Why Every Believer Needs Systematic Theology
The Puritan William Ames said that theology is the doctrine of living unto God. Wilhelmus à Brakel added to this that theology was the Christian’s reasonable service. These men simply reiterated the age-old truth that believers need to live lives of worship unto God, and humans require theology to worship rightly. For God cannot be worshipped if He is not known.
However, we live in a day of “Mere Christianity,” when believers want to know the bare minimum required to believe in order to be saved. Easy believism is all most professing Christians seek. They think of Christianity as nothing more than a punched ticket to be shown at the gate. However, Christianity is anything but that. Rather, the Christian life is a life of conflict—with sin, the world, and our frail minds and bodies as we submit them to a true knowledge of God. And this is at the heart of what Thomas Watson meant when he wrote, “Taking Heaven by Storm.”
The mentality of the Puritans is a far cry from that of modern evangelicalism. A common mantra of evangelicalism is “no creed but the Bible.” This approach has all but tolled the death knell for Systematic Theology. The long-term, deteriorating impact of this cannot be overstated. Thus, it is helpful for us to remember what a theologian even is.
What is a Theologian?
When I say theologian, what comes to mind?
It likely brings to mind images of elite educators and the hallowed halls of academia. It’s a name often attributed to learned men of letters—those who spend their years in libraries, publishing tomes on niche, doctrinal points. Within the church, there is a tendency to see theologians as separate and elevated, as the privileged of the body of Christ. The theologians are the upper-class who publish articles, write books, teach in seminaries, and give lectures.
But while many of these activities are common to those who travel in theological circles, none of these define a theologian.
Instead, the distinguishing characteristic of a theologian is that he knows God. He is one who is never content with how much he has seen of Christ, and thus steadily pursues a deeper knowledge of Him and His Word. Despite how the term theologian is often used, it is not a profession, but a way of life—one that should be common to every individual who claims to believe in Christ.
In John’s Gospel, the Lord Himself said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Knowing God is not an optional endeavor. It is a mandate for the church. If Christ has called you to repentance and faith, He has called you to be a theologian.
This is not a calling you fulfill by sitting in a pew each week. True theologians are not content to be spoon fed their doctrine; they earnestly seek out the rich sustenance of God’s Word. They understand the practical value of their theology, and they see how it trickles into each aspect of their daily lives.
Every believer needs a “big picture” grasp of the doctrinal teaching of Scripture. Sadly, many Christians assume that Systematic Theology is inherently at odds with the Bible, while in fact, it is the most biblical discipline in theology. Systematic Theology is the harmony and synthesis of what the entire Bible says about any individual issue. Steeped in exegetical and historical theology, Systematic Theology requires a comprehensive grasp of the full-scope of the Bible in order to be done faithfully and completely. And yet, the current landscape of Christianity sees little of this discipline.
The Need for a Resurgence in Systematic Theology
We live in a unique time. Our resources are abundant, yet Christian theological education has never been lower. A recent study done by Ligonier Ministries found that 78% of those polled believed that Jesus was the highest created being. As this study illustrates well, many are self-deceived into believing themselves to be Christians when they do not understand what Christianity teaches, even about Jesus Himself.
At the root of this problem is an indifference toward theological education. There was a time when the church father Athanasius, defending the deity of Jesus Christ, stood contra mundum—against the world. He would rather have been alone than to have misrepresented or misunderstood his God.
Today those who concern themselves with precision in Christian doctrine have found themselves yet again as outliers. They are the oddity of the church. Those who care for proper biblical interpretation stand, once again, contra mundum; but this time, not as a result of controversy, but apathy. Apathy is strangling the church. Most no longer care about the precision of doctrine. And that apathy starts at the top—with the pastors, elders, and deacons, many of whom have decided that it is not eternally necessary to grasp the full counsel of God. Here is my charge: biblical training is not a discipline resigned for full-time vocational ministers, but a task for which each man, before God, will be held accountable.
John Gerstner said,
If a theologian is a person who knows God, then by reverse reasoning a person who is not a theologian does not know God. There is no shame in a layman’s being told that he does not know carpentry, or plumbing, or medicine, or law, or teaching, or the ways of a housewife; but there surely is the greatest of shame in a layman’s being told that he does not know God. Furthermore, there is more than shame; there is a very great danger.
All men are accountable to God, for their knowledge of Him, and service unto Him. The Christian should spend his life gazing at the person of Christ through the Word.
However, none of us has been called to go this journey alone. God has given His people the body of Christ to sharpen and train one another. It would be foolish—even dangerous—to assume any isolated individual could become a sound theologian. Left to their own devices, people would struggle to develop biblical hermeneutics, orthodox theology, and practical doctrine that would lead to spiritual growth and personal holiness.
Becoming a theologian
But how do people begin to grasp the big picture of the Bible? What sets the guardrails for their theology and their personal interpretation of the text? How do people grow in their theology?
1. Adopt a historical doctrinal statement
If you were to examine the trend in evangelicalism over the past fifty years, you would find an increasing number of home-made doctrinal statements. This was ultimately a pragmatic byproduct of the Evangelical Bible Conference movement. It was less deterring to new members to have a smaller, down-to-earth doctrinal statement. It also, as a result, meant less was necessary for people to affirm to become members of the local church. And just several decades later, churches have the barest skeletons of doctrinal statements church history has ever seen. For example, the 1689 London Baptist Confession contains thirty-two chapters. Most doctrinal statements today are squeezed onto a hidden page somewhere on the church’s website.
