A few weeks ago I wrote a blogpost, “Theology is not Just for Theologians.” This week Edmond Sanganyado ran a post (“Becoming a Better Theologian“) on the same subject, where he queried more than twenty theologians on how to grow in knowing and loving God (i.e., theology). He received responses from Jonathan Leeman, Kevin Vanhoozer, Tim Challies, to name a few. He also included a few thoughts I shared.
I’ve developed those reflections further below, and laid out twelve aspects to growing as a ‘theologian’ (i.e., one who thinks about God). These are addressed to individuals in the church but could easily be adapted by pastors to encourage his congregation to grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), which is the aim of spiritually-enriching theology.
Twelve Ways to Grow in the Grace and Knowledge of the Lord
1. Delight Yourself in the Lord.
Good theology begins with a soul satisfaction in the Lord. This includes conversion, but goes further. Because understanding is enhanced or hindered by our loves, the first thing a good theologian must do is love God in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4) is not just a command for decision-making, it is also necessary for doctrine-making.
Often heresy and errant theology (which are not exactly the same) are produced by men who are embittered towards God or trying to win the approval of others. In other words, because biography shapes theology (as in the case of Friedrich Schleiermacher), it is possible for bad theology to crop up from some misunderstood crisis in life. At the same time, good theology is sweetened by the grace given in times of suffering. Martin Luther said suffering was essential for making a theologian. A good theologian, by implication, must think rightly about God in trying times. And thus he or she must begin with delighting in the Lord.
2. Saturate yourself with Scripture.
There is no good theology without a broad understanding of the Bible. Most theological imbalances result from considering only a part of Scripture. To be a faithful theologian, one must master the Scriptures. Or, better, be mastered by the Scriptures. Those with a Master of Divinity or a Doctorate in Theology may or may not have mastered the Scriptures. Such programs should give tools for understanding the Bible, but good Scriptural saturation is a life-long goal that all should pursue.
There is no illumination of God’s Word without the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10–16). And there is no knowledge of God without prayer. David Helm makes this point emphatically in his book Expositional Preaching,
The ‘work’ of theological reflection can only be done through prayer. There is an intimate connection between the revelation of the identity of Christ—seeing him as the fulfillment of the Scriptures—and moments of prayerful quiet.
Luke makes this connection on a number of occasions. When Peter responds to Jesus’s question, “But who do you say that I am?” with “the Christ of God,” the readers had just been told that Jesus was praying alone (Luke 9:18–20). In other words, Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus was revealed to Peter in the context of prayer. The transfiguration, when Jesus was revealed in his glory as the Son, the Chosen One, follows Jesus taking Peter, James, and John to go to the mountain and pray (Luke 9:28–36). Back in the beginning of the Gospel, aged Simeon and Anna are both identified as pious people of prayer—statements that immediately precede God’s revealing Jesus to them (Luke 2:27, 37; cf. Luke 28–32, 38). Even when God reveals the identity of Jesus at his baptism, Luke records that the heavens were opened and the God spoke, claiming Jesus as his Son. Luke records that the heavens opened just as Jesus was praying (Luke 3:21–22). (68)
What should we make of this? David Helm answers directly: “Luke could not have been any clearer: God reveals Jesus to people as a consequence of prayer” (69). Though speaking of preaching, the same applies for doing theology. And of course, preaching is “doing theology.” If you want to be a good theologian, therefore, pray that God would open your eyes to behold the wonder of his law (Psalm 119:18).
4. Listen to good expositional preaching.
Bad theology is typically the fruit of bad interpretation. Because good hermeneutical principles are more often caught that taught, the best way to grow in interpretation is to read and listen to good expositors. Some faithful expositors include John Piper, Jason Meyer, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and D.A. Carson.
5. Read good books.
There are lots of mediocre Christian books. Since we only have limited time, aspiring theologians should discipline themselves to read the best. Ask your pastor for a list of excellent books. For starters he are twelve books every theologian should read.
