Writing a Systematic Theology? Top 100 Bible References to Cover

So you want to write a systematic theology? Then you have to refer to certain passages—at least, if you want to be consistent with past works of systematics, not to mention the biblical witness itself.

Many configurations of Logos now include a section in the Passage Guide called Systematic Theologies. At its heart, it analyzes the way Systematic Theologies use the Bible in discussion of theological issues.

To accomplish this, we isolated all the passages cited in systematic theologies and classified their context by theological category. Now you can see when a particular verse (like John 3:16) is used in the context of a particular, common topic (like Christology or soteriology). If you’re studying a passage, this enables you to see how the passage is used in different theological contexts.


There were two primary classifications of categories we employed:

1. Classic

  • Theology Proper: The study of the being, attributes, and works of God
  • Bibliology: The study of the Bible
  • Christology: The study of Christ
  • Pneumatology: The study of the Holy Spirit
  • Soteriology: The study of salvation
  • Anthropology: The study of humanity
  • Angelology: The study of angels
  • Demonology: The study of demons
  • Hamartiology: The study of sin
  • Ecclesiology: The study of the church
  • Eschatology: The study of last things

2. Additional

  • Prolegomena: Introductory material involving the study and nature of systematic theology
  • Exegesis: Discussion is more focused on exegetical matters than on theological discussion
  • Theologians: Discussion of theologians or a particular theologian
  • Traditions: Discussion of denominations, groups, or particular applications of systematic theology (e.g. Dispensationalism)

Note that these additional categories are included in the data set, but they are not discussed below.

We also categorized each systematic theology resource as can best be determined, according to the denominational position of the author at the time the resource was originally published. This allows one to plot a systematic theology resource across two axes: denomination and topic.

For any Bible passage, you can review the impact of Scripture on systematic theology by topic and denomination. At the time of this post, over 830,000 references in over 300 systematic theologies have been categorized.

Big Data

How did we do it? Well, if you’ve heard anything about “Data Science” or “Data Scientists” or even “Big Data” you may have some ideas.

First we identified all the systematic theology resources available on the Logos Bible study platform. Then we located all the Bible reference citations and extracted relevant context for each reference. We manually classified the contexts of over 2,000 of those references. Then we used that as training data to train a classifier to classify the rest. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, whenever we release a new systematic theology resource, we use the classifier to analyze the new references and update the dataset.

This is great and all, but after awhile I asked myself the obvious question: What are the most frequently cited references within systematic theologies?

So I decided to take a little time and dig into the raw data. Note that for purposes of the dataset, we expand ranges (so, Genesis 1:1–4 is split into Genesis 1:1, Genesis 1:2, Genesis 1:3, and Genesis 1:4). Further, we cap the number of verses in ranges to avoid really large ranges. The current range cutoff is at five verses.

Which are the most frequent? Actually, none of these references surprised me when I saw them. Here are the top 10:

  1. Matthew 28:19 (1527x)
  2. John 3:16 (1514x)
  3. John 1:14 (1253x)
  4. Matthew 28:20 (1133x)
  5. Hebrews 1:3 (1081x)
  6. Romans 8:29 (986x)
  7. John 1:1 (976x)
  8. Genesis 1:26 (959x)
  9. 2 Timothy 3:16 (941x)
  10. Ephesians 1:4 (915x)

More interesting to me, however, is what isn’t in there. No references from James in the top 10. Or top 20. Or in the top 100. The first reference from James is James 1:17, clocking in at number 163.

Even more surprising to me is the general lack of Old Testament references in the top 100; there are only nine. Genesis makes a showing, as it should, but the first Old Testament book that isn’t Genesis is Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6, of course) which shows up at 71. And that’s the only OT reference outside of Genesis that shows up in the top 100. The next is Jeremiah 31:33, at 105; Exodus 3:14 (God sharing His name, “I am that I am”) at 122.

What references should my systematic theology use?

The classifier analyzes the context in which a reference to a Bible verse occurs in an effort to determine what systematic theology topic the larger context best reflects. There could be a soteriological discussion within a larger section of Christology; the classifier should (crossing fingers) be able to suss out that sort of thing.

In what follows, we’ll take a look at the top five passages referenced under each major systematic theology category, as identified above.

