Studying Theology Approaches, Process and Methods
Theologians typically include detailed analysis of their methods in the Prolegomena (introduction) section of their particular works. This article however, is not intended to be a detailed study of the methodology of theology in that sense. Our purpose is to present a brief overview of how to approach theological studies, primarily in order to engage our minds to better understand the Scriptures and thus gain additional knowledge of God. We also hope to provide a summary of the various theological tasks and how they work together to advance the overall process.
For a better understanding of the theological process, we strongly recommend reading our What is Theology article prior to continuing.
Methods of Theological Study
Before we explore the process, we must first affirm that all theology should be based upon God's revelation to us. We must receive this information with much earnest prayer and with the help of the Holy Spirit.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (Is 64:4)” -- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” (Is 40:13). But we have the mind of Christ (1Cor 2:6-16).
One method of learning theology is by attending a good accredited seminary. Unless you're called into fulltime ministry, this is probably not the most practical method. I must caution everyone who thinks of taking a few religious courses at a secular university. Many of the religious professors are “higher critics” who deny the inerrancy of the Bible. Many universities tend to hire agnostics as their religious teachers because the university feels they can be less biased than those who actually believe in the Bible. Even at seminaries, you should check out the core beliefs of your instructors. For the rest of us, we must learn theology via self-study, and getting involved in classes at church or in study groups.
Our approach to our theological studies will probably vary depending on a number of factors such as our purpose, goals, topics of study etc. For example, a person looking for specific information on a particular subject might zoom in on one or two steps and skip the others, while another who is preparing an exhaustive dissertation might go through the entire process. Rather than elaborate on all these factors and options here, let’s begin our walk through some of the typical tasks within the theological process and address certain options as we go.
Define the Study Scope
First, we define our scope of study and what we hope to accomplish. For example, we may want to do a broad study to be more familiar with the various major doctrines of the Bible. Alternatively, we might want to find out everything the Bible says about a particular topic (topical or systematic theology study), or how a doctrine developed throughout history (historical theology). We might decide to study the attributes of God, or the aspects of the atonement (sacrifice, ransom, substitution, expiation vs propitiation etc).
It becomes obvious that our theological study does not have to be limited to the traditional doctrines of the Bible. For example, we could study the Jewish religious sects by examining the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the historical relationships between the church and governments, or the philosophic development of postmodern thought or certain social trends. We might even do a critique of another theologian’s work. Don’t be afraid to prayerfully employ reason, but in each case, our conclusions must never conflict with the Scriptures.
Tools and Resources
Next, we gather our resources. There are many scholarly study tools available for your use. See the Study Tools section of our Bible Study Guide for more information. Some of the most common are commentaries, dictionaries, encyclopedias, lexicons etc. The number and type of resources will obviously depend on the purpose and topic of our study. If studying a Biblical doctrine for general knowledge and application, we begin with a good study Bible, adding a Biblical Dictionary, Encyclopedia, Commentary, Lexicon, Topical, theological books etc as required. For more detailed study, we might add creeds, catechisms, historical documents, secular writings (for original language analysis), and even archaeological evidence. Finally, don’t neglect knowledgeable pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11-13). They can often point out things that we might not otherwise see, answer difficult questions, explain and defend the great doctrines of the Bible in a clear way to us, and further direct us in our understanding. This also includes good Bible teaching on Christian radio and television, but use caution since much teaching through this media is not Biblically sound. In fact, when consulting any tool or resource other than the Bible text, always be like the Bereans and check out what you're reading or hearing. The people here (Berea) were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, since they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11 HCSB).
As we begin our exegesis (interpretation of the Biblical text), we should always begin with Bible text itself, relying on prayer and the Holy Spirit. This is the most critical stage of our study. If our exegesis is faulty, our conclusions will be erroneous. So, as we continue through the subsequent tasks, we should periodically compare our deductions to those from our other resources and be flexible to change if ours are proven to be wrong.
Suppose we are studying one of the central doctrines of our faith. We seek out all of the verses that deal with it, get to know them, and summarize what they each teach and how they fit together within the entire context of Scripture. If we are using a Biblical rather than systematic approach, we can trace the development of the doctrine (progressive revelation) through the various eras (Patriarchs, Mosaic, OT Prophets, Jesus, the Epistles, End Times). We can now compare our conclusions with those of our resources (commentaries, dictionaries etc).
After attempting to resolve any disagreements, we can begin the Historical Theology task of investigating how theologians throughout history treated our topic by examining their writings and debates with other parties, noting any errors, misinterpretations and heresies, and how these were resolved. We can also note the origination and development key theological terms. Like the Apostle Paul, many theologians had to develop additional terminology because existing words would not adequately describe their subject. For example, according to historians, the third-century North African church father, Tertullian was responsible for coining over 500 new nouns, approximately 300 new adjectives and 200 new verbs in helping to develop the doctrine of the Trinity. In the seventeenth century, the theological writings of John Calvin had a great affect on the French language. We can also consult historical or philosophical writings since the economic, social, and cultural backgrounds of the time (historical context) can influence the theological view. As mentioned earlier but worth repeating, always use discernment when dealing with anything short of the Holy Scriptures.
Once we have completed the previous tasks and discovered the fundamental truths about our subject in its historical context, we should ask “What does it mean for us today and how should we apply these truths?” In addition to the doctrinal, historical and philosophical implications, what moral and ethical principles can we glean? At this point, we have entered the Homiletics stage, also called Application or Practical Theology, where our conclusions intersect with our lives. God’s truths are not meant to be mere concepts, but applicable to real life experiences. They are meant to touch our hearts as well as our minds, changing not only the way we think, but also the way we live.
The study of theology is inexhaustible. So, whether we completed this study for a sermon, an article, a class to teach, a mission trip, or just for personal growth, we’re now ready to begin a new one. As we complete each study under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we allow God to further mold us into the image of Christ.
For more information on methods, including advice on resolving disagreements and other topics, see our Approaching Bible Study article. Some may also wish to consult our Bible Study Guide, which contains principles of Bible interpretation, genre analysis and other valuable information.
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