These four essential elements of theology are at play whenever you do serious theological study. You may think “I have to examine what the text says” (vertical side) or “I need to think about how these texts fit together” (reflective side) or “I need to check my conclusion with the elders at my Church” (corporate side) or “how do my conclusions line up the the historic confessions?” (temporal side). Consciously and explicitly including each of these four aspects into your own theological study will help you come to more robust conclusions and have more confidence that what you are seeing in Scripture is indeed what God intended you to see.
Everyone does systematic theology: you fit together large amounts of Biblical texts in your mind to come to conclusions and you answer tough questions with Scripture. The question is, how do you go about answering these questions? What are the essential elements of theology that you should consider as you come to conclusions from Scripture? I recently started reading through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and, in one of the early chapters, he defines what systematic theology is and the different facets of it. Upon my own reflection of Berkhof’s insights, I think there are at least four essential elements of theology that you should think through when doing a topical or systematic Bible study.
1. The Vertical Side: God’s Authoritative Revelation
Fundamentally any attempt to “do theology” must start with God’s authoritative revelation. Your questions, your conclusions, your doubts, your insights, your applications all must be brought before the inerrant, inspired word. As Berkhof helpfully puts it, the Christian doctrine of revelation assumes that
- There is a personal God who communicated knowledge
- There are truths that cannot be known apart from divine revelation
- Humans can understand this revelation
So theology is not, at its foundation, humanity “figuring out” God. Rather, theology begins when the transcendent God reveals Himself to mankind. The vertical side of theology does not point from earth to heaven, but from heaven to earth. Therefore, your theological investigation will lead to a dead end until you take up the Word and read what it says. Even God’s revelation through His creation won’t be interpreted correctly without the corroborating and explanatory testimony of the Word. The first essential element of theology is God’s authoritative revelation.
2. The Reflective Side: Your Spirit-Empowered Synthesis
However, the Bible itself is not a systematic theology per se. As you read and study, your mind will naturally seek to fit together different texts and synthesize them into conclusions. Understanding what the Bible teaches about the deity and humanity of Jesus, for example, is a large and important theological topic. You cannot hope to understand this topic fully by merely reading one or two texts. Rather, your conclusions will require you to read, study, understand, and synthesize a large quantity of Biblical data from different literary genres.