Systematic Theology

In theology, faith seeks to interpret, understand, and unfold the wealth of the revelation of God with which it is confronted in His Word. Revelation,* as it is received by us, appears to consist of a multitude of events, saving facts, and truths which find their expression in a collection of separate theological doctrines. On the basis of the belief that God is one and intends to reveal Himself in the unity of His activity, theology seeks to present the whole range of its knowledge of revelation as one coherent, living whole.

Theological discussion has therefore always been undertaken in as orderly a manner as possible. Early attempts to seek to do justice to the unity of revelation were made, e.g., by John of Damascus* in Fons Scientia, and in the West by Peter Lombard* in his Sententiae. Aquinas* also tried to give unity to a theological system by absorbing it into what he regarded as a Christian philosophy. At the Reformation, Melanchthon* in his Loci tried to give a “system of doctrinal positions” drawn from the Word of God. Such theologies tended to take the order of discussion suggested in Holy Scripture, beginning with Creation and man's sin, then discussing the Law and the Gospel, and finishing with the Last Things.

More than any of his predecessors, Calvin* in his Institutes sought to do justice to the belief that the unity and rationality of the one God was reflected in His revelation. He sought to show how each doctrine was interconnected with the other and must be interpreted as part of the living whole. He tried to make Christ, rather than any one principle, the controlling center. In the seventeenth century, theology tended to relapse again into a discussion of a series of distinct doctrines, each of which apart from the whole could be justified in itself. Scripture, moreover, tended to be used atomistically in the support of individual propositions without reference to the whole of salvation history.

Schleiermacher* has been regarded as the first theologian ever to lay hold of a central theological principle, and in the light of it to build up a whole system in which each doctrine is carefully discussed in relation to the unity of the whole in the light of the controlling principle. In the nineteenth century, under pressure of the idea that revelation in itself had no inherent rationality, theologians, instead of using philosophy as a tool and medium for theological illustration, allowed their philosophy to subdue and refashion their theology, and to impose on it the pattern of contemporary thought in the production of systems that had often little relation to the Gospel or the Bible. Yet no one system can ever become finalized over against revelation and Scripture.

C. Hodge, Systematic Theology (1872; rep. 3 vols., 1960); K. Barth, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik (1936; new ET in progress); T.F. Torrance, Theological Science (1970).