And the impact this self-made doctrine has had is nearly insurmountable. Shallow, watered-down doctrine is the result, which has in turn produced shallow, weak-kneed Christians. By creating its own doctrinal statement, a church is choosing to leave thousands of years of formulations and controversy on the shelf, and instead simply to piece one together at a few elders’ meetings. This is a weighty task, and one that the church has been devoted to for years.
Even the great Prince of Preachers himself, Charles Spurgeon, did not have the nerve to create his own doctrinal statement. Rather, he reprinted the London Baptist Confession for every member of His local church. And here is what Spurgeon said:
This ancient document is the most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us. It is not issued as an authoritative rule or code of faith, whereby you may be fettered, but as a means of edification in righteousness. It is an excellent, though not inspired, expression of the teaching of those Holy Scriptures by which all confessions are to be measured.
And this is what a solid doctrinal statement does for the church. It establishes a hedge of protection to provide the believer room to grow in God’s Word within the bounds of historic Christianity. It keeps the believer from wandering off the beaten path of sound doctrine. Any good confession (or statement of faith) is merely a mini-systematic theology for the congregation.
2. Recognize and critically examine your personal presuppositions
It is vitally important that you know what your presuppositions are so you can test them against the Scriptures. If you do not acknowledge and test them against God’s Word, you will have made yourself the supreme judge of truth. Whenever creeds, confessions, traditions, your Sunday school teacher, pastor, or even your own thoughts go awry (which they will), you need to know in order to test them.
If they do not line up with Scripture, you reject them. This is where the believer must discipline himself before he can adequately evaluate deeper theological topics. The Reformers practiced this with the catholic teachings on indulgences, the worship of Mary, and synergistic salvation.
3. Be diligent in reading the Bible
The word diligent is too soft. You must be painstakingly hardworking in your reading of Scripture. American culture does not prize hard work the way it once did. Sadly, this poor work ethic has trickled into the pews of the church. People rarely labor in the vineyard of God’s Word the way they once did.
The Bible is the deep well from which all knowledge of God is drawn. It is a treasure-trove; do not let it lay neglected. If you can read, you must make reading the Bible your daily duty. If you do not have a firm grasp on the Bible, you cannot overturn error in yourself or others. You must continue to expose yourself to Christ as revealed on the pages of Scripture.
4. Be thoughtful in your reading
You should not read with an unthoughtful mind, a cursory understanding, or out of thoughtless ritual. You must read with deep contemplation. Take notes. Notice the small details you come across.
We are commanded by Christ to search the Scriptures. Searching is not something you can do passively or nonchalantly; it is an endeavor. It is work. Do not be a passive listener to sermons or a lazy reader of commentaries. If you find clarity when reading, take note of it; commit it to memory and further study so it will be cemented within your convictions.
5. Use books to help you grow
Paul wrote, “bring me the books” (2 Tim 4:13) as he was sitting in a prison. He needed books to help him grow in his knowledge. If Paul needed them, so do we. There are many excellent books you should purchase; and as a byproduct, you are making an investment in your own soul and spiritual growth.
6. Improve your conversations with other believers
Don’t be content with silly, surface level relationships. Instead, probe one another concerning spiritual matters. Have theologically rich and informed conversations. Discuss what you are learning about God.
When you develop more meaningful relationships, you promote an atmosphere where you and other believers can grow. If those that have knowledge would begin to communicate it in humility, and if in areas of ignorance we would be intent learners, we would promote an atmosphere of mutual edification and spiritual growth.
7. Do not seek knowledge for the praise of men
Men often seek knowledge for the applause of others or for the upper hand in a debate, but this is not the way of a believer. Rather, we ought to strive in growing in our knowledge of God for the satisfaction of our very souls. If you seek knowledge for the wrong reasons, it will only puff up (1 Cor 8:1).
8. Be in prayer about your pursuit
Be on your knees as you read the Bible. Beseech God that he would direct you and bless you as you strive to know Him better. James tells us, “If any man lacks wisdom, let Him ask God, who gives generously” (James 1:5). For it is the Lord who gives wisdom: Yes, out of His mouth comes knowledge and understanding (Prov 2:6). Work hard to be aware of your own blindness and ignorance, for this pushes you to seek God for help and prevents you from following your self-sculpted ingenuity into error.
9. Practice what you learn
The art of practice will help you to learn more. The Psalmist warmly encourages believers to do this: “I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts” (Ps 119:100).
Spurgeon once said,
I heard one man say, a little while ago, that he did not believe there was a true Christian living, because he had found out so many hypocrites. I reminded him that there could be no hypocrites if there were no genuine ones. No one would think of passing a bad sovereign if there were no sterling coin. So the fact of there being some hypocrites proves that there are some genuine characters.
The Aim of the Christian Life
To those who do not consider themselves to be the privileged intellectual elites of the body of Christ, remember the aim of the Christian life: knowing and treasuring God. Your duty is to be a theologian—to spend your life plumbing the depths of God’s character and Word. Commit your life to this worthy endeavor.
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2019 and has been updated.]
Peter Sammons is the Director of the Institute for Church Leadership by The Master’s Seminary. He graduated from TMS with his M.Div., Th.M., and Ph.D.