systematic theology

Last week’s post dealt with an overview of theology. You can find it here if you’d like to look back at it. In these word of the week posts, we are looking at terms, doctrines, and concepts in systematic theology. Today’s word is revelation.

Theology is the study of God and God’s relation to the world. From our definition of theology, the question arises, “How do we know anything about God and God’s relation to the world?”

Answer: we know about God and his relationship to the world through what he has revealed to us.

Revelation means “unveiling, to make known.” The last book of the Bible is titled Revelation, and John’s revelation is God’s unveiling of Jesus Christ in all his glory to the world in salvation and judgment.

When we discuss the doctrine of revelation, we mean something more broad than merely the last book in the Bible. We mean that God to revealed himself to us.

Because humans are finite and God is infinite, if they are to know God, that knowledge must come about by God’s taking the initiative to make himself known.

Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 26.

It is important here for readers to understand the necessity of revelation. In today’s experience authority is grounded in rationalism (math), empiricism (science), or personal autonomy (choice/freedom). Without getting into the weeds, the personal autonomy that permeates Western culture can be found in either rationalism or empiricism. In short, grounding truth and authority in any of these frameworks (rationalism, empiricism, personal autonomy) is insufficient. Questions remain unanswered if these are the only places for grounding truth. For centuries, revelation was considered the primary location for absolute truth. That changed philosophically during the Enlightenment era. And while the developments from the Enlightenment through Modernism and Postmodernism have changed how culture views truth and authority, these developments can never change what is true and absolute.

It is for this reason that we need God to reveal himself and what is true to us. When God reveals himself to us, we are able to grasp the core realities of what is and what has value in the world.

With regard to systematic theology, the doctrine of revelation is the starting place. We begin here because anything we know about God, and the world, and us, finds basis in what God has revealed to us.

There are several important truths about the doctrine of revelation that help us understand its value and importance for Christian theology and experience.

  • Revelation is personal. God made us in his image and revealed himself to us so we could know him. Nothing is more important in life than knowing God. How we come to know God occurs through God’s revelation of himself to us.
  • Revelation is cognitive. We can know truths, doctrines, content about God and us because God has revealed them to us. Because God made us rational beings, we can know and understand cognitively and experientially who God is and what he wants us to know.
  • Revelation is progressive. Over time God reveals himself. As seen in Scripture, God discloses more and more of himself as we read the accounts of God and his people. The more complete our picture of revelation, the more clear we are able to be about who God is and who we are.
  • Revelation is not exhaustive. While we can know truly about God, we cannot know fully about God. In other words, we know what God has revealed, but there are aspects of God’s nature and character that he has not fully revealed.
  • Revelation can be divided into two spheres: General and Special. The posts for the next two weeks will define general and special revelation. And many of the posts following those two will dive into aspects of special revelation.

Here is the primary truth we should take away from this post.

God wants us to know him. Think about this: the God who made the world and everything in it wants you to know him. God doesn’t need anything, and yet God revealed himself to sinful humans so that we could know him personally. This is an amazing thought. It is basically for this reason that I write, preach, teach, and share God with others. It should amaze us that God wants us to know him.

Do you know God? If not, comment below, and I’ll do my best to share with you how you can know him?

If you do know God, then remember that your knowledge of him will never be exhaustive. Keep learning, keep reading, and keep seeking God’s revelation so that you can know him better.

A tale of two Januaries.

January 2020. I began a Bible study series at my church teaching theology, or the doctrine of God. That series was cut short because of the way the pandemic affected our church programming. Due to scheduling, we have not yet been able to bring that series back to an in-person study though we are hopeful we can in the future.

January 2021. I began posting a word of the week where I defined a theological term. In previous word of the week posts, I’ve dealt with terms associated with the doctrine of Christ (Christology) and the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). In today’s post, I’m going to back up and highlight the broader subject of theology and its importance for Christian living.

