Theology Preliminaries
"How Should Theology Be Studied?"

Douglas Gleason,

C.  How should Theology be Studied?

1. Introduction to the Doctrine

a) Lesson Outline
C.  How Should Theology be Studied?
              1.  Introduction
                          a) Lesson Outline
                          b) General
              2.  Spiritual Requirements
                          a)  Faith
                          b)  Trustworthiness of Scripture
                          c)  Spiritual Illumination
                          d)  Holy Love for God
              3.  Intellectual Requirements
                          a)  The student has discipline
                          b)  The student participates in each step of the learning process
                          c)  The student employs a proper study method
                                   (1)  The student employs a sound method of interpretation
                                   (2)  The student recognizes cultural factors associated with the passage in question
                                   (3)  The student recognizes the relationship of interpretation and the formation of doctrine
                                   (4)  The student employs the proper use of logic
                                   (5)  The student employs a sound method of research

b)     General

When one studies any subject there are certain requirements that are fundamental to that study.  Think of that time when you first entered high school.  Registration day came and you enrolled as a new freshman.  Registration day was also the day when you had to choose what classes you were going to take.  I can just see your first day and it was probably just like mine.  The scene unfolds in all of its glory:

Having an interest in mathematics you look at the course listing and see Trigonometry 300.  “Wow!  That looks good to me,” you say. “I wonder if I can take that one.”

You read over the course description.  As you do so you really get excited at the possibilities and then you see one little word….’Prerequisites’.

“What’s that? Hmmmm, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry.” 

Suddenly it dawns upon you that you need to take these other classes before you can do trigonometry.  So it is too for the study of theology.  With the study of theology, there are several requirements as a matter of fact.  They can be classified in two categories; spiritual requirements and intellectual requirements.  Each of these is discussed below.

2.      Spiritual Requirements

We must begin by recognizing that there is an overriding spiritual dimension to the study of God's word. 

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.  For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.  Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. (1 Corinthians 2:10-13)

So, as Paul says here, only a spiritual man can understand the things of God because they are of a spiritual nature.  For this reason, there are certain spiritual requirements that must be met in order to be successful:  faith, acceptance of the trustworthiness of scripture, spiritual illumination, and a holy affection toward God.  Let's carefully examine each one.

a)     Faith

Just what faith are we talking about here?  One of Webster's definitions for faith is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  Fortunately for us, this is not the faith that I am talking about here.  This kind of faith is never used describe the faith of a Christian.  On the contrary, the kind of faith that is to characterize the life of the believer is altogether different. 

In the book of Hebrews the writer says much concerning faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.  And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.  All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Hebrews 6:1-2, 6, 13)

I’d like to make a couple of observations.  First, faith is the confidence and expectation that God will do all that He promised in Christ.  This is what is meant by the “assurance of things hoped for.”  The believer has an absolute trust that God does what He has promised us in His word.  “The conviction of things not seen” describes as the eyes of the soul.  As our physical eyes discern things in the world around us, faith sees that the revelation of God is true.  It is to the soul what the senses are to the body. 

To have this kind of faith, we must be numbered with the children of God.  We must “confess with [our] mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in [our] heart that God raised Him from the dead, [and we] shall be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

b)     Trustworthiness of Scripture

The scriptures, as contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, are the prime source of truth for our studies.  We must have the unshakable belief that they are trustworthy.  This trustworthiness is to be found in two ways.  First, they are trustworthy as to content.   We have in the scriptures the complete body of knowledge concerning God.  The unseen God, who could not otherwise be known, has revealed in the Scriptures everything that can be known about His person and work.  They are the only valid source of information about God because He has said so. 

Second, they are trustworthy as to transmission.  It follows that if God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures because He wants us to know about Him, He would be sure to preserve them throughout the ages. We have sufficient manuscript evidence today to say that constructively, our Hebrew and Greek bibles are the same as the day they were written.  Ladd said, “It is a seldom disputed fact that critical science has to all intents and purposes recovered the original text of the New Testament.” [1]

c)      Spiritual Illumination

This is the key element.  On the eve of His betrayal and crucifixion, Jesus was in an upper room celebrating Passover with His disciples.[2]  Knowing that He was soon to be betrayed, Jesus took this last opportunity to give them encouragement and instruction.   The fear in the room was palpable.  It was in this context that He said that even though He was going home to the Father, they would not be left alone.  The Holy Spirit would come and establish a special relationship with them.  Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” 

This is the essence of spiritual illumination.  The Holy Spirit opens our minds to the truth and helps our understanding.  Remember, Paul said that God’s wisdom is hidden to the world but has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. [3]

d)     Holy Love for God

David opens Psalm 25 with the heart felt offering, “To Thee, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in Thee I trust.”  He pours out his heart and confesses his faith and trust in God.  He pleads, “Make me know Thy ways, O LORD; Teach me Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me.”  These are the words of a man who has a love for God that is breathtaking.  After professing this love for David declares that, “The secret of the LORD is for those who fear Him and He will make them know His covenant.”  The OT concept for the "fear of the LORD" is for an inner responsiveness and willingness to learn of the Him. The man who loves God, the man who has this “fear” of God is the one who continually seeks his mercy, forgiveness, and instruction.  So, we see that God teaches those that love Him.

