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What Is Theology?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 13, 2024 12:01 am

What Is Theology?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 13, 2024 12:01 am

To study theology is to pursue a greater knowledge of God Himself. Today, R.C. Sproul lays the basic building blocks that help us engage in this important discipline.

Meet Today's Teacher:

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

Meet the Host:

Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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When God speaks and reveals Himself, there is a unity of that content, and there is a coherence. The Holy Spirit is not incoherent. The things that God reveals are not incoherent.

They are unified, they are coherent, and they are consistent. When people have asked us what it is that we do here at Ligonier Ministries, we're sometimes said to make a point that we do three things. Theology, theology, theology.

And that's because R.C. Sproul taught us that what we believe about God informs how we live, and the vital importance of ensuring what we believe about God is according to His Word. This is the Monday edition of Renewing Your Mind, and we'll be considering theology this week, what it is, and how God has revealed Himself. And to further help you with your studies, we're also offering a special edition of Dr. Sproul's 60-message overview of systematic theology, and his book, Everyone's a Theologian, when you give a donation of any amount at As you heard Dr. Sproul say earlier, God's revelation is unified, coherent, and consistent.

And you'll see that as we move through this week's messages. So here's Dr. Sproul to start this series considering what theology is and the role of systematic theology in particular. When I meet people for the first time, they ask me what I do, and I tell them among other things that I teach in seminary, and they say, well, what do you teach? And I answer by saying I teach systematic theology. Now, when somebody says they teach astronomy, everybody knows what they're talking about.

Or if they're teaching physics, they know what they're talking about. When I tell people I teach systematic theology, I often get blank stares, and inevitably the question is, what's that? Now, they've heard of theology, but the idea of systematic theology is a term that's become something of an anachronism for an arcane science. And what we're going to be doing now as we embark on this whole new series is go over the whole scope of what we call systematic theology. It's going to be an introduction to systematic theology. And what systematic theology is about is a systematic study of the principle doctrines of the Christian faith. And what I want to do today in our first lesson is give a brief introduction to this science of systematic theology and begin with some basic definitions.

Let's start with the word theology. We've all heard this word, and we see that it has something in common with a whole lot of disciplines and sciences. It has that common suffix "-ology."

You heard it here, biology, physiology, and anthropology, and a host of other sciences that end in that word "-ology." And that is because the suffix comes from the Greek word logos, or logos, that we meet in the first chapter of John's gospel, where we read, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And that word logos is the Greek word that is translated by the English word word.

I'm not stuttering. It's the Greek word that is translated by the English word for word. It means word or idea, or as one philosopher even took the risk of translating it as logic, because it is the term from which we get the English word logic. So, when we study biology, we're looking at a word or the idea or the concept or the logic of life. If we study zoology, we're looking at a different kind of word or logic of life.

Anthropology is the word or logic about humans, anthropos being the Greek word for man. Well, in the term theology, the main part of the word is the Greek word theos, which means God. So that the study of theology is the study of the word or the idea or the concept or the logic of God Himself. Now, when we use the term theology in the discipline of theology, it's a very, very broad term.

It doesn't simply refer just to God, but rather to all of those things that God has revealed to us in sacred Scripture. So that part of the study of theology is the study of Christ. We call that Christology. It's the study of the Holy Spirit.

We call that pneumatology. It's the study of sin. We call that hermitology. It's the study of future things. We call that eschatology. These are all subdivisions of the broad concept that we call theology. And then sometimes we talk about theology proper.

Now, theology proper is not to distinguish it from theology improper, but that has specific reference to the study of God Himself. I like to tell a story where several years ago I was invited to the campus of a well-known Christian school, Christian University in the Midwest. It wasn't Wheaton. And at this particular time, the school was without a president. Their president had retired, and they were involved in a search for a new president. And in the process, they were doing a self-study of their curriculum, of their faculty, and of the goals and purpose of the institution. And I was asked to come to the campus to address the faculty and administration on the question, what is a Christian college or university?

That is, what is it that makes a university or a college specifically or uniquely Christian? So I accepted that task, and when I arrived on the campus, the dean gave me the cook's tour of the buildings and showed me the library and all of the different sites there to be seen. And he took me on a brief tour of the faculty office building, and I got to see the Department of Biology and of Economics and all the rest. And I noticed as we passed one set of doors that there inscribed on the office of this particular department were the words Department of Religion.

Well, I didn't say anything. I just filed that away, and that evening when it came time for me to address the faculty, I raised the question in front of the faculty. I said, you know, I was noticing as I was walking across your campus that you have a Department of Religion. Was that department always called the Department of Religion?

