We’re going to explore what I call the Five Ways of Theology. Theology is often described using five adjectives. Of course, the theology we’re all after is a true theology, an orthodox theology. But we use the expressions biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, dogmatic theology, and elenctic theology. What are these? What do they mean? Where did they come from?
Before we look at each of these, let’s make sure we understand the word theology. It’s a compound word that comes from theos, which means “god,” and logos, which can mean “a word,” or, as in this case, “the study of.” So we’re talking about the highest of all subjects, aren’t we? We’re talking about the study of God. Thomas Aquinas said, “Theology is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to God.” The Puritan William Ames simply said, “Theology is the art of living to God.” What a beautiful definition.
I have a book on my bookshelf titled Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments by an American Dutchman, Geerhardus Vos. What is biblical theology? In the preface, Vos writes, “All truly Christian Theology must be Biblical Theology.” It must come from God’s revelation. But he goes on to say:
Biblical theology occupies a position between Exegesis [a fancy word to say the deep interpretation of Scripture] and Systematic Theology in the encyclopaedia [that is, in the range of study] of the theological disciplines. It differs from Systematic Theology, not in being more Biblical, or adhering more closely to the truths of the Scriptures, but in that its principle of organizing the Biblical material is historical rather than logical [or, we would say, systematic].Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948), v.
Systematic theology takes the Bible as a completed whole and exhibits its teaching in a systematic form. But “Biblical Theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth of the development of the truths of [Scripture] from the primitive pre-redemptive Special Revelation given in Eden to the close of the New Testament canon” (Vos, Biblical Theology, v–vi.)—from Eden to the new heavens and the new earth, following that organic form. That’s biblical theology.
The word systematic, or system, is a group of interacting or independent elements that are formed into a complex whole. So systematic theology is the arrangement of the various elements concerning God and what He’s doing in this world as revealed by Him and His Word into a complex, organized whole—expressed through creeds, through catechisms, through confessions, and through statements of beliefs.
The third way we talk about theology is historical theology. We love that on Five Minutes in Church History. Historical theology is looking at how theology through the centuries is developed. So, for instance, we speak of a medieval theology or a Reformation theology.
Fourth, we talk about dogmatic theology. Dogma gets a bad rap, doesn’t it? A dogmatic person is usually someone who is rigid and unmoving. But the word dogma just means a law or a rule or a set of principles. We could say there is a Baptist theology; that’s a dogmatic theology that’s following a set and approach. In many ways the different Reformation confessions, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, present a dogmatic theology; it’s committed and presents a set of principles. There’s also a Lutheran theology and a Roman Catholic theology.
What is the fifth way of describing theology? We will finish off this discussion with number five next time.