Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Why It's Good To Read Theology

"I never read theology or Biblical studies - I only need one book: the Bible". Or so I've heard some people claim.

While this can sound pious, after thinking about it, I am concerned.

In this article I'll point out some reasons why I think all Christians should read at least a little theology, and the problems that can come from not reading any theology at all.

Why The Bible Isn't Enough

So why isn't it enough to just read the Bible and trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to the right interpretation?

After all, didn't Jesus tell his disciples that "when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth"? (John 16:13).

Shouldn't this mean that any genuine Christian should be able to be guided into the true meaning of any passage of Scripture by the Holy Spirit?

While this sounds ideal, unfortunately, history seems to prove that this is not the case.

If it were, then why are there so many different theological positions and different interpretations of the same Bible verses?

If it was really so easy to get at the one true meaning of Scripture, then there should not be such a variety of different Christian denominations in the world today, each with their own particular slant on the gospel and Scripture, right?

Of course, someone might simply say that they are right and everyone else is wrong. But that seems very arrogant.

It implies that all historical theologians have nothing at all to contribute at all to our understanding of anything in the Bible.

And really, what are the chances that you, of all the millions of Christians who have ever studied Scripture, are right on everything?

I think there was only one person who was ever right on everything, and He's currently sitting at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33). The rest of us only see things in part, and dimly at that! (1 Cor. 13:12).

The Use of Biblical Studies

At the very least, we should recognize there is a linguistic gap between the original manuscripts of the Bible and whatever language we speak today. Even modern Greek and Hebrew are not identical to the ancient forms of these languages used in the Bible.

This means we need people to study the original languages of the Bible, to compare with other documents from the time to determine the range of possible meanings of each word, and to piece together the best copies of whatever manuscripts we've still got access to. Some people spend entire careers looking at how the authors of Scripture use words, phrases, and narrative or poetic structures to communicate their message.

While it might have been possible for a literate person of the early Church to sit down with the original copies of Paul's letters and understand fairly well most things he says, that is no longer the case.

There is now not only a linguistic gap, but also a cultural gap between our time and the time of the original authors and audience of Scripture. There are cultural differences that we may not know about, which, if ignored, lead to us imposing the culture of the early Church onto the Church today.

This leads to conclusions such as: women should wear head coverings in church (1 Cor. 11:4-5), women should be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34), and women should never teach theology to men (1 Tim. 2:12). Is any church that does not greet one another with a literal "holy kiss" and opts for handshakes instead being disobedient to God? (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26). Is slavery God's will for people today because it was allowed in Biblical times?

These are all possible conclusions which someone who is reading the Bible literally with no information about the ancient cultural contexts which the Bible was written in may come to.

The restricting of women's participation in ministry is one of the more serious errors that is still regularly made by some denominations. They take this instruction in the Bible as valid for all times and all places, instead of taking advantage of the studies which show that the cultural situation regarding women in the early Church was much different than it is now. This mistake has led to the Church missing out on the gifts of so many women for hundreds of years!

Recent studies show that the cultural influence of Gnosticism was probably creeping into the early church and was popular among women, because it taught the error that Eve was the first human, and that Eve liberated Adam from an oppressive sub-deity who had told him not to eat the forbidden fruit because it would bring true wisdom. These Gnostics may have believed women were superior to men, and were discouraging women from having children.

Thus "This whole passage probably has nothing to do with the role of women in the church, but is a refutation of a specific position being advanced by false teachers in Ephesus".1 This makes much more sense of Paul's obscure argument in 1 Tim. 2:12-15, which, without this context, seems bizarre and sexist.

So this is one reason why we need Biblical studies.

Another example is when the translations we use today do not quite capture the total meaning of the original.

A simple example is how in English, we use the word "you" to refer to both a single person and also a group of people. Yet in the original Biblical languages, as in French and many other languages today, there are separate words and verb forms to refer to an individual or a group.

Being unaware of this means that sometimes English readers take a Biblical instruction that was originally meant for a group, and apply it to an individual, with negative results.

One example I've seen is when people apply 1 Cor. 3:16-17 to individuals, which they use to say that anyone who destroys themselves (i.e. commits suicide) is going to be condemned to hell by God. But in the original languages, the "you" here is plural! So instead, it's better to take it as saying that anyone who destroys a local church congregation will be punished by God.2

It would be nice if we could have an English version of the Bible which would make this more clear (it is translated correctly as plural in the French "Louis Segond" version).

