Theology 1: Introduction to Systematic Theology

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology as related to ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts follow Grudem but include significant modifications. The starting point of this study of Systematic Theology follows Grudem’s two presuppositions. “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

In this introduction to Systematic Theology, there are three primary questions:

  1. What is systematic theology?
  2. Why should Christians study systematic theology?
  3. How should Christians study systematic theology?

What is Systematic Theology?

“Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today’ about any given topic” (Grudem, 21). A doctrine is what the whole Bible teaches about a given topic (Grudem, 25). 

 The best way to understand systematic theology is to compare it with other methods of studying the Bible and theology. Systematic theology is the second of four parts of a process of developing practical theology.[1]

  1. Analytical Biblical Theology is the process of understanding individual books of the Bible or passages. The foundation for good systematic theology is a rigorous study of separate books of the Bible to understand what they teach. Our goal here is to learn what the authors of Scripture meant in their original context.
  2. Synthetic Biblical Theology or Systematic Theology compares and contrasts different passages and books to answer what the whole Bible teaches on a particular subject. Systematic Theology usually only answers the question of what the Bible meant in its original context. The good news is that what was true when the Bible was written is true today. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Whatever the Bible teaches about God, Jesus, salvation, and other subjects is as true today as it was in the first century.
  3. Hermeneutics is the bridge that brings together what the Bible meant when it was originally written with what it means for practical ministry today. In point #2, I noted that the truth about God does not change. Since the Scriptures teach that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, we know that God is all-knowing and all-powerful today. Since Scripture teaches that salvation is by grace through faith, we know that this is also true today. However, theology needs to be applied in many practical ways. The contexts of our lives are different than the times when Scripture was originally written. Therefore, we must go through a process of interpreting how to live out Scripture today.
  4. Practical Theology is how to live out Scripture today. Practical Theology has many different aspects, such as missiology, ecclesiology, apologetics, and ethics.  

Three Reasons Christians Should Study Theology

  1. To gain the ability to respond to Muslim questions and objections. Many Christians have difficulty answering Muslim objections to the faith because they lack a foundation in their own faith. For example, if a Christian has a poor understanding of the Trinity, how can they defend this doctrine against Muslim objections? Those in Muslim ministry have a significant advantage in studying theology. Often encounters with different faiths become an excellent opportunity to strengthen our own understanding of what the Bible teaches.
  2. To overcome false doctrines in the South Asian churches. Unfortunately, some churches in every part of the world are drawn away into false teaching and beliefs. This phenomenon is not unique to South Asia, but it is present in South Asia. Some examples of false teaching in South Asia include the prosperity gospel, Oneness Pentecostalism, and liberation theology. These false teachings are often attractive when we lack strong biblical foundations. Various cults, such as Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons, have found their way into South Asia. Studying theology helps us think clearly about how to respond appropriately to these groups.
  3. To help us think clearly about God and doctrine. All of us practice theology, meaning that every person has ideas about God and what is true. The act of studying theology provides a process to ensure that the study of theology is done well. It is inherently a good thing to understand God well. As we understand Him, our hearts turn towards Him in worship! Right thinking about God guides us in walking rightly in the world. Likewise, the study of various doctrines guides us to think clearly about doctrines such as sin, angels, or prayer. While understanding does not necessarily lead to obedience, it helps us walk rightly with God.

Four Ways Christians Should Study Systematic Theology

  1. With Bible Study. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we should go straight to Scripture when hearing teaching to learn from the Word whether or not it is true. Before embarking on a study of systematic theology, it is necessary to have a deep knowledge of God’s Word.
  2. With Prayer. The Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13). Any pursuit of truth must begin with prayer and be bathed in prayer.
  3. With Humility. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1). Remember that “God has chosen what is foolish in the world” (1 Cor 1:27). Too often, a study of theology leads to pride, much like the Pharisees of the New Testament. Their pride led to an outward religion that lacked an inward spirituality. We must approach a study of theology with soft hearts, eager to learn from God and others. As God teaches us, we should seek to grow in love and humility, rather than pride.
  4. With Others. Studying theology with others protects us from false belief. If we hold a view that is contrary to other Christians that we respect, then we should humbly dialogue with them and have an openness in our hearts that we are the ones requiring correction. 

Islamic Theology vs. Christian Theology

Islamic theology and Christian theology differ in their presuppositions. This theological study is built on two presuppositions. Here they are compared to Islamic presuppositions.

Christian PresuppositionsIslamic Presuppositions
1. The Bible is true and is the only standard of truth.1. The Qur’an is true and is the primary standard of truth.
2. The God who is spoken of in the Bible exists. He is who the Bible says He is, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.2. The God who is spoken of in the Qur’an exists. He is who the Qur’an says he is, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.

While these presuppositions are almost identical, the change from the Bible to the Qur’an as the standard of truth leads to very different theological conclusions. In reality, a third presupposition should be added here about the importance of Jesus in Christian theology versus Muhammad in Islamic belief. I

t is not surprising that a large portion of disagreements between Christians and Muslims center on debates of whether the Bible or the Qur’an is the Word of God. I hope to write more blog posts on that subject.

In South Asian Islam, it is also helpful to know how most Muslims relate Qur’anic teaching to practical living. In Islam, there are four major schools of teaching/jurisprudence (Ar. fiqh). Each of these schools of Islamic thought approach Scripture in different ways. In South Asia, the primary approach is called Hanafi, which comes from Abu Hanifa (d. 767 AD) of Persia. About a third of Muslims in the world are Hanafi, making this the most common fiqh. In South Asia, the Deobandis, Barelvis, Tablighi Jamaat, Sufis, and most others are Hanafi. In contrast, Zakir Naik and some other movements are Salafi, which is heavily opposed to Hanafi Islam. 

In simple terms, Hanafi fiqh permits integrating local practices into Islam (e.g., dargahs). Hanafi fiqh is one reason folk practices are so common in South Asian Islam. Here are the sources of authority in Hanafi Islam listed in descending degrees of authority.

  • The Qur’an is the highest authority.
  • The Hadith is the secondary authority. Zakir Naik and other Salafis reject any authorities past this point.
  • Qiyas. A qiyas is a deductive analogy based on the Qur’an and Hadith. The original jurists, such as Abu Hanifa, wrote the apply the Qur’an and Hadith to issues not addressed in the Qur’an and Hadith. To do so, they used deductive reasoning (i.e., qiyas). The writings of these ancient jurists are foundational today for Islamic theology and practice. How Abu Hanafi interpreted and applied the Qur’an is considered by most to be authoritative in South Asia.
  • Ijtihad. An Ijtihad is the independent reasoning of a Mufti in response to a particular question. Usually, an ijtihad is a significant literary work. A good example in South Asia would be Ahmad Raza Khan Bareilvi’s writings on Muhammad existing as pure light from the beginning of creation. Khan’s writings on this subject have become a source of authority within the Barelvi movement.

Today, most Muslims in South Asia resolve their theology questions by asking for fatwas by Muftis. A Mufti is a highly educated Islamic scholar. Muslims will regularly write questions to these Muftis and ask for legal judgments (i.e., fatwas). For example, recently, some Muslims asked whether it is permissible to use alcoholic hand sanitizer during the Covid pandemic. Deobandi muftis wrote a fatwa calling this halal (Arabic for “permitted”) since no alcohol would be imbibed. The type of alcohol in hand sanitizer is different from that in alcoholic drinks. Likewise, they said it is permissible to sanitize mosques with alcoholic sanitizer. These Deobandi muftis based their opinions on all of the relevant information from the sources of authority above. The writing of fatwas like these also becomes another source of authority in South Asian Islamic practice. Often different schools of South Asian Islam write fatwas directly in contradiction of one another, especially the Deobandi and Barelvi schools. 

For Christians ministering among Muslims, it isn’t easy to navigate all of these sources of authority. However, most Muslims in South Asia are likewise ignorant of these books. Most have never read the Qur’an or Hadith, much less these other writings. Also, most South Asian Muslims believe that the Qur’an should only be read in Arabic. Since most South Asian Muslims do not read Arabic, they are, in essence, cut off from their primary source of authority. Instead, their religious leaders are their source of authority.

Compared to the layers of Islamic authority, studying and applying the Bible to our lives is relatively simple. While we value studying Scripture in its original Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament), we believe that God can speak to us through His Word in translated languages. The reasons that we think this will become clear in the next few weeks as we study the doctrine of Scripture.

[1] Please note that this process is different than what Grudem describes.

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