Theology, simply put, is what we believe about God. It is the study of who He is and what it leads us to believe about Him. Tim Challies wrote about the importance of developing our theological understanding saying, "When we have great knowledge of God, we can think great thoughts of God. When we think great thoughts of God, we can live great lives for God. When we live great lives for God, we bring great glory to God." Our understanding of God is woven into every part of our lives - it affects the way we speak, think, and live. And it is informed by the study of God's Word.
So how do we study theology? You may have several assumptions about how to do that. You may think a seminary degree could aid your studies or that you need to learn from a renowned scholar. You may even think you need to purchase large books with big words. There are so many great theological resources offered to us, but just by reading God's Word, you've already started to develop some sort of theological understanding. It is in the pages of the Bible where God makes Himself known to us. From Genesis to Revelation, God reveals His character and His promises. As we uncover truths of the Scriptures, we uncover truths about God. And we do so by studying it regularly, carefully, and inductively.
As we study the Bible, we need to ask questions. These could be simple questions like, what is the context of this passage? Who wrote this book of the Bible? Or what does this passage teach me about God? But they can also be more difficult questions like, How does God answer prayer? Why does God allow suffering? Or Does God ever change His mind?
Asking questions is a way we develop and shape our understanding of God. Asking questions allows us to interpret the text. Another word for this is "exegesis". Exegesis answers the questions, "What does this text actually say?" and "What did the author mean by what he said?" We discover this by applying sound principles of interpretation to the Bible. You may be familiar with studying different methods of interpretation. One method is to observe, interpret, and then apply. As you observe the text you are asking questions and making notes. Does a word repeat itself? Is there a word you don't know? Is there a reference you don't understand? Do you notice someone about God's character? You're writing down what you want to understand more and what sticks out to you. To interpret, you can search around the passage for scripture to answer scripture. You can look to cross-references that may direct you to a similar passage. You can read more of the chapter for clarity. Then as a last resort, you can look to a book or a commentary by a trusted author or theologian for extra guidance. After interpretation, we can make applications to what we've learned like how will this truth shape my understanding of God? How does this passage encourage me to live?
In exegeting passages, we uncover truths that establish sound doctrine. We must always look first to God's word for answers because it is the only infallible source of Christian theology. But, we must be reminded that the study of God's word is a lifelong pursuit and the theological riches found in the Scriptures are inexhaustible. Romans 11:33 says, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" The knowledge of God is inexhaustible and there are ways our finite minds are limited in understanding.
So we pray and ask God to help us understand when we don't. And we find wisdom in developing our theology with others. Whether, sitting under the teaching of your local church pastor, gathering with others to study the Bible, engaging in discipling relationships, reading theology focused books, or even taking theology based classes.
Additionally, some resources will serve you well in your theological pursuits and here are a few I'd recommend:
- If you don't already have one, it is great to own a study Bible. They have cross-references, footnotes, and may include charts, maps, timelines, illustrations, and even photos. They hold curated commentaries from historians and theologians. If you don't have a Study Bible, look to see if your Bible has cross-references and footnotes. Begin using these features regularly to help in your studies.
- Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem and According to Plan: An Introductory Biblical Theology by Graeme Gildsworthy are two good beginning resources as well. There are a number of books on the basics of theology. These can emphasize the scriptural basis for each doctrine and concept.
- Free Online Courses are becoming more and more available than you'd think. The Gospel Coalition offers free courses on their website and the Reformed Theological Seminary app also has free class recordings that you can listen to.
As we strive to be good theologians and good stewards of God's Word, may our ultimate aim in our studies be to love, know, and enjoy God more.