The Use of Theology

So someone might admit that yes, we need linguistic and cultural Biblical studies to try to get at what the original authors were attempting to say. But when we have that, isn't THAT good enough, and then each of us can read the Bible for ourselves and get the right meaning?

Why do we need theological studies, and why should we hear the variety of theological ideas that other people have, which we may not agree with?

The thing is, none of us reads Scripture or does theology independently.

Assuming you have been attending a church, listening to sermons, reading devotionals, watching Youtube videos, or attending Bible studies, you will have heard at many times someone else's opinion of what the Bible says about a particular topic, or how to interpret a particular verse in light of other verses.

Even by reading this blog post, you may have absorbed a few of my ideas which may influence how you think about a Biblical topic in the future.

Reading theology is not really any different from this. So, if you are willing to learn from your pastor, Bible study leader, favourite Youtube speaker, or internet sources, why not be willing to read some theologians?

And if anyone claims to be entirely unaffected by everything they've been taught by their pastors, Bible study leaders, and others, and can still read the Bible objectively, I would be highly skeptical. Either that, or they're just a bad student.

For, as the church historian Justo L. Gonzales writes,

"Without understanding the past, we are unable to understand ourselves, for in a sense the past still lives in us and influences who we are and how we understand the Christian message. When we read, for instance, that 'the just shall live by faith,' Martin Luther is whispering at our ear how we are to interpret those words - and this is true even for those of us who have never even heard of Martin Luther. When we hear that 'Christ died for our sins,' Anselm of Canterbury sits in the pew with us, even though we may not have the slightest idea who Anselm was....The notion that we read the New Testament exactly as the early Christians did, without any weight of tradition colouring our interpretation, is an illusion. It is also a dangerous illusion, for it tends to absolutize our interpretation, confusing it with the Word of God."3 (emphasis mine)

So it's better to recognize where we've learned things from and who we are influenced by, than to think we're reading the Bible with entirely neutral eyes. Otherwise, it's easy to think our interpretation is the only correct one.

Of course, I do think the Bible is the Word of God - the problem is not with Scripture itself, but with our imperfect understanding of it.

The Value of Reading Theologians You Disagree With

Reading theologians who you may disagree with, who come from other traditions, and from different time periods, can be one way that we can try to overcome the unconscious theological biases we've absorbed.

Doing this, you will come across a huge variety of ways that theologians interpret Scripture, and encounter ideas of how to understand the Bible in ways you had never even thought possible.

This is not to say that you must agree with all these ideas.

Some ideas will be wonderful; some will be ridiculous. Some ideas you might hate with a passion! (At times, I have understood the medieval urge to burn someone's book because it was so awful.)

But, the great thing is that by reading multiple perspectives, you will learn the issues involved, the reasons why some take one approach over another, the difficulties of Biblical interpretation, and the complexities of theological discussion that has been going on for thousands of years. It will expose you to different ways of thinking which you may have never considered.

As a result, I can guarantee you will benefit from this, in several possible ways:

  1. You may learn more about your own tradition and why you believe the things you do, gaining new arguments or new insights to support and strengthen your existing beliefs.
  2. You may come across a new perspective or idea which you had never considered, and find it more persuasive than what you had been told or had thought in the past, and will accept it and incorporate it into your understanding and system of beliefs.
  3. You may come across a new perspective or idea which you entirely reject, and will be able to articulate the reasons why you reject it, so that if you encounter anyone arguing for that perspective, you can say why you disagree and present some arguments against it.

There really is no down-side to reading theology. (But of course, I would think that, wouldn't I!)

To enjoy the above benefits, a great place to start is with books which discuss a particular topic from multiple theological perspectives. Each chapter is written by an author from a different point of view, and then at the end, each author responds to and critiques the others' points of view.

For example, there is the Counterpoints Bible & Theology series, edited by Stanley N. Gundry for Zondervan, the Spectrum Multiview Books series published by IVP Academic, and the Perspectives On series edited by Leonard G. Gloss for B&H Publishing Group.

These books go by titles such as "Four Views on Hell", "Divine Foreknowledge: 5 Views", "Perspectives on Election: 5 Views", and many more. So pick a topic you're curious about, and start with one of these.

You might happen to find a perspective that you really like, and fully agree with. If so, that's great!

