alone is our final authority.

32. The early church councils include: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), and Constantinople III (680-81).

33. See Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019); Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015); John Webster, “Theologies of Retrieval,” in The Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

34. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 23.

Third, systematic theology is contextual as it engages perennial and contemporary issues. Given that theology involves the application of Scripture to every area of life; it must bring God’s truth to bear on the battles of our present-day while learning from the past. It is true: “there is nothing new under the sun,” yet old battles take on new forms, and theology seeks to apply God’s unchanging truth to a changing world. For example, think of debates today over what a human is, given our culture’s embrace of postmodern and secular thought, and our ability to “manufacture” humans, or how our culture has embraced changing ideas of human sexuality. Although the Reformation certainly knew of homosexuality and condemned it, transgenderism, along with our culture’s attempt to redefine maleness, femaleness, and marriage were not crucial debates in their day. However, given our cultural context, theology cannot avoid these issues.

This is why knowing the “culture” is important for theology, but contrary to the thinking of some, “culture” does not serve as a source for our theology.[35] Instead, as Paul taught us in Acts 17, theology addresses our current context by setting Scripture’s own description of reality over against non-Christian views. It’s from within this biblical worldview that we interpret and critique the culture. This is not to deny that due to natural revelation and common grace that non-Christians know various truths, but it does deny that non-Christians consistent with their worldview rightly understand and interpret the world, especially when it comes to diagnosing the human problem and offering any solutions to it.

35. In contrast to many in the post-conservative camp, such as Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

Fourth, systematic theology is practical; it must be lived-out by the church. “We must walk our talk.” Since theology is a whole-person response to God’s Word, it is not enough merely to confess what we believe; we must also apply God’s Word to every area of our thinking and lives. As our Lord Jesus diagnosed the condition of the Ephesian church, he was pleased with their orthodoxy and consistent application of the truth, but he rebuked them for the loss of their “first love” (Rev. 2:2-5). God calls his people both to know the truth and to live out the truth before a watching world, to exhibit simultaneously the holiness and love of God, as we stand against the “spirit of our age,” and bring all of our thoughts captive to Christ for his glory, the good of the church, and our witness in the world.[36]

36. See Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, 5 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1982), 4:183-204.

Systematic Theology in Relation to the Other Theological Disciplines

Systematic theology is the “queen of the sciences,” the capstone and culmination of all the disciplines, especially the theological disciplines. As such, biblical, historical, and philosophical studies contribute to the overall theological task of applying renewed reason to the study of the triune God and all things in relationship to him. Let us briefly discuss the various theological disciplines to discover why they are necessary for doing systematic theology.

Exegetical Theology

This discipline is identified with biblical studies, which seeks to interpret specific books of Scripture. The goal of exegesis is to discover God’s intent through the human authors by grasping the intent of the authors in their text by grammatical/literary-historical exegesis. This involves understanding the rules of the original language used by the author, analyzing the book’s literary structure including its genre, and placing the book in its historical setting. A commentary is the fruit of such exegetical work. Since theology involves the application of God’s Word, exegetical theology is foundational to knowing what Scripture says.

Biblical Theology

In recent days, the term biblical theology has become somewhat of a buzzword; however there is little agreement on exactly what it is and how to do it. Yet, it is vitally important to the doing of theology since it is the theological discipline that seeks to understand the entire canon as “the whole plan of God” (Acts 20:27). One cannot draw legitimate theological conclusions from Scripture apart from the doing of biblical theology; it provides the biblical warrant for theology. Given its importance for theology, and given the fact that people mean different things by it, let me explain what biblical theology is and how it functions in this work.[37]

37. For a helpful overview of the history of biblical theology, see C. H. H. Scobie, “History of Biblical Theology,” in NDBT, 11–20. For helpful discussions regarding diverse conceptions of biblical theology, see Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), and Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012).

Biblical theology is the theological discipline that seeks to understand the canon of Scripture “on its own terms.” Or, as Brian Rosner states: Biblical theology is “theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.”[38]

As a discipline, biblical theology is not presuppositionless. It approaches Scripture according to its own claim, namely Scripture is God’s word written, and it presupposes the central truths of historic Christianity, hence the reason why it is a theological discipline. Since Scripture is God’s word, it assumes that despite its diversity, Scripture is a unified revelation. And given that Scripture has come to us over time, Scripture is a progressive unfolding of God’s plan across a specific redemptive-historical storyline demarcated by the biblical covenants. As an exegetical method, it is sensitive to literary, historical, and theological dimensions of various corpora, as well as the interrelationships between the earlier and later texts in Scripture, thus relating the “parts” of Scripture to the “whole.” By doing so, it allows us to discern God’s intention that is most fully given in terms of the canon. Furthermore, biblical theology is interested in reading Scripture on its own terms (intratextual), that is, in light of its own content, categories, and structure, not by superimposing “outside” (extratextual) categories on it. For this reason, biblical theology provides the biblical warrant from a whole Bible for our theological conclusions.

