Let’s Get Practical (and Systematic, Historical, Biblical, and Exegetical) About Theology

 

In my last post1Does Theology Matter? I referenced 5 types of theology – exegetical, biblical, systematic, historic, and practical. What do these terms mean, and how do they all fit together? I’ll explain each discipline in more detail in a moment, but first let me present the diagram below that illustrates the interconnectivity of the 5 disciplines.

As you can see, there are 5 unique disciplines that connect together with the goal of turning doctrine into devotion, with scripture as the source of truth.

Exegetical Theology

Good theology should always be grounded in scripture. Exegetical2from the Greek word ἐξηγέομαι, pronounced “ex-ayg-eh’-om-ahee”, which means to make fully known theology is concerned with understanding a specific piece of biblical text – for example, Genesis 1:1, or Romans 9. Exegetical theology most often starts by looking at the original language of scripture3Koine Greek in the case of the New Testament, and Hebrew for the Old Testament with the exception of sections of Daniel and Ezra which were written in Aramaic.

Examining the original language brings to light nuances that may not always be obvious in English. Take for instance John 3:16, which in English reads:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. ” (NKJV)

Let’s examine one of the shortest words in this verse – “so”.

In common English usage, the word “so” in this case would seem to indicate the degree or extent – that is to say, “Because God loved the world to such an extent …”

However, when we look at the original Greek, we see that the word used is οὕτω4pronounced “hoo’-to” which means thus or in this way. So in fact, the verse says, “God demonstrated His love for the word in this way …”

As you can see, a single small word can make quite a difference when we understand the original usage. John 3:16 is not saying that God reacted to His love for the world, but rather, that God demonstrated His love for the world by sending His only begotten Son. We learn about the character of God – He is fully sovereign, not reactionary.

Biblical Theology

The term “biblical theology” is a funny phrase, as it seems at first glance to state that other fields of theological study are not biblical. That’s not the case. Rather, biblical theology is concerned with understanding how the bible as a whole serves as God’s progressive revelation to His creation. Biblical theology primarily views scripture through its historical and chronological setting.

Biblical theology builds on exegetical theology and places the interpretation within the context of progressive revelation. It identifies unique themes in a given grouping of scripture (for example, the Old Testament prophets, or the letters of Paul) in the situation of its writing and attempts to trace key themes, arguments, or exhortations as they would be understood by someone at the time that scripture was written.

Systematic Theology

Systematic theology takes the output of Exegetical and Biblical theology, and synthesizes what scripture says by arranging it into logical categories, the result of which becomes comprehensive doctrine.

Common categories for systematic theology include:

  • The study of the bible (Bibliology)
  • The study of God (Theology Proper)
  • The study of Jesus (Christology)
  • The study of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology)
  • The study of Humanity (Anthropology)
  • The study of Salvation ( Soteriology)
  • The study of the Church (Ecclesiology)
  • The study of the End Times (Eschatology)

In each case, the task of systematic theology is to take what the bible says about the topic, synthesize it into a comprehensive set of doctrine, and find connections that are apparent but not explicit. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity: the word Trinity is not found in the bible, yet a cursory study of scripture on the characteristics, nature, and relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit brings one to a Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead.

Historical Theology

As its name indicates, historical theology is concerned with the history of theological thought. It studies what people have believed over the course of history, the conflicts over various points of doctrine, and the evolution of Christian thought. In doing so, historical theology serves two important purposes.

First, historical theology helps us understand how certain doctrines evolved over time. For example, historical theology traces the development of the hypostatic union5the union of Divine and human natures within Jesus Christ from the first century church through the Council of Chalcedon, as well as later attempts at theological innovation on this subject that were found to be in error.

Second, historical theology serves as helpful guardrails. Please note, I am not arguing for tradition being co-equal to scripture. Rather, historical theology helps us ground our exegetical and biblical interpretations and our systematic doctrines by warning us when we are getting a little too close to errors and heresies of the past.

Practical Theology

Practical theology is where all other fields of theology come into application. As the 19th century theologian and church historian Phillip Schaff wrote, practical theology “connects the theory of religion with its practice, the science of theology with the life of the congregation, the Professor’s chair with the Pastor’s pulpit, the Seminary with the Church6Review of The Theology for Our Age and Country by Philip Schaff. (1872). The Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review, New Series (1872), I(1–4), 32–33..”

Originally a synonym for pastoral theology, practical theology is now understood to include all believers, not just the clergy. Certainly, there are elements of practical theology that are reserved for those called to ministry – preaching, pastoral care, and pastoral counseling, to name three. But much of what is under the umbrella of practical theology is applicable to all believers, and the point of application for all theology.

Practical theology is how we apply our exegetical, biblical, systematic, and historical theology. It includes inwards disciplines such as prayer and study; outward disciplines like service, evangelism, and making disciples; and corporate disciplines such as worship and fellowship. Practical theology also includes pastoral disciplines such as preaching and pastoral care.

Putting It All Together

I strongly believe that all other branches of theology are in service of practical theology. I also believe that practical theology that is not anchored in solid doctrine can lead to serious error, as in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. The two must stand side by side – as Jonathan Edwards would put it, the light of understanding and the heat of religious affections.

It is my prayer that we follow in the footsteps of the Puritans – tying doctrine to practical application that spurs us to love God and our neighbor.

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV)


David Mitzenmacher

David Mitzenmacher is a Christian, husband, and father. He serves as a lay elder at Faith Bible Church in Naples, Florida, and is working on his Master of Divinity at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Footnotes

1 Does Theology Matter?
2 from the Greek word ἐξηγέομαι, pronounced “ex-ayg-eh’-om-ahee”, which means to make fully known
3 Koine Greek in the case of the New Testament, and Hebrew for the Old Testament with the exception of sections of Daniel and Ezra which were written in Aramaic
4 pronounced “hoo’-to”
5 the union of Divine and human natures within Jesus Christ
6 Review of The Theology for Our Age and Country by Philip Schaff. (1872). The Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review, New Series (1872), I(1–4), 32–33.