The Value of Systematic Theology

“Everything is Spiritual”—that was the name of Rob Bell’s speaking tour gaining a lot of attention and headlines in newspapers and magazines as Bell lumbered across the country speaking in theaters to fairly large crowds in various states. I became aware of the tour and the resulting DVD and, with an interest to learn about the tour and its popularity, I watched the video trailer. This is what I saw and heard:

Now, obviously there is a level of truth to what Bell says. Each of us has been given an eternal soul. But as I began watching the Rob Bell trailer my mind began racing and thinking in biblical categories and asking many questions but especially this one: Is everyone spiritual? Drawing from biblical anthropology 101 I knew the answer was “no.” The Apostle Paul tells us believers in Jesus Christ are genuinely spiritual because we have been given (by grace alone!) the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. Because we have the Spirit, we comprehend and respond to spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:12-13). However there are simultaneously others who are “natural”—that is, they do not respond to the things of God (like the gospel of Jesus Christ) because spiritual truth makes no sense (v. 14).

Contrary to Bell’s assumptions, everyone is not spiritual. Paul makes it very clear there is a spiritual/natural distinction, each distinguished from one another by their responses to the gospel.

This abrupt realization while watching the trailer was prompted—to my best guess—by the excellent anthropological studies in systematic theology I received as a churchgoer in a local church. (Systematic theology is the accumulation of exegetical truth of scripture organized and arranged by theme and topic.) Those years of Wednesday night systematic theology courses have paid off in the past several years, and probably more than I know.

Although I remember begrudgingly at times coming home from work on a Wednesday evening and wanting to stay home and veg rather than attending these courses, I now see the fruit and have come to a deeper appreciation for systematic theology for its value in bringing balance and discernment to my life and thought.

For myself, no authors have better enforced the importance of systematic theology than Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987). In An Introduction to Systematic Theology (P&R, 2007), Van Till reminds us the discipline of systematic theology is important in four areas:

1. For personal spiritual balance:

“The unity and organic character of our personality demands that we have unified knowledge as the basis of our action. If we do not pay attention to the whole of biblical truth as a system, we become doctrinally one-sided, and doctrinal one-sidedness is bound to issue in spiritual one-sidedness. As human beings we are naturally inclined to be one-sided. One tends to be intellectualistic, another tends to be emotional, and still another tends to be activistic. One tends to be only prophetic, another only priest, and a third only king. We should be all these at once and in harmony. A study of systematic theology will help us to keep and develop our spiritual balance. It enables us to avoid paying attention only to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us.” (p. 22)

2. For discernment:

“Moreover, what is beneficial for the individual believer is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But ‘Bible-trained’ instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error. There are many ‘orthodox’ preachers today whose study of Scripture has been so limited to what it says about soteriology that they could not protect the fold of God against heresies on the person of Christ. Oft-times they themselves even entertain definitely heretical notions on the person of Christ, though perfectly unaware of the fact.” (p. 22)

3. For faithful preaching:

“If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the ministry has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually. Then, too, it is well-rounded preaching of this sort that has kept the church from worldliness. On the other hand, it has kept the church from an unhealthy otherworldliness. Well-rounded preaching teaches us to use the things of this world because they are the gifts of God, and it teaches us to possess them as not possessing them, inasmuch as they must be used in subordination to the one supreme purpose of man’s existence, namely the glory of God.” (pp. 22-23)

4. For preparation to engage in a war of worldviews:

“We have already indicated that the best apologetic defense will invariably be made by him who knows the system of truth of Scripture best. The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life-and-death struggle between two mutually opposed life-and-world views.” (p. 23)

Conclusion

My prayer is that we all—Bell included—come to see that any culturally relevant worldview we present and defend must be one build upon a robust systematic theology (not trifles like the absence of a word in the Old Testament!).

For those of you interested in studying systematic theology I highly recommend Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. My friend Jeff has taken this large volume and abridged it for beginner audiences in Bible Doctrine. Both are outstanding. For those familiar with Grudem you should take a look at Herman Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith. It’s another gem!

7 thoughts on “The Value of Systematic Theology

  1. I don’t really disagree with your thinking here, but I think you have to be careful to not make it look like a semantic argument.
    The unsaved can be afflicted by demons and most people would describe this as a spiritual affliction. Now maybe, the demon is just able to reach into the mental and emotional world of the unsaved individual and not the other way around, but I’m not entirely sure.
    What I’m saying is that when Paul makes the distinction of natural and spiritual, I’m not sure that he’s making the exact same distinction that you are making or that Rob Bell is making (I really don’t want you to think I’m standing up for Bell here, because I have real problems with his theology.)
    Anyway, I just wanted to throw this out there. It’s something I see quite a bit in debates; instead of arguing a point, people end up arguing with different language and never actually talking about the point.

    Take care,
    charles

  2. Hello Betsy. Good new: Yes a systematic theology is being written for children. Bad news: It will not be out for some time. Stay tuned.

    Charles, thanks for the comment. I don’t limit this semantically. We are talking about issues that reach deep into anthropology hamartiology, and epistemology. How and why do some respond to the gospel and some do not? Is it because one has become more aware of the spiritual realm? No, Paul is fairly clear here that to be “spiritual” is to be moved by the gospel, not merely to have an awareness of demons or spiritual influences.

    But it’s hard to talk theology without words and so is everything/everyone spiritual? Paul speaks fairly clearly here and so I wouldn’t want to undermine the precise words used by Paul. The biblical definition of the word “spiritual” is taken.

    Thanks for the question.

    T

  3. I think I didn’t make my point very well. The English word spirit is not specific enough to carry all the distinct connotations that it is used for.

    Rob Bell says: “All men are spiritual.” You say: “No they aren’t.” But Rob Bell then asks you about the man possessed by Legion and says, are you saying this man was not being affected by things of the spirit realm, are you saying this man does not have a spiritual component to him?” When Paul is talking about the natural man vs. the spiritual man, he is talking about those who have been quickened by The Holy Spirit. He is talking about those who have been born again into the new life. What I am saying is that if you choose to have a lock on the english word “spiritual” to say that its use pertains only to the Holy Spirit, you need to make that distinction up front or else you are going to end up arguing about something that isn’t what you are really wanting to argue about. (And maybe fighting to make the meaning of the word spiritual be limited to that context is a fight that you think is worth it, but I’m not so sure there aren’t other ways to achieve the same thing – as Paul does, when he makes the context very clear)

    Having said that, Rob Bell is completely wrong in trying to say that all men are the same, Paul’s argument very clearly demonstrates that they aren’t.

  4. It appears to me the use of the term “spiritual” is more than one’s nature but reveled in the response one makes, or does not make, to the gospel and truth. Bell is trying to say it does not matter whether you move towards the gospel or not, everyone is spiritual. This contradicts Paul which I think you understand, Charles. I never argued there is only one strict use of the word, as I said in the original post “Now, obviously there is a level of truth to what Bell says. Each of us has an eternal soul.” There is a spiritual component of each of our lives, but this does not give us license to then say everyone is spiritual can grasp truth if given a little volitional elbow grease. To be “spiritual” in the biblical sense presupposes an affectionate move towards the gospel. Good thoughts.

  5. Wow! I wish I had been reading your blog a year ago. This is a great conversation. To throw my two cents in I would add: 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Romans 8:6-11

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