38. Brian Rosner, “Biblical Theology,” in NDBT, 10 (italics removed from original). Similar to Rosner, Jeremy Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 35, offers the following definition: “Biblical theology is faith seeking understanding of the redemptive-historical and literary unity of the Bible in its own terms, concepts, and contexts” (emphasis original). Cf. D. A. Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in NDBT, 89-104.

In thinking about biblical theology, it is vital to distinguish an “evangelical biblical theology” from an Enlightenment or “classic liberal biblical theology,” often identified with Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826).[39] As we will discuss more in chapter 2, during the Enlightenment there was a growing tendency to approach Scripture critically, uncoupled from historic Christian theology. The result: Scripture was viewed “as any other book,” open to criticism, and not God’s unified, true revelation. Thus, when Gabler defined biblical theology as an inductive, historical, and descriptive discipline, he used the term “historical” in a historical-critical sense. For him, “historical” did not mean that we read Scripture as God’s Word that accurately describes God’s unfolding plan in redemptive history. Instead, Scripture is to be read by virtue of Enlightenment presuppositions, which, from the outset, denied Scripture’s authority and trustworthiness.

39. Gabler is viewed as the “father of biblical theology” from his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787—“An Oration on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” Yet, Gabler is better identified as the “father of classic liberal biblical theology.” On this point, see J. V. Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church, ed. L. G. Tipton and J. C. Waddington (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 443–477.

As this view of biblical theology developed into the next century, practitioners increasingly made use of the historical-critical method, which assumed methodological naturalism.[40] Over time, the end result of this approach was Scripture’s fragmentation, and a biblical theology governed by critical methodologies and theological views foreign to historic Christian theology. As a result, this view of biblical theology emphasized more “diversity” than “unity” in Scripture, and ultimately, it came to an end.[41] In the twentieth century, there were attempts to overcome the Enlightenment restrictions on Scripture. In theology, the work of Karl Barth is notable. Barth is often viewed as the forerunner of the post-liberal school, a school that attempts to read Scripture as a unified canon, but which does not fully embrace Scripture’s reliability, and thus renders the theological task problematic. In biblical studies there was also the “Biblical Theology Movement.”[42] Although its goal was to overcome the negative results of historical criticism, it too failed because it did not return to the theology of historic Christianity.[43]

40. “Methodological naturalism” is the view that approaches our study of history (including our study of the Bible) and science without considering God’s involvement in the world and divine action as represented by divine revelation and miracles. Methodological naturalism does not necessarily require a commitment to atheism, even though it is consistent with it. Deism and panentheism also assume methodological naturalism, given their denial of divine action in an effectual, supernatural sense.

41. See Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980). In the nineteenth century, “biblical theology” was eventually identified with “classic liberalism” as represented by various schools of thought associated with such people as F. C. Baur, J. Wellhausen, the history of religions school, and so on.

42. For a survey of this movement see Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Nature of Biblical Theology: Recent Trends and Issues,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 32:3 (1994): 211–214; and James Barr, “Biblical Theology,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, ed. K. Crim (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), 104–106.

43. On this point, see Langdon Gilkey, “Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language,” Journal of Religion 41 (1961): 194-205.

Today in non-evangelical theology there are a variety of options that attempt to read Scripture as a unified whole, but most of them are weak on Scripture and reject consistent Christian presuppositions.[44] This is why an “evangelical biblical theology” is often viewed as impossible, given their denial of Scripture’s unity and embrace of historical-criticism. In fact, Geerhardus Vos, the pioneer of an “evangelical biblical theology,” warned us that such a biblical theology is impossible apart from historic Christian theology on which it stands.[45]

However, in this work, we are not only convinced that an “evangelical biblical theology” is possible, but that it also provides the biblical warrant for our theologizing. Working from historic Christian theological convictions, especially in regard to the doctrines of God and Scripture, we believe that biblical and systematic theology are possible because the triune God is there, has spoken, and in his speech, he has given us an authoritative, unified Word that is the foundation for our reasoning rightly about God and all things in relation to him (Heb. 1:1-2).

