Reverse Systematic Theology: A Proposal

April 17, 2013 — 7 Comments

Something I don’t do as often anymore, but would like to change, is offer you thoughts in process. I think that’s kind of a big part of blogging. I used to use the blog to think out loud more frequently, but that was in its MySpace and Xanga iterations. I think in seminary I felt like I had to post complete thoughts and complete thoughts only. But, I’m not in seminary any more (but I live across the street from one).

Recently, as I’ve been teaching the Sunday night Doctrine class, and my 11th grade Bible class (which in this semester is a Christian doctrine class), I’ve been thinking about how we go through theology. “Systematic” really just means “ordered according to some logical principle,” and certain ground is expected to be covered. So, systematic theology is just theology that is ordered logically according to topic rather than traced in a linear way through either a single biblical book, or the entire Bible itself.

Good systematic theology is highly exegetical. That is, it is built by exegeting key passages of Scripture. Historical rootedness is helpful, but teaching theology should be more than just rehashing what major theologians have said. A good theologian goes back to the text, and as John Piper exhorted preachers last Wednesday at the inaugural Spurgeon Lectureship at RTS, we need to point people to the text so they see where we got it.

In light of all that, I’ve been wondering if treating the topics in a semi-reverse order might actually be better suited for many audiences. Consider for instance the major headings in the table of contents of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology:

  • Doctrine of The Word of God
  • Doctrine of God
  • Doctrine of Man
  • Doctrine of Christ and The Holy Spirit
  • Doctrine of the Application of Redemption
  • Doctrine of the Church
  • Doctrine of the Future

Similarly, here is the table of contents from Michael Horton’s more recent systematic, The Christian Faith:

  • Knowing God: The Presuppositions of Theology
  • God Who Lives
  • God Who Creates
  • God Who Rescues
  • God Who Reigns in Grace
  • God Who Reigns in Glory

Here we see fairly similar ground covered, but instead of “doctrine,” Horton orbits everything around God as the main actor. Gerald Bray does something similar, but focuses on love, hence his title, God is Love:

  • The Language of Love
  • God’s Love in Himself
  • God’s Love for His Creation
  • The Rejection of God’s Love
  • God So Loved The World
  • The Consummation of God’s Love

I could multiply TOC’s further, but I think you get the idea. They all tend to follow a general pattern. The pattern in and of itself is not what makes them “systematic,” but the fact that there is a clear pattern to it. Berkhof makes this point in his systematic, predictably titled Systematic Theology, where he points out that there are numerous logical orderings, but the point is that there needs to be some kind of logical/topical flow. The one at work in all of the above is starting with the foundation of knowledge, then moving to God, then forward through the biblical story.

If we are going to use the “ologies” for each of these focal points, it would look like this:

  • Epistemology
  • Bibliology
  • Theology Proper
  • Anthropology
  • Hamartialogy
  • Christology
  • Soteriology
  • Pneumatology
  • Ecclesiology
  • Eschatology

Now, what if instead of starting in the usual place (which really puts the most complicated doctrines right up front), we started were people are: the Gospel (or soteriology)

What I’ve noticed while teaching, and I owe some of this insight to Fred Sander’s The Deep Things of God, is people are most familiar with soteriology and the basic contours of the Gospel (if they’re in a good church). It is not self evident to them that epistemology is important for understanding theology and growing in their relationship with God. It is, but it’s not self-evident to the average church-goer.

So, what if a systematic theology was oriented toward readers who have a basic grasp of the Gospel, but want to grow in their theological knowledge? I think it would look something like this:

  • Work of Christ
  • Pneumatology
  • Person of Christ
  • Sin/Fall
  • Man/Creation
  • Church/Eschatology
  • Theology Proper
  • Bibliology
  • Epistemology

Here’s how I would think of it in terms of questions (and this is the part I owe to Sanders):

  • What did Jesus do for me? (past tense)
  • How is He relating to me now?
  • What more can I know about Jesus as a person?
  • Why did Jesus have to die, and how am I responsible?
  • What was God’s original intention?
  • How is God working to fix things now?
  • How can I know all this is true?

