9 Exhortations for Doing Theology

Theology can be a snare if we don’t pursue it properly. Below are nine exhortations for how we should approach the work of theology.

(1) Revere the nature of Scripture and beware of mere abstraction
When we study theology we must recognize that all true and useful theology flows from a proper understanding of Scripture. In order to properly understand Scripture, however, we must approach it according to what it is. That is, we must take it on its own terms and its own nature or else we will run the risk of misinterpreting and misapplying the Bible. For example, Scripture contains—particularly in the New Testament—a significant amount of epistles that deal specifically with theological and doctrinal issues. But the Bible is not a theology textbook, per se. There are multiple genres in Scripture: historical narrative, poetry, proverbial sayings, and stories, both true and fictional (e.g., parables). And even the heavily doctrinal portions of Scripture were written as letters to churches, not theological treatises.

What this means is that in our study of theology we can never allow a particular system (e.g., Calvinism, dispensationalism, covenant theology, etc.) to dictate our interpretation of individual texts. Nor can we ever allow our studies to become detached from life. The biblical authors weaved theology through the whole of the believer’s experience and at no point allow us to conclude that we should ever do theology for the sake of doing theology. James puts it this way: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Steve Wellum says it well: “After all, our doing of theology is not merely an academic exercise; it is first and foremost done as an act of worship to our Triune God in obedience to His Word.”[1] The Bible is a gift from our Creator that we might know and love him, obey his commands, and serve others.

Furthermore, the work of theology is not only repeating Scripture or collecting Bible verses, but working to understand biblical texts as a coherent whole and apply the truth to our lives. Wellum again:

…we must not view the theological task merely as an inductive collecting, organizing, and arranging of texts, a kind of proof-texting approach apart from reading and applying Scripture in light of its own internal categories and structure….To be intratextual does not imply that the doing of theology is simply one of repeating Scripture, for Scripture must be applied to every aspect of our lives, both individually and corporately.”[2]

(2) Revere the nature of Scripture and beware of under-systemization 
But it would be easy to drift too far in the other direction and suggest that the truths of Scripture cannot be systematized or that systemization is, at best, an effort that will bear little fruit. This kind of thinking, however, is also the result of faulty assumptions about the Bible. Specifically, those who downplay the importance of systematic theology are often those who believe that Scripture is full of contradictions, or that it contains multiple perspectives that resist coherent synthesis.

But if we believe that a coherent, self-consistent God has revealed himself in Scripture, then it follows that the teaching of Scripture is coherent and self-consistent. Systematic theology, therefore, is not only possible, but worthy of pursuit, for it enables us understand Scripture comprehensively and to develop well-grounded convictions about God and biblical doctrine.[3] In this way we are able to “think God’s thoughts after him.” Steve Wellum helpfully explains how evangelical theology conceives of the possibility of doing theology in light of post-modernism.

On the one hand, evangelicals have rightly acknowledged that even though Scripture is first-order, even though it is fully authoritative, we must still interpret the text, which inevitably means that we are involved in a kind of “hermeneutical spiral.” We approach the text with assumptions and biases, but as we read and study the text, it, bu the work of the Spirit, in relation to a believing community, is able to correct our readings. Thus, by hard work, listening to others (e.g., the role of tradition), prayer, and in obedience to God’s Word, we are able to understand Scripture more correctly and accurately. On the other hand, evangelicals have rarely claimed that our theological constructions (including our confessions) are as authoritative as the text itself. But we have affirmed…that if our exegesis, exposition, and theological reflections accurately reflect what Scripture teaches, then we can say that our interpretation is true and biblical. Of course, this never entails that our theological formulations can ever act as a substitute for Scripture. We are always driven back to the text, again and again, to reformulate and rethink our doctrinal positions precisely because theology is second-order language. But given the fact that Scripture is first-order language due to its divine inspiration, our theology is always grounded in a “revelational foundation”—a Word-revelation that allows us to understand God, ourselves, and this world truly (i.e., objectively), but never exhaustively.[4]

(3) Take into account all of Scripture and beware of reductionism
Reductionism is defined as the practice of “simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it.”[5] When we bump up against complex ideas in Scripture and in theology, we might be tempted to fold back into our pre-conceived notions about what is true or what the Bible teaches simply because it easier lean on our assumptions than to think hard over difficult doctrinal issues.

This posture can keep us from examining the whole of Scripture and attempting to make sense of all the biblical data on a particular topic. When this happens, learning is stunted and spiritual growth is hindered. Scripture calls us to “think,” “consider,” “meditate,” and exercise mental labor (1 Tim 2:7; Luke 12:24-27; Psalm 119:15, 27, 48; 2 Tim 2:15). In order to profit from our study, we must be willing to take into account all that the Bible teaches, not just the portions that fit our preconceived ideas. To be truly ‘biblical,’ the pastor-theologian must take into account all that the Bible teachings on a particular issue or topic. Hard work, yes, but necessary in order to truly know what God has said.