Historical Theology, Philosophy, and Apologetics

We have already discussed the “ministerial” role that historical theology and the confessional standards serve in the doing of theology. We do not approach Christian theology as blank slates; rather we stand in a received tradition that is crucial to our dogmatic formulations. However, historical theology is not the only discipline that serves as a handmaid to theology. This is also true of philosophy and apologetics and by extension the discipline of science, which focuses on God’s revelation in nature.[46]

Philosophy is the discipline that attempts to answer the most fundamental questions we face. Historically, philosophers have sought for the “basic principles” by which to explain and interpret a total account of reality (metaphysics), a final criterion of truth (epistemology), and a normative moral standard (ethics).[47] These basic principles are such that no further explanation or proof is needed for them; they are logically fundamental, and they function as presuppositions by which we interpret the world and our place in it. In fact, anyone who thinks about this world, ultimate reality, meaning, truth, human nature, moral values, etc. is doing philosophy, and as such has a worldview. The important question is whether we are doing philosophy well and on what epistemological grounds.[48]

44. One thinks of movement known as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” (TIS). This movement is fairly diverse and encompasses evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. For the non-evangelicals, generally speaking, their commitment to the Bible’s unity is not due to Scripture’s self-attestation but to the Church’s decision to choose these texts as Scripture. For example, think of the canonical approach of Brevard Childs, who chooses to read texts in their final form and canonical shape. However, as Paul Noble, The Canonical Approach: A Critical Reconstruction of the Hermeneutics of Brevard S. Childs (Leiden: Brill Academic, 1995), astutely argues, unless Childs grounds his preference for final form and canonical shape in the doctrine of inspiration and divine authorship, it is a view hanging in midair. For a critique of post-liberalism and their view and use of Scripture, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). As helpful as TIS is in its attempt to recapture the voice of Scripture for the church, given that it is comprised of such a diverse number of people with such divergent views of Scripture, one wonders how long it can be sustained without a return to orthodox theological convictions. On this point, see D. A. Carson, “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But . . .,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Allen (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 187-207.

45. See Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948); idem, Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1979); Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., ed. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2001). On Vos’s contribution to biblical theology, see Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 449–453.

46. God’s revelation in creation will be discussed in chapter 6.

47. See Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 85.

48. See Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 51.

From a Christian view, philosophy is not a neutral discipline. In thinking about our most basic and ultimate commitments, philosophy reasons about the world either upon the foundation of God and his Word, or it views human reason as self-sufficient, having the ability to interpret experience apart from divine revelation (Rom. 1:18-21; Col. 2:6-8). To do philosophy as a Christian, one does it under the authority of God’s revelation in Scripture and creation, although the emphasis is more on natural revelation. It is difficult to draw a sharp distinction between a Christian theology and philosophy; ultimately, it is a matter of emphasis and terminology.[49]

The study of philosophy is important for theology. Although every philosophy assumes a specific worldview and must be evaluated as such, due to natural revelation and common grace, philosophers have developed, for example, useful systems of logic, critical distinctions in the analysis of causality, language, etc., that are useful for theology if they are placed within an overall Christian theology. Philosophy helps theology critically analyze arguments, avoid conceptual confusions, and constructively understand Scripture by offering definitions of terms and concepts (e.g., what a nature and person is, analysis of various definitions of freedom, etc.).[50] Philosophers have argued well for the need for universals in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—all important for theology. But the history of philosophy has also revealed the basic antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought, that “ideas have consequences,” and that the attempt to ground human knowledge apart from God and his revelation, is futile.[51]

This is why apologetics is necessary. As Frame defines it, apologetics is the discipline that applies “Scripture to unbelief,”[52] and as such it functions as an important subset of theology. Theology supplies to apologetics its presuppositions and the truth that it defends. It is part of the theological task “to take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), to defend the truth of the gospel, and to call all people to submit their thinking and lives to Christ.

The Goal of Systematic Theology

What is the goal of theology? Ultimately, it is to enable the church to know and worship our triune Creator-Covenant Lord rightly, to live obediently and faithfully under Christ’s Lordship, and unashamedly to witness to and defend the life-changing truth of the gospel.

First, theology’s task is to know and love God according to his Word (Matt. 22:37-38). As Bavinck succinctly states: “God, and God alone, is man’s highest good.”[53] Yet, one cannot fully know God apart from the doing of theology, which requires careful, renewed biblical reasoning. As we grow in our understanding of Scripture and theology, we grow in our knowledge of God, and in the end, there is no greater knowledge. Charles Spurgeon captured this truth well in contrast to non-Christian thought: “It has been said by someone that ‘the proper study of mankind is man.’ I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of the child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.”[54] First, theology’s goal and purpose is to know God; indeed to reason with Paul on “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!” and how all things are “from him and through him and to him… To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33, 36).

49. See Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Philadelphia: P&R, 1969), xiv-xv.

50. On this point, the role of “analytic theology” is important. See Oliver D. Crisp, Analyzing Doctrine: Toward a Systematic Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019).

51. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:608-9, has some helpful comments on the role of philosophy in theology. “The question here is not whether theology should make use of a specific philosophical system. Christian theology has never taken over any philosophical system without criticism and given it the stamp of approval… [Theology] is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy in general. In other words, it arrives at scientific knowledge only by thinking. The only internal principle of knowledge, therefore, is not faith as such, but believing thought, Christian rationality.”

52. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 87.

53. Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 1.

54. Cited in J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 17.

Second, theology’s task is to enable the church to understand and apply Scripture rightly in order to live faithful and obedient lives under Christ’s Lordship. But again, one cannot fulfill this goal apart from the doing of theology. In the church’s preaching and teaching, we apply the truth of the gospel to people’s lives, “equipping the saints… [building] up the body of Christ until we all reach unity in the faith and the in the knowledge of God’s Son” (Eph. 4:12-13). But even to know what the gospel is, who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, requires sound theology. In fact, faithful preaching and teaching is theology in practice.

For one rightly to build up the church so that she is no longer “tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14), requires careful biblical exposition and constructive canonical application (2 Tim. 4:1-5). Apart from theology, we have no message to preach and no gospel to apply. Even in thinking about the Scripture’s application to our lives, we are keenly aware that we cannot randomly apply texts without carefully thinking how those texts apply to us given where we live in redemptive history. Given that God has revealed his plan over time, theology must wrestle with how the parts fit with the whole and how the whole applies to us today in light of Christ’s work. Thus, for example, to counsel people from Scripture regarding God’s providence in their lives and why there is suffering and evil in the world; to help people in their questions regarding their marriages, the assurance of salvation, or how to live as God’s new covenant people in relation to the State, all of this requires theology. And unless we do theology, the goal of enabling the church to live godly lives will be thwarted, with potentially disastrous consequences as evidenced by some of the false teaching the apostles had to confront in the New Testament era and the church had to respond to throughout church history.

Third, theology’s task is to enable the church to witness to and defend the truth of the gospel. The Lord of the church has called his people to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ to the nations (Matt. 28:18-20: Col. 1:28-29). But to proclaim who Jesus is as God the Son incarnate, the meaning of he died “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:1-3), etc., requires systematic theology. In church history, people have differed on these central gospel points, so to know what Scripture rightly teaches we have to engage in faithful theological formulation and careful refutation of false views that threaten the truth (Gal. 1:6-10; 1 John 4:2-3; 5:5-10). Just because someone claims to be “biblical” does not make them so. All heresies appeal to Scripture but not rightly. It is incumbent on the church to know the truth and defend it (Titus 1:9; 1 Pet. 3:15-16).

The apostle Paul viewed gospel ministry as the positive proclamation of Christ and the “demolishing of arguments” that stand contrary to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Theology’s task is to enable the church in every generation to do likewise and to embolden the church to say with Paul: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). What is needed, then, is not a minimalist theology, but a comprehensive and thoroughly biblical one. For unless we have such a theology, church history has taught us that we will easily be swept away by the “wisdom” of our age. Given our tendency to embrace error faster than the truth, the church must remain vigilant. Theology’s goal is to enable the church to expound the truth and to reject error. Apart from careful theology being done, taught, and embraced, the church will drift aimlessly from the truth of God.

In the end, the goal of theology is for God’s redeemed people to know, contemplate, and delight in the sheer glory of God. As John Owen wrote many years ago: “Evangelical theology has been instituted by God in order that sinners may once again enjoy communion with God himself, the All-Holy One … The ultimate end of true theology is the celebration of the praise of God, and his glory and grace in the eternal salvation of sinners.”[55]

55. John Owen, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ, trans. Stephen P. Westcott (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 6.4 (618-19).

Concluding Reflection

Systematic theology is not an option for the church; it is necessary for her spiritual health and well-being. In this chapter, we have described what theology is and why it is essential to our thinking rightly about God, ourselves, and the world. In the end, we are called to faithfulness under the Lordship of Christ. Our triune God calls us to love him with our minds and hearts, which is true life for us. Theology matters to achieve these ends.

Yet, one of the challenges we face today is that the historic view of theology as an objective science that yields true knowledge of God is considered impossible. In the next chapter we will look at some of the reasons why this is case so we can understand our context. Our doing of theology is never in a vacuum, and it is important to think of no greater challenge to theology than the battle over truth.


Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from Stephen Wellum’s Systematic Theology, Volume 1: From Canon to Concept. It was originally published as the opening chapter titled “Systematic Theology: Nature and Importance,” and it is published here with permission.



  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).