The genre of “Systematic Theologies” does not have a long history, relatively speaking. While this fact deserves its own blog post, it was not until post-Reformation that Christians began to publish such works. The closest book we have in the Bible to a systematic theology is undoubtedly the book of Romans. However, I don’t think enough can be said about the value of such works. Every Christian should have at least on (if not many) systematic theologies on their book-shelf.
The following is a list of my most recommended systematic theologies. As you will see there is not much lack for originality in the titles! I am not necessarily saying that these are the “best” (though all qualify), but the most important and highly recommended for all students of theology today.
10. Institutes of Elenctic Theology (3-Volumes), Francis Turretin
A greatly neglected work from one of the systematizers of Reformed Theology. This served as the standard systematic theology among Reformed thinkers until it was replaced by Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology in the late 19th century. In many ways, including his writing style and precision, I don’t think it would be unfair to call him the St. Thomas Aquinas of Protestantism theology.
9. Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof
One of the most succinct and to the point Systematic theologies available. Berkhof, who taught at Calvin Theological Seminary from 1906-1944, was a leading thinker of Reformed theology during much of the 20th century. If you are looking for original thought, Berkhof does not qualify. But if you are looking for someone who was an excellent organizer and teacher of Christian theology, he is the man.
8. Systematic Theology (4-Volumes), Lewis Sperry Chafer
Though dated like many of these recommendations, Chafer’s theology stands apart for two reasons. 1) It is immanently readable and pastoral in tone. You do not feel as if you are reading irrelevant theology with these volumes. They serve more like a theological devotional filled with a depth of understanding of the grace of God. 2) In my opinion, it is still the go-to Systematic Theology for reformed-dispensationalism. Yes, it will present a more classical dispensational understanding, yet it captures the essence of the way dispensationalists read Scriptures more than any other work.
7. A Theology Of Lordship (3-Volumes) by John Frame
Frame is one of the leading figures in Reformed theology today. His Theology of Lordship series come in three volumes: 1) The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 2) The Doctrine of God, 3) The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Unlike Berkolf, Frame is very unique in his approach to theological thought, providing it with a interesting, if not persuasive, paradigm of presuppositionalism and “A Theology of Lordship” (which is sometimes hard to follow). Some of the best stuff on the problem of evil and the attributes of God I have ever read. Interestingly, in the last volume on Christian living Frame spends nearly six-hundred pages on the ten commandments alone!
6. Systematic Theology (3-Volumes) Thomas C. Oden
This is not merely a token Arminian contribution, but truly a valuable contribution to the Systematic Theology genre. While I am not crazy about the structure, Oden makes number six due to his clear and consistent explanation of the Christian faith and his draw on the church fathers and all of Church history.
5. Systematic Theology, Charles Hodge
Charles Hodge’s systematic theology has been the standard theology in Reformed circles for much of the twentieth century. Again, dated in much of its polemics (esp contra Roman Catholicism), he writes with great clarity. His systemization of Reformed thought and Evangelical doctrine serves as a sort of ambiance for most of the more modern theological thinkers and discussion. It is hard to overstate the influence of this work.
4. Integrative Theology, Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest
This volume (now available as a 3-in-one) serves as a great conservative Evangelical theology. It would be hard to place this strictly in a Reformed camp, even though there is that thought and influence present, therefore I would just call it Evangelical and moderately Reformed. I think I would be safe saying that this is the most neglected modern theology out there. I love the structure and the comprehensiveness of this work. It covers each subject by explaining historically, then biblically, then practically. With this comes extensive dialogue with other positions. The fair and objective treatment of alternatives is what keeps me coming back.
3. Christian Theology, by Millard Erickson
Moderately Calvinistic and thoroughly Evangelical, Millard Erickson, the Baptist Theologian, provides what some would consider the standard Evangelical Systematic Theology of the late 20th century. Erickson has much unique thought, yet is very stable in his Evangelical presentation. I particularly enjoy his balance of thought and his contribution in the area of the constitution of man.
2. Institutes of Christian Religion (2-Volumes), John Calvin
First, get the two volumes set, not the less-expensive one-volume. It may save you money to get the one-volume, but it will be at the expense of your eyes! Whether you are Calvinist or Arminian, one cannot overstate the value that this work has had on Christian thought. I know you are thinking that this is too out of date and ivory tower, but bite your tongue! Reading Calvin is incredible. His thought and his pastoral style are convicting as the are profound which make this hard and easy to read!
1. Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem
This decision was fairly easy. Grudem has been my go-to and send-to systematic theologian for over a decade. Clarity. That is the best way to put it. He writes so clear and makes theology interesting. We have used this text for The Theology Program for years. Students agree…it is fun to read. Calvinistic in his thought, Grudem is very balanced and informed about other options. He gives his opinion with conviction and grace. Great work!