7 Tips for Researching and Studying Theology

This article is part of the 7 Tips series.

Research a Particular Doctrine

Only fools or claimants to direct revelation write theology without carefully studying their subject first. The following seven principles are useful for researching a theological paper, preparing to write an article, or developing a full systematic theology one piece at a time.

1. Focus on one strand of biblical teaching.

A common mistake of budding theologians is to try to study too broad a subject at one time. Focus is critical for deep thought. Out of the large tapestry of biblical truth, select one golden thread upon which to concentrate your study. Sometimes your topic is dictated to you, but it is best to pick something that interests you and meets a need in the church. For example, Christians in your church suffer from guilt and legalism, so you study justification by faith in Christ alone.

2. Collect biblical materials relevant to that strand.

The goal of systematic theology is to state what the whole Bible says on a particular topic. This is based on the conviction that God is the Author of every part of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:20–21) and that he speaks one coherent truth through the diverse voices of the Bible’s many writers. In other words, there is a system of doctrine taught in God’s Word. Therefore, you should strive to gather as many Scripture passages as pertain to your study. For example, in a study of justification, you might search for texts using the Hebrew and Greek terms that are translated as “justify” and “righteousness.” However, not all texts using such terms are relevant to justification by faith. You will also discover other key terms, such as “impute” (Rom. 4:6). Other important texts may not use key terms, but express the idea in other words (such as Ps. 130:3–4). Trace the idea as broadly as you can.

Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1

Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley

The first volume in the Reformed Systematic Theology series draws on the historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the first 2 of 8 central points of systematic theology with an accessible, comprehensive, and experiential approach.

3. Exegete particular texts linguistically, literally, and theologically.

God communicated his Word in human language, so that “the words of the Lord” come to us as the words of a human prophet (Jer. 36:4). They were originally written in the ancient Hebrew (in a few places, Aramaic) and koine Greek1 languages. Therefore, we must interpret them as we would interpret the meaning of any document written in the language of a particular time and place. Begin with the best translation of the words themselves, taken in their ordinary or “literal” sense. R. C. Sproul said, “To interpret the Bible literally means to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.”2 Theologians, therefore, benefit greatly from linguistic skills in ancient languages. Hebrew and Greek should not be viewed merely as dead languages, but as tools by which to draw near to the living God. Hodge recounted how one of his theological professors at Princeton would remark that “one of the best preparations for death was a thorough knowledge of the Greek grammar.”3 Make good use of lexicons, grammars, and dictionaries, but do not view them as neutral collections of facts; as Millard Erickson notes, every contributor to such books has his own presuppositions, for he “operates within a tradition and context of his own.”4 With the same caveat, use commentaries on a specific biblical text to understand it and its context better. Do not stop at the level of analyzing ancient words, but search for the theological message of the text, in the conviction that it is “more to be desired . . . than gold . . . sweeter also than honey” (Ps. 19:10). A necessary first step is to master the use of your own “mother tongue.” The student who cannot speak and write in his own language with skill and precision is in no position to interpret the words of others, especially if they are written in another language.

4. Interpret Scripture with Scripture.

The best way to understand any author’s meaning is to read his writings extensively and not interpret any individual statement in a manner that contradicts the larger context. Since the Bible has one divine Author, the best interpreter of the Bible is the Holy Spirit speaking in other places of the Bible. Use the analogy of Scripture, that is, Scripture taken as a whole and used as a standard of comparison for any and all of its parts. Compare texts that may seem obscure or hard to understand with the plainer texts. If a text can be interpreted in more than one way, we should accept the interpretation that best harmonizes with what other passages teach on the same topic. Do not reject the teaching of any particular text just because you find it hard to accept. While Scripture does not contradict Scripture or reality in general, it is often difficult for our limited minds to grasp how one truth fits with another. The point is to keep reading, listening, and believing God’s Word as God’s perfect revelation.

5. Ask questions about meaning, intent, logic, application, and covenantal and typological contexts.

Christ is our example here, for when he was twelve years old, he sat among the teachers in the temple, “both hearing them, and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Query the text. Erickson says, “The theologian will relentlessly press the question, ‘What does this really mean?’”5 Too often we repeat words without laboring to understand what we are saying. Ask a variety of questions, such as: Who wrote this? To whom did he write? What did he say before it? What is the main point? What details support the main point? What is the flow of the narrative or argument? Why is this specific word used here? How does this teaching fit with what the writer says in other places? What might this person be thinking or feeling at this point in the narrative? What implications does this statement or event have? What response did that call for in his original hearers? What response does it call for in us? An active mind is always asking questions; this is not insolence, but an eagerness to learn.

Keep reading, listening, and believing God’s Word as God’s perfect revelation.

Use biblical theology to place a text in its larger biblical framework. If you are reading a psalm of David, consider how its meaning is shaped by God’s covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David. If you are studying the drought in Elijah’s days (1 Kings 17–18), remember that drought was one of God’s covenant curses upon disobedient Israel (Lev. 26:19–20; Deut. 28:23–24). If you are studying the lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21), remember that Christ said it was a type of his saving work (John 3:14–15). Typology discerns how God sovereignly ordered people, events, and institutions according to great themes that span the Bible to foreshadow the person, work, and kingdom of his Son (Rom. 5:14).

6. Consult confessional statements.

When studying a doctrine, go back to the creeds and confessions of the church and read the relevant portions carefully. While confessional statements are not the primary sources or supreme authorities for systematic theology, they do represent the church’s accounting of the system of doctrine found in the Bible. Such documents reflect the best wisdom of the ages and often provide deeper insights into biblical truth. They also guard us against repeating the imbalances, errors, and heresies of the past or wandering into idiosyncratic teachings that very few Christians have ever held. Confessions are not enemies of biblical interpretation but are its best friends as we strive to pass on the apostolic deposit of truth (2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2). Like any other human writing, they are to be examined and tested by the Word of God; they are not to be regarded as the last word for Christian faith and life, but only as a help in both.

7. Learn from great books of the past.

Employ historical theology to inform systematic theology. Use modern works of theology, but do not be so arrogant as to assume that you and your generation were the first to seriously listen to the Bible on any given point. You are entering a theological conversation that has been going on for two thousand years and more. Before you jump in, at least have the wisdom of Elihu to listen first to what older writers have said—even if you ultimately may disagree (Job 32:4). Proverbs 18:13 warns, “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” James counsels us to “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). Therefore, sit at the feet of the great theologians, such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Perkins, Owen, Turretin, Brakel, van Mastricht, Edwards, Hodge, Bavinck, and others. By all means, discern their errors, but do not discard their works as relics of the past. If you can, gain at least a working knowledge of Latin terminology, for Latin was the language of the Western church for centuries. Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Termsis valuable here.6 Without neglecting recent books and articles, find the classic works on the topic you are exploring and read them thoroughly. Choose one theologian, and immerse yourself in his works for a year or more until you enter deeply into his mind. Be a lifelong student of theology.

If you follow this process of theological research while engaging with the spiritual dynamics mentioned in the last chapter, you can anticipate that you will be equipped by the Holy Spirit to understand and communicate the sound doctrines of God’s Word.

Notes:

  1. Koine Greek, as distinct from its predecessors in the various dialects of ancient Greek, was the common language used in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East during the Hellenistic period as a result of the cultural impact of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC).
  2. R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48–49.
  3. Charles Hodge, “Autobiography,” in The Life of Charles Hodge, ed. A. A. Hodge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1880), 25. The professor was Philip Lindsley (1786–1855).
  4. Erickson, Christian Theology, 54.
  5. Erickson, Christian Theology, 57.
  6. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985).

This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1: Revelation and God by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.



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