By the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
God has revealed himself and his plans for us, in the form of a narrative – the Bible story that runs from Genesis to Revelation. In order to keep us going as pilgrims on the way, we should seek to make use of that story in all the ways that we possibly can. To be sure this means we benefit from seeing how the story fits together – how the covenants relate to one another, how the kings of the Old Testament prefigure Jesus, how the sacrifices of the Temple portray the cross. Redemptive Historical or Biblical Theology treat the Bible in terms of its unfolding narrative – and this is part of how we are equipped to live as pilgrims.
There are other ways of engaging with the Bible, which are also valuable and necessary. One such approach is ‘systematic theology.’ This engages with the Bible in terms of the claims, assumptions and doctrinal inter-connections that uphold what it reveals. Systematic Theology treats God and all things in relation to Him. There are numbers of reasons pilgrims ought to engage with Systematic Theology:
- Some of the most vital matters of the Bible are only engaged with via Systematic Theology – Who is God? What does it mean for Jesus to be divine and human?
- Some practical matters which are crucial to address in church life are only treated via Systematics – e.g. what is the nature of mission? What is the right use of the sacraments? How does one administer discipline?
- Humans have been designed by God in such a way that we must think and live systematically. That is not to say that we are all free from contradictions – but we do need to base our lives on conclusions. Systematic theology is the bottom line conclusion that one draws from the Bible story. We all have a view; we all have a systematic theology. Only is we engage in reading such works will we have an informed Systematic theology.
Where to start with Systematic Theology? The best thing to do is to get hold of and read one of the classic works in the field – Calvin’s Institutes is a rich place to start. More modern and short works include Packer’s Knowing God or Horton’s Theology for a Pilgrim Theology. In a sense it does not matter which volume of Systematic Theology you first read – what is more important is that we all engage with God’s Word in every way that we can – including systematically.
The Revd Dr Peter Sanlon is the rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells.