Academic Study

Systematic Theology

Doctrines from Scripture delivered to the church


In systematic theology classes at Westminster, you will study the doctrines revealed in Scripture. These doctrines have also been developed and defended by the church. Systematic theology gathers together all of what Scripture teaches on a particular topic and makes a claim based on that data. As a discipline, systematic theology is both constructive and descriptive. As a constructive discipline, it organizes the content of God’s revelation under appropriate topical headings, seeking to structure the teaching of Scripture as a whole. As a descriptive discipline, it accounts for how past and present theologians have organized the Bible’s content; this study of historic systematic theology texts fosters humility and critical thinking in the student as he considers how other Christians have understood the teaching of Scripture.

What is Westminster's Approach to Systematic Theology?

Westminster follows in the footsteps of the great Reformed theologians: John Calvin, Herman Bavinck, and Geerhardus Vos. In his book Biblical Theology, Vos distinguishes between biblical theology, which traces the development of a theme in redemptive history, and systematic theology, which gathers together all of what Scripture teaches on a given topic and makes a claim based on that data (16).

Vos goes on and says that systematic theology “transforms” the biblical data of Scripture. It states the same truth in a different way. Now, just what sort of transformation does systematic theology carry out on Scripture? Vos says that the principle of this transformation “is one of logical construction” (Biblical Theology, 2). What did he mean by that?

Take those two words apart, and then put them together again. Logical—following a coherent sequence of thought that leads to the truth or falsehood of a proposition. Construction—a putting together of parts. Logical construction is a coherent sequence of thought that draws parts of history (Scripture, historical theologians, doctrinal relationships) together in support of a proposition. And in the Reformed tradition, that proposition and its logical construction emerge from the gathered “parts” of Scripture. That’s how Westminster approaches systematic theology.

We can break down the demands of systematic theology into reading and writing. See the sections on each area for more information.

Reading for Systematic Theology

A Constructive and Descriptive Discipline

Many introductory classes in systematic theology at Westminster will require that students read and summarize articles and chapters, forming the basis for their ability to identify and discuss theological principles. In this section, we suggest some approaches to reading that help students synthesize and reflect on what they have read.

Systematic theology (ST) has both constructive and descriptive aspects. As a constructive discipline, ST is the organization of the content of God’s revelation under appropriate topical headings. This synthetic activity seeks to organize and structure the teaching of Scripture as a whole. In this sense, ST focuses on understanding the Bible.

In its other aspect, ST serves as a descriptive discipline by accounting for how other theologians, past and present, have organized the Bible’s contents. This aspect, the study of historic ST texts, is an exercise in humility as the student studies how other Christians have understood the teaching of Scripture, carefully listening to the voices of systematic theologians of the past.

It is this act of careful listening to which the reading assignments of the Westminster ST curriculum are devoted. If carried out rightly, ST readings will help you move beyond repeating facts allow you to savor and ponder the thoughts that other servants of Scripture have spent their lives developing. Here are a few guidelines for effective reading designed especially for ST courses.

Preview Each Reading

Reviewing helps you prepare for and remember what you read. It allows you to fix the main points of an article in your mind so that as you read, you can predict what the author will say and revise your understanding as you go. Here are the steps:

  • Examine chapter titles, subtitles, the introduction, and the conclusion.
  • Skim topic sentences of body paragraphs.
  • Read the first paragraph and the last paragraph of each section.

Practice Active Reading

Based on your preview, pose a question that you think the text will answer. Check your answer against what the text says, and continually predict answers to new questions as you read. Active reading helps you stay engaged with the author’s train of thought. As you read, you can revise your question if it becomes clear that the author is headed in a different direction.

If you do not ask any questions of the text, then you are practicing passive reading, which we often do for pleasure. This is when you let the text “take you where it will,” without having any goal in sight. You will not likely have time to read passively for most courses. To finish your course readings on time and to learn the theology they present, you must be intentional in how you read.

