Choice Quotations: What Is (Systematic) Theology?

While perusing my site information the other day I noticed that someone had found their way over to this corner of the internet by Google-ing the question, “What is systematic theology?” When I saw this I immediately remembered that when I commenced with theological education some 5 years ago (wow! It has been a long time…), I was exercised by that same question. So, I have decided to compile here, for the benefit of those who might be starting out in theological study, a number of quotes from various theologians on the nature of systematic theology. These quotes may be found below in roughly chronological order. Remember, that quoting almost at random from these theologians will not give one an understanding of the whole of their opinions on any given topic, much less on this topic. Also bear in mind that “systematic” theology is somewhat newer than mere “theology” and more ancient writers will not make a distinction.


-> St. Augustine

* Note: I had hoped to include some choice quotation from St. Augustine, but I was unable to find one. If anyone has such a quotation from Augustine, please send it along to me so that I could include it here.

-> St. Thomas

“Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.” -- Summa Theologica Q1.2.

-> John Calvin

“[W]e ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends…We ought to be warned…so that we may take care to apply ourselves…with teachableness rather than with subtlety. And let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word…[L]et it be remembered that men’s minds, when they indulge their curiosity, enter into a labyrinth.” -- Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.21.

-> Francis Turretin

“Among Christians, the word “theology” is used either inadequately…or adequately inasmuch as it denotes both a discourse of God and a discourse about God. These two must be joined together because we cannot speak concerning God without God; so that it may be termed the science which is originally from God, objectively treats concerning and terminatively flows into and leads to him…So this nomenclature embraces the twofold principle of theology: one of being, which is God; the other of knowing, which is his word.” -- Institutes of Elenctic Theology 1, 2 (1.1.7).

-> Charles Hodge

“If, therefore, theology be a science, it must include something more than a mere knowledge of facts. It must embrace an exhibition of the internal relation of those facts, one to another, and each to all. It must be able to show that if one be admitted, others cannot be denied. The Bible is no more a system of theology, than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics. We find in nature the facts which the chemist or the mechanical philosopher has to examine, and from them to ascertain the laws by which they are determined. So the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collection, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other. This constitutes the difference between biblical and systematic theology. The office of the former is to ascertain and state the facts of Scripture. The office of the latter is to take those facts, determine their relation to each other and to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency.” -- Systematic Theology 1, 1-2.

-> Karl Barth

"Theology is a peculiarly beautiful discipline. Indeed, At this point we may refer to the fact that if its task is correctly seen and grasped, theology as a whole, in its parts and in their interconnexion, in its content and method, is, apart from anything else, a peculiarly beautiful science. Indeed, we can confidently say that it is the most beautiful of all the sciences. To find the sciences distasteful is the mark of the Philistine. It is an extreme form of Philistinism to find, or to be able to find, theology distasteful. The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk—taedium—in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do. But we must know, of course, that it is only God who can keep us from it." -- Church Dogmatics II.1, 656.

“Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as ‘sciences.’ Not only the natural sciences are ‘sciences.’ Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word ‘theology’ seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of ‘God.’ -- Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3.

-> Donald Bloesch

“[T]heology is the systematic reflection within a particular culture on the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture and witness to in the tradition of the catholic church., Theology in this sense is both biblical and contextual. Its norm is Scripture, but its field or arena of action is the cultural context in which we find ourselves. It is engaged in reflection not on abstract divinity or on concrete humanity but on the Word made flesh, the divine in the human…Theology is the diligent and systematic explication of the Word of God for every age, involving not only painstaking study of the Word of God but also an earnest attempt to relate this Word to a particular age or cultural milieu…Theology is a science not in the sense of natural science but in the sense of wisdom: it is certain and true?’ -- A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology, 114-5.

-> Colin Gunton

“Simply, we can say that systematic theology is the articulation of the truth claims of Christianity, with an eye to their internal consistency, on the one hand; and, on the other, to their coherence with Scripture, the Christian tradition and other truth – philosophical, scientific, moral and artistic.” “[The systematic theologian must see] things whole, and yet in their parts as well…The heart of the matter lies in making connections.” -- Theology Through the Theologians, 5 & 15.


Anonymous said…
This is very indirect, but maybe it points to a suitable quotation for St. Augustine. In Gilson's History of Christian Philosophy he follows this quote from Erigena: "It is therefore certain that true religion is true philosophy, and, conversely, that true philosophy is true religion" with the comment "let us not forget that he is merely repeating Augustine". The reference he gives for this is De vera religione, V, 8. I don't have that available, but maybe you can track it down. Of course, I am assuming that "true philosophy", for Erigena, is more or less what we might mean by "systematic theology".
Thanks Travis, for directing me here. A few of these quotations I haven't read before.
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