How to Study Theology: Eighteen Specifications
Everyone is a theologian. This is not to say that everyone is a good theologian. It only means that whenever someone asserts a truth about a topic dealt with in the Bible, they are stating a theological proposition. I assume most reading this article, however, are seeking to be good theologians. How can we study theology in the most faithful and fruitful manner?
Here are eighteen specifications on how we should study theology.
1. Scripturally. That’s to say that we derive our views of God and truth from the Bible. The Scriptures are the gateway to true knowledge of reality. Everything must be proven by the Word of God and proper interpretation of it. The Bible alone is authoritative in life and doctrine
2. Contextually. Our reception of the truth and our interpretation of biblical texts cannot be separated. To understand any passage, one must grasp what God was saying through the specific author to the specific recipient. In other words, the meaning of a given passage is determined by its context–literary and historical.
3. Grammatically. Some of you might be unconvinced on this point. I hope though that Andy Naselli’s statement on grammar might change your mind. He writes, “Grammar matters because God chose to reveal himself to us with grammar. So paying attention to grammar is a way to pay attention to God. The more accurately you understand grammar, the more accurately you can understand God.” Grammer guards the gospel. To understand a text is to understand how words and phrases relate to one another.
4. Biblically. More concretely, I mean we should seek to study biblical theology to be better theologians overall. Being aware of the biblical story’s major turning points will help orient us on seeing the parts of Scripture in light of its whole. Biblical theology can be studied in different ways: a single book; a corpus; or one of the Testaments. The discipline of biblical theology is helpful because it analyzes and synthesizes the whole Bible on its own terms. It is concerned with how the New Testament uses the Old Testament and how biblical themes progress canonically.
5. Systematically. Systematic theology seeks to discern how a topic or theme within a particular passage theologically coheres with the whole Bible. The benefit of studying theology systematically is that it can address contemporary issues, make logical inferences, and identify doctrinal tensions because it can provide an accurate theological grid. For new students of the Bible, systematic theology can efficiently package what the whole Bible teaches.
6. Historically. We should consult faithful saints of old to see how they rendered passages and communicated truths. Historical theology gives us guardrails for orthodoxy. Before moving from exegesis to systematic theology, we should pause and consider how exegetes and theologians have understood the Bible and theology.
7. Practically. There is an interconnectedness between theology and ethics. The lives we are supposed to live and the attitudes we are supposed to have is largely dictated by the truth that we know and believe. How is your theology aiding you in becoming a better parent or factory worker? Theology is practical and should be studied as such.
8. Humbly. For Christians to arrive at and remain in the truth is a result of God’s grace in our lives. Recall the words of Peter: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). To study humbly does not mean that we do not speak confidently about any Scriptural topic. That’s false humility. To study humbly means to be willing to accept whatever you see as true in Scripture, to submit fully to God’s instruction. We won’t know everything there is to know about any single doctrine, but we can know that doctrine truly.
9. Charitably. There are Christians who love Christ, submit to the Word of God, believe in the gospel, cherish the local church, who interpret some passages and doctrines differently. This should impact our level of criticalness. There is a distinction between major and minor doctrines.
10. Seriously. To have wrong views of or wrong affections for, God and His Word, have damning consequences. Precision does not come by those who are flippant in their study of God. Louis Berkof once wrote, “They who minimize the significance of the truth, and therefore ignore and neglect it, will finally come to the discovery that they have very little Christianity left.” Why? Because Christianity is founded on truth. An earnestness must accompany every person, class, church, or seminary that seeks to define and defend a sound theology. We must have a resolute determination to be God-honoring theologians. God is not properly glorified where He is not rightly known.
11. Prayerfully. We pray before and during study time because only God can give us eyes to see Him, minds to know Him, hearts to love Him, and wills to obey Him. Have you drifted from dependence on God in studying His word? If so, seek today to be a prayerful theologian.
12. Worshipfully. To study the Bible is to study the most precious realities in the universe. Seeing and savoring the God of the Bible is the chief goal of studying biblical truth. Here’s a suggestion of one book that would round out your study of theology: a hymnal.
13. Redemptively. Part of studying theology is looking to how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, planned, accomplished, and applied salvation to God’s people. Keep an eye out for Christ and themes of redemption in your study. Also, purchase this book by Stephen Wellum and Trent Hunter on how the story of Scripture reveals the glory of Christ.
14. Obediently. We want to be Christians who hear and obey the truth that we see in the Bible. “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28). There ought to be a correlation between our intake of theology and our growth in holiness.
15. Persistently. God is infinite! His excellencies are more than the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. We will forever wonder at God’s glory and those glories can be seen and delighted in now. Every true Christian should give themselves to knowing God in the fullest way possible. This means persistent study and wholehearted devotion.
16. Corporately. Bad theology hurts people. Destructive decisions are made every day due to the biblical truth they disregard or the biblical truth they do not know. People are in need of the truth, including people in your church. Who in your local congregation can you instruct in sound doctrine?
17. Evangelistically. We study theology not only for our own joy in the Lord but also that the nations might be glad in God (Psalm 67). Is there someone you can share a theological insight with outside your church today?
18. Eagerly. Be encouraged that “what we will be has not appeared” (1 Jn 3:2). There is coming a day when “we shall see him as he is.” In glory, our incomplete understanding of theology will give way to perfect sight and savoring of God.
As you study theology, I hope these specifications will make you a more competent and well-rounded student of theology.
Editor’s note: portions of this post were taken from Brandon Freeman’s article: How to Study Theology.