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.