John gives us another aspect of the effect of this holy love for God and the relationship with God that it produces.  He said:

The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: `I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.  Because you say, "I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing," and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent.  Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:14-20)

Here, Jesus is chastening the Laodicean church for its lack of love.  It had grown cold in its love for God and Jesus was warning them that things needed to change.  They allowed their wealth and comfort to influence the love that they once had for the Lord; a love that once blazoned white hot but was now ice cold.  After the warnings of what would happen if they didn’t change their ways, He tells them that if they do rekindle their love for Him, He will “come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me.” This dining presents the picture of the oriental meal where everyone is reclining around the table, eating the meal, conversing; in other words a time of intimate fellowship.  This is the norm for those whose love for God burns fiercely.

3.      Intellectual Requirements

The study of theology has intellectual requirements too.  The student of Theology must employ discipline in his studies; he must be an active participant; and he must employ a proper methodology.

a)     The student has discipline

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, instructs Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” (1 Timothy 4:6-8)  The Greek term here for discipline is the word gymnasia that we translate as gymnasium. Paul, starting from a physical perspective, says that physical exercise and training has some value to an individual.  He extends the analogy from the physical to the spiritual and declares that spiritual training, or discipline, has value that reaches to eternity.

b)     The student participates in each step of the learning process

A good student will:

c)      Employ a proper study method. [4]

Four things are involved here; a sound method of interpretation (hermeneutics), recognition of cultural factors, recognition of the relationship of interpretation and the formation of doctrine, and employs the proper use of logic. 

(1)  The student employs a sound method of interpretation

One afternoon, I found myself debating a point of theology with a friend of mine.  After arguing my point from the Scriptures, my friend responded, “say what you want to, but that’s just your interpretation!”    This is certainly true when we read our own ideas into the Scriptures.  However, when we take our ideas from the Scriptures we have a proper result, sound conclusions.  To take his ideas from Scripture, the student will utilize the normal method of interpretation.  This method, unlike other methods of interpretation:

  • Takes the meaning of a biblical statement as the ordinary, or normal, meaning of a statement.  It is usually literal with some figures of speech.

  • Takes the meaning of a biblical statement that fits the historical and cultural setting of the writer and first reader.

  • Takes the meaning of the sentence as the one most coherent with the writer’s own context.

  • Consistently applies the normal method to all the scriptures.

  • Understands that the intended meaning is the one, literal, historical, grammatical, contextual meaning, not the deeper or secret or spiritual meaning.

  • Understands that extensive passages on a subject take priority for theological purposes over brief allusions.

  • Understands that doctrinal passages have initially a greater importance than historical narratives that may report ideas and practices not normative for others.

  • Understands that what is central in scriptural teaching should be central in our theologies and ministries.

(2)  The student recognizes cultural factors associated with the passage in question

People are different!  They have differing art forms, music, foods, governments, life styles, family customs, and a whole host of other things.  Cultures are formed around these differences.  In any given culture, however, there are, what are called, normative principles.  The principles govern how a person in any give situation will behave.  The student will recognize and take into account the following cultural factors:

Is the reason for the principle rooted in the unchanging nature of God?

  • Is the reason for the principle rooted in the uniform nature of creation, mankind, or moral law?

  • Is the principle rooted in the unchanging redemptive principles of God’s plan of salvation?

  • Is the principle rooted in the character traits of Jesus Christ and produced by the Holy Spirit?

  • Are Old Testament principles reiterated in the New Testament?

  • Even culturally specific principles may apply to others because a culture may be similar to other cultures in many respects.

(3)  The student recognizes the relationship of interpretation and the formation of doctrine

A doctrine must not be formulated on a problem (difficult) passage.  The student understands:

(4)  Employs the proper use of logic

The good student:

(5)  Employs a sound method of research

The research method is very important to achieve the results desired.  Use of a sound research method:

Results in conclusions that are verifiable and affirmable without hypocrisy.  This will be true because the conclusions are supported by adequate evidence.

  • Results in conclusions that produce a non-contradictory, biblically sound and well-rounded personal theology.

  • Results in conclusions derived from the bible and not from previously held convictions looking for “biblical proof”.

  • Is open to new discoveries about the significance of God’s word and God’s world.

  • In this series of studies the method we use will:

  • Define the doctrinal/theological problem.

  • Survey solutions to the problem that have been offered by godly scholars throughout the various historical periods of the church.  This will give an important historical perspective on the development of the doctrine.

  • Search the Scriptures for truth relevant to the solution of the problem.

  • Develop a systematic formulation of the doctrine.

  • Critically defend the systematic formulation,

  • Apply the doctrine to our lives in a relevant way.


[1] George E. Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism: (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 80-81.
[2] John 14:1-ff.
[3] 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 
[4] Cf., Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), p. 29-39.
[5] ibid., p. 32.