Theology is the study of God and God’s relation to the world. It is important to note that everyone does theology, though not everyone does theology well. Whenever we speak to an issue from the perspective of God or Scripture, we are doing theology.

When you say, “God wouldn’t be happy with a particular word or deed,” you are doing theology. 

When you say, “God wants you to live a certain way,” you are doing theology. 

Theology is a course of study in Bible Colleges and Seminaries. It is taught for pastors, missionaries, and ministers. But because everyone who discusses God’s relation and expectations in the world is doing theology, any follower of Jesus can and should learn basic biblical doctrines. These word of the week posts that I share weekly are one of my attempts to help us as followers of Jesus better understand God and Christian doctrine.

There are different theological disciplines that shape how we understand theology as both an academic pursuit and as a practical guide for Christian living. 

Biblical theology—Investigates how each author or book of the Bible considers a particular doctrine. 

Historical theology—How different doctrinal ideas arose and were developed in history. 

Systematic theology—Is a collection of Bible doctrines that flows out of an organized, logical framework. These posts and the terms they define flow out of systematic theology.

Practical theology—Connects doctrines to daily living. 

We need each discipline for clear understanding of God, his Word, and our place in God’s plan. Think of these four disciplines as different perspectives. If one explored the contours of a metropolitan city like New York from a helicopter, this would be like our view of theology from a systematic perspective. Driving through the Burroughs of the city would be like exploring the of the city from a biblical theology perspective. Searching out how the city’s history shapes its current makeup would be exploring the city from the perspective of historical theology. And walking through the city engaging with cab drivers and local shop owners would be exploring the city through the perspective of practical theology. When it comes to Scripture and theology, we need each of these four perspectives to best understand who God is, who we are, and what God expects of us.

It is right to think of theology as a basis for knowledge. But it is not correct to categorize theology as a primarily academic or intellectual pursuit.

We take our understanding of knowledge from the Greek worldview. Gnosis in the Greek language emphasizes cognitive or intellectual understanding. Much of our educational model in the West is shaped after this academic paradigm.

But the Old Testament in particular and the Bible in general offers another, deeper perspective on knowledge. The Hebrew word for knowledge that is used extensively for knowing God is da’at. This term means relational knowledge. While it does not exclude an intellectual component for knowledge, the cognitive is not the primary means of knowing.

One of the classic verses on knowing God stands out here.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

The word for knowledge is the Hebrew word da’at. The verse indicates that reverential awe and respect of God for who he is is the beginning of the relational knowledge of God.

This biblical view on knowledge is important for our theological understanding in at least two important ways.

First, knowing God relationally as well as intellectually shapes our understanding of salvation. Salvation is not just an intellectual assent of the facts of the gospel. Salvation is not less than this assent. We need to know the facts about Jesus (his person as God and man, his perfect life, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and ascension into heaven) for our salvation. But merely acknowledging facts is insufficient biblically. This is because knowing God is more than intellectual. It is relational. Trusting in Christ for salvation is a personal and relational response to the gospel. Salvation necessitates confession and repentance acknowledging the broken relationship between man and God. Salvation necessitates trusting in Christ alone to repair that broken relationship granting us the privilege of knowing God relationally. Salvation also anticipates the expectation that trusting Christ alone brings us into relationship with God whereby we follow him with our life and choices.

Second, knowing God relationally underscores the practicality of theology. Knowing more about God intellectually, doctrinally, or academically is only part of the equation. As a professor at Bible college, I try to instill in my students this important recognition. If we know about God academically so that we can pass a class, but fail to grow in knowing God relationally, we’ve missed the point. Knowing about God rightly can help us to know God better relationally.

Right knowledge is both relational and intellectual.

Sarah P. Sumner, “Intellectual Discipleship and the Value of Theological Education” in Theology, Church and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education

I believe that growth in our knowledge of God and his work in the world is vital to the Christian faith. My hope is that these posts help you to know God better intellectually, but more than that inspire you to know God in a deeper way relationally.

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash