As I began my seminary journey at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary this past week, I was more than excited to jump into Stephen Wellum’s online course in Systematic Theology. I love theology, especially when I can sit under the teaching of a seasoned scholar like Wellum. As we began, I wanted to share a few early reflections on the initial lectures and readings from the course itself, and hopefully offer some helpful guidelines for approaching systematic theology with humility.
What is systematic theology? Systematic theology tends to be oddly frowned upon by many local churches. This is mainly because in doing systematic theology you will be using words not found in Scripture (like, Trinity) and you will be relying on the thoughts, works, and philosophies of men throughout church history. Some even see it as a waste of time for the average Christian. Others see it solely as a means of boasting in intelligence or academic superiority. However, systematic theology is much more simple than that. And it is in fact one of the biggest sanctifying grace for humility in my life.
Take for example Wellum’s introductory definition of systematic theology. Working from John Frame’s view that systematic theology is “the application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life,” Dr. Wellum provides a helpful reminder that systematic theology should always be grounded in Scripture and is relevant for all Christians in all walks and seasons of life. Simply put, Christians need systematic theology to help them apply the vast array of biblical truths to their lives. What is the Christian’s basis for fighting for the rights of the unborn? We can give answers, but the most complete answer can only be given through a systematic theological explanation of biblical truth.
It is no more than an organized application of the Bible to life. While systematic theology deals with and builds on extra biblical literature and voices, both historical and contemporary, it is primarily an application of God’s Word. This reminder of the organization of biblical truth into categories helps ground our thinking so that theology doesn’t become ultimate. It is no more than a telescope, used to help us see more clearly the vast array of God’s glory as revealed in his Word.
Dr. Wellum also offers a few basic elements of Christian theology that help us evaluate theology. His balance is encouraging as he explains the importance of having a biblically grounded, historically informed, relevant, and practical theology. A theology must be grounded in Scripture, because that is where all Christian theology originates. It must be informed by history, because if you are the first person to think something about God, you are probably wrong. It must carry contemporary engagement. While doctrine never changes, the way it is communicated depends on the culture and age in which we live. It must finally be lived out. A theology that is not practical is not valuable.
Theological error typically results from a failure to strike such balance. A theology may be grounded in Scripture, but fails to speak to the culture (in which case would be an error of application). Or, a theology may speak to contemporary issues in a relevant and practical way, yet fail to uphold biblical truth (in which case would be an error in exegesis). Wellum’s balance in these introductory matters provides a solid launching pad from which to begin this course.
Is there pride involved with Christian theology? Just like all things in life that God meant for good that we distort for our own glory, the study and practice of theology can be done in prideful ways. And there are many superb, yet jerky theologians. But a prideful heart hasn’t engaged theology deeply enough. It is entirely possible to know sound, biblical and theological doctrine and be unmoved. But for the Christian who is seeking to know God on a more intimate level, theological study is a means to accomplish this goal.
Humility is inherent to Christian theology because the theologian cannot boast in the thing he has received solely by the grace of God. How is theology even possible? Wellum’s answer is, “God speaks.” Without the revelation of God, our theology would be impossible or horribly speculative. Even those with errant theologies retain some elements of Christian theology because God has revealed himself not only specifically in his Word, but also generally in the world. Yet, while revelation from God in Scripture (God’s “self-disclosure”) is the origin of our theology, Wellum urges us to proceed with caution because the God who speaks is also “incomprehensible.” He discloses himself, but not fully. And our understanding of God is far from complete. This is a crucial reminder for theology students.
Humility must be our guide as we study theology, for the God who speaks is also mysterious. May we marvel at the splendor of this great God.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.