How To Think Biblically
Have you ever thought about God? If the answer is “yes,” then you are a theologian. I’m not saying that everyone is a good theologian, but poor performance does not negate the fact that you are doing the job. How do you form theological ideas? There are a lot of options out there, meditation, philosophical inquiry, historical survey, conventional wisdom, or anything else the world has come up with. Go to any church in America and there is a fair chance you will a bit of all the above. For the follower of Jesus, we must believe that God’s revealed message (the Bible) is the source of all theological answers. So what Jesus followers really want to do is think biblically.
Biblical theology is the art and science of thinking biblically. Theology is a science because it is a subject that can be studied and going through a methodological process can help us get much closer to a “good” answer. It is an art because a “good” answer, not a correct answer is the best we will ever be able to come up with, as the subject of our study is beyond the grasp of the mortal mind. As God told Job, “Who are you to question me?”
The two enemies of doing good theology are certainty and apathy. Certainty is almost always false, because we are grasping at ideas that we only have knowledge of because of revelation (God saying so) and illumination (the Holy Spirit causing us to understand). I am always skeptical of people who tell me they know everything about God and that they know it with 100% certainty. There also seems to be a direct relationship with how certain someone is and how crazy their ideas are. God simply has not revealed everything we want to know, and to make many theological statements, there must be an element of conjecture. Was Jesus a Capitalist? Capitalism is an invention of the 19th century western mind, it was unknown to the biblical record. Therefore to seek to answer that question, we must make a guess, however we can make it a more informed guess. On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to just give up and declare all theology to be a mystery, or say, “it’s all relative!” God has revealed himself to us and we can know something about him.
During my undergrad years I was exposed to Baptist theologian Millard Erickson’s steps for doing theology. While his way is just one way, I think it is extremely helpful and can be done with some ease when applied properly. If I could get Christians to just slow down and try to think more biblically, I’d be very happy. Here are Erickson’s steps for doing good theology:
1. Collection of Biblical Materials- gather up everything the Bible says on the matter.
2. Unification of Biblical Materials- the Bible says different things about the same subjects, these are not contradictions, they are expressions within different contexts. Can a unified teaching be brought together about the subject?
3. Analysis of the Meanings of Biblical Teachings- What does all this teaching really mean? Again, it’s all about context, context, context!
4. Examination of Historical Treatments- For the past 2000 years since the New Testament was written, people much smarter and holy than you and I have been thinking about God and the Bible. We should learn from these people. At the very least they should have their say before we come to our conclusions!
5. Identification of the Essence of the Doctrine- Because the biblical texts were written to different situations and in different contexts, we must put on our miner caps and dig deeper. Moving aside the tons of dirt that is language, culture, etc., we can get to the heart of the matter and find the deeper meaning. By the way, Erickson doesnt say this, but it’s also a good idea to do this to your initial question.
6. Illumination from Sources Beyond the Bible- Here is where we get really artsy. This is step that separates the fundamentalists from everyone else. How does our knowledge of culture or psychology influence the issue? Are there other disciplines we can bring in to shed a little light?
7. Contemporary Expression of the Doctrine- OK, you know what the Bible says, you know how Origen, Luther, and most importantly Mark Driscoll thought about it, you have boiled it down to its very bones, and you used your Art History degree to add a few paragraphs to your findings, so what do you say? A couple reams of paper worth of research usually doesn’t make the question any clearer for people, we have to figure out a way to say it so that people will understand. You use those creative writing skills of yours and whamo! You have an answer to your question. In reality, your question has probably changed a bit since you started the process, but hey, who will ever know!
In upcoming posts I’ll tackle these steps one-by-one, make sense of them and hopefully give you a taste of seminary (without the grades, insomnia, and bi-polarism)