Joshua Hebert, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Kemp Texas.
In January of 2017 I began teaching through a systematic theology at my church on Wednesday evenings, and in mid-2018 we completed the study. At some points the endeavor was rather challenging: a number of weeks I wound up spending more time preparing for my Wednesday service than I did for my Sunday morning sermon. But overall, it was a rewarding experience and many in the church truly enjoyed the journey.
At the core of my reasoning for carrying out such a study is a recognition that systematic theology is one of the pinnacles of Biblical interpretation. I say this not as one with a background in systematic theology, but rather with a background in grammatical-historical exegesis. If someone has carried out tremendous exegetical work on a passage (they have established the text, they have analyzed the grammar and syntax, they have looked at the relevant backgrounds and considered ways that that should shape our understanding of the text) but have not been able to fit the text into a broader theological framework, then there is still work left to be done. Grammatical-historical exegesis gives us the tools for understanding the small piece in all of its intricacies, systematic theology gives us the tools for understanding the whole it all its magnificence.
With that basis in mind, here are three reasons why you should teach systematic theology in the local church.
Your Church Needs to Know Systematic Theology
Many church members have not spent any amount of time thinking about the categories of systematic theology, much less spent their limited time and resources acquiring and reading works on it. This is, of course, no slight against them. Rather, many of the godly, hard-working people in your congregation would love to learn about God in a different way. Yet they simply have never had a guide who would show them the way. If my proposition above is granted, then this is an essential element for Christians to know, and not just the “professional” Christians.
Let me illustrate: most of us are not going to teach our churches the fine points of exegesis but there are certain principles from it that we will teach (e.g., “don’t take a passage out of its context,” “think of who this was written to and why,” etc.). They need to know these principles in order to understand their Bibles. Therefore they need tools and guidelines to assist them in how they go about reading. Similarly, when they think about God, they are doing theology. So pastor, you have the opportunity to be their guide to this field – to introduce them to a way of constructing their beliefs that is Biblical, well-rounded, and clearly organized.
Now, it is important to know what I am not saying. Systematic theology is not going to solve all of your church’s problems. Teaching this will not mean that they are guaranteed to avoid heresy anymore than teaching them to read a passage in context guarantees it. But it is our job to equip them to think about God, and this is a critical tool for their belt.
You Need to Know Systematic Theology
If we are honest with ourselves, many of us could be and should be more familiar with systematic theology than we are. In my own case, this was one of my central motivations for teaching through this. When I was going through my theological training, I took the minimum required courses in systematic theology. To be honest I wanted to focus on the “real” classes in Biblical studies. It was only in retrospect that I realized I had succumbed to a departmental hubris and that I should have had a better grounding in systematic theology.
Unfortunately, for many of us there simply is very little time in our busy schedules to sit down and start working through a thousand-page systematic theology textbook. However, if you are teaching through the topic, then necessity would force you to make the time, in the same way that your Sunday morning message forces you to open your commentaries and to spend time studying your text.
If systematic theology is as vital as I suggested it is for the church, then it is just as vital for you to know it, and to know it well. While there is no excuse for a pastor not knowing systematic theology, teaching it to your church provides an opportunity to not only equip them but to further deepen your own understanding and ability at the same time.
You Need to Know How to “Translate” Systematic Theology
One of the immediate challenges of teaching systematic theology in the church is that it is constructed in an academic environment, and that needs to be translated into the context of your local church. For instance, all of us are going to know what is meant by the “penal substitutionary atonement.” But if you use that phrase in your local church without any further explanation, you are likely to get some blank stares. Now, of course, your church most likely already believes it, they just don’t know it. They know that Jesus died to pay the penalty for their sins—they just don’t know the language theologians use to describe that. Teaching theology will require you to be able to move out of the comfortable vocabulary that is available to talk about matters in the academy and into the language of your people.
However, translating theology to this context is not just about learning how to describe ideas and positions without having the full range of academic vocabulary available—nor is it just teaching that vocabulary to your church—rather you must often demonstrate why it matters, moving something out of the purely theoretical realm and into the practical realm that many of our people operate in.
As we start shifting from merely knowing the arguments for our beliefs, critical terminology, influential thinkers, and so forth and move toward being able to show its application in situations the church faces, we ourselves will move further up the list on Bloom’s taxonomy and come to a more complete understanding of systematic theology ourselves. In doing so we will not only equip our church more fully for being about God’s work and mission, but we ourselves will also be more fully equipped, all to the glory of God.