The picture above may not make much sense when you first look at it. It’s not about how you should set up your desk, or about the nifty book stand (get one; they’re worth it!) that is propping up a massive tome. It’s about the items that are in the picture: my computer, pencil, theological book and my Bible. Nothing really special. Just what, I believe, should be open on every desk or table when ever a Bible-believing Christian wants to study any theological work. But one of these is typically stays on the shelf. Let me explain.
The one item that I have found regularly missing from the desk of someone studying theology is their Bible. I firmly believe that a believer that desires to understand biblical doctrine should use their Bible when conducting theological studies. Now, it doesn’t have to be your physical Bible. It could be on your computer, tablet, and even your phone. My point is that ready-access to the biblical text from which we are to derive true theology should be easily available to the student. And here’s why:
- It helps you ground your study of theology in Scripture. When you open up any worthwhile systematic theology or similar theological work you’ll notice that the writer has cited many biblical passages to support the doctrine, concept, or idea that they are trying to express. Ladies and gentlemen, those are there to be looked up. I do not believe that we should simply pass over those citations. It is a solid way to do theology because it grounds our understanding of what the author is attempting to communicate in the Word of God itself. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times that I have read some theology without my Bible open, and then went back to read the same text while I looked up the passages and found that everything was much clearer.
- It helps you develop discernment (1 John 4:1). Not everything we read will resonate with the Scriptures. We need to be discerning readers and test what is that we read against what the Bible teaches. As John points out, there are many false teachers that will attempt to deceive the people of God and draw them away from the truth. By taking the extra time to look up the passages that are used by the author, you are developing discernment and learning to be critical thinkers.
- It helps you steer away from lazy study. Let’s face it: its extra work to look up passages, especially if there are a dozen or so that address the argument the author is trying to make. I’m not saying that you have to look up every single one. But, as I have said in another post, there is no rush. Most of you are not going to seminary or have deadlines. Might as well take your time, and develop the Berean discipline of examining the Scripture to see if what the theologian is saying is true (Acts 17:11)
- It helps you remember what you have read. By pausing and looking up passages, you are forcing your mind to engage the topic at hand. It serves to focus your thinking by dwelling on the topic for longer than you would have if you had just continued reading on. This helps you remember what you have read because your taking an active role in your study. This is fuel for later meditation. Along with this, take notes on a computer or in a journal. Write down what you believe the author is saying. It doesn’t have to be long; just a note here and a note there. But again, by doing so you are pushing yourself to engage with the author’s argument and chances are that you’ll remember so much more. It’s worth the effort.
Hope this was helpful. If you have any other suggestions, leave them in the comments below.
Here’s a short excerpt from one of John Piper’s sermons (Get Wisdom). It’s amazing what one can accomplish with just 15 minutes of Bible and/or Theology reading each day.
Since wisdom is found in the Word of God, we must apply ourselves in study and meditation to know the Word and do it. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7). Therefore, we must devote ourselves to know and understand the testimonies of the Lord. And here I commend not only faithful Bible study, but also regular reading of great books on theology and biblical interpretation, books that distill the wisdom of the greatest students of the word over the past 1900 years.
Now, I know what you are thinking: I don’t have the time or the ability to get anywhere in books like that. So I want to show you something really encouraging. When this was shown to me about four years ago by my pastor, it changed my life. Most of us don’t aspire very high in our reading because we don’t feel like there is any hope.
But listen to this: Suppose you read about 250 words a minute and that you resolve to devote just 15 minutes a day to serious theological reading to deepen your grasp of biblical truth. In one year (365 days) you would read for 5,475 minutes. Multiply that times 250 words per minute and you get 1,368,750 words per year. Now most books have between 300 and 400 words per page. So if we take 350 words per page and divide that into 1,368,750 words per year, we get 3,910 pages per year. This means that at 250 words a minute, 15 minutes a day, you could read about 20 average sized books a year!
Now, the goal is not numbers. It would be incorrect to think that the book count is the sole purpose. But our minds do need something to ruminate on. Farmers know what the word “ruminate” means. It means to chew over and over, the way a cow chews on cud. We need to fill our minds with good biblical and theological truth so that it can chew on something throughout the day.
Be like a cow and chew on that.
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:30
This is a comforting verse for the believer. In it we are told that those God has predestined from eternity past have assurance that the gift of salvation will be carried through to completion. (Phil. 1:6; See also Romans 8:38-39; 1 Peter 1:5; Ephesian 1:13, 14; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2)
But if you notice, the word “glorified” is also in the past tense, as if to say, “You, who were predestined, called, and justified, are also already glorified.” Almost every passage you read in the New Testament that speaks of the believers final glorification places it in the future (Matthew 13:43; Romans 5:2; Colossians 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:14). The believer’s hope (the word “hope” itself indicates a future reality, not a present one) is in our final glorification, when we be like our Lord Jesus (1 John 3:2). So, why does Paul place our glorification in the past, along with other aspects of our salvation that are historic realities we experience before the second coming of Christ, as if it has already taken place?
Here are a couple of things to consider:
First, I believe Paul is giving us a glimpse of how God views us from His all-knowing and unconstrained perspective. God experiences time in a very different way than His creatures. (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8) This delves into the doctrine of Divine Eternality. He is able to see the past, present, and future with equal vividness. His memories do not fade and he knows exactly what the future will look like. Nothing is hidden from God, nor does anything surprise Him. Your sin does not surprise Him. Your “choice” to serve Christ does not astonish Him. He holds past, present, and future in perfect harmony and clarity of vision.
Secondly, we also see that God is sovereign, not only over all creation, but particularly, over the salvation of the elect. Before the creation of the world and time as we understand it, the Father chose us in Christ (Ephesians 1:4). At the moment of His effectual call upon us he justified us in Christ and in time. But Paul goes on to say that those who are still waiting in this world, governed by time as God created it, have also been glorified. The past, present, and future meet in the timeless and sovereign God. He is “I am”, not “I was” or “I will be” . He not only knows what the future will look like, He decrees how it will be carried out.
Take comfort in the wonderful truth that our Sovereign God has glorified those who He has called and saved, even though we, from our limited creaturely perspective, wait for that day. From God’s perspective, “It is finished” did not just include our justification at some moment in our past or our present sanctification as we grow in Christlikeness. It encompassed our assured glorification in Christ. As they say, “It’s a package deal.” That is part of the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ: the good news of our unquestionable glorification.
We may understand our glorification as something to come, but God knows it as already done. Choose to see it from God’s perspective and rejoice!
This just a short quote from John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. This is why I enjoy reading Calvin. He recognizes that doctrine is not merely cerebral stuff. He writes with the purpose of reaching the mind and heart, to point us to Christ and encourage us towards obedience.
Christianity is a doctrine not of the tongue, but of the life, and is not apprehended merely by the intellect and memory like other sciences, but it is revealed only when it possesses the whole soul and finds its seat and habitation in the innermost recesses of the heart. – John Calvin
It is not uncommon to hear Christians criticize the use of theological terms by saying, “Well, that word isn’t in the Bible. So, why would we use it?” Words like justification, common grace, limited atonement, glorification, aseity, omniscience, hypostatic union do not occur in the biblical text. I understand their sentiment. This usually stems from a desire to remain faithful to the Word of God, and the fear of introducing new elements into Christian teaching that could be considered outside the bounds of scripture (Prov. 30:5-6; Rev. 22:18; Gal. 1:6-9) We do not want to add anything to the Bible or what the Bible teaches.
However, I would suggest that the careful use of theological terms can go a long way to enhance our understanding of the scriptures. When appropriately used, theological terms can clarify the meaning of particular passages and words that might otherwise be confusing.
An example might be helpful. Let us take the term effectual calling. Dr. John Frame defines this term as “God’s sovereign summons that actually draws a person into union with Christ.”¹ But, as he points out in his Systematic Theology, this is not the only use of calling one finds in the Scriptures. Calling can also refer to the giving of a name, getting someone’s attention, or an invitation of some sort.² Theologians came up with the term effectual calling to distinguish how the word calling is being used in particular passages. That is vitally necessary because no word has just a single wooden meaning. Words, often times, are nuanced or have subtle shades of meaning. The context surrounding the word will, in many cases, determine how a word is being used and, therefore, we must adjust our definition to fit that context. The word effectual in front of the word helps us avoid misunderstanding.
But there is also a warning here: We must not look to the definition of a theological term to paint the whole picture for us. It is important that we guard ourselves from relying on such terms and their respective definitions to tell us more than is really there in the biblical text. In the end, we are called to rely on the Word of God to form and guide our signification of any theological term. Our definitions have a boundary marker: the biblical text. So, where we find terms defined in such a way that cannot be supported by the text of scripture, dropping that term or redefining it may be necessary.
We need theological terms. We need ways to summarize and distinguish concepts and different uses of word to avoid confusion and misinterpretation. They are helpful. We should seek to understand how the various theologians have defined terms. But remember this: “Theological definitions must measure up to Scripture, not the other way around.”³
¹Frame, John M., Systematic theology: an introduction to Christian belief, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013, 3.
²Frame, Systematic Theology, 3.
³Frame, Systematic Theology, 4.