Is Systematic Theology Any Use?

Donald Macleod
Of any use to whom? Ideally, of course, to the whole world. But imagine yourself walking into a Systematic Theology classroom. Look at the students, and ponder their futures. A few will become academic theologians. Some more will be missionaries. But most will be pastors and preachers. What use is Systematic Theology to them? 

In brief, it gives them the message they are to preach. Others will guide them as to the how of preaching, introducing them to the mysteries of Homiletics. Systematic Theology has the prior task of guiding them as to the what. They will already, as believers, have some knowledge of what Christianity is, but in most cases this knowledge will be like the knowledge that shepherds have of the stars: pre-scientific, casual and disorganised. The aim of Systematic Theology is to give them a knowledge more akin to that of the astronomer: rigorous, comprehensive and confident.
This will not be enough, unfortunately, to make them more godly than shepherds, but it should be enough to furnish them with a message to preach: not merely a few 'simple truths', or a few favourite doctrines, but the Christian faith in all its breadth and depth and grandeur. The preacher's commission, after all, is to proclaim the 'whole will of God' (Acts 20:27). The task of Systematic Theology is to ascertain that will, and present it to the preacher as comprehensively, precisely and clearly as possible.  

The great loci of theology thus become the staple themes of the pulpit: the attributes of the triune God; the universe as his creation and man as his image; the depravity of man, and the indispensable need for a new birth; the humanity of the incarnate Lord; the glory of the cross and the wonder of justification by faith alone; the blessedness of the Christian hope. The preacher will urge sinners to repentance, encourage believers to trust assuredly in the love of God, preach a Christian liberty untrammelled by the taboos and commandments of men, comfort the bereaved with the words of Christian hope, and fortify the dying with the certainty that beyond death there lies resurrection and eternal life.

This is a message garnered not from the preacher's own personal prejudices and 'insights', but from the word of God; not from this biblical author or that, but from the whole of Scripture; not from this present age, nor from any other single age, but from every Christian age; not from one denominational perspective, but from the perspectives of the church universal. And precisely because he is called to proclaim the whole will of God, the preacher has the assurance that he may preach all the theology he knows, holding nothing back. If it is part of what God has revealed, then in God's judgement his flock need it and have the capacity for it.  
At one level, indeed, conversion is our aim, but sometimes there is such an emphasis on the outsider that the insider, the believer, is neglected. Yet the Lord's instruction to Peter was, 'Feed my sheep; feed my lambs.'  Similarly, Paul's instruction to the elders at Ephesus was, 'Be shepherds of the church of God' (Acts 20:28). In line with this, the presumed readers of all the books of the New Testament are Christian believers. None are addressed to the unconverted. Nor are they addressed to academic theologians. They are addressed to young believers, drawn as a rule from the ranks of the poor and the uneducated; and yet when Paul wrote to the Ephesians, or the Writer to the Hebrews penned his message to young Jewish converts, they built them up precisely by setting before them the greatest theological themes with which the mind of man has ever wrestled. If Paul had been a homiletical realist he would have pitched his Letter to the Colossians at what people advised him was the level of the slave, Onesimus. Instead, he soared; and every other New Testament writer, from Mark to the Apocalypse, did the same.   

It is easy to succumb to the temptation that the great doctrines are over our people's heads, but if they were, God would not have put them in his People's Book in the first place. We must take our view of our congregations, as we take our view of all else, from Systematic Theology; and if we do, we will realise that they have renewed minds, that they love the Torah, that they desire the sincere milk of the word, that they meditate on it day and night, that they hunger and thirst for righteousness, and that they have a passion to know more of Jesus. 

We must do our churches the honour of believing all these things to be true of them; and if we do, then we will hold nothing back. Instead, we will preach all the theology we know. We will proclaim that in the trinity none is greater and none is lesser. We will bring out the full humanity of Christ. We will explore the reasons for his turmoil in Gethsemane. We will explain the great categories of the atonement: substitution, expiation, propitiation, and so on.  We will make unmistakably clear the doctrine of justification by faith, and the imperative necessity of holiness. We will lead every believer to acknowledge that her salvation has been a matter of sheer sovereign grace.

This does not mean that we focus exclusively on the great didactic passages of Scripture. The thrilling narrative passages and the beauties of biblical poetry are also part of the whole will of God (and, of course, didactic). But it does mean that those chapters which address the great theological issues must not be neglected simply because they present a higher factor of difficulty. The preacher cannot spend his whole ministry in Second Samuel and Nehemiah. He has to wrestle with the Genesis account of creation, with John's Prologue, with the 'High Priestly prayer', with the binding of Satan (Rev. 20:1-3), with Jesus' confession of ignorance (Mk. 13:32), and with the countless similar passages where God challenges us to 'prepare our minds for action' (1 Pet. 1:13). Some of these, indeed, are 'strong meat', but if believers are to grow to maturity they cannot live for ever on a diet of platitudes and anecdotes.

Yet the preacher cannot simply take his notes from the Systematic Theology class he attended at seminary and re-hash them verbatim to his congregation. My own mentor, the late Professor R. A. Finlayson, used to begin his course on Systematics at the Free Church of Scotland College with a series of lectures on the Being of God, proceeding along the lines: 'God is a Spirit; God is pure Spirit; God is a personal Spirit; God is a holy Spirit.' He loved to tell the story of the day he met an acquaintance who enthused about the sermon he had heard the previous Sunday from one of the Professor's students. 'It was wonderful,' he said.  'He got up and said, "I don't have a text this morning.  My text is 'God'."  'And what were the headings?' asked Finlayson.  The man's face lit up, easily recalling the outline of the discourse: 'God is a spirit, God is pure spirit, God is a personal spirit ....'  

The problem here is not simply the relatively innocent plagiarism. The problem is that though pulpit and class-room must teach the same theology they cannot teach it in the same way. The academy has its own methodology: exhaustive presentation of evidence, careful examination of the history of opinion, a thorough response to objections. The lecturer aims primarily at the mind. Clarity is at a premium, earnestness at a discount. The application to their own personal lives is left to the students themselves.  

In the pulpit, by contrast, the preacher will focus only on so much of any doctrine as is contained in his text; he will deal only with the objections which he knows are a problem for his congregation; and, above all, his aim throughout will be liturgical. He will want not only to convince the mind, but to evoke wonder, love and praise. He will want decision as well as assent. He will want to comfort, inspire, encourage and admonish. He will want to show people the truth about themselves.  He will want to carry his congregation to the point where they cry, 'Oh, the depth of the riches and mercy of God!'

But all of these effects have to arise from the doctrine itself: from the theology. Counterfeits of Christian experience may be achieved in other ways by brilliant communicators and expert Events Organisers. Only the truth can sanctify (Jn. 17:17); and even at the risk of being constantly accused of Christian Gnosticism we must never lose sight of this fact. The danger of such a Gnosticism certainly cannot be ignored, as Jonathan Edwards points out: 'he that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion.'[1]  But Charles Hodge spoke an equally important truth: 'Christian experience is only the effect produced by Christian doctrine on the soul'. Indeed, as Edwards himself repeatedly stressed, the only sign that an experience ('affection') is Christian is that it is produced by the truth.

Which is why we must not only preach the truth, and nothing but the truth, but must preach the whole truth.

Yet to that, too, there is a caveat: 'in biblical proportion and balance'.  

Donald Macleod is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of A Faith To Live By (Christian Focus, 1998), The Person of Christ (IVP, 1998) and Christ Crucified (IVP, 2014)


[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (London: Banner of Truth, 1961), p. 30

[2] Charles Hodge, Princeton Sermons (London: Banner of Truth, 1958), p. 355.