The title of this book and the sheer size of it (1167 pages of text, plus 123 pages of appendices) might scare some from reading it. However, I believe this clearly written and deeply biblical work would bring growth in the life of any serious-minded disciple of Christ who would take the time to read it, study it, reflect upon it, and better yet discuss it with others in a small group.
What is “systematic theology”?
One writer explains it this way: “‘Systematic’ refers to something being put into a system. Systematic theology is, therefore, the division of theology into systems that explain its various areas. For example, many books of the Bible give information about the angels. No one book gives all the information about the angels. Systematic theology takes all the information about angels from all the books of the Bible and organizes it into a system called angelology. That is what systematic theology is all about—organizing the teachings of the Bible into categorical systems.”
Why study “systematic theology”?
A believer needs to know what THE BIBLE AS A WHOLE teaches on various subjects in order to be well grounded in the Christian faith and to be able to explain biblical truth, both to Christians and non-Christians. He or she should be capable of defending the faith in our secular world with all of its false ideologies, both within the Church and outside of it. He or she should be discerning enough to distinguish truth from error, even in its most subtle forms. The study of systematic theology not only deepens a believer’s understanding of the Word of God, but because it focuses primarily on God and His redemptive plan for the world, it also helps the believer know Him better, which in turn aids in trusting and obeying Him more fully in his or her daily life.
The systematic theology I’m reviewing today is written by a capable, long-time teacher of the Scriptures, Dr. Wayne Grudem, who holds degrees from Harvard, Westminster, and Cambridge. Many systematic theologies have been written over the centuries by theologians of various persuasions, but this is the one I most highly recommend. (I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased because Dr. Grudem and I are similar in most of our theological positions.)
Let me point out some reasons why I believe Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Grudem is outstanding:
- First of all, the book is truly biblical. Some people who lack an understanding of the terms will say, “I just want to study ‘biblical theology,’ not ‘systematic theology.’” Actually, these are two different disciplines, both of which are important. However, my main point here is that Grudem doesn’t just proof-text the doctrines he presents; rather, he exegetes certain passages in depth to develop his doctrinal positions. In doing so, he uses his excellent knowledge of the original languages, as well as other fields, but he does so in a way that the average Christian can understand.
- Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine is comprehensive. It touches on numerous biblical themes, some that other books on systematic theology do not address. For example, he has chapters on prayer, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the role of women in the church. For me, one of Grudem’s most fascinating studies was of the common New Testament term “prophecy.” After a careful study of the word and its use in context, he concludes that “prophecy” in the New Testament is different from teaching. It is the “gift of the Holy Spirit that involves telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind,” of course, never to be put on the same level as inspired Scripture.
- Grudem is biblically sound and always goes directly to the biblical text, that is, the primary source, not to traditions or creeds of the Church to defend his beliefs. At the same time, he knows the traditions and creeds and refers to them when they are helpful. In fact, in the appendix he includes nine historic creeds.
- Grudem is clear on what he believes without being unnecessarily dogmatic or argumentative.
- He is a conservative evangelical holding to all the major doctrines of the faith.
- He is Reformed in his view of the doctrines of grace.
- He is Baptistic in his view of the sacraments (ordinances).
- He advocates a modified congregational form of government with plural elders.
- He is complementarian, not egalitarian, in his view of women in the church and home.
- He believes that the baptism of the Spirit occurs at conversion, whereas the “filling of the Spirit” occurs on an ongoing basis in the life of the believer.
- He believes that all the spiritual gifts are for this age, that is, he is NOT a cessationist.
- He is premillennial, though not pretribulational or dispensationalist, in his view of the future.
- He is fair-minded in dealing with other viewpoints. He never puts forth a “straw man” to be able to knock it down easily. He presents each opposing view as clearly as possible, often using the wording of the advocates of the position, then critiques that position directly from the Bible, and attempts to present a more biblical view in as convincing and fair way as possible.
- The author is very precise in his use of terms and includes a definition of every key term in the appropriate chapter, as well as in the glossary at the end of the book. For an example of his precision, instead of using the common term “original sin” he uses the more theologically correct term “inherited sin.”
- Grudem believes theology should touch the life of a believer. It should not simply be head knowledge, but heart knowledge. He knows the danger of what is sometimes termed “cold, dead orthodoxy.” Sadly, some of the most theologically literate Christians I’ve ever met have almost no passion for Christ and the gospel, and their lives do not display the fruit of the Spirit. To help the reader apply the teachings of God’s Word to real life, Grudem includes at the end of every chapter “questions for personal application,” as well as a hymn on the subject. His conviction is that theology should be both practical and doxological.
- Grudem gives the reader much opportunity to go deeper in his or her understanding of each doctrine by including a bibliography at the end of every chapter. He lists the works by their theological position: Anglican (Episcopalian), Arminian (Wesleyan), Baptist, Dispensational, Lutheran, Reformed (or Presbyterian), Renewal (or charismatic/Pentecostal), and Roman Catholic.
If you are looking for a book that critiques all the latest theological trends, you may be disappointed. Grudem does some of that, especially in his extensive notes at the bottom of each page, but he mostly interacts with other theologians who take the Bible seriously, not with liberal theologians and secular writers. He certainly would be capable of doing so, but this is not within the scope of this particular work.
- One of the other things I most appreciate about Grudem is his ability to distinguish between (a) major doctrines that are clearly taught in the Scriptures (e.g., the atonement of Christ), (b) minor doctrines (e.g., millennial views), and (c) preferences based on ecclesiastical tradition (e.g., worship styles).
Let me cite an example here. In his chapter on the millennium, Grudem writes, “It is important to realize that interpretation of the details of prophetic passages regarding future events is often a complex and difficult task involving many variable factors. Therefore, the degree of certainty that attaches to our conclusions in this area will be less than with many other doctrines. Even though I will argue for one position (classical premillennialism), I think it is important for evangelicals to recognize that this area of study is complex and to extend a large measure of grace to others who hold different views regarding the millennium and the tribulation period.”
Let me affirm again that sound doctrine is crucial. Sadly, many Christians neglect its importance, but there is a danger in the other direction too – making theology the end-all in the Christian faith. Let’s not forget the twofold admonition of the apostle Paul to Timothy, “Watch your LIFE and DOCTRINE closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)