Christians regularly ask for book recommendations and of those, “which systematic theology should I read?” is among the more frequent. The assumption of the question, however, should be doubted: that the best place to begin to learn Christian theology is with a systematic theology. That is putting the cart before the horse. Beginning to learn Christian doctrine from a systematics text is like starting with human physiology before studying biology.
What Is Systematic Theology?
It is the organized, topical, presentation of Christian teaching usually written by a single author. Systematic theology (hereafter ST) is a valuable, even essential department in Christian education but a ST does not have binding authority. Ultimately, however valuable a ST may be, it is merely the opinion of one person. No church confesses a ST.
ST as we know it today has taken on a particular, highly-developed form, systematic presentations of the faith have been around for a very long time. It is not right to call the book of Romans a ST but, in it, Paul does does some topical teaching and gives a structure to the Christian faith: law, gospel, and sanctification or guilt, grace, and gratitude. If the three Gs sounds familiar, it should because the Heidelberg Catechism has that structure explicitly and the authors deliberately followed the book of Romans.
In the 3rd century AD the apologist and theologian Origen, whose theology and books were condemned in the mid-6th century, wrote a topic presentation of the Christian faith, On First Principles. In the 8th century AD John of Damascus wrote what became a formative topical presentation of the doctrine of the faith, The Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. That work influenced Peter Lombard, who, in the 12th century AD, gave us a collection of quotations of Scripture and the Fathers, with some commentary and explanation, which he called The Sentences (roughly translated as Opinions). Lombard’s Sentences became the textbook for theology in the Western Church for 500 years. Thomas Aquinas was also influenced by the Damascene and he produced the Summa Theologica in the 13th century. In the Reformation, Philipp Melanchthon published the first summary of evangelical Protestant doctrine, which he called the Common Places, in 1521. That volume was in continuous revision until Melanchthon’s death in 1560. Perhaps the most famous summary of evangelical Protestant theology in the 16th century was John Calvin’s Institutes, which he published as a small work in 1536 but which continued to grow as he revised until the last Latin edition in 1559 (and a French edition after that). The Reformed orthodox published a number of increasingly sophisticated works of ST including Amandus Polanus Syntagma (which has yet to be translated) and many small handbooks, some of which have been translated (e.g., Ames’ Marrow of Theology, Wollebius’ Compendium, which is wonderful and J. H. Heidegger’s Concise Marrow). Perhaps the most famous seventeenth-century topical theology is not actually a ST at all but an apologetic work aimed at refuting certain errors: Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology.
In the Modern period, among English-speaking Reformed Christians, until very recently, the dominant ST works were Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology and Louis Berkhof’s Reformed Dogmatics/Systematic Theology. For most of the 20th century those works had few competitors. In recent years, however, we have seen a veritable explosion of Reformed STs. When I have a question that wants a ST, my first stop is still Hodge, Berkhof, or perhaps A. A. Hodges’ Outlines of Theology. Of the contemporary STs my favorite is Mike Horton’s Pilgrim Theology.
How is a lay Christian (i.e., one who has not been to seminary, who is not ordained to a teaching office) to know which ST to read? Just today, on social media, someone “crowd sourced” the question, which ST to recommend to Christian laity, and some of the answers were less than helpful. Some of the recommended volumes deny basic, ecumenical (creedal) Christian truths, e.g., the eternal begotteness of the Son or teach the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Another denies divine simplicity and strongly recommends a theologian who unequivocally teaches justification through faith and works. These are landmines that Christians should avoid but how?
Where To Start?
Christians should seek to learn Christian doctrine and they should learn systematic theology but before they dive into the world of the personal opinions of systematic theologians they should begin with the reflections of the visible, institutional church on what Scripture teaches. The most fundamental churchly documents where we confess our understanding of the faith are called ecumenical or universal creeds. These include the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. These are basic summaries of what Scripture teaches about Scripture, God, man, salvation, church, and last things. The creeds (as distinct from the later Reformation catechisms and confessions) are skeletal and are understood differently in different traditions and yet there is a basic consensus among Christians on most of what is contained in them.
The magisterial Protestant churches (i.e., the Lutheran and Reformed) have always published for their members catechisms and confessions. Catechisms are small books of questions and answers. A confession is a topic treatment of those issues that the church, as an organized body, has prayerfully decided are essential. Thus, unlike STs, the catechisms and confessions of the churches do not comment on everything. They are not STs. They are, under the authority of Scripture (sola scriptura), the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, by the church, for the church.
Reformed Christians should begin to learn the faith not from individual theologians but from the visible, institutional church in her catechisms and confessions. As a minister I subscribe (formally endorse by writing one’s name underneath them before the church) the Heidelberg Catechism. That is a perfect place to begin to learn the vocabulary of the church and the most essential truths of the Christian faith as confessed by the Reformed Churches. Our confession is called the Belgic Confession. Again, this is a marvelous, warm, pastoral account of the faith written under persecution. We also confess certain answers to certain problems raised in the early 17th century. We call these the Canons (or Rules) of the Synod of Dort. As a seminary professor I also heartily subscribe the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession (American Revision), shorter catechism, and larger catechism). These confessions and catechisms reflect the prayerful, studied, deliberative wisdom of the church on the most important questions of Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Christians who want to learn how to think and speak like a Christian do very well to begin with the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions. We should not assume that we ought to start with the personal opinions of individual theologians. We should learn the baseline from the Word of God as confessed by the churches and only then should we go on to investigate the writings of individual theologians.
After you have learned the church’s way of speaking about and confessing the faith, then you have a proper measuring stick by which to evaluate what a given theologian says. Let us say that you pick a popular ST by an evangelical author because it is easy to read. Now that you know the ecumenical creeds, e.g., the Nicene-Contantinopolitan Creed (AD 325, 381) you know that the church, in all times and places, confesses that God the Son has always been the Son, that he has always been begotten. You know that he is of same substance of the Father and the Spirit but personally distinct from them. You know (in the Western church) that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. You know that the Son, therefore, is not a creature nor may he be said to be subordinate to the Father in his being. From the Creeds and confessions you also know that God is one, simple, indivisible being. Thus, should read another popular, accessible ST, which suggests that God does have “parts” or that he changes, you will know that these are errors, that contradict the creeds and confessions of the church. The same is true when you read a ST that claims that it is permissible to say that we are justified through faith and works. After all, you will have read Heidelberg Catechism 21, 56, and 60 and WLC 70–73, on justification, which makes it very clear that it is impossible for someone to be Reformed and to teach or even allow for justification through faith and works. You now know that justification is by God’s free favor alone, through faith alone.
Learning the creeds, catechisms, and confessions of the church is like learning how to build a boat from scratch before you begin shopping for a boat. The advantage of doing this way is that you will recognize when a boat is badly made. You will recognize weaknesses from the more obvious (e.g., “why is there a hole in the bottom of this boat?”) to the less obvious (e.g., “why does this writer attribute the properties of the deity to the humanity of Christ?”).
A systematic theology has its place. It is an important useful place if only to help us understand the questions that the church has faced in the past or is facing now. A ST can be a good place to learn how to articulate the truth of Scripture as confessed by the church but the place to begin is Scripture as confessed by the church lest you find yourself being “tossed about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14)
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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