Trace the Line and the Argument

At this point, you will have previewed the reading, developed one or two active reading questions, and begun working through the actual text. Your next task is to track central themes and arguments. To do this, you can follow these simple steps:

  • Step 1: Focus on key terms and how they are defined.
  • Step 2: Identify claims the author makes and locate their support.
  • Step 3: Connect claims to trace a line of argument.

Effective reading for ST courses requires careful, patient, focused attention and an active, critical approach to the material. The guidelines above will help you complete the ST readings successfully. To learn more about writing digests (or summaries) of what you have read, see the “Writing for Systematic Theology” section.

Writing for Systematic Theology

Writing for systematic theology involves accurately summarizing what Scripture teaches and what other theologians have said about a topic or doctrine throughout church history. It also involves forming theological arguments in support of a focused claim. We treat both types of writing here. The first sort of writing is often called digesting.

St Digests

In many systematic theology courses, professors either recommend or require that students write digests of the assigned reading. Digesting, even when not required, is recommended as a good way to prepare for comprehension quizzes and for your future use. For all courses, digesting aids comprehension and retention, and digests can be used when studying for a midterm or final exam. They can also aid future writing projects and sermons.

What is Digest?

A digest is the student’s own short synopsis or summary of reading material. It should reproduce the ideas that are most central, important, and distinctive to an author or a particular reading. Whatever is most beneficial for understanding a particular theologian or for grappling with particular doctrines should be stated clearly and concisely. The digest should be written mostly in the student’s own words, but it is often helpful to include key quotations from the source. When you include direct quotations, make sure you cite them appropriately.

Common Problems with Writing Digests
Problem: Running Out of Time

Solution 1: Plan ahead
At the beginning of each semester, you will be given all the information you need to plan your work. Read through your syllabus carefully to see when particular readings are due. Make a semester-long reading plan the first week of class, making sure to have all the required readings for each digest finished before the digest due date. As you go through the semester, refer to your reading plan and set weekly deadlines for yourself, making adjustments to your plan as necessary in order to keep yourself up-to-date. You will avoid falling behind and possibly becoming overwhelmed if you commit to keeping to your plan.

Solution 2: Have a regular study time and place
When it comes to a lengthy assignment such as reading for digests, consistency is the name of the game. Find a place and time that help you to work efficiently and discipline yourself not to break from your schedule. You will benefit greatly from a habit of regular studying.

Problem: Forgetting what was read before digesting

Solution: Work efficiently
Don’t fall into the trap of allowing a long period of time to elapse between reading and digesting. With all you have to read, you are bound to forget some of the material. Read with pen or computer at hand, noting main points as you go so that you can move quickly into the digest when you finish the selection. Let the title, subheadings, introduction, and conclusion of the selection guide you in remembering its main points.

Problem: All the authors seem to say the same thing

Solution: Bring out distinctive emphases
Since your readings are all about a common topic and most of them are written by Reformed theologians, there will often be overlap between the main points of the different readings. Don’t be afraid to repeat these main points from author to author – you want to summarize what a particular author says, even if it is similar to what the last author said. However, you also want to bring out what is unique to each author as far as emphasis, argumentation, vocabulary, and other aspects are concerned.

Problem: Writing a digest that is too long

Solution 1: Give yourself a page limit
Decide on the length of your digest before you start writing. If you plan to write a 10-page digest, you cannot afford to devote 4 pages to 10 percent of the material. Make sure you limit each digest entry to a length proportional to the length of the reading.

Solution 2: Limit yourself to major points
Be concise, but not superficial. Begin each section by stating clearly the main points of the author. Let the title and subheadings of the selection guide you in identifying its main points. Leave out supporting details. You can always add details later, but you can usually communicate a main point without appealing to detailed supporting arguments. Once you have summarized the main points of a particular section of text, go on to the next section. If you have space when you are finished with the entire digest, go back and add more information.