Theology Proper (Romans 1:20)

Theology Proper is the doctrine of God, so one can imagine that systematic theologies have much to say here. The most popular verse referenced in the context of Theology Proper (694 times in over 300 resources) is Romans 1:20: “For from the creation of the world, his invisible attributes, both his eternal power and deity, are discerned clearly, being understood in the things created, so that they are without excuse.” What better verse could there be for establishing the basics of the doctrine of God? Here are the top five:

  1. Romans 1:20 (694x)
  2. Matthew 28:19 (693x)
  3. Hebrews 1:3 (680x)
  4. Genesis 1:26 (653x)
  5. John 3:16 (622x)

Bibliology (2 Timothy 3:16)

When studying bibliology (the doctrine of Scripture), the verse almost always mentioned is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” So it isn’t surprising that it is the most frequently referenced verse in the context of bibliology (381 times). Surrounding references are also frequent (2 Timothy 3:15 is referenced 129 times; 2 Timothy 3:17 is referenced 104 times). But what other verses are mentioned in the context of bibliology?

  1. 2 Timothy 3:16 (381x)
  2. 2 Peter 1:21 (237x)
  3. John 10:35 (146x)
  4. 2 Timothy 3:15 (129x)
  5. 2 Peter 1:20 (127x)

These references point to two larger passages, 2 Timothy 3:15–17 and 2 Peter 1:18–21, which are foundational to the discussion of bibliology.

Christology (John 1:14)

Christology is the doctrine of Christ. The gospel of John contributes much to laying the groundwork of the doctrine of Christ; four of the top ten references are from John, including the most frequently referenced, John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Here are the top five:

  1. John 1:14 (449x)
  2. 2 Corinthians 5:21 (444x)
  3. John 3:16 (394x)
  4. Hebrews 2:14 (376x)
  5. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 (357x)

The other two references from John in the top ten are John 5:28 and John 5:29.

Pneumatology (John 14:26)

Pneumatology is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It comes from the word πνεῦμα (pneuma), which is the Greek word for “spirit.” If the Gospel of John contributes to the doctrine of Christ, it is even more so a contributor to the groundwork of the doctrine of the Spirit. Of the top ten references, eight of them are from John’s gospel. The verse most frequently referred to in the context of pneumatology is John 14:28: “You have heard that I said to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am.” Here are the top five:

  1. John 14:26 (184x)
  2. John 16:13 (183x)
  3. John 15:26 (176x)
  4. John 14:16 (157x)
  5. Ephesians 4:30 (142x)

The other references from John are related to the above: John 14:17; 16:14; 16:8.

Soteriology (Ephesians 1:4)

Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, and apparently there is no better verse to discuss in the context of soteriology than Ephesians 1:4: “just as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love.” Note that Ephesians 1:5, which completes the thought of verse 4, ranks at number 5: “having predestined us to adoption through Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will.” Here are the top five:

  1. Ephesians 1:4 (348x)
  2. Romans 8:29 (323x)
  3. Romans 8:30 (286x)
  4. John 3:16 (252x)
  5. Ephesians 1:5 (237x)

Have you noticed this is the third time that John 3:16 has made the top 5? Apparently it is systematic theology’s equivalent of a utility infielder (that’s a baseball term referring to a jack-of-all-trades position, just like a utility back in rugby).

Anthropology (Genesis 2:7)

Anthropology is the doctrine of people. What is our relationship with God, why are we here, and what is our purpose? As one might expect, the book of Genesis is important in the discussion of this topic with four of the five most frequent references. The most frequent reference is Genesis 2:7: “when Yahweh God formed the man of dust from the ground, and he blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” Here are the top five:

  1. Genesis 2:7 (290x)
  2. Genesis 1:27 (252x)
  3. Genesis 1:26 (231x)
  4. Romans 5:12 (191x)
  5. Genesis 2:17 (150x)

So, outside of Genesis 1 and 2, the most frequently referenced verse is Romans 5:12 (on which see hamartiology, the doctrine of sin, below).

Angelology (Hebrews 1:14)

Angels. Everyone wants to know about angels. Angelology, or the doctrine of Angels, is how we learn to think about these beings within a doctrinal framework. The most frequently referenced verse in the context of angelology is Hebrews 1:14: “Are they not all spirits engaged in special service, sent on assignment for the sake of those who are going to inherit salvation?” At spot 4, we have our first tie.

  1. Hebrews 1:14 (185x)
  2. Colossians 1:16 (130x)
  3. Jude 6 (123x)
  4. Matthew 18:10 and 2 Peter 2:4 (112x)
  5. Psalm 103:20 (103x)

Jude 6, of course, brings up the notion of Tartarus. So maybe it’s time to think about, from our perspective anyway, the darker side of things.

Demonology (Revelation 12:9)

Demonology is the doctrine of demons, Satan, fallen angels, and that sort of stuff. As one might expect, the book of Revelation is frequently appealed to in this area with three of the top five references. Revelation 12:9 is the most frequently mentioned verse: “And the great dragon was thrown down, the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world. He was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” Here’s the list:

  1. Revelation 12:9 (77x)
  2. 1 Peter 5:8 (53x)
  3. John 8:44 (52x)
  4. Revelation 20:2 (51x)
  5. Revelation 20:10 (47x)

You may notice that these reference frequencies are smaller than the frequencies of references in other systematic theology topics. Demonology, rightly or wrongly, is not discussed as frequently or as in depth, apparently, as other topics.

Hamartiology (Romans 5:12)

Hamartiology is a strange word to some ears, derived from the Greek word ἁμαρτία (hamartia), which means “sin.” So hamartiology is the doctrine of sin. What could possibly be the most frequently referred to reference for this doctrine? Romans 5:12: “Because of this, just as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death spread to all people because all sinned.” This verse is referred to over twice as many times as the second most frequent reference, Ephesians 2:3. The list of top five is below:

  1. Romans 5:12 (302x)
  2. Ephesians 2:3 (137x)
  3. Romans 5:19 (119x)
  4. Psalm 51:5 (111x)
  5. Genesis 2:17 (108x)

Ecclesiology (Matthew 16:18)

Ecclesiology is the doctrine of the Church. As such, the most frequent references are found in the New Testament. Matthew 16:18 is the most frequent: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it!” That, of course, makes a lot of sense. The list of five follows:

  1. Matthew 16:18 (322x)
  2. Matthew 28:19 (307x)
  3. Ephesians 4:11 (275x)
  4. Matthew 28:20 (261x)
  5. Acts 20:28 (253x)

The strong representation by Matthew 28:19–20 as well as Acts 20:28 are not surprising either. I didn’t expect Ephesians 4:11 (actually, probably the range from Ephesians 4:11–14) to show so strongly, but upon review it makes perfect sense for it to be included.

Eschatology (Revelation 20:4)

Saving the most difficult to explain for last, eschatology is the doctrine of last things. It is heavily focused on in books, articles, and commentaries but apparently does not have an equivalent focus within the context of a systematic theology. The numbers for these references are fairly low, and unexpectedly so.

Revelation 20:4 is the most frequent: “And I saw thrones, and they sat down on them, and authority to judge was granted to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and did not receive the mark on their forehead and on their hand, and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” But this verse is only referred to 54 times. Here’s the list of the top five, with two more ties:

  1. Revelation 20:4 (54x)
  2. Revelation 20:10 and Revelation 20:14 (53x)
  3. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Revelation 20:12 (52x)
  4. Matthew 19:28 (50x)
  5. Matthew 25:46 (49x)

A reference to Matthew 24:30, which I’d expected to be higher, shows up at number 6. And Daniel 9:27 shows up at number 9. But why the overall slim showing?

I think it has to do with the contexts in which eschatology is discussed and the language used to discuss it. These contexts and languages could be misconstrued by the classifier as other contexts.

Eschatology by necessity discusses angels, demons, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and other major key terms that typically point to other topics of systematic theology. Maybe we need to do some more work specifically in this area to help the classifier represent this material a bit more accurately.

Are some Bible books referenced more frequently than others?

When you have a set of data like this, you not only find out what things are classified. You find out what isn’t classified. Not every Bible reference is (apparently) relevant to a discussion of systematic theology.

Of course, some material in genealogies may be relevant, but not all. So portions of Genesis 5, 10, and other genealogies in 1 Chronicles and even in Matthew are not directly cited. Some books have complete coverage — all the verses in Romans, including the greetings in Romans 16, are cited somewhere, somehow. This is also the case with First Corinthians.

But when you look at the bigger picture of the entire Bible, you see peaks and valleys of citation. Some areas (the Paulines, Matthew, Genesis, portions of Psalms, portions of Deuteronomy) are cited frequently. But things get pretty sparse in 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra, not to mention Numbers, Judges, and Lamentations. Here’s an altogether-too-small chart showing these trends.

The order of the bottom axis is the reference according to the Protestant canon, Genesis through Revelation without the deuterocanon/apocrypha. Apparently systematic theologies (at least in the Protestant tradition) are heavy on referencing Paul.

So if you’re writing a systematic theology, there you go. Start with Paul. And don’t forget to use the most frequently referred to references for each topic.

And, of course, John 3:16. You can safely use it in just about any context.

Top 100 References Found in Systematic Theology Resources

To finish off this post, here is the list, sorted by popularity, of the top 100 references found in systematic theology resources. The Old Testament passages are bolded so they’re a little more visible when scanning the list.