That’s kind of rough, but the idea is that people start with their grasp of the gospel and then move backwards. In order to go deeper into the gospel as the work of Christ, you move into his person and his Spirit. That then raises the question of why Jesus death was necessary, as well as what it means for him to be fully human. That raises the question of what is God’s plan in all of this, which leads to discussing the original creation, the final recreation, and the church’s role in that whole process. You’re already been employing a latent Trinitarianism, so the stage is set to explore that further, and in doing that you bring up the issue of revelation, which brings up the issue of epistemology.

I think moving in this way would pique interest better, but maybe that’s just me. After reading through this, what do you think? What would you alter? Do you think people would connect with theology taught in this direction?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts, so don’t leave the comments section lonely!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

7 responses to Reverse Systematic Theology: A Proposal

  1. I can definitely agree with putting the work of Christ first because it something more Christians can easily relate to and find immediate benefit in. I also agree with putting the putting the difficult philosophical ideas at the end.

    The more I think about it the more I see where you are going with this. Reflecting on my personal experience with Geisler’s Systematic Theology, I think I would have appreciated more theology up front similar to how you laid it out. The only thing I worry about is it being perceived as an afterthought that doesn’t properly fit with what would precede it (theology). But, at the end of the day, I see more people susceptible to plunging through a systematic theology, because they can easily grasp the beginning..

    The only counter argument to reversing the order I can think of, is the audience for a systematic theology is fairly analytical and might be distracted with the “how do I know this to be true”, while they are discovering the truth

    • I think the afterthought could be a danger, but only if it is treated in a brief summary fashion. I don’t think in Geisler’s work you could accuse him of treating eschatology as an afterthought just because its at the end since he gives it full weight. So long as that’s done, it should be fine.

      Maybe the distraction can be overcome if this approach is only for popular level audiences. Postmodern audiences aren’t as interested in truth claims, but this could be a way to push them in that direction by placing it in a different spot.

      • It is true that I wouldn’t hold the same claim to Geisler’s order of eschatology. However, I think the worry of making it an afterthought would come from the nature of a totally different discussion from theology explicated through special revelation, to epistemological justification through more natural theology. Just to make sure I’m being clear, the afterthought worry comes from the different language employed by the two discussions. If only 150 pages (give or take) are allocated at the end of a 1000+ page book, it might be seen as an afterthought. However, if the author could tie the two together in a smooth fashion, the differences in language could be reconciled. It all depends on how it is written and tied with the main focus of the book.

        I think I’ll agree with you that the distraction claim should probably be dismissed because of today’s audiences. At the end of the day, I do see this as a better approach for popular level audiences who are already Christians. I might add that I would enjoy seeing both methods done.

  2. Thanks for a great post!

    I think this is applicable to most church doctrine statements as well. Start with the Gospel truth, then to it’s implications and outworkings.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. I have used Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears’ Doctrine book as my sequence as I teach theology. Mainly because I did not have the time to really think about how I would do it. I had been throwing around the idea of using the order of salvation (which is how Grudem teaches it) as a means for a greater understanding of how it all works together. Because without an overarching flow the students do not get why it matters nor how it all fits together.

    Strengths: You cover the basics at the beginning and anywhere your students are lacking you can add in, and it also covers huge topics early so that if you have to cut stuff you would cut the deeper stuff at the end.
    It flows well, there is an easily laid out course. I can already see that the overarching questions would make good essay questions. Maybe even put them up on the board for the entire unit.

    Question: is there a place in this framework for apologetics? Maybe at the same time as we cover the different topics, addressing issues that come up?

    Weaknesses: I feel most students do not actually grasp what the Gospel is. IT is deeper and wider than anything we can comprehend, I am worried though that if this part is not taught well you will lose the kids. They think they know it (as many in our churches assume as well), its Jesus died for my sins, but there is so much more to it than that. I wonder if you could introduce the gospel at the beginning hinting that the entire class is really a gospel course, and make that your focus throughout, how the gospel is so huge yet so simple. (I have been reading Keller and a book by Bryan Chapell about preaching, and I think the concept of constantly preaching the gospel can be translated well into constantly teaching the gospel)

    Well its Friday so I am not sure this makes any sense. Take it for what you will. I hope it helps. I will come back to this over the weekend to see if it made any sense.

  4. Be sure to check out Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology when it is released.

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