So what is theology, why should we be concerned about it and what are some of the pitfalls we will encounter as we attempt to develop our own theological understanding? This article will briefly attempt to answer these questions.
A Working Definition
In its purest sense, theology is the study of God. However, over the years it has taken on the broader meaning of the study of religion and religious belief. Consequently, Christian theology is the study of the textbook of our faith, the Bible, with a view to understanding its truth and forming beliefs. Whenever we read any kind of book, we must interact with the text. We desire to understand the written material in front of us and automatically start to form our own conclusions about it. This is especially the case when we read the Bible, and the fact that we draw conclusions and develop beliefs makes us all, in the broadest sense of the word, theologians.
Of course, this means that even sceptics and outright atheists who seek to undermine God’s Word and find supposed contradictions are theologians at one level. It is certainly worth pointing out that not all theologians are born again – new birth only comes through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, this article is written for those who are sincerely seeking a deeper understanding of God and His Word, so let me proceed to outline a few important principles that will keep us on the right track in our Bible study.
The Holy Spirit’s Role
An often neglected point is that without the Holy Spirit we will never gain real understanding of what the Bible teaches. All truly saved people have the Spirit within them (Romans 8:9), so even the most inexperienced believer has the advantage over unbelieving professors of religion on a university campus. The latter may have vast knowledge of the original languages and the historical background to the Bible, along with a whole host of academic credentials, but will never truly comprehend what Scripture says, given that they have no living relationship with the One who inspired the text in the first place!
Approaching the Text
Nevertheless, even with the Spirit dwelling within us, it is easy to draw incorrect conclusions from what we read, as is evident from the vast diversity of opinion which exists even among Bible-believing churches. We all have a tendency to believe what we are told by preachers and elders, whether verbally or in written form, and to bring these preconceptions with us as we begin to study the Bible for ourselves.
Of course, godly preaching is invaluable for anyone seeking a better understanding of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, even the best preachers get it wrong on occasion. We do well, therefore, to follow the example of the people of Berea as recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles. Having heard the apostle Paul preach the gospel to them, these people: “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things [i.e. what Paul had preached] were so” (Acts 17:11).
Like the Bereans, we should avoid approaching a passage of the Bible and simply reading our existing beliefs into what is written. Instead, we need to come to the text with an open mind, ask the Lord to give us understanding and then seek to draw out the meaning of what the biblical author has said, without being coloured by our own preconceived ideas.
As we grow in our knowledge of God’s Word, so we will begin to develop our own theological convictions, i.e., firm beliefs about what the Bible teaches. This is something to which every Christian should aspire, but it can be a hindrance to Bible study if our convictions become more important to us than simply reading what the text of Scripture says and then allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it. Our existing beliefs may be correct, but we should allow Scripture to confirm this by speaking directly to us.
If our interpretation was right, we will be strengthened in our convictions, having been able to see for ourselves directly from Scripture what others have taught us from the pulpit. On the other hand, if we are holding on to wrong ideas, the Holy Spirit will be able to give us a more accurate and complete understanding of what God’s Word teaches.
None of us has a perfect understanding of the deep mysteries of God’s holy Word, but, with an unbiased approach and the Spirit of God guiding us, our appreciation of its wonder and our grasp of its truth will increase. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will correct us; at other times our existing understanding will be confirmed. Either way, we will be helped to grow in our faith.
Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez