Now that we have theology defined as a science concerning God’s person and work, we now consider where and how should one begin to start their study of God.
We must first and foremost point people who desire to study God rightly to the Holy Bible. From Genesis through Revelation, God has revealed Himself to mankind. While some may read the Bible as if it is just some ancient book, this book is so much more, and the believer will see and hear God from holy scripture. Therefore, this is the source of our theology. A serious student of God who does not use the Bible as the source of their queries is, in fact, not actually studying God. One must start and never put down the Bible as the primary source of knowledge concerning God.
The second place to go to is a bit more difficult; one should turn to the various saints who have graciously written down their thoughts, investigations, exegetical insights, and questions down in books, sermons, journals, articles, etc. This means the serious student of theology must not only be a serious student of the Bible, but they must also be a serious student of history- primarily church history.
The proper study of church history begins in the first century following the events of the New Testament in the Ancient Church and the Apostolic Fathers. These are men from the first centuries who were either friends of the Apostles, fellow ministers, or disciples of the Apostles. Following these men, we find those we call the Apologists who wrote against the various accusations brought about by Rome and others. At the same time, they wrote against various heretics who tried to divide the Church through false doctrine. After these men, we find a period where many men began to write and organize their thoughts concerning various topics, which we will define later as Loci.
For example, Origen of Alexandria, a prolific writer, and not always orthodox in his thoughts, wrote a book titled “First Principles.” This work is the first step in writing in such an organized manner, making it easier to follow the system of doctrine being taught. This is simply a first step.
For the sake of time, I will name a few men worth reading from this time to help you see the development of theology. First, Athanasius was the champion of orthodoxy around the time the Nicene Creed was written. Second, Basil of Caesarea, or Basil the Great, was the champion of orthodoxy shortly after Athanasius. In the next century, the chief, and probably the man who stood out above them all, was Augustine of Hippo. I would encourage everyone to read Augustine.
I have one final thought concerning these men from the Ancient Church. They did the best they could in the times they lived. We must not exhibit academic snobbery and be overly critical of them for things they could have done nothing about in their time. For example, it is wrong to criticize someone of the past for not dealing with problems we face today. They lived during their time, and one must always read them according to their historical context. With that said, we must be mindful that these men made mistakes too. Sometimes they were not able to correct their mistakes. So, when reading those from the past we must read them warts and all.
The next era in Church, which we are the least familiar with, is the Medieval Church. This time period was no “Dark Age” for we find books being written and universities established for the first time. Some of these universities are still standing, such as Oxford and the University of Paris. This time period saw great economic, political, and social change. The architecture and art of this time is still studied all over the western world. There were men who continued to advance the study of theology by organizing past thought with the continued study of their days. Such men were John of Damascus, Isidore of Seville, Peter Lombard, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas. They all wrote, and they all contributed to the larger conversation of the science of theology.
We now come to the period known as the Reformation. It was during this time, following the initial shock of Reform that began in many of the churches, both ministers and professors alike begin to organize and write their thoughts in books. Due to the printing press, these books would spread like wildfire. There were some names we may all be familiar with today such as Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Henry Bullinger. They all wrote various forms of what would be called eventually a Systematic Theology.
It is truly not until after the Reformation that Systematic Theologies or Dogmatic Theologies began to spread. Such men as Francis Turretin, Peter Van Mastricht, and others are where we see the rise of Systematic Theology. Other men would follow suit and give to the church great works to be studied for the next centuries.
Today, the writing of theology books seems to be unending. There seems to be new systematic theology books written every year, and we are left with the question, where should I begin? First, I would recommend one reading the Ancient Creeds and Reformed Confessions of the church. Start there to learn the doctrine and then pick up Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Once this one is finished, it would not hurt to read others. But starting small and easy is the best way to go for now.