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.
…we evangelicals have not always been at our best. We have often been contrarians and reactionaries. We have found it difficult to hold intellectual rigor and spiritual nurture in equipoise. Cotton Mather once reported that when his famous grandfather, John Cotton, was a student back in England, at Cambridge, he was worried that “if he became a godly man, t’would spoil him in being a learned one.” But, of course, the opposite is also true. We can all think of students we have known who, in the process of becoming learned, have forgotten to be godly.
Not so many years ago, few if any Protestant or evangelical seminaries paid much attention to spiritual formation. That was something the Catholics did! Now our accreditation standards hold us all accountable for the spiritual nurture of our students. Genuine theological education should aim for transformation, not the mere transfer of cognitive data from one mind to another. We can be satisfied with neither rigid intellectualism on the one hand nor unreflective sentimentalism on the other. Our aim ought to be rather head and heart together, puritanism and pietism, both together at their best. As Thomas Aquinas, echoing Augustine, put it, “Theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.
Here’s a link to the entire post: Brief Thoughts on the Future of Theological Education
Dr. John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, in his book Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, addresses one of the major problems regarding the way that theology is taught in the academic world. He argues that the dilemma that the church faces today is that seminarians who are evangelical in their beliefs and preparing to minister to men and women in the pews are taught theology in way that undermines the authority of scripture in the church. Hence, they enter the ministry ill-equipped to handle the Bible and to minister to the needs of their respective congregations. Instead of learning theology from the pages of scripture, they are taught to compare one theologian with another, or research the history of some doctrine, or even, come up with some novel interpretation of some obscure passage for their PhD dissertation. Excuse me… since when is “novelty” the standard for good theology? That is how we get strange cults and heretical off-shoots.
Granted, their are many schools that reject this method of teaching theology. I currently attend a seminary that outright repudiates this form of theological education. But, by and large, if a student is seeking to enter the academy professionally, in most cases, they will be requried to attend an accredited liberal school, stay up-to-date with the latest theological squabble, and make, as Frame puts it, “‘orignal contributions’ to that discussion, out of his autonomous reasoning.”¹ Theologians are not called to think autonomously; they are called to think God’s thoughts after Him; their call is to to seek “knowledge and good judgment.” (Psalm 119:66) And that only comes by discerning truth as revealed by the Truth Giver.
This form of theological education does a great disservice to the church of Jesus Christ. The emphasis is on innovation and the latest fad instead of mining the depths of scripture for the purpose of building up the Body of Christ, for the glory of God. This is why Christ gave us pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13). Any systematic theologian worth his weight in salt, “since he aspires to synthesize the teaching of the whole Bible, must spend more time with the Scripture than anybody else.”² That should be the goal of every theologian: to know the whole counsel of God. Historical theology and comparative theology have their place, but they are, at best, secondary to the study of the Bible and the development of a theological framework that comes directly from the pages of scripture.
To summarize: The study of God and all His perfections is not conducted by looking at mere speculations, the latest fads, or the concoction of novel ideas. The theological battleground in the academic world does nothing worthwhile for the church of Jesus Christ. There will, of course, be times when the church needs to step in to recognize, denouce, and correct false doctrine. The church is, after all, “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) However, what the church is in desperate need of is biblically-minded pastors and teachers that seek to do their theology from the inspired pages of God’s own Word.
¹ Frame, John M., Systematic theology: an introduction to Christian belief, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013, 10.
² Frame, Systematic Theology, 11.
In the next few months I will embark on the monumental task of reading, taking notes on, and writing a comprehensive summary of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for my seminary education. (also available here to read it online or download) At a little over 1500 pages, it will take me about a year to finish the the assignment. I have read large portions of the Institutes over the last few years, so I am familiar with the content. But I have never engaged the text with the level of examination that will be required of me.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his book Some Pastors and Teachers, reminds us why Calvin is good for the soul of every Christian, and specifically reminds me why I really do want to do this:
The high point of theology in the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (Sum, or Survey, of Theology). But Calvin did not write a Summa theologiae; he wrote a summa pietatis, a survey of piety. He was concerned not merely with the instruction of the intellect, but with the engagement of the heart and the whole person in devotion to the Lord. His work will illustrates his personal motto: “I offer my heart to you, Lord, readily and sincerely.”
…its central theme was always the same: the true, evangelical knowledge of God, and how that affects and transforms our lives. He therefore constantly seeks to draw the reader into a personal appreciation of what is being expounded. Piety, devotion to God, not merely intellectual understanding, is always his goal since eternal life means knowing God, in Christ, through the Spirit (John 17:3). People who are daunted by the thought of reading Calvin are usually amazed to discover how straightforward, practical, and devotional his writing is.
This is a great opportunity to engage with the theology of one of the most influential teachers in the history of the Church. He is known for elevating the glory of God in the minds of his readers, and his use of scripture is responsible and illuminating. The Institutes overflows with love for Christ and reverence for the Bible. When I find nuggets of spiritual gold (which I am sure there will be many of), I will share them here in the hope of encouraging some of you to embark on your own exploration of Calvin’s vision of the Triune God as revealed in the Word of God.
Calvin also wrote A Little Book on the Christian Life, a small book packed with wonderful scriptural truth on the call to holiness, enduring suffering, and the fulfillment of a Christian’s calling. I highly recommend this one as a great introduction to Calvin’s view on Christian living.
Have you ever read a book and gone back to it only to find that you felt like you had never read it before? Did it seem new to you? And as you read it through for the third or fourth time you probably said, “Wow! How could I have missed that?!”
Some people can “fly” through a book and then sit back to tell you the title, author’s name, how many chapter and what each one was about, the thesis of the author, and why they agreed or disagreed with the author…only having read the book once. God has not wired me this way, and, I would imagine, that many of you have not been either.
Here’s a bit of advice that I have found works for the rest of us: Decelerate your reading. In a culture that is running at 1000 miles per hour, seven days a week, it takes effort to slow things down. We sense an obligation to get through a chapter or two in the Bible each day, or to finish that book by the end of the week, only to start the next one and not be able to summarize, internalize, and think about how you can apply what you read before to your specific circumstances or situations. Not to mention, we read so fast that we couldn’t do that even if we wanted to. We just don’t give our brains time to catch up.
Slow down, have a pen/pencil in hand, to your time with the text, look up words, google historical persons or events that the author mentions and assumes that you know. Reading the text out loud also forces you to slow down and stay with the text. It helps in keeping your mind from wandering. If it takes you 15 minutes to really understand a paragraph, so be it. But I guarantee you that you will have gained more in those 15 minutes than you would have if you had read the entire chapter in the same amount of time. And there’s something about having a writing instrument in hand. It just wants to be used, and in turn, makes you go back to underline, to write down a question, and/or rewrite a concept in your own words. It makes you engage the text.
“Well, Jose, that might work for you. But I’m in college (or seminary) and I have deadlines.” In your case, I would recommend How To Read A Book By Mortimer Adler. (even if you’re not in an academic setting, I highly recommend it) You’ll find helpful tips that will revolutionize the way you read. But for the rest of us: slow down, make notes, ask questions and write them down in the margins, underline key points, summarize. And share it with someone. One of the best things you can do to help you retain what you read is to teach it to someone, even if they already know it. The exercise of sharing does wonders for your retention.