Reading for Systematic Theology
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 extended 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 not to regurgitate facts mindlessly but to savor and ponder deeply 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
Previewing 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:
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.
Track Central Themes and Arguments.
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:
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. For a fuller explanation and examples, Westminster students should refer to the CTW handout entitled “Reading for ST Courses.”
In 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 or later in more extended writing projects, preparing sermons, or writing for ministry.
What is a 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, or 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 document them appropriately. For more information on writing digests, Westminster students may refer to the CTW handouts “Writing ST Digests” and “Sample Digests.” These and other resources are available to current students on the CTW Courses page.
Problem: Running out of time
Solution: Plan ahead
Solution: Have a regular study time and place
Problem: Forgetting what was read before digesting
Solution: Work efficiently
Problem: All the authors seem to say the same thing
Solution: Bring out distinctive emphases
Problem: Writing a digest that is too long
Solution: Give yourself a page limit
Problem: Difficulty Comprehending Material
Solution: Don’t get stuck
Solution: Get help