Systematic theology

Systematic theology is the study of Christian theology organized thematically (as opposed to historically, as in Historical Theology or Biblical Theology - according to some uses of the latter term).



The attempt to set out the varied ideas of the Christian religion (and the various topics and themes of the diverse texts of the Bible) in a single, coherent and well-ordered presentation is a relatively late development. In Eastern Orthodoxy, an early example is provided by John of Damascus's 8th Century Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in which he attempts to set in order, and demonstrate the coherence of, the theology of the classic texts of the Eastern theological tradition. In the West, Peter Lombard's 12th Century 'Sentences', in which he collected thematically a large series of quotations from the Church Fathers, became the basis of a medieval scholastic tradition of thematic commentary and explanation - best exemplified in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae. A Protestant tradition of thematic, ordered exposition of the whole of Christian theology (Protestant Orthodoxy) emerged in the 16th Century, with Philipp Melanchthon's Loci Communes and John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In the 19th Century, primarily in Protestant circles, a new kind of systematic theology arose: the attempt to demonstrate that Christian doctrine formed a more tightly coherent system grounded in some core axiom or axioms. Such theologies often involved a more drastic pruning and reinterpretation of traditional belief in order to cohere with the axiom or axioms. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for instance, produced Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsatzen der evangelischen Kirche in the 1820s, in which the core idea is the universal presence amongst humanity (sometimes more hidden, sometimes more explicit) of a feeling or awareness of 'absolute dependence'; all theological themes are reinterpreted as descriptions or expressions of modifications of this feeling.

Contemporary usage

There are three overlapping uses of the term 'systematic theology' in contemporary theology.

  • In evangelical circles, it is used to refer to the topical collection and exploration of the content of the Bible, in which a different perspective is provided on the Bible's message than that garnered simply by reading the biblical narratives, poems, proverbs, and letters as a story of redemption or as a manual for how to live a godly life. One advantage of this approach is that it allows one to see all that the Bible says regarding some subject (e.g. the attributes of God), and one danger is a tendency to assign technical definitions to terms based on a few passages and then read that meaning everywhere the term is used in the Bible (e.g. "justification" as Paul uses it in his letter to the Romans is different from how James uses it in his letter).
  • The term can also be used to refer to theology which self-avowedly seeks to perpetuate the classical traditions of thematic exploration of theology described above - often by means of commentary upon the classics of those tradition: Damscus, Aquinas, Calvin, Melanchthon and others.
  • Normally (but not exclusively) in liberal theology, the term can be used to refer to attempts to follow in Schleiermacher's footsteps, and reinterpret Christian theology in order to derive it from a core set of axioms or principles.


  • Barth, Karl (1956-1975). Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
  • Berkhof, Louis (1996). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  • Grudem, Wayne (1995). Systematic Theology. Zondervan.
  • Hodge, Charles (1960). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  • Reymond, Robert (1998). A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd ed.). Word Publishing.
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1928). The Christian Faith. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
  • Thiessen, Henry C. (1949). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Erdsmans Publishing Co.
  • Til, Cornelius van (1974). An Introduction to Systematic Theology. P & R Press..

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