(4) Labor to discover what is true, not what initially appeals to reason
Because the object of our study is the infinite, Triune God and his ways with humanity, we must be careful that we don’t accept or reject theological ideas based merely on how it fits with the categories of our human reason. Rather, we must resolve at the beginning of our quest to seek truth, and then, by God’s grace, bring our reason into submission to that truth.[6] 

(5) Pursue heart-felt worship in the Scripture and beware of pride and intellectualism 
Most deadly to our pursuit of theological truth is pride, and pride swells when our studies are no longer motivated by the ultimate goal of worshipping the living Christ and loving others (see Matt 22:37-39; John 5:44; 1 Cor 13:1-8). D. A. Carson helpfully comments,

By contrast [to the chemist], if theology deals with a personal/transcendent God, the theologian begins by acknowledging his or her own indebtedness to and dependence upon that God. Christians who think about God do not control their subject; their subject makes his demands of them. In Christian theology, the theologian must being by acknowledging that he or she is not in control. That is an insurmountable hurdle for many people—indeed for all of us, apart from grace.[7]

(6) Prioritize the primary source of theology
The supreme source of knowledge of God is the Scripture, and all labor in theology is simply labor to better understand the Scripture. Jonathan Edwards exhorts us: “Be assiduous in reading the Holy Scriptures. This is the fountain whence all knowledge of divinity must be derived. Therefore, let not this treasure lie by you neglected.”[8] Our posture toward our study of theology should be like the Psalmist who made the Scripture the central object of his meditation (Psalm 119:15).

(7) Don’t let pride keep you from learning from others 
Nevertheless, God has graciously and richly blessed us with teachers to help us understand the Scriptures. Therefore, we must be aware of pride that keeps us from good books and receiving help from other teachers, including our peers (see Rom 15:14). Again, Edwards is helpful:

Improve conversation with other to this end [of growing in knowledge]. How much might persons each other’s knowledge in divine things, if they would improve conversation as they might: if men that are ignorant were not ashamed to show their ignorance, and were willing to learn from others; if those who had knowledge would communicate it without pride and ostentation; and if all were more disposed to enter on such conversations as would be for their mutual edification and instruction.”[9]

Solomon reminds us: “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Pro 18:15).

(8) Don’t let a desire for applause or winning debates motivate your studies
The desire for personal glory will kill your ability to grow in true knowledge and derail your theological endeavors. Edwards’ warning is apt:

Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek if for your soul, and to practice—If applause be your end, you will not be so likely to be led in the knowledge of the truth, but may justly, as is often the case of those who are proud of their knowledge, be led into error to your own perdition. This being your end, if you should obtain much rational knowledge, it would not be likely to e of any benefit to you, but would puff you up with pride: 1 Cor 8:1, “’Knowledge puffeth up.’” [10]

(9) Pray to God for wisdom and labor to know you own blind spots
Finally, in order to be a good theologian, we must recognize that we are not very good theologians. Sin, personal bias, blindspots, social and educational backgrounds, and a host of other factors hinder our labors. We need help. Edwards offers this closing word:

Seek to God, that he would direct you and bless you in this pursuit after knowledge. This is the apostle’s direction, James 1:5: “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask it of God, who giveth to all liberally, and upbraideth not.” God is the fountain of all divine knowledge: Prov 2:6: “The Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth come wisdom and understanding.” Labor to be sensible of your own blindness and ignorance, and your need of the help of God, lest you be led into error, instead of true knowledge.”[11]

__________

Notes

[1]Steven J. Wellum, “Postconservatism, Biblical Authority, and Recent Proposals for Re-Doing Evangelical Theology: A Critical Analysis,” in Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accomodation in Post-Modern Times, eds. Millard Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 164.

[2]Wellum, “Postconservatism,” 184-85.

[3]For more on the possibility of doing systematic theology, see D. A. Carson, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology,” in Scripture and Truth, eds., D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 65-95; see D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), especially pp. 182ff.

[4]Wellum, “Postconservatism,” 173.

[5]Dictionary.com, “Reductionism.”

[6]For a brief but helpful discussion of what this looks like, see John Piper, Contending for our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 68-70.

[7]D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, 118.

[8]Jonathan Edwards, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” in Works 2: 162.

[9]Edwards “Divine Truth,” 162.

[10]Edwards, “Divine Truth,” 162-63.

[11]Edwards, “Divine Truth,” 163.

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