I love questions like this. They evidence an earnest desire to grow and be stretched. All Christians should be students of theology. This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone should be a professional theologian, but we are to know the Lord and theology helps us to do that. So, novice or seasoned student, we all need to dive into the deep things of God and study hard. I’ve answered this question, or a similar one, several times, but I thought I might take a different approach with it this time.
Theology is best defined, I believe, as the application of the Word of God to the world. We are seeking, in theology, to understand what God says and how what He says applies to our own lives. Theology requires, then, both interpretation and application of Scripture. In fact I would argue that you can’t do one without the other. This also means that theology is not an academic discipline, though it may be done by academics. Theology is about living for the glory of God. So, our first answer to this question is going to require us to think about how we study the Scriptures.
I recommend, then, that any student of theology begin by seeking to understand how to read the Bible and the broad content of the Bible. Seek to understand how to read and interpret Scripture. Michael Lawrence’s Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church is an excellent resource for learning how to do this. In addition simply study the Bible and ask regular questions of the text. You want to understand why it was written, to whom it was written, and what its major points are. So ask questions like these:
- Who wrote the book?
- To whom did he write it?
- Why did he write it?
- How does the section of the book that I am reading relate to that overall goal?
Great study Bibles can help you answer these questions. In addition, Carson, Moo, and Morris have edited An Introduction to the New Testament that proves helpful on questions like this – Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman also have one on the Old Testament that is good. Once you’ve determined you understand this contextual and textual information it’s good to ask questions about application. You want to wrestle with how this text applies to your own life. Consider these questions, adapted from Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life:
- Does this text reveal something I should believe about God?
- Does this text reveal something I should praise or thank or trust God for?
- Does this text reveal something I should pray for myself or for others?
- Does this text reveal something I should have a new attitude about?
- Does this text reveal something I should make a decision about?
- Does this text reveal something I should do for the sake of Christ, others, or myself?
You may not be able to answer every question every time you read a passage, but you should definitely be able to answer one. Once you’ve done this begin thinking of a plan to implement these things into your life. Remember James’ words, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
Having sought to understand the Bible it’s good to consider next the broad picture of the Bible’s story. Biblical Theology helps us to rightly understand the details of the text in light of the redemptive narrative. So, for example, we don’t hold to the details of the Levitical law anymore. Seeking to understand why is crucial. If we fail to understand where a text takes place in the storyline of salvation we might wrongly interpret or apply it. So, Biblical theology is crucial to avoid erroneous text-proofing in our theological work. There are hundreds of great books on the subject of Biblical theology, but a beginner should start with something simple and accessible. I recommend these works:
- God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts
- What Is New Covenant Theology? by Blake White
- The God Who is There by D.A. Carson
The goal is to be able to see and understand how the whole Bible fits together and how the individual parts are to be read in light of that overarching story.
Finally, readers want to get a basic introduction to the categories of systematic theology and its accompanying language. Every discipline has its own nomenclature, and systematic theology definitely has some unique terminology. It is worthwhile to work at understanding what these terms mean and how they are applied to the doctrines of the Bible. There are lots of great resources out there that can do this for you, but I think it is worth checking out these:
- A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology by Kelly Kapic
- Theology Primer: Resources for the Theological Student by John Jefferson Davis
- Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology by John Frame
- Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith by Wayne Grudem
Once these pieces are all in place and students have begun to grasp the basic concepts and categories of systematic theology it will be time to advance your studies. There are all kinds of resources out there, and the field of theology is constantly expanding. Since all truth is God’s truth, and the world belongs under the domain of God there is a never-ending supply of subjects to discuss and objects to connect back to the study of God. This, however, will do for an introduction.
There’s no absolute starting place, these are simply my recommendations. Wherever you start and whatever you do, remember that the Word of God is our ultimate authority on matters of theology, we are bound chiefly to conform to the text. Secondly, remember that theology is about life. If your studies are turning you into an academic egghead you are missing the point of studying God. All theology ought to lead to transformed hearts and lives, and to great praise of God and service of our neighbor. Consider, then, studying theology for your good and God’s glory.