Tag: Theology

The Importance of Devotional Reading for Pastors and Theologians

As a pastor, I make theological reading a priority. The truth contained in these books informs my teaching and writing, undergirds and permeates my counseling, and enables me to discern harmful doctrinal trends that may be influencing my people and the greater church.

Earlier this year I read The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham and Inerrancy and the Gospels Vern Poythress. These were followed by Ladd’s The Blessed HopeBiblical Hermeneutics: Five Viewsedited by Stanley Porter and Beth Stovall and The Pastor-Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson. I am currently reading  Sam Storms’ treatise on amillennialism, Kingdom Come and just finished Steve Wellum’s excellent book in the Five Solas series, Christ Alone. I also recently finished Barrett’s book in the same series, God’s Word Alone as well as Trueman’s Grace Alone. Peter Gentry’s little book Reading and Understanding the Biblical Prophets was helpful, and I am looking forward to tackling Matt Waymeyer’s response to amillennialism, Amillennialism and the Age to Come in the near future (no pun intended). Continue reading “The Importance of Devotional Reading for Pastors and Theologians”

Spiritual Maturity and Doctrinal Debate

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of GodA few years ago I made my way through John Frame’s excellent book on theological method, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  It was helpful in many ways. In particular is Frame’s section on “cognitive rest” and how genuine growth in our knowledge of God comes by way of spiritual maturity and growth in sanctification.  Here is an important excerpt:

Many doctrinal misunderstandings in the church are doubtless due to this spiritual-ethical immaturity. We need to pay more attention to this fact when we get into “theological disputes.”  Sometimes, we throw arguments back and forth, over and over again, desperately trying to convince one another. But often there is in one of the disputers—or both!—the kind of spiritual immaturity that prevents clear perception. We all know how it works in practice. Lacking sufficient love for one another, we seek to interpret the other person’s views in the worst possible sense (We forget the tremendous importance of love—even as an epistemological concept; cf. I Cor. 8:1-3; I Tim 1:5ff; I John 2:4; 3:18; 4:7ff). Lacking sufficient humility, too, we over estimate the extent of our own knowledge (155). Continue reading “Spiritual Maturity and Doctrinal Debate”

Nuance

Nuance is a word Christian lay people and theologians alike should cherish. A nuance is defined as a “subtle distinction or variation.” In theology, nuances usually develop from a need to better clarify a particular teaching and often carry significant doctrinal weight. For example, take the doctrine of justification. We would be correct in stating this doctrine as, “God’s legal declaration of fully righteous those who have trusted in Jesus Christ.” A nuance to this doctrine would be that it comes through faith alone by grace alone. Further nuance would be that it is one time declaration that cannot be reversed and that it is not dependent upon one’s sanctification or practical righteousness.

As you can see, nuance is added to explanations of doctrine when they are challenged or questioned on certain fronts. If one says that justification can be lost, we need to explain that it is a one time declaration that cannot be reversed. If someone teaches that we are able to earn justification by our own righteousness, we must clarify by asserting that it comes through faith alone by grace alone. If one worries that their besetting sins somehow affect or alter their justification, we reaffirm that justification is based only on Christ’s perfect life and work on the cross, not our accumulation or lack of righteousness.

One phenomenon we see throughout the history of the church is the addition of nuance to doctrinal explanations. Fundamental doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, salvation, and sanctification—to name only a few—have been explained in greater detail with each passing century. As false teachers crept into the church and attacked particular teachings, or as Christians sought to better understand their faith, it was necessary to defend and uphold those doctrines in the areas where they were being attacked, and teach them to Christians with greater precision.

Nevertheless, it might be easy to consider voluminous works by Christian theologians with disdain (why waste so much time explaining doctrine?) or mere indifference (just give me Jesus, I don’t need theology). I have been guilty of this. But their work is not in vain (and not worthy of disdain or indifference). Nuance is a necessity of doing theology and essential for understanding Christianity in the day and age that God has placed us. God is in the details, and we miss out on rich food for our souls when we don’t expend some energy attempting to understand our faith in greater and greater depth.

Before You Can Say, 'I Disagree,' You Must Be Able To Say, 'I Understand'

New Testament Exegesis Gordon FeeI am currently reading New Testament Exegesis by Gordan Fee for my Greek Exegesis class. As I was perusing the section about the use of commentaries and secondary resources, I found a paragraph that was extremely helpful to me; not only in writing exegetical papers, but for writing in general and for verbal communication as well. Fee gives wise counsel as he writes on page 33,

A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read. Before you can say, ‘I disagree,’ you must be able to say, ‘I understand.’ It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author’s position in terms that he or she would find acceptable. After that, you may proceed in six directions:

a. Show where the author is misinformed.

b. Show where the author is uniformed.

c. Show where the author is inconsistent.

d. Show where the author’s treatment is incomplete.

e. Show where the author misinterprets through faulty assumptions or procedures.

f. Show where the author makes valuable contributions to the discussion at hand.

