Where Do I Start?
You obviously need to start with knowing the Scripture rather than reading what someone else has said about the Scripture. So first, you should read your Bible. I would also recommend purchasing the Bible on CD. I imported the ESV Bible into my iTunes account and have it on my phone. When I am running, lifting weights or driving for an extended time, I listen to entire books of the Bible to saturate myself continuously with God’s Word.
Next, I recommend beginning with a shorter, popular level book on doctrine. You could read a book like What Every Christian Ought to Know by Adrian Rogers, The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler, or The Gospel by J.D. Greear. While I wouldn’t recommend everything anyone does or writes, these books will get you started.
From there, you can move into the realm of smaller systematic theologies. I would recommend staying away from those that spend much time on philosophical arguments in favor of those that spend more time dealing with Scripture—at least at first. Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, James Madison Pendleton’s Christian Doctrine a Compendium of Theology (older but good), Millard Erickson’s Introducing Christian Doctrine, or Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine: Essential Teaching of the Christian Faith are all helpful works.
After familiarizing yourself with main categories and how Scripture fits together, it may be helpful to see what others in the past have said, or to add philosophical argumentation to your knowledge base. I would begin with larger systematic books before taking on a historical theology like Alister McGrath’s. Chart books can also be treasures to help you understand the differences of the various positions. I would recommend the charts series from Zondervan, which includes Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine. You can move to Grudem’s major systematic work Systematic Theology, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology, or A Theology for the Church edited by Daniel Akin. Perhaps even Norman Geisler’s four-volume Systematic Theology. Then I would recommend Lewis and Demarest’s Integrative Theology—described as historical, biblical, systematic, apologetic and practical.
After working your way through these books, you should know where you stand and what you want to read next. Pay careful attention to the footnotes as you read. A goldmine of historical authors will usually appear in these notes, which casual readers may skip over. If these books become your favorites, then I suspect God may be calling you to ministry and you may need to pack up and come to seminary or at least visit one while praying for the Lord to show you His will for your life.
Editor’s Note: This is an article in the series “Why You Should Study Systematic Theology” by Thomas White, vice president for student services and communications at Southwestern.