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What kind of theological castle will you build?

This article is adapted from an original post on the 13 June 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz as “Building Theological Castles”

Last time I gave three key terms (doctrine, theology, and world view) with an analogy (a brick, a wall, and a castle) to help you think about them. Today, I want to show you three different methods to building castles (Historical, Biblical, and Systematic)

Historical Theology. This looks at Christian doctrines down through the ages, how they have been formulated and developed over the past two millennia. It will include studying the thought of famous theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, etc. One disadvantage of this approach is it presupposes you already have some background knowledge of scripture. Without this background knowledge this method can be like building a castle without blueprints – you are likely to miss large sections of load-bearing walls, and have to demolish and rebuild continually as you discover more.

Biblical Theology. To abandon one analogy for another, doing biblical theology is like a fisherman casting his net over the whole of scripture to gather in all the knowledge therein. It will include doing excellent exegesis (interpretation), using the historical, cultural, and religious contexts from which the Bible was written. It looks at how specific doctrines are received and developed throughout the overarching biblical story. This method is good, but it also presupposes you have a good overview of the whole picture. Beginners might feel like they’re tying to piece together a puzzle from the inside moving out to the edge, rather than framing the puzzle first with the edges pieces.

Systematic Theology. You may hear people describe this as a progression of themes. Systematic theology is often organised in themes, but it is more than simply Thematic Theology, which would be a sub-category of Biblical theology. It is like the fisherman, who casts his net not only over scriptural truth, but also truth from the whole of human experience, including; nature, reason, science, philosophy, and personal experiences. He then hauls in his catch to sort everything in an ordered way. In other words, a systematic theologian, by grouping together the biblical data with data from diverse sources, creates a sensible, structured understanding. To go back to our first analogy: a thoroughly grounded, well-planned, sturdy castle.

Different people will organise their systematic theology differently, but usually the order goes something like this;

Prolegomena – Preliminary remarks

Bibliology – The doctrine of revelation

Theology Proper – The doctrine of God

Patriology – The doctrine of the Father

Christology – The doctrine of Christ

Pneumatology – The doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Angelology – The doctrine of angels

Demonology – The doctrine of demons

Satanology – The doctrine of Satan

Anthropology – The doctrine of man

Harmatiology – The doctrine of sin

Soteriology – The doctrine of salvation

Ecclesiology – The doctrine of the church

Eschatology – The doctrine of last things

Each of the three methods above will include aspects of the other, and each has its weaknesses. Systematic theology for instance is vulnerable to “proof texting” – pulling out verses to prove a doctrine without due consideration of the verse’s immediate textual context. Good Christian bookstores will display the above methods in separate sections, and you should now be able to quickly tell what method any book on theology is using by flipping through it.

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