This is excellent counsel, especially for writers. It is simply easier to misrepresent someone’s position and to set up straw-men (weak arguments that your opponent isn’t making) in order to appear as though you have the superior argument. It is difficult to work through the principles Fee provides above. But when you follow this kind of approach to theological discussion and dialog,  you are not only misleading your readers, you are harming yourself, for you are forging patterns of thinking that will lead to greater and greater confusion and lack of clarity. Do the hard work of thinking well, and you and your readers will be blessed.

Why Do You Study Theology? Thoughts from Packer's 'Knowing God'

knowing-god.jpgI recently started Knowing God by J.I. Packer. I had previously heard many encouraging things about this book from Christians of all ages (as it is, of course, a book that can be considered a true contemporary classic), but it wasn’t until just recently that I started reading it. What’s more, it seemed that when someone would ask whether or not I had read it, I would often times have to endure their looks and groanings of disbelief and astonishment: “You haven’t read Knowing God?”

But last week I started on the journey up the mountain, as Packer describes it.  “We are in the position of travelers who, after surveying a great mountain from afar, traveling around it, and observing how it dominates the landscape and determines the features of the surrounding countryside, now approach it with the intention of climbing it” (20).

There was a quote, however, in the introductory chapter, that I thought would be appropriate to provide here, considering the content of much of this blog. But not only that, I think that Packer’s wisdom should he pondered and digested by all Christians regarding our motivations for studying Scripture and theology:

…before we start to ascend our mountain, [we need] to stop and ask ourselves a very fundamental question-a question, indeed, that we always ought to put to ourselves whenever we embark on any line of study in God’s holy book. The question concerns our own motives and intentions as students.  We need to ask ourselves: What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things?  What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have it?  For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.  It will make us proud and conceited.  The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas see to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens.  For, as Paul told the conceited Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up…The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (I Corinthians 8:1-2).

To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception.  We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it.  As we saw earlier, there can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can no spiritual health with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard.  In this way, doctrinal study really can become a danger to spiritual life, and we today, no less than the Corinthians of old, need to be on our guard here (21-22).

So why do you study?  Is it merely to know all the answers? Is it only to enable yourself to debate with others? Is it to gain applause for your knowledge?  Or is it to know Christ intimately and walk in obedience to Him?  The former motivations will bring death and sickness to your soul, the latter will bring life and health.

Studying Scripture and Theology for the Right Reasons

In the introduction to Marriage to a Difficult Man, John Piper writes,

Edwards made it plain in his preaching and in his living that he believed great thoughts about God without great love towards people are sure evidences of hypocrisy and the pathway to hell.  For Edwards there was no separating high views of God and the demands of husband and father.  The link was Edwards’ grasp of the religious affections.  For him feeling and thinking were inseparable because God’s glory was only half-reflected in right thinking.  The other half shone in right feeling.  Therefore, Edwards measured holiness, especially his own, with attention to the humble emotions and not just high thoughts.  This had profound affect on his relationships.

This is one great thing I want to learn from Edwards.  I desire that all theology I embrace make me a better husband and a better father” (xiv).

O how I need to learn from this!  I don’t want to consume myself with study and high thoughts about God without love toward Christ and mankind!  My studying should make me a better husband, a better friend, a better employee, a better churchman, a better son, brother and uncle. Iain Murray, in Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography helps me with his insight into Edward’s private life:

Study and writing were not ends in themselves.  They were for the service of the gospel.  This brings us to what is most important of all in any understanding of Edwards private hours.  His view of his public work as a calling to speak to men in the name of God was inseparable from his conviction that the first demand in such a calling was that his own knowledge of of God should be personal and first hand” (142).

It changes everything when a shepherd of people studies with true love in his heart for the good of others and with an affection for God and Christ.  When I go to study with a desire to know Christ, not merely with my intellect, but with my heart as well, it has a tremendously positive impact on my whole life.  In fact, we learn from experience that love in our hearts is the only way to truly profit from studying.  Richard Sibbes, in the Bruised Reed, aptly observes,

And because knowledge and affection mutually help one another, it is good to keep up our affections of love and delight by all sweet inducements and divine encouragments; for what the heart likes best, the mind studies most.  Those that can bring their hearts to delight in Christ know most of his ways (103).

So when we open our books, let us make sure that our hearts are engaged along with our minds so that we might, through our growth in knowledge, love God and love people better.

Photo: Aaron Burden