What do you think of this approach to Bible study, expressed by Alexander Campbell in the 19th century?
I have endeavored to read the scriptures as though no one had read them before me … , and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.1
Whatever you think of Campbell’s approach to Scripture, it clearly still resonates with many people today. They assume that an “unbiased” reading of the Bible is the best way to access its truths. To suggest that systematic theology has an important role to play in Bible study sounds like suggesting that readers conform the Bible to a human system rather than simply letting it speak.
But this is a false view of the options. Campbell’s method of reading as an amnesiac didn’t really free him from his 19th century biases. His approach, if truly carried out, would prevent a reader from reading the Bible in light of itself (unless he could read the entire thing in one day!).
Reading the whole Bible in light of itself is precisely what Wayne Grudem is seeking to do in his very popular Systematic Theology, now in its second edition. Grudem defines his approach to systematic theology as “any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.”2 Grudem’s definition highlights the role that the Bible itself plays in the formation of systematic theology. At its best, systematic theology is not an imposition of outside biases upon the Bible, but is instead the fruit of careful study of the Bible.
Why make use of Systematic Theology in Bible study
Careful study of the Bible will always raise theological questions. The Old Testament repeatedly insists that there is only one true God. But the New Testament teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are God. How are these statements reconciled? There is no single Bible verse that provides the answer. James wrote, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24).3 But Paul wrote, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).
How can this seeming contradiction be resolved? Peter warned that the false teachers who were “denying the Master who bought them” were “bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet 2:1). Does this verse teach that redeemed people can lose their salvation, or is that interpretation incompatible with the rest of the Scripture’s teaching on the subject? These are very important questions. Systematic theology is the way students of the Bible find answers to such questions when they arise in their Bible reading.
One of the most famous of all theologies, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, was written to help people read their Bibles more accurately.4 Grudem’s Systematic Theology has played a similar role for many evangelical Christians since it was first published in 1994. Grudem is well known for having written a Bible-saturated systematic theology. He quotes Scripture at length (often highlighting the most pertinent parts with italics). This approach to theology makes Grudem’s Systematic an ideal companion for Bible study.
How to make use of Systematic Theology in Bible study
There are numerous ways you can incorporate systematic theology into your Bible study. You can simply have a systematic theology handy to consult when a theological question presents itself. Or you can take a more systematic approach to including systematic theology in your study method: make it a practice to consult the Scripture index of a systematic theology to see if the passage you are studying appears. Or use Logos Bible Software’s Passage Guide to do the same thing automatically. You can also, of course, devote some Bible study time to reading through a systematic theology.
Grudem’s theology lends itself to serious devotional reading. Along with each chapter he has included questions for personal application; he doesn’t write from an ivory tower. Take time to meditate on these questions. Use them as the basis for prayer. Each chapter also includes a Scripture memory passage. Grudem has even included hymns at the end of each chapter to encourage worship and meditation on the theological truths taught in it.
Don’t be intimidated at the idea of reading a systematic theology. One of the notable features of Grudem’s Systematic is its clarity. Grudem specifically wrote for students who had not yet had formal training in theology, and as he wrote he thought of his own parents sitting in on a class where his book was being taught. He wanted them to be able to understand its teaching, even though they did not have formal theological training.
The conviction that theological teaching should be clear is borne out of a conviction that Scripture is clear. One of the chapters rewritten in this revision is the chapter on the clarity of Scripture, and in this chapter Grudem explains that his conviction regarding Scripture’s clarity led to his approach to systematic theology.
This chapter also contains a number of helpful insights relevant to Bible study: though God’s revelation is clear, to understand it you must study it, put in effort to improve the skills necessary for effective reading, make use of good translations, learn from wise teachers (including those who have written Bible study tools), be willing to obey, pray for the Spirit’s help, and humbly recognize your own fallibility.5
Strengths and weaknesses
As helpful as systematic theologies are, they are not infallible. (Of course, the same is true of grammars, lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries.) Grudem’s work has several weaknesses that readers should be aware of. For example, the great strength of Grudem’s approach comes with an accompanying weakness.
Historically, systematic theology hasn’t merely been a systematizing of Scripture around topic heads, as in Grudem’s definition. It has also engaged church history, philosophy, science, and other disciplines. Grudem doesn’t entirely avoid these areas (Greg Allison has written a helpful companion volume on historical theology that Grudem frequently references in his second edition), but he gives less attention to these areas than systematics traditionally do.
Inevitably, a large book like this will contain some oversights. For instance, at one point Grudem says that “God is unchanging in his being” while also “feel[ing] differently in response to different situations.” However, a strong “classical theist” (the kind committed to Aristotle’s metaphysics) would argue that these statements are contradictory since changes in “feeling” would necessarily be changes in the being of a God. Grudem’s approach leaves this currently hot topic unaddressed.
And if synthesizing Scripture tends to be Grudem’s strength, engaging with other disciplines tends not to be. For instance, in this recent revision Grudem added to his discussion about the age of the earth. Unfortunately, in making a scientific case for an old earth, he relied primarily on a single, popular-level book by Hugh Ross. There was no interaction with recent secular scientists on the one hand or with recent young earth scientists on the other. Further, it is at this point that Grudem’s conclusions, in my opinion, stand most in tension with his usually straightforward approach to interpreting the biblical text.
For the most part, however, Grudem provides readers with thoughtful, reverent, conservative, biblically grounded treatments of key theological issues. I was thankful for Grudem’s additional attention in this new edition to Molinism, N. T. Wright’s view of justification, free grace theology, and partial preterism—issues which may not matter to you until they do; that is, until a Christian friend or your college-age child adopts them.
I wish he had found Thomas Schreiner’s recent treatment of spiritual gifts (dedicated to Grudem) more convincing, but Grudem is a humble man who has shown himself willing to revise his views in the face of additional evidence or argumentation–as he does in this volume on the issue of the eternal begetting of the Son, which he now affirms.
Grudem is a devout, careful scholar who desires to use the gifts that God has given him for the strengthening of the church. It is for this reason that his Systematic Theology has been so widely used by Christians and in local churches. It is for this reason that Grudem’s Systematic makes an ideal companion for your Bible study.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
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- Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 41-42.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 1.
- Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:5.
- Grudem, 113-21.