And I got blank stares. Finally, there was a man in the back who had snow on the roof, and he raised his hand and indicated he had been on the faculty for like 40 years. And he said, oh, no, no. He said, we changed that about 30 years ago. I said, what was it called before? He said, it used to be called the Department of Theology. I said, okay, so 30 years ago you changed it from the Department of Theology to the Department of Religion. Why did you change it? And his response was, I don't know. And again, the faculty was looking at me thinking, what's this guy talking about?

What difference does it make? I said, let me tell you what the difference is. Classically, the study of religion is pegged in the academic world under the broader context of either sociology or anthropology. Because religion is a study of how human beings behave in a certain environment with their cultic practices.

That is, how they worship, how they pray, and what their religious life is all about on earth. That is, it's a study of human practices, whereas the study of theology is the study of God. And there's a big difference between studying human apprehensions of religion and studying the nature and character of God Himself.

The first is purely natural in its orientation. The second is supernatural, dealing with that which is above and beyond the things of this world. And I said, you asked me to speak on what is a Christian college. A Christian college or university is one that is committed to the premise that the ultimate truth is the truth of God, and He is the foundation and source of all other truth. And everything else we learn, whether it's economics or philosophy or biology or mathematics, has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God. That's why in the Middle Ages, theology was called the queen of the sciences and philosophy her handmaiden. Now, of course, the queen has been ripped from her throne and in many cases been driven into exile, and a supplanter now reigns, and we replace theology with religion. And you have departments of religion in virtually every secular university in the country.

I suspect the reason why that college changed from theology to religion was to get in line with the movements and the current drifts in the academic world in the secular arena, or maybe simply to be able to transfer credits for their students from the Christian school to the non-Christian school. But what we're concerned about in this course is not the study of religion but the study of theology, the things of God as God reveals Himself to us from above. Now, what about the second part of the title where we use this word systematic?

I find that there are many, many people who are comfortable with the word theology, but they cringe when they hear the qualifying term systematic. We live in a time where there is a widespread aversion or allergy to systems, not to inanimate systems. We still respect and honor the importance of computer systems, fire alarm systems, electrical circuitry systems. We understand such important things as those kinds of systems. But when you think about a system of thought or a system of understanding one's whole life and world in a coherent manner, there is where people tend to choke at the word systemic or systematic.

And there's a reason for that. We've seen in the last hundred and so years a massive revolt in the philosophical world against systems of thought. One of the most influential philosophy ever to emerge in Western history has been that philosophy known as existentialism. And one of the reasons why it's called existentialism, and that's another question I get all the time, and people hear existentialism and they say, what is existentialism? I say, existentialism is the philosophy of existence.

And they say, oh, and what does that mean? Well, it really is a way of looking at human experience in a way that presupposes that there's no such thing as essential truths, only particular, discrete, distinctive existences. Not essence, but existence. By definition, existentialism abhors some generic system of reality. It's a system, I mean, it is an anti-system that believes in truths but not truth, purposes but not purpose, because it doesn't believe that reality is to be understood in an orderly fashion. Because for the existentialist, we are cast into a world that is ultimately chaotic and often understood to be without meaning, without purpose.

You just confront life as it happens in the little bits of daily experience. But there's no overarching viewpoint that will make sense out of all of life because ultimately life does not make sense. And that has had a tremendous impact in our culture with its offspring relativism and pluralism. And you've heard about those schools of thought where the relativist says there is no absolute truth except the absolute truth, that there is absolutely no absolute truth. All truth is relative.

It's relative to the person who is holding it. And what is true for you may be false for you. And so there is no effort to bring the two views into harmony or into an agreement which a system would seek to do because according to relativism, there is no possibility of having a systematic understanding of truth. Now, that has made a very strong impact on theology, and we encounter it every day even in the seminaries. In a certain sense, the art of systematic theology is rapidly becoming a lost and forgotten discipline, and some are saying even in the seminary, good riddance to systematic theology. Systematic theology gets a bad rap not only because of the impact of existential thought and of relativism and pluralism, but also because some people understand systematic theology to be this, that somebody develops a philosophical system, say like a Descartes and his rationalism or a John Locke and his empiricism, and they learn a natural philosophical grid or system, and then they come to the Christian faith, and they come to the Bible, and they try to force the Bible into that preconceived philosophical system so that the preconceived philosophical system begins to dictate how you understand the Scriptures. So you don't come to the Scriptures and hear the Word of God and seek to understand it on its own terms, but rather you come to the Scriptures with this preconceived system which functions sort of as a Procrustean bed. And you remember the story of Procrustes who didn't fit in the bed, and so the solution was to do what?

