It is easy to understand that studying theology is something every Christian should practice. Organizing the categories of theology may make it easier to approach such a broad topic, but how does one actually study theology?
“The knowledge of divine things to which Christians are called is more than a formal acquaintance with biblical words and Christian ideas. It is a realizing of the reality and relevance of those activities of the triune God to which Scripture testifies. Such awareness is natural to none, familiar with Christian ideas though they may be.” ~ JI Packer
In order to properly study Christian theology you need a Bible and a few guidelines to keep in mind.
Inerrancy of Scripture
In order to study Christian theology properly, we must hold to inerrancy of Scripture. Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is without error in all its teaching.
Scripture is God informing us of who He is in His own words. It is our only trustworthy source of truth and must be our plumb line upon which all other claims are measured.
If there is the possibility of that Scripture has erred in its portrayal of God, it is useless to us. If there is even a possibility of error, we are without hope. If we do not have a trustworthy standard, then we are left with experience and feelings to base our hope. Experience and feelings are not evil but they are subjective and cannot be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9).
“But the Bible claims to be much more. In fact it claims to be the very word of God. The Bible claims to be breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16). If God is God, He does not make mistakes. If the Bible is breathed out by God, there cannot be “minor errors” in details of history. If the Bible contains such errors, it can hardly be the work of a perfect God. And if God is not perfect and totally trustworthy, God is not God.” (“The Inerrancy of the Bible”)
“Biblical hermeneutics is the science of properly interpreting the various types of literature found in the Bible.” (“What is biblical hermaneutics?”)
In order to practice proper hermeneutics, we must consider the literary style a passage is written in. We are to read the Bible literarily, not literally but literarily. This means we should take the passage’s literary style into consideration. For example, if we are reading a historical text, we are to take it as literal history. If we are reading a passage explaining a dream or vision we are to keep in mind that symbolism is used frequently in this type of literature and should rarely be taken as literally.
“A second crucial law of biblical hermeneutics is that a verse or passage must be interpreted historically, grammatically, and contextually.” (“What is biblical hermaneutics?”)
A passage must be studied considering the context, the literary style, the history, the grammar, the culture in which it was written, who is writing it, and to whom is it being written. By keeping these in mind, Scripture will take on a deeper meaning and will be more clearly understood.
“We do indeed directly encounter God in the pages of Holy Writ, but that is because the words on its pages are the words of God Himself. Because God’s Word is true, there only can be one possible original meaning for each biblical text. This meaning will be the same for us as it was for the original audience thousands of years ago because truth does not change. Our differing settings may cause the precise application to be different, but never the text’s meaning.” (“Hermeneutics“)
When we come to Scripture, we must remain objective to what we are reading. We must take it for what it says, not letting our own thoughts, emotions, desires, beliefs, history, or culture dictate how we are to interpret a passage.
There are two main ways of reading a passage of Scripture: exegesis and eisegesis.
Reading a passage for what it says is called exegesis. It is to pull out of the text what is being taught. You may have heard someone say something like, “Pastor Trey exegeted Mark 3 in our service today.” This means that he explained what the passage actually said and not what he thought it was saying.
“We confess that the Bible is God’s Word, but unless we read and interpret it properly, our confess ion is a mere formality. Sound biblical exegesis is essential if we hope to know and act upon biblical truth.” ~ Daniel Doriani
When we read a passage that we don’t fully understand or do not like what it is being implied, we have a bad habit of practicing what is referred to as eisegesis. This means to read into a passage of Scripture what we think or want it to say.
One of the most common places eisegesis occurs is in explaining the story of David and Goliath. Many teachers and preachers have taught this passage as meaning we are to fight the “Goliaths” in our lives, the big problems that pop up in this life. We are to search for “smooth stones” to “bring down” our “big problems.” However, this is not what this passage is about. First, it is a historical occurrence and helps us to better understand who David was, the situation that Israel was in, and what was occurring in this area at the time. There is a shadow in this story but it isn’t us or our problems. David is representing Jesus, Goliath is sin, and if we are anywhere in the story, we are the weak, frightened, untrusting, unbelieving, unfaithful Israelites.
Exegesis will teach you the doctrines in full the way God intended you to understand them. You will begin to understand Him and His actions more fully and to trust Him more. Eisegesis will give you a distorted view of God. This will not be a true representation of God and thus will be an idol. An incorrect view of God is eternally deadly.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
The Bible is written in progressive revelation. This means that God reveals a little more of Himself and His plan little by little throughout the Bible. This impacts our study of theology in that we use the newer information to interpret the older. We see a more clearer picture of the Old Testament when we look at it through the lens of the New Testament.
For example, reading Psalm 22 after reading Mark 15 helps us to better understand this psalm. It is no longer just a prayer of David about his own life but now we see it is a prophecy about Jesus. In referring to this psalm, we better understand who Jesus is, as well.
“Progressive revelation means that while Scripture’s application to old covenant believers is different in some ways from its application to new covenant believers, we do not reject any of God’s Word. It reveals one message of salvation that we cannot fully grasp unless we consider the whole of the Bible.” (“Progressive Revelation”)
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
The Holy Spirit is sent to indwell Christians. His work is to sanctify us until the day in which we go to be with God the Son in Paradise. One part of this work of sanctification is in illuminating Scripture to us. Until God gives us the ability, it is impossible to truly understand His Word correctly.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)
Our natural sin nature blinds us to God’s holiness. Until He acts, we remain in the darkness. He must give us new eyes to see what He has to reveal about Himself. In John 3:20, Jesus teaches that sinners hate the light and will not come into it. It is God who gives us the desire and ability to seek the light when He regenerates one of His children.
“The work of the Spirit in imparting this knowledge is called ‘illumination,’ or enlightening. It is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to love the revelation that is there before us in the biblical text as heard and read, and as explained by teachers and writers. Sin in our mental and moral system clouds our minds and wills so that we miss and resist the force of Scripture. God seems to us remote to the point of unreality, and in the face of God’s truth we are dull and apathetic. The Spirit, however, opens and unveils our minds and attunes our hearts so that we understand (Eph. 1:17-18; 3:18-19; 2 Cor. 3:14-16; 4:6). As by inspiration he provided Scripture truth for us, so now by illumination he interprets it to us. Illumination is thus the applying of God’s revealed truth to our hearts, so that we grasp as reality for ourselves what the sacred text sets forth.” ~ JI Packer
Recognition of Human Limitations
“Historically, the first undertaking for systematic theologians is the study of the incomprehensibility of God. At first glance, such and undertaking appears contradictory; how can one study something that is incomprehensible? However, this pursuit makes sense when we grasp that theologians use the term incomprehensible in a narrower and more precise way than it is used in everyday speech. Theologically speaking, incomprehensible does not mean that we cannot known anything about God but rather that our knowledge of Him will always be limited. We can have an apprehensive, meaningful knowledge of God, but we can never, not even in heaven, have an exhaustive knowledge of Him; we cannot totally comprehend all that He is.” ~ RC Sproul (Everyone’s A Theologian, 47)
Humans are limited and we are fallible. We will never fully understand everything in this life. Of the things we do understand, it is unlikely that any of us have every aspect of it perfect. We strive to know God more fully and more correctly but we praise God for His grace and mercy in the areas where we fall into error.
- Packer, J. I. “Illumination, The Holy Spirit Gives Spiritual Understanding.” Monergism. <https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/packer/Illumination.html>.
- “The Inerrancy of the Bible.” Ligonier Ministries. <http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/the-inerrancy-of-the-bible/>.
- “What is biblical hermaneutics?.” GotQuestions. <http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-hermeneutics.html>.
- “Hermeneutics.” Ligonier Ministries. <http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/hermeneutics/>.
- Doriani, Daniel. “The Importance of Sound Exegesis by Daniel Doriani.” Ligonier Ministries. <http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/importance-sound-exegesis/>.
- “Progressive Revelation.” Ligonier Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/progressive-revelation/>.
- Sproul, R. C. “Knowledge of God.” Everyone’s A Theologian. Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2014. 47.