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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Grant Van Leuven

Systematic Theology Safely Frames Christ in Preaching Scripture

September 18, 2015 •

The subject of a picture is determined by how it is cropped.

So Systematic Theology guides the minister’s eye in preaching Christ through the Scriptures.  And for a Presbyterian, the Westminster Standards are the thematic writings that aid his thinking through the presentation of the Bible to his people. 

Donald Macleod writes, “ … creeds and confessions furnish the preacher with an invaluable indicator of the relative importance of the various doctrines.”[1]  With the main emphases of Scriptures summarized by the Standards the preacher has a profile to fill in with his hermeneutical sketching and homiletical coloring:  “The theological process does not exist for itself.  It exists only as a preparation for preaching … without theology there is no preaching.”[2]

Macleod explains how Systematic Theology (comparing Scripture with Scripture)[3] responsibly frames balanced study of the Bible: “ … each text must be seen in the light of the whole system of revealed truth … First, the system of truth elucidates the text … Unless we draw upon the whole doctrine we cannot possibly elucidate … Secondly, the system of doctrine exercises control over the exposition of a particular passage … dogmatics lays down parameters our exegesis must never trespass … third … we should not build a doctrine on one single passage.”[4]

Our time-tested and church-sanctioned theological “blinders” keep our exegetical eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).  For, If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11).

Context is always the king interpreter, and Scripture’s overarching framework is the incarnate, crucified, and risen King (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).  For He said Himself that all the Scriptures hone in on Him (Psalm 40:7; Luke 24:27, 44; John 1:45; 5:46).  Prophecy and typology are properly preached preeminently in the Person and work of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18).

Systematic Theology is keen on painting Scripture’s background without distracting from its subject, the Redeemer.  And the most accurate portrait of our Lord is given to us not by the impressionists’ splashes but by the distinct strokes of the realists.  B.B. Warfield writes:

We do not possess the separate truths of religion in the abstract: we possess them only in their relations, and we do not properly know any one of them—nor can it have its full effect on our life—except as we know it in its relations to other truths, that is, as systematized … If such be the value and use of doctrine, the systematic theologian is preëminently a preacher of the gospel; and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves; to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold Him precious; and to recognize and yield to the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit whom He has sent … we trace the process by which the knowledge of God is ascertained, clarified, and ordered, up through the several stages of the dealing of the human mind with it until at last, in systematic theology, it stands before our eyes in complete formulation” [5]

Systematic Theology helps the preacher adequately portray Jesus Christ to the people, proclaiming, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”  Warfield summarizes:

Systematic theology is thus, in essence, an attempt to reflect in the mirror of the human consciousness the God who reveals Himself in His works and word, and as He has revealed Himself … Systematic theology is a progressive science. It will be perfected only in the minds and hearts of the perfected saints who at the end, being at last like God, shall see Him as He is.[6]

[1] Donald Macleod, “Preaching and Systematic Theology”, in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art, ed. Samuel T. Logan Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1986) , 270.

[2] Ibid, 246.

[3] Ibid, 252.

[4] Ibid, 248-250.

[5] Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology”, in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 9: Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) 83, 86, 92.

[6] Warfield, “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology”, in Studies in Theology, 104, 105.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He is the adoring husband of Jennifer Van Leuven and a proud father of their four covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, and Isaac.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.


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