But you might also come away from these sorts of books feeling confused, and not knowing which author you agree with, if any.

This is actually a good thing - if you use it as motivation to dive further into the topic. It forces you to think for yourself, and wrestle with a topic, to read Scripture, to discuss with other Christians, and pray about it.

Was there a particular verse that you wondered about? Find some Biblical commentaries on the subject, and see if they can help. Was there a reference made to a famous theologian's point of view? See what the source was and if you can find a copy to read it for yourself! Check out what sources these authors make use of, and find some of those to read. See - you're doing theology!

As you read further into an interesting topic, you'll realize how complex it is, how many different issues from Bible translation and interpretation to systematic theology, cultural nuances, philosophy, and more, all play into the things that Christians believe. And over time, you'll start to narrow down your own views on the issue.

This is what makes theology so fascinating to me, and why professional theologians have so much work that they can spend their entire lives studying a small number of issues.

There are also benefits of theology which are not just academic or intellectual. I would not love God nearly as much as I do now, or be able to trust Him as much as now, or be as strong in my faith as now, if I had not spent all the time I have studying theology and Scripture.

Theology Is Hard Work

As seen above, theology and Biblical study really can be challenging.

Ideally, pastors and theologians serve the Church by being the ones who have full-time jobs doing this research and writing and debating on behalf of the rest of Christians. This is a privilege, but also a reason why these roles carry extra responsibility (James 3:1).

As John Piper writes,

"If the sheep did not need help understanding their Bibles, God would not have given shepherds who had to be apt to teach. The shepherds would just read the Bible on Sunday morning, and the people would see and feel all they need to. No teaching or preaching required. But that's not how Jesus set it up. So the pastor's job is to look at the Bible and work hard to understand what's in it, and then work hard to make it understandable and attractive and compelling to our people".4

This doesn't happen automatically, but requires dedication to careful study:

"We don't read through our Bibles once or twice or ten times and suddenly know the whole counsel of God. We have to ask hard questions about how the different parts of revelation fit together. That's called 'scholarship.' It doesn't have to be in school. It just has to be careful and honest and observant and synthesizing and constructive. It's head work. And it's meant to serve the heart of our people".5

But this doesn't mean the work is unnecessary or unspiritual:

"It takes hard mental work to rightly handle the Word of God. Don't let anybody ever tell you that hard mental work is unspiritual. We are using our minds to understand God's Word, and we are depending in prayer upon the Holy Spirit to guide our minds".6

So I would hope that all pastors would be theologians and students of Scripture, since it's a critical part of their jobs and their duty to the people in their congregation and the Church as a whole.

But it's a good idea to have at least a few other theologically informed people in the congregation too if possible, in order to act as a sort of "quality control" or discernment team, who can raise questions or concerns about what is preached or taught in church with the pastor, or if necessary, the board of elders or denomination hierarchy.

Therefore, I believe "quality control" is one of the main roles of all theologians in the Church.

(Another lesser role would be "research and development", especially for those theologians working in academia.)

But What About The Holy Spirit?

So is the Holy Spirit useless to "guide you into all truth"? (John 16:13)

Actually, in the original languages, the word "you" in this verse is plural!

So maybe the process of theology is meant to be done by the Church as a whole, as we progressively and iteratively make progress through research, writing, debating, and discerning the truth, all done with the promised help of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

As discussed above, reading theology is valuable for any Christian, because"

  • it helps us overcome our unconscious biases when approaching Scripture
  • helps us gain insight into more accurate ways to read Scripture
  • makes us ready to serve an important role in the Church by knowing enough to double-check what we hear from the pulpit
  • prepares us to respond to others who have different views by being able to explain why we believe what we do (1 Pet. 3:15)

So in conclusion, I would really encourage every Christian to try to start reading at least a little theology.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Dennis McCallum, "The Role of Women in the Church: New Material Leads to a New View", Xenos Christian Fellowship. The source of his claims are from Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992).
  • 2. Bob Wilkin, "Beware of Destroying the Temple of God", posted April 27, 2018 on the Grace Evangelical Society blog.
  • 3. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Volume 1, Revised and Updated (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 3.
  • 4. John Piper and D. A. Carson, The Pastor as Scholar & The Scholar As Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry, ed. Owen Strachan and David Mathis (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 61.
  • 5. ibid., 62-63.
  • 6. ibid., 63.