Wisdom That Promotes Wonder
Systematic theology can be classified as a species of biblical “wisdom.” According to Augustine, wisdom involves more than the knowledge of distinct objects and more than the practical “know-how” needed to navigate different circumstances. For Augustine, true wisdom involves a contemplative awareness of the relationship between temporal and eternal realities, the relationship between creatures and the triune God, who is the author and end of all creatures.
In describing wisdom in this manner, Augustine captures something significant about the way the Bible teaches us about various topics. When Moses begins his account of creation, he begins with God: “In the beginning God” (Gen. 1:1). When John begins his account of salvation, he too begins with God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The psalmist contemplates the marvelous variety of God’s creatures and, yet, for all their variety, he discerns in them a unified chorus, ready to praise the name of the Lord (Ps. 148). Having considered the mysterious outworking of God’s plan of salvation for Jew and Gentile through the manifold twists and turns of redemptive history, Paul bursts forth in awe and wonder before the God “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (Rom. 11:36).
As a species of biblical wisdom, systematic theology considers the triune God, the supreme subject matter of biblical teaching, and all things in relation to God. Systematic theology contemplates God the Holy Trinity: it considers God in his being, perfection, persons, counsel, and works. Systematic theology also contemplates all things: it considers creation, sin, Christ, and so forth. In considering the latter topics, systematic theology is always concerned to view them in relation to God, their author and end. Systematic theology thus exhibits a God-centered organizing principle.
Herman Bavinck well summarizes the nature of systematic theology in this regard. According to Bavinck, systematic theology “describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end—God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name.” Given its focus on God and all things relative to him, Bavinck continues, systematic theology “is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God’s virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a ‘glory to God in the highest’ (Luke 2:14).” Systematic theology, we might say, is for singing. Dogmatics (another name of systematic theology) serves doxology. In sum, systematic theology is biblical wisdom that promotes God-centered wonder.
Wisdom That Directs Worship and Witness
Systematic theology not only shapes wisdom, but that wisdom also enables a life of worship and witness. Paul’s words to the Romans turn in just this direction. After those lofty praises found in Romans 11:33–36, the Apostle turns toward moral guidance: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2).
God desires worship, the offering of one’s own self in its entirety. In this regard, surely the mention of “your bodies” is meant to suggest that even the most base or mundane element of the self—this wretched body that suffers and will die due to the effects of sin and curse—may and can be offered unto God in praise. Paul follows the instruction of Deuteronomy 6 here, wherein the singularity of God (v. 4) beckons forth the whole-hearted, all-inclusive devotion of self to God’s service in worship: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). God desires not merely tithes and offerings, rites and ceremonies, but a “living sacrifice” entailing one’s whole being.
Such devotion does not come unopposed. First, of course, Paul warns against the encroachments of a godless culture: “Do not be conformed to this world.” The Apostle calls us to put a spiritual stiff-arm between our souls and the devious pressures of the devil and this sinful world. Whether in Egypt, Canaan, first-century Rome, or the twenty-first century West, we can see how cultures lead astray, and we are called to be alert. But it is not merely a godless culture that might draw innocents into its sway. We are ourselves a part of the problem, for we see that Paul continues, “But be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” We dare not be drawn into the sinful cycles of the world, but we must also be drawn from the evil inclinations of our own hearts. Our spiritual status quo is not acceptable; we must be sanctified and transformed within.