Acquiring theological knowledge

Doesn’t everyone have a specialization of some sort? Sometimes our vocations drive this; it may be that your vocation demands that you read and study to keep abreast of your field, be it the Journal of the American Medical Association or the Canadian Cake Decorators Guild. But it may also be that your hobbies and interests drive specialization. There is, I believe, a published body of knowledge for every human activity under the sun, . . . or over the mountain, as is the case with the International Mountainboard Association.

I was asked recently how one might go about acquiring this kind of specialized knowledge in the area of theology. Seven tasks came immediately to mind.

First, grow in familiarity with your Bible.

I would recommend that you become a ‘specialist’ in the Holy Bible. If you pursue knowledge about your vocation or your hobby, as a Christian you should apply yourself even more diligently in Bible reading. By this, I simply mean that you should read, and read often. Not a day should pass in which you have not sat down to deliberately read the Bible.

For you, this may take the form of a regular reading plan. If so, Justin Taylor has compiled a comprehensive list of reading plans. For some, this may take using a Bible that provides notes and background information. If so, you should pick up the Reformation Study Bible (limited notes) or the ESV Study Bible (exhaustive notes).  And for some, this may take a tool (kind of like a sat-nav) to help place where your Bible reading fits into the overall, chronological, story of redemption. If so, I recommend The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones or The Child’s Story Bible by Catherine Vos. Too sophisticated for children’s Bibles? How about a book written in 1922? I like A Brief Bible History written, in part, by J. Gresham Machen (PDF of the entire text) and also the four (slim) volumes that make up Promise and Deliverance by S. G. DeGraaf (PDF of vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4). While not written in the kind of format that really coordinates with your Bible reading, a few good books are God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts, The Drama of Scripture by Goheen/Bartholomew, and According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy.

Regardless of the aids to help make this happen, read the Bible every day! This is the foundation of you acquiring theological knowledge.

Second, attend to your call to worship.

This is not a plug for Faith Presbyterian Church. (Okay, perhaps a slight plug.) But consider that Christianity is a revealed religion; Christians believe that God will never be known unless God Himself, makes Himself, known. In fact, all knowledge is revealed knowledge in that God has not only given the things to know (ourselves, creation, others, etc.), but also the abilities that are necessary to know these things (human life, senses, intellect, etc.). In addition, Christians believe that God Himself has promised to make Himself known through His creation, by writing His law upon our hearts, the incarnation of His Son, His written word, and the testimony of His word in the life of the church body. When we worship on the Lord’s Day 52 times a year, we are participating in a means that God Himself has devised to make Himself known! We are taking in His word, we are participating in His sacraments, we are delighting in His community-making, we are witnessing his transformation, we are submitting to His ordained leaders (elders and deacons). So, can a person be a theologian without worshipping in the body of Christ? Not a very good one and, possibly, a very dangerous one.

Third, consult with dead people.

I think that every blossoming theologian needs to sit down one afternoon and read a historic confession of faith. To be a Christian Protestant actually means something. To be sure, it means two things: that a Christian Protestant agrees with certain statements (God is a spirit), and rejects other statements (God is a cupcake). Historic confessions are simple, straightforward documents that state what Christian Protestants, before your time, thought it meant to be a Christian Protestant. Does this sound like a waste of an afternoon? Well, reading historic statements of faith is far more productive, and far less dangerous, than trying to craft statements of biblical truth on your own. Obviously, a theologian who sincerely seeks to be a biblical theologian must be able to state what the vast literature of the Bible says about a given topic (like, who Jesus is). But we are not the first to attempt this task; Christian theologians who have gone before us can (and should) help us. I recommend, for brevity’s sake, sitting down and reading either the Westminster Confession of Faith (12,400 words) or the Belgic Confession (9,900 words) or the 1677/89 Baptist Confession of Faith (16,000 words). Some confessions are arranged in a question and answer format, like the Westminster Shorter Catechism (4,300 words) or the Westminster Larger Catechism (15,900 words), and this format may better suite you. If you have more time, try the Second Helvetic Confession (34,000 words) or the Heidelberg Catechism (56,600 words).

How does this become helpful for your theological knowledge? Well, first of all, you need to grant the writers of these confessions the benefit of the doubt; that is, assume that they are just as sincere as you are in deriving truth from the Bible. Assume that they aren’t cheats and swindlers, but Christian Protestants who want to capture the unified voice of Scripture, just like you. In other words, you are not the first! What the writers of these confessions are attempting to do is to take a variety of passages (Old and New Testament, poetry and prose, history and epistles, etc.) on a given subject (God, Man, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, etc.) and to describe the findings in a clear and biblically true way. When you are studying a confession of faith, you are overhearing theologians do what you yourself are attempting to do!

Fourth, listen to and watch theologians do theology.

This may be easier than you think. Each Sunday, you should be hearing your pastor interpret Scripture, as well as apply Scripture. As you listen, if something doesn’t mesh, you should make time to ask your pastor why he draws the conclusions that he does.There is no passage in the Bible that insists that submitting to your pastor (which you should) involves uncritically accepting his application of Scripture (which you should not). Ask questions and, more importantly, listen to how your pastor navigates from the truthfulness of God’s word to the point of application. I know that, as a preacher, I love the theological conversations that happen immediately after the worship service, in the shadow of the pulpit.

But there is another way to listen to theologians do theology. I recommend that you check out some websites where you can watch theological discussion. This is important because, when you hear theologians ask one another questions, you have an opportunity to hear how Scripture, in the hands of good theologians, drives the discussion. You can easily do this through the videos of The Gospel Coalition and Reformed Forum TV and The Resurgence and the audio of White Horse Inn and Christ the Center which offer key opportunities to witness theological discussion. I also recommend John Piper’s “Ask Pastor John” discussions which is an easy way to listen to focused biblical reasoning. While not always available in a video format, many conferences offer the audio of the various talks which is helpful because you can hear a variety of speakers (pastors and professors) discuss aspects of a single theological topic; Ligonier, The Gospel Coalition, and Together for the Gospel, are generous about getting conference talks online quickly. I cannot stress how important it is to hear theologians do theology.

Fifth, read organized, theological literature.

I think that it is good for every Christian to have one or two systematic theologies on their bookshelf. This is important because reading an organized presentation of a such a vast subject like Protestant Christian theology makes it easier to study theology in bite-sized pieces. I am constantly opening one or two systematic theology books to remind myself of clear ways to think about and express important features of the atonement or the work of the Holy Spirit or the nature of Jesus, etc. My favorite is Louis Berkhof’s and John Calvin’s. You might also like these other, ‘second string,’ systematics from Millard Erickson,  Michael HortonWayne Grudem, and Robert Reymond. These are all medium-sized (by systematic theology standards),but you cannot find a better hefty-sized systematic than Herman Bavinck’s or better slim-sized systematics than John Frame’s or J. I. Packer’s or (I’ve been told) Donald Macleod’s. Pick up a systematic theology, get a feel for how it is organized according to large biblical topics (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Salvation, Church, Last Things), and read bits and pieces in areas of personal special interest; reading a systematic theology straight through is not for the faint of heart, but it is a task worth pursuing (to me, Louis Berkhof’ and Wayne Grudem are two of the most readable).

Now that you have your systematic theology, read smaller articles on a given topic. Perhaps the best place to find theological articles is through Monergism.com, an extraordinary archive of theological documents created and managed by John Hendryx (read the interviews by Michael Spencer, and by Guy Davies). Pick a topic and you will likely find more than a dozen good articles, some only a few paragraphs in length, and some several pages. You can also try combing through the articles available through Reformation 21 or Ligonier or Covenant Seminary’s Resources for Life or Modern Reformation (subscription required), or some of the question and answer formatted articles from 9Marks’ Answers for Pastors or Third Mill’s KnowledgeBase or Ligonier’s Questions Answered.  You’ll want to notice in particular how the authors makes their way through various Scripture passages. You will be amazed how, for each topic of interest, there is but a handful of really relevant passages that the authors are trying to account for. So, if you read two articles on sanctification (or justification or the atonement or the image of God) you will quickly begin to pick up which passages are critical to the issue.

Sixth, go to seminary.

Obviously, I am exaggerating things, but with the advent of audio and video distribution online, there are a number of opportunities for you to take a seminary class from home. I am thinking of places like RTS U and ThirdMill and Covenant Worldwide where you can hear professors themselves, from the classroom, interact with a topic. Generally, these courses will occupy a lot of time; after all, a single-semester graduate level class is typically some 50 hours worth of lectures! Keeping this in mind, you may wish to select a broad subject (the church) rather than a specialized subject (the Lord’s Supper) so that it is easier to hold your attention over a long period of time. This is a tremendous benefit and I would recommend that you attempt at least one course, not only for the content, but also to hear how the professor forms their subject along the lines of God’s Word.

Seventh, follow blog feeds.

Finally, I really do think that reading feeds (what is a feed?) can be helpful. I filter all of my feeds using tools like PostRank and Pipes so that I can subscribe to many feeds without being inundated with articles that are likely to be uninteresting. Even still, I find myself most often reading the blogs of Justin Taylor (V-P of Publishing, Crossway Books), Tim Challies (pastor, Grace Fellowship Church, Toronto, Canada), Kevin DeYoung (pastor of University Reformed Church, East Lansing, Michigan), Carl Trueman (Professor of Historical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary), and Andy Naselli (Research Manager for Professor D. A. Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). These authors, generally, devote a lot of time not so much to writing new material, but locating material that is worth reading (or skimming). In fact, it is the job of someone who works in publishing (like Justin Taylor) or academic research (Andy Naselli) to be on top of the latest information; following these guys can be very helpful in terms of learning what theological topics are receiving a lot of attention, or what books are getting the most favorable book reviews. With less-frequency, I find myself reading Tony Reinke (Assistant to C. J. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace Ministries), Phillip Johnson (Executive Director, Grace to You), D. G. Hart (Adjunct Professor of Church History, Westminster Seminary California), David Murray (Professor of Old Testament, Puritan Reformed Seminary), and Adrian Warnock (elder at Jubilee Church London, Enfield, London).

The point is this: feeds usually help you find what current theological topics are on the minds of Christian leaders and, more importantly, how respected figures are making sense of these topics. Understanding that feed-reading can be a distracting endeavor, it serves to replicate an atmosphere of theological discourse for those who do not have the pleasure of being on a seminary campus or a part of a large church with many opportunities to engage theology with a variety of pastors.

Concluding thoughts

Reviewing my list and considering the challenge of acquiring theological knowledge, it seems to me that the first two or three receive the slightest attention and, often, the last two or three receive the greatest attention. This may be a cynical take on the matter, but I recall well the days when I entered seminary and was surprised to find that many of my fellow students knew profoundly little about God’s Word. If you would be a friend of God, you must be a friend of His Word; please take to heart the top of the page!