Aug 12, 2021

General Theology

5 Min Read


General theology involves the various methods of formulating doctrine from all that God has revealed of Himself in nature and Scripture. Theologians have divided theological methods into specific classes, allowing each to function as a unique theological discipline. The most widely accepted methods are exegetical theology, systematic theology, philosophical theology, biblical theology, historical theology, and practical theology. Some have suggested that apologetics is a unique theological method. However, theologians have generally considered it a subset of philosophical theology.


Theology is dependent on revelation. God has revealed Himself to humanity by way of general revelation and special revelation. General revelation is the revelation of the eternal power and divine nature in the material universe (Rom. 1:19–20). General revelation leaves all mankind without excuse, since God’s glory is clearly manifest in His works of creation and providence. General revelation is insufficient to bring someone into a saving relationship with the triune God. Special revelation is God’s revelation of His person, will, and works (Ps. 19:7–11). Special revelation is necessary for an individual to come to a saving knowledge of God in Christ.

The starting point of any truly objective theology is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. For this reason, exegetical theology is foundational to all other theological methods. Exegesis is the work of drawing out of the biblical text that which the divine and human author intended. Sound exegesis vigorously avoids grammatical fallacies and word-study fallacies. It is fueled by a careful study of textual scholarship and a proficiency in working with the original languages. Exegesis is determined by the meaning of the text in its original context. Exegetical study shapes and informs our theological conclusions, but we should understand that our theological conclusions will also affect our exegetical study. Being aware of this fact helps us avoid reading things into the text that are not actually there.

Systematic theology is the discipline of gathering God’s revelation into one coherent system of dogma. By using overarching categories such as theology proper, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, theologians have labored to categorize the totality of what the Scriptures teach throughout the Old and New Testaments. Among the most well-known and influential systematic theological expositions are John of DamascusExposition of the Orthodox Faith, Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.

Philosophical theology is a method by which theologians have sought to explain characteristics about God, man, and the world. Rather than promoting abstract speculation, philosophical theologians have consciously labored to wed their understanding of metaphysics (i.e., the study of being), epistemology (i.e., the study of knowing), ethics (i.e., the study of good and evil), and aesthetics (i.e., the study of beauty) to Christian revelation. Many early church theologians borrowed philosophical terms and categories from Greek philosophers in order to explain such theological truths as the deity of Christ. Augustine of Hippo drew heavily from the work of Plato; Anselm of Canterbury built on the philosophical theology of Augustine and Boethius; and Thomas Aquinas used categories proposed by Aristotle.

Biblical theology is the method by which Scripture is considered in its organic unity—focusing especially on the unfolding progress of revelation. A complement to systematic theology, biblical theology focuses on the overarching redemptive story of the Old and New Testaments, inasmuch as it centers on the person and work of Christ and how all of Scripture points to Him and progressively unfolds the truth about Him. One of the central features of a biblical-theological approach to understanding Scripture is that it sees God’s covenant promises as central to the message of the Bible. Biblical theology is framed by covenant theology.

Historical theology considers the ways that significant theologians have interpreted and systematized doctrine throughout the history of the Christian church. Surveying historical theology offers insight into the development of doctrine. It reveals what factors go into conclusions drawn about the meaning of Scripture, as well as how theologians have responded to error and heresy in the church. A working knowledge of historical theology may serve as a guide to protect against error and heresy in our own theological formulations.

Practical theology is the way that Scripture is experientially applied to our lives, to preaching, to pastoral ministry, and to counseling. It brings deep theological truths to a place of relevance in our lives and churches. Practical theology answers the question, “How should we then live?


Countless times I have heard Christians say, ‘Why do I need to study doctrine or theology when all I need to know is Jesus?’ My immediate reply is this: ‘Who is Jesus?’ As soon as we begin to answer that question, we are involved in doctrine and theology. No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones. A good theologian is one who is instructed by God.

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

Systematic theologians understand that each point in theology addresses every other point. When God speaks, every detail He utters has an impact on every other detail. That is why our ongoing task is to see how all the pieces fit together into an organic, meaningful, and consistent whole.

The imperative task of the dogmatician is to think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity. His work is not finished until he has mentally absorbed this unity and set it forth in a dogmatics. Accordingly, he does not come to God’s revelation with a ready-made system in order, as best he can, to force its content into it. On the contrary, even in his system a theologian’s sole responsibility is to think God’s thoughts after him and to reproduce the unity that is objectively present in the thoughts of God and has been recorded for the eye of faith in Scripture.

Herman Bavinck

Reformed Dogmatics

Though the content of Scripture is deeply concerned with redemption, that redemption is inseparably tied to the reality of the historical context in which it takes place. . . . The biblical concept of redemption in history sees God moving in space and time, preparing His people for the consummation of His plan of salvation. Christ comes to the earth not at an accidental point in history but ‘in the fullness of time’ (Gal. 4:4).

R.C. Sproul

An Historic Faith

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