  1. Matthew 28:19 1527
  2. John 3:16 1514
  3. John 1:14 1253
  4. Matthew 28:20 1133
  5. Hebrews 1:3 1081
  6. Romans 8:29 983
  7. John 1:1 976
  8. Genesis 1:26 959
  9. 2 Timothy 3:16 941
  10. Ephesians 1:4 915
  11. 2 Corinthians 5:21 914
  12. Colossians 1:16 874
  13. Galatians 4:4 870
  14. John 16:13 864
  15. Romans 1:20 838
  16. Romans 5:12 836
  17. Genesis 1:27 832
  18. John 1:18 821
  19. Titus 3:5 805
  20. John 3:5 789
  21. Hebrews 1:2 783
  22. John 14:26 761
  23. Romans 3:25 759
  24. John 1:3 750
  25. John 15:26 730
  26. 2 Corinthians 5:19 719
  27. Genesis 1:1 715
  28. Matthew 28:18 703
  29. Romans 8:30 701
  30. Ephesians 2:8 692
  31. Galatians 2:20 687
  32. Genesis 3:15 685
  33. Acts 20:28 676
  34. Philippians 2:7 673
  35. John 14:6 672
  36. Acts 2:38 666
  37. John 1:12 661
  38. Hebrews 2:14 658
  39. Ephesians 1:5 657
  40. Genesis 1:2 652
  41. Romans 8:28 651
  42. John 14:16 644
  43. Galatians 3:13 643
  44. Luke 1:35 636
  45. Romans 8:3 634
  46. Genesis 1:28 631
  47. 1 John 2:2 625
  48. Matthew 16:18 624
  49. 1 John 3:2 624
  50. Romans 6:4 613
  51. 1 Corinthians 2:14 611
  52. Hebrews 9:14 611
  53. Genesis 2:7 610
  54. Colossians 1:15 608
  55. Philippians 2:6 607
  56. 1 Corinthians 12:13 605
  57. Romans 2:15 604
  58. 2 Peter 1:21 600
  59. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 596
  60. 1 Timothy 2:5 596
  61. Ephesians 4:11 592
  62. Galatians 4:6 590
  63. 1 Peter 2:9 590
  64. Romans 3:24 587
  65. Colossians 1:17 585
  66. Acts 17:28 584
  67. Philippians 2:13 583
  68. Hebrews 4:15 582
  69. Romans 5:19 579
  70. 2 Corinthians 4:4 577
  71. Isaiah 9:6 576
  72. 1 Corinthians 1:30 572
  73. Ephesians 1:22 571
  74. Hebrews 1:1 570
  75. Genesis 2:17 568
  76. 1 Timothy 3:16 568
  77. Romans 8:15 563
  78. Romans 6:23 562
  79. Ephesians 1:11 558
  80. 1 Corinthians 15:22 557
  81. Matthew 25:41 556
  82. Philippians 2:8 553
  83. 2 Corinthians 3:18 550
  84. 1 Peter 1:2 546
  85. Matthew 11:27 543
  86. Romans 8:16 542
  87. Galatians 5:22 539
  88. Romans 8:23 536
  89. Romans 5:10 535
  90. John 17:3 533
  91. 2 Corinthians 5:17 532
  92. Philippians 3:21 528
  93. Romans 1:18 527
  94. Romans 5:8 527
  95. Galatians 4:5 525
  96. Ephesians 2:1 524
  97. Romans 1:4 523
  98. John 3:36 522
  99. Acts 1:8 521
  100. John 16:14 518

See any interesting connections or implications? Check out my follow-up post on Biblical Theologies that uses the same approach.

Rick Brannan is the general editor of the Lexham English Septuagint and the translator of The Apostolic Fathers in English. He also translated and edited Greek Apocryphal Gospels, Fragments, and Agrapha. He is author of the New Testament portion of the Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible. He recently published Lexical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: First Timothy and Second Timothy: Notes on Grammar, Syntax, and Structure. He is currently working on the Second Timothy volume for the Lexical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles as well as a discourse analysis of the Pastoral Epistles. His personal web site is RickBrannan.com; you can follow him on Twitter at @RickBrannan.

Rick manages the Content Innovation department at Faithlife, a team focused on original language analysis, reverse interlinear textual alignments, and creation and analysis of Bible data. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his wife, Amy, and their children Ella, Lucas, and Josiah.

Do some digging of your own into 210 systematic theologies with the Systematic Theologies Collection, only in Logos.

And check out the article in Christianity Today covering this post, where top scholars weigh in on the lack of OT references in systematic theology.

Written by
Rick Brannan

Rick Brannan is a Data Wrangler for Faithlife. He manages a team that creates and maintains linguistic databases and other analyses of the Hebrew Bible, the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, and writings of the Second Temple era. He resides in Bellingham with his wife, Amy, their daughter, Ella, and their son, Lucas.

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