Exploring Doctrine, Theology, and Systematic Theology
There are three religious terms I don’t care for. Hearing or reading about them has a negative impact on me. These words are doctrine, theology, and systematic theology. I don’t like them because they take the awesome mystery of God and try to provide structure to something that transcends human organization.
Let’s consider these three terms and what place they might have in our faith journey.
The first religious term I don’t care for is doctrine. Doctrine is a principle or group of principles presented as a body of belief in a religious context. Other words to describe doctrine include creed, canon, and tenet. A fourth word is dogma, which is the root word for dogmatic.
Dogmatic means insisting unexamined ideas coming often from a position of arrogance.
When I read about Christian doctrine, it’s too often presented with dogmatic fervor. This may be a huge reason why the discussion of doctrine so turns me off.
Yet we all form and adhere to various religious doctrines. Some of these have a sound biblical foundation. But many do not.
We learn much of our doctrinal positions through the teaching of ministers. Often these pronouncements support tradition and align with current societal norms more so than being based on Scripture.
I fear, however, that we simply make up too many of our doctrine ideas because they feel right to us. Or because we want them to be true. Or since they allow us to avoid uncomfortable confrontations with biblical truth.
May we base all our doctrinal perspectives on what the Bible says.
The second religious term I prefer to avoid is theology. For Christians, at a base level, theology is a study of God. In this respect, I love theology. Yet my study of God has the sole purpose of helping me draw closer to him.
It’s a futile attempt to study God for the sake of amassing knowledge about him or to comprehend him from an intellectual standpoint. It’s arrogant to pursue theology if that’s our goal.
Bearing fruit is more important than having a right theology.
God far surpasses are human comprehension. We’ll never understand him in an academic way, at least not with any significant result—or producing any positive eternal outcome.
We cannot organize God, but that doesn’t keep people from trying. This brings us to our third religious term.
Systematic theology is a subset of theology. In the Christian sense, systematic theology seeks to condense our understanding of God and our faith in him into a series of interconnected thoughts that constitute a comprehensive and organized treatise. In a way, we can view a systematic theology is an interconnected set of doctrines.
The God who is revealed in the Bible transcends our ability to organize him and force him into a system of our own making. To attempt to do so diminishes him and elevates us to unwarranted levels.
Yes, most people have a systematic theology. Many were taught it and accept what they were taught. Others arrived at their systematic theology with intentionality.
I resist the urge to force the all-mighty, all-knowing, and all-present God who is revealed in the Bible into a system of my own making. It’s simply not possible.
Instead, my desire is to follow Jesus the best I can as I let the Holy Spirit bring me into a closer relationship with Father God. Toward that end, doctrine, theology, and systematic theology don’t matter so much and only get in the way.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
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