Guardrails for Studying Theology

Theological study is an important aspect of our spiritual development as Christians. Being able to look more deeply into biblical truth is a privilege that we should not neglect, and we have a wealth of resources from thousands of years of church history to aid us in our task.

But with so many different theological positions and so many difficult theological questions, how can we make sure that our personal studies don’t take us in the wrong direction – either by falling into theological error or developing a prideful attitude?

Dr. Scott Swain, President and Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida provides us with five helpful guardrails to keep us on the right track in our theological studies:

Don’t Ignore the Context

If the Bible is our foundation for theology, then we need to have some sense of how the Bible can function as our critical norm in theology. How do we let the Bible really control our thinking on any theological topic?

First, we want to make sure that on any topic we’re studying we’re listening to the whole counsel of God. So we don’t want to read verses in isolation. We want to read them within the context not only of the immediate book where they are written, but also within the context of the entire Canon of Christian Scripture.

A lot of times folks get in trouble when they just seize on one passage of Scripture and think it says something and don’t consider what the rest of Scripture teaches. That’s the way we can get into really big errors in theology.

Use Scripture to Interpret Scripture

Another guardrail is to remember that Scripture interprets Scripture. So when we run across a passage that might be a little bit confusing, it’s helpful to remember that clearer passages of Scripture are there to illuminate more difficult passages of Scripture.

And we really don’t want to build any doctrine on a difficult passage that we’re not sure we even have the right understanding of. We want to build it on clear passage.

Augustine makes this point in his little handbook where he says that the Apostles Creed is drawn from clear passages of Scripture. This fundamental summary of the faith is not drawn from the more challenging, perhaps even more obscure places in the Bible.

Make Use of Creeds and Confessions

In addition to paying attention to the whole counsel of God, in addition to remembering that clear passage of Scripture can illuminate more difficult passages of Scripture, a solid understanding of creeds and confessions of the Church are important for doing systematic theology.

Why is that? Well, it’s not because the church’s creeds and confessions have more authority than the Bible, but really it’s the opposite reason. It’s because the church’s creeds and confessions are attempts by the whole church to say that after patient study and prayerful attention to the Bible, these are the things that we think are the most important parts of Scripture.

These are things we think all Christians should know and trust. And so knowing what the church has said on the basis of Scripture helps us to better understand Scripture as well.

Study Theology in Community

We need to remember that theology is really never to be an isolated enterprise. It’s something that we are to study with all the Saints. And so, as we seek to understand God’s Word better, we want to be checking our own interpretations over against what other Saints have said and certainly what Pastors and other trusted teachers say.

Cultivate Humility & Meekness

And then finally, the study of theology takes humility and meekness and a teachable spirit. Augustine, in talking about the various attitudes and virtues that are necessary for being a good student of the Bible, says, the first one is the fear of the Lord. And that shouldn’t surprise us because the Proverb says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But after that, he says, gentleness or meekness is the next most important attitude.

Now, it’s interesting that it says this because gentleness or meekness is the kind of quality of spirit that has to do with our own temperament of our tendencies toward anger. You think, “well, why does the ability to kind of temper your anger matter? Why is that important?”

In studying the Bible, Augustine gives two reasons:

  1. Scripture will often teach things that we find hard to understand, and we might be offended that we can’t understand it. We might become angry about that and we might therefore not want to take the time to understand it. Or even worse, we might say “well, that can’t be what God is saying.” So we need to be able to temper our anger in that sense.
  2. Scripture oftentimes going to challenge us, and it’s oftentimes going to point out our sins, not only sinful actions, but sinful attitudes, sinful beliefs. And again, if we’re defensive, if we have a kind of quick to anger attitude, then we won’t be able to receive Scripture’s correction.

And so there is really a sense in which cultivating the right spirit is essential to the study of theology as well.

A reverence, a fear of the Lord, but also a humility and a meekness, a teachable spirit that’s willing to receive what the Bible says, even when it transcends our understanding, even when it challenges us and wants to correct us.

This article is an excerpt from a conversation I had with Dr. Swain on an episode of the Reasonable Theology Podcast. Check out that episode’s show notes here, or listen to the entire conversation below.

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