Chop off the arms and the legs to make the man fit the bed rather than enlarge the bed. And so we see sometimes an aversion to systematic theology with the assumption being that somebody has a philosophical system, comes to the Scripture, and then tries to wedge and force and squeeze every piece of Scripture into this preconceived system of thought. Well, historically, classical systematic theology has been as strongly opposed to that sort of thing as some are even today. The idea of systematic theology originally was based on certain assumptions, and here are the assumptions. First, that God has revealed Himself, not only in nature, but through the writings of the prophets and the apostles, and that the Bible is the Word of God. It is theology par excellence.

It is the full logos of the theos. It is the divine Word of God. And the second assumption is that when God reveals Himself, He reveals Himself according to His own character and according to His own nature. And as the Scriptures tell us, God is not the author of confusion. God is the God who creates an orderly cosmos. He's not the author of chaos. God is not the author of confusion because God is not confused.

He's never confused. God thinks clearly and speaks in a way that is meant to be understood, that is meant to be intelligible. And so a further assumption about Scripture is that the revelation that God gives to us in sacred Scripture is a revelation that manifests these qualities, that there is a unity to the Word of God.

Obviously, there's great diversity. The Word of God is written over many centuries by many authors concerning a host of different topics. But within that diversity of information and content that we find in Scripture where here it talks about future things, here it talks about an atonement, here it talks about an incarnation, here it talks about the judgment of God, there the mercy of God, here the wrath of God, all these different topics nevertheless have their unity in God Himself. And in God's mind so that when God speaks and reveals Himself, there is a unity of that content and there is a coherence or coherency. The Holy Spirit is not incoherent.

The things that God reveals are not incoherent. They are unified. They are coherent. And finally, they are consistent. They are consistent. Now, in that sense, they're rational. They're not the fruit of rational speculation.

But they are not irrational in the sense that the truth of God fits together into a marvelous whole. It makes sense. It's consistent. It's coherent. And it's unified. You've heard the statement that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

If that's true, then I would have to say the smallest mind there is, is the mind of God. Because one of the things that we can say with confidence about God in His being and in His character is that He is consistent. He's consistent with Himself.

He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Now that we are engaged in the task of systematic theology, what that means is we come to the whole scope of the Scriptures. And we are trying to look at every piece of that book that God has given to us and ask the question, How does it all fit together? So that the system that we are seeking for is not a system we bring to the Bible and force the Bible and squeeze it into conformity to it, but rather we want to come to the Scripture and learn the system that is in there. We want to see how all of the parts of the Bible fit together. So in seminaries where you have a department of systematic theology, as distinguished from the New Testament department or the Old Testament department, the idea is that the systematic theologian doesn't work in a vacuum ignoring the scholarly research of the Old Testament professor or of the New Testament professor.

In fact, the systematician is always dependent upon the information brought to the table by the biblical scholars. And it is the task of the systematician to put it all together and show how it fits into a meaningful whole. Now, that's a daunting, daunting task to be sure.

And I'm convinced that no one's ever done it perfectly. However, one of the great joys of my life in the study of systematic theology and one of the things that never ceases to amaze me, or overwhelms me at times, is the tiny, detailed, specific, intricate symmetry of the whole scope of divine revelation. And one of the things that's even frustrating as a teacher is I'll be teaching in a narrow scope of theology in the seminary, say on the cross, and somebody over here will raise a question in the middle of class about the virgin birth.

And they want to know, how do those two fit together? And I'm tempted to say, oh, we'll study that at another time. But the students seem to always be running ahead, anticipating further questions, because they understand that one point in theology addresses every other point of theology.

When God speaks coherently, every detail that He says has an impact on every other detail. And so it's an ongoing task in search for us to see how all of the pieces fit together into an organic, meaningful, consistent, and coherent whole. That's the job we have, and that's what we're going to introduce you to in this series of lectures. If you were a little cautious when you heard the word theology at the beginning of today's episode, I hope you better understand what we do and don't mean when we talk about theology, and that you're looking forward to seeing how the truths of Scripture fit together in a systematic way.

That was R.C. Sproul on this Monday edition of Renewing Your Mind from the first message of his Foundation series. This 60-message series provides an overview of what Christians believe and why we believe it. And you can own the special edition DVD, have lifetime access to the messages in the free Ligonier app, digital access to the complete study guide, plus we'll send you R.C. Sproul's book, Everyone's a Theologian, when you give a gift of any amount at The concise sections in Everyone's a Theologian means that it's easy to read in smaller portions, and many have used it as part of their devotional reading. Call us at 800 435 4343, visit, or click the link in the podcast show notes to make your donation and request this week's resource bundle.

It's not uncommon to hear people say, I don't need theology, all I need to know is Jesus. Well how did R.C. Sproul respond to that objection? Well join us tomorrow to find out, here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-13 02:30:39 / 2024-05-13 02:38:55 / 8

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