Systematic Theology

Several years ago, my little brother started a blog. My advice to him was, "Don't do it. It's a monster that needs to be fed every day." He was smart and quit after two posts. I'm still feeding the monster after almost 5 years. It's hard to come up with topics to post, so from time to time I co-opt someone's comment question and make my answer into a post.

Yesterday, Deb asked a question that helped me feed the monster. Thanks Deb!

Systematic theology is a form of study that attempts to present a clear, biblical, concise look at core Christian beliefs. "Systematic Theology" books are usually an author's attempt to explain the grid he/she uses to think about the Christian faith and doctrine. As a result, choosing a good systematic theology book can be tough, especially for a beginner. You want to pick one written by someone who has a similar starting point as you on the really important issues. And, you want to begin with something that's readable. Many systematic theologies are technical, precise, thorough, and can be really tough to digest. They're best for curing insomnia.

I've got 6 systematic theology books within close reach of my desk that I refer to a lot. Here they are, in order of my favorites for a beginner with a few comments:

The Moody Handbook of Theology - Paul Enns - I found this book by accident on the closeout shelf at the Christian Bookstore when I was in college. It was a really good find. In addition to systematic theology, Enns includes a section on Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Dogmatic Theology (different opinions within the Church), and Contemporary Theology. It's accessible, relatively easy reading, and extremely concise. In every theology book, you're going to find something to disagree with. On the whole, however, I find myself agreeing on most points with where Dr. Enns ends up.

Basic Theology - Charles C. Ryrie - This is the first theology book I ever read, and is still one of my favorites. The only reason I recommend the Moody Handbook of Theology to beginners above this one is that the Moody book adds the sections in addition to Systematic Theology, which I think is helpful. Dr. Ryrie's book is relatively simple, concise, and jamb packed full of Scripture references, which I love. Dr. Ryrie also does a good job in most cases of pointing out varying opinions on issues, evaluating those opinions fairly, and defining his own preference. That sort of thing is really important to a beginner.

Understanding Christian Theology - Ed. Charles Swindoll and Roy Zuck - This is by far the easiest read, but probably the least dense. In effect, Drs. Swindoll and Zuck have edited several different books on specific topics within systematic theology and put them together in one resource. This is a helpful resource for theology, but doesn't have the meat (in my opinion) of the two books above it.

Bible Doctrine - Wayne Grudem - Dr. Grudem has written one of the more popular systematic theologies these days. It's written extremely well, and includes study questions and memory verses with each questions which I love. Dr. Grudem writes with a very reformed perspective, and has some different views on end times than I do. So, I don't usually send people to Grudem first.

Christian Theology - Millard Erickson - This was the systematic theology that was required for my introduction to theology class in seminary. It's good, but pretty dense. It looks great on a shelf, but is hard to slog through at times. I think Erickson is a good theologian (with a name like Millard, he had to be a theologian of some kind), but that the book is pretty tough reading in several places.
Systematic Theology - Lewis Sperry Chafer - Chafer was the founder of Dallas Seminary. His systematic theology is 8 volumes printed in 4 books. Chafer had some theological quirks, but not many. He writes like someone who wrote in the 1920s (he did), and can be pretty tough to work through. But, there are some gems in his work that make it worth reading. I've never read this one cover-to-cover - I can't stay awake. But it has been an invaluable resource from time to time.


Deb said...

Oops. Guess which book I purchased yesterday?

Pause. Smile.


Impulsive. Lacking patience.

Yes, these are words that describe me.

Is it the cessationist thing with Grudem?

Thanks so much for addressing this Chris. I love your writing and have great respect for you.

I often intend to come back and comment, question, or yes, even to disagree, I just don't take the time. Or I get intimidated by the great potential for a public display of my ignorance.

Enjoy listening to McKinney's audio sermons also, they help make tax season a little easier to bear.

Chris Freeland said...

You won't be sorry. Grudem will be fine. It's just not the one I recommend the highest on my list.

It's actually not the cessationist thing. In the strictest sense, I'm not a cessationist. I don't believe the sign gifts have ceased... just that many of them are not as necessary for the building up of the body today. I certainly don't believe the use of tongues you see in most western charismatic churches even closely resembles what it did in the early church.

Grudem holds to a post-tribulational coming of Christ for the Church; that the Church will go through the Great Tribulation. I see the Great Tribulation as the fulfillment of God's promise to Daniel in Daniel 9 in which God deals primarily again with the nation of Israel; not the Church. I don't believe the Church is present during the Great tribulation.

In fact, across the board I see a stronger distinction between Israel and the Church than Grudem would see.

It's a small difference and a big difference all at the same time. Certainly, it's not a big enough deal for me to say Grudem isn't a trustworthy theologian - that would be awfully arrogant and narrow-focused. But, it is enough to impact several important nuances of doctrine that cause me to look to someone else first.

Kitty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kitty said...

read wider. sheesh.

Chris Freeland said...


I can't tell if you're serious.

If so, I tried to be clear: these are the 6 closest to my desk that I refer to regularly and would recommend to a new person. It's not an exhaustive list of those I've read.

Would you propose another systematic theology?

If you were joking, sorry for being dense.