Problem: Difficulty Comprehending Material

Solution 1: Don’t get stuck
Don’t let difficulty with a particular topic or author keep you from reading and digesting material you do understand.

Solution 2: Get help
Often a conversation with a fellow student or professor can clarify difficult material. Many ST texts were written long ago, and students often struggle to understand them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Consult a theological dictionary or recommended websites for help with unfamiliar terms.

Writing a Systematic Theology Paper

Writing an effective systematic theology paper has a lot to do with your ability to present a coherent and developed argument. In other words, it has a lot to do with the concept of logical construction (see the “Systematic Theology” section). This can be difficult to grasp, so we might start with an example.

Here’s a claim from a systematic theologian. Notice how it can be broken down into components of logical construction and gathered Scripture: “Much of the beauty of God lies in the happy difference between the three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—loving, loved, and love itself, or giving, receiving, and gift” (Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology, 2:15).

In the immediate context, Kelly discusses the work of two ancient church fathers: Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. He uses both sources to confirm what he has said about the beauty and love of God. However, he also draws on the gathered teaching of Scripture in Genesis 1:27 – 28; John 17:24; John 1:14; and Isaiah 7:14. A single statement from a systematic theologian can have these hierarchical layers beneath them.

The gathering of Scripture and logical construction of the argument are not necessarily two distinct steps in the process. They may intermingle. But the final result, the systematic-theological argument, will be a transformation of biblical truth, according to the principle of logical construction, in support of a topical claim. In this example, that claim is about the beauty of God.

Defending a Claim

The example above should lead you to see that a systematic theologian needs to have support in presenting a claim. In light of that, a systematic theology paper should defend a central claim—the thesis—that you have developed based on (1) the gathered teaching of Scripture and (2) the insights (or shortcomings) of theologians in church history, along with relevant doctrinal developments. The paper should be a logical argument in support of your thesis, building premise upon premise until you arrive at the conclusion, engaging with objections when appropriate. The paper will be unified. Yet, it will draw on many sources (Scripture, other theologians, creeds) for support. Since your paper will need to be focused and yet complex, it may help to start by writing an outline of your paper. You should be able to represent the logic of your paper in outline form. If you have trouble doing that, there may be issues with coherence, or you may be missing a piece of your argument.

You might be asking, “What will a systematic theology paper look like concretely?” Below is an example introduction from a systematic theology paper. Notice how the author interacts with biblical data, theological doctrines, and other theologians to lead the reader to his thesis.

During the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers identified three elements which believers should look for in order to know that they had found a true church. These three elements came to be known as “the marks of the church,” and consisted of (1) the gospel rightly preached, (2) the sacraments rightly administered, and (3) church discipline. Although Protestants were initially zealous for all three, today broad evangelicalism has seemingly all but forgotten the importance of the third mark, church discipline.

To properly address the topic of church discipline in general would require the length of an entire book or even a multi-volume series. Given that this shall only be a short paper, the focus will be restricted to the reasons for church discipline (i.e., why it is necessary). This means that the necessity of church discipline will be assumed, and other aspects (e.g., the method of discipline, types and degrees of discipline, the relationship of discipline to the Lord’s Supper, etc.) will be mentioned only tangentially, if at all. Also important to keep in mind is the two-sided nature of church discipline. There is both the regular, preventative side of discipline which keeps believers in right relationship to God and one another (preaching of the Word, taking of the sacraments, “biblical conflict resolution,” etc.), as well as the specific, corrective aspect known as “formal church discipline.”

In order to gain a broad and systematic understanding of the reasons for church discipline, this paper will begin by looking at example passages in the biblical text, then examine the work of a number of systematic theologians, and finish by looking at the Westminster Confession of Faith. In so doing, it will be seen that the reasons for church discipline are threefold: (1) for the honor of God’s glory, (2) for the edification of believers, and (3) for the preservation of the church’s witness to the world.

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