6. Think of yourself theologically.
Many put off theology because they think “I’m not a theologian. I’ve never had training, etc.” This is a wrong way to think. Made in the image of God we are by nature theological. The question is not, “Am I a theologian.” You are. Everyone is. The question should be, “Am I a good theologian.”
If you think of yourself theologically (as one who thinks constantly about God and the meaning of life in his world), it will prompt you to ask good questions of the Bible. It will heighten your appetite for knowing him more—which is the basis of theology.
7. Talk to others about what you are thinking, reading, studying.
Theological growth is best conducted with others. Seminary is great for this, but so is a theology breakfast, a Puritan book club, or a weekly Bible study that studies Scripture and looks for theological truths. Don’t do theology alone.
In the church, theology should not be something that is relegated to a Gnostic few. Rather, every pastor should labor to help his congregation to “think theologically” and to help his people engage in theology for the sake of doxology and praxis. Designed to be a “pillar and buttress of truth,” the church is the ideal environment for theology to be pursued. More over, because of the local environment and critical needs found among the body of Christ, it is here were theology is most likely to avoid speculation and dry cogitation.
8. Find good teachers.
Ideally, theologically-minded teachers are in your local church. If not, find a few trusted pastor-theologians whose writing stir you to think more biblically and worship more passionately. Learn from them. Go to a conference where they speak; build friendships with others.
Invite these speakers to your church. Introduce them to your friends. Built relationships with other like-minded believers and be inclusive and gregarious with your circle of theological friends.
9. Love the Church.
Theology pursued as an end in itself leads to speculation and pride. Theology pursued, however, for the sake of the church crushes the teacher and purifies the doctrine. In truth, nothing will make you ask better questions and give more life-giving answers than serving in the church.
10. Crucify amusements.
Amuse literally means to “not think,” a-muse. Television, Facebook, video games, and addictions to sports, politics, etc. are the best way to avoid growing as a theologian. Reading is imperative for knowing God and thinking can only be conducted with a commitment to shutting down distractions and devoting time (in the morning, at night, in the drive) to meditating on God and his word. In short, it is impossible to become a theologian without a commitment to reading.
In a helpful article about Martin Luther (“Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: What Makes a Theologian?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 66.3 : 255-67), John Kleinig observes the way Luther elevated prayer, meditation (on Scripture), and suffering as the three necessary components for “making a theologian.” As he argues all theology is speculative until it is tested by fire. And often saints grow the most when salted with suffering. As Psalm 119:67 says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.”
On this point, Luther wrote:
I did not learn my theology all at once, but had to search constantly deeper and deeper for it. My temptations did that for me, for no one can understand Holy Scripture without practice and temptations. This is what the enthusiasts and sects lack. They don’t have the right critic, the devil, who is the best teacher of theology. If we don’t have that kind of devil, then we become nothing but speculative theologians, who do nothing but walk around in our own thoughts and speculate with our reason alone as to whether things should be like this, or like that.
Classic Luther: “the devil . . . is the best teacher of theology.”
In truth, the Holy Spirit is the only teacher of theology (1 Corinthians 2:6–16; 1 John 2:27), but, oh, how the omni-sapient Spirit of God uses trials and temptations to purify his saints and mature their theology. Because theology is not a game of trivial pursuit, we must remember that suffering is necessary for making a theologian. Indeed, sometimes the only way we will receive his instruction (read: grow in grace and knowledge) comes after he chastens us with suffering.
Let us not despise suffering; it is meant to teach us to treasure God and trust his Word.
Theology takes time. And the best theologians may not be the ones who read the fastest or understand the quickest. The best theologians are the ones who abide in the presence of the Lord and want more of him. They don’t think of theology as a subject to be mastered, but a Master to be known and adored.
The Making More Theologians
For this reason, theology is the handmaiden genuine love for God and his people. It is not an optional course for church members, it is necessary part of the Christians faith and practice. May God give us greater zeal for theology that serves to help us know and love him more. And may he raise up teachers who help others catch the same vision.
For more reflections, see Edmond Sanganyado post on the subject, Becoming a Better Theologian, where he gets the thoughts of more than twenty well-respected Christian theologians and authors. (Then he also quotes me).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds