“Teach me how to seek you, and show yourself to me when I seek you. For I cannot seek you unless you teach me how, and I cannot find you unless you show yourself to me. . . . I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand” ~ Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109 AD)
Pastoral ministry is necessarily a theological vocation. While pastors are called upon to speak knowledgeably and meaningfully on a variety of issues of public and personal concern, most fundamentally they are proclaimers of Scripture, physicians of the soul applying the balm of the gospel to all areas of human life. And since Scripture is “the supreme literary expression of God’s self-revelation,” and pastors are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), as they declare his counsel in its entirety, they play an integral role in the “mind renewal” enterprise (Rom. 12:1–2). As a pastor, therefore, I must shepherd the people under my care in the study of theology. In what follows, I lay out five important truths to keep in mind as you seek to become a better student of Scripture, a more sophisticated theologian, and ultimately a better servant of Jesus.
Everyone’s a theologian. The late R. C. Sproul was fond of making this point. And of course, he was absolutely right. Whether one is an academically trained theologian or not, the fact remains: You’re a theologian. And the reason you’re a theologian is because you think about God. Whether you believe God is dead or regard him as “that than which no greater can be conceived,” you think about God. In this respect, therefore, you’re a theologian. The real question is: Are you a good theologian?
Good theologians strive to have their minds informed and their mouths restrained by the witness of the prophets and apostles, both the Old and New Testaments—“the two lips by which God has spoken to us,” to quote the old Puritan Thomas Watson. Approved workers who rightly handle the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) approach their study of Holy Scripture with listening hearts, submissively attending to the whole counsel of God, receiving what he has disclosed. Given that the new birth does not torpedo us to intellectual perfection, we expect that as long as we live, move, and have our being in the overlap of the ages, we will acquire knowledge of God through patient study, careful research, and prayerful meditation on the Word of Life. This posture stands in opposition to any framework that views autonomous reason as the cognitive foundation of knowledge of God, leading one to base his or her conclusions on extratextual, metaphysical speculation rather than proper exegetical conclusions.
In the Scriptures, as Calvin reminds us, God “opens his most hallowed lips” and reveals himself to us so “that what we ought to think of him is set forth there” (Institutes 1. 6. 1). Which leads to our next point.
Without revelation from God, we are hopelessly lost. Stated differently, without revelation from God, we can know nothing of God. Since we could not ascend to the heavenly realm, God came down. The saving God (1 Tim. 4:10) is a speaking God (Deut. 4:33; 5:26, et. al.). And this saving and speaking God saw to it that his revelation was written down and preserved for his people (Deut. 31:9-11; Isa. 40:6–8; Jn. 20:31; 1 Pet. 1:24–25; 2 Pet. 3:15–16; Rev. 22:18–19). He did this because his Word is an ingredient in his saving and sanctifying purposes for redeemed image bearers.
Since the modern period many skeptics have assumed that because God used finite human beings in the process of giving us his inscripturated Word, the Bible must therefore contain errors. Such an objection, however, is not warranted from Scripture. Here’s a fundamental axiom: One’s doctrine of Scripture is tied to one’s doctrine of God. Hence, Scripture is reliable because the Triune God is reliable. The notion that the involvement of humanity necessarily entails error is a presupposition that Scripture itself does not share. (Remember: the Bible has its own plausibility structure and Christians relativize all regnant extratextual plausibility structures and evaluate them in light of the biblical worldview.)
Think for just a moment: If the involvement of humanity necessarily entails error, then the incarnation of Christ is not possible. But God is able to do the impossible.
As students of the Bible, therefore, we cling to the truth of 2 Tim. 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” And we believe this because God is truth himself. He is not a liar, his Word is unbreakable, and flawless down to the smallest stroke of a pen (note Deut. 32:4; Jn. 3:33; 14:6; 10:35; Matt. 5:18).
Given the above comments, we unite our voices with Calvin once again: “[L]et us not take into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word” (Institutes 1. 13. 21). Because God has revealed himself to us in his Word, we are not hopelessly lost.
Remember the creedal consensus of the church. While our walk with the Triune God is personal, our walk with the Triune God is not isolated. This is also true in the study of theology. Since the Christian faith was not invented last week, we seek to do our theology in the classroom of the saints. And the saints in our classroom are the church’s pastors and theologians who were involved in crafting the ancient, ecumenical creeds of the church, specifically the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (381), the Athanasian Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. As historian R. Scott Clark notes, “They are the considered, prayerful judgment of Christ’s church on the most important issues of the Christian faith and life.”
And since the ascended Christ has gifted the church with pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:7–14), including theologians with intellectual gifts, we do well to listen to their voices.
Christians opposed to creeds and confessions should at least understand the following: 1) Creeds are found in Scripture; and 2) Creeds are inevitable.
First, creeds are found in Scripture. The Jewish confession of faith—the Shema—found in Deuteronomy 6:4 functioned like a creed: “Here, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In the New Testament, 1 Tim. 3:16 carries a creedal overtone:
“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels,proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
Secondly, creeds are inevitable. Throughout history, those Christian communions that have opposed creeds ended up adopting a creed: “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” While I can appreciate the tenacity with which these brothers and sisters prioritize Scripture, they should also appreciate the necessity and painstaking effort put in to formulating the creeds. Here’s what I mean: Those who oppose creeds often insist on pointing us back to Scripture to settle theological disputes, but the historical context out of which the creeds arose taught the early fathers that all appeals to Scripture were appeals to interpretations of Scripture. Furthermore, they correctly held that the theological enterprise is more than a simple restatement of Scripture but also encompasses metaphysics, epistemology, and other philosophical presuppositions. The context of the early church necessitated the use of extrabiblical language in order to preserve Christian orthodoxy. Thus the birth of the creeds.
The fathers of the church learned early on that every heretic has his verse. Hence, those pastors and theologians closest to Jesus and the apostolic fathers passed down to the church a “rule of faith” that provided the church with a ruled reading of Holy Scripture. This “rule of faith” is a summary of Scripture, encapsulated in the Apostles’ Creed, and, along with the other ecumenical statements of faith function as a norm, a safeguard, a “canon,” to guide our reading of Scripture.
We ignore the universal consensus of the church to our own detriment and peril.
Sound doctrine is necessary for spiritual health. While in some Christian circles one often hears that “doctrine divides” and is therefore unnecessary, the truth is that “doctrine” simply refers to any sort of teaching. And the Bible highlights several kinds of teaching: the teachings of men (Mark 7:7–8), the teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 22:24), and teachings of God (Jn. 6:45; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 Jn. 2:27).
What is more, Paul informs his young protégé Timothy that “sound” doctrine is necessary for spiritual health. In light of this truth, Timothy is to “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). Given that Scripture is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16), and that all believers are to discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), a necessary corollary follows: All Christians are required to learn “the pattern of sound words,” or “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). For, as Peter notes, it is those who are “untaught” and “unstable” in sound doctrine that are most prone to twist the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).
The study of doctrine, however, must not be limited to the abstract realm, but applied directly to one’s life. As I once heard Paul Tripp say, “Doctrine never merely defines who God is; it redefines who I am in relation to him.” For example, the doctrine of God’s providence, which informs us that God is governing all things to their intended ends, functions as a bulwark against fear and hopelessness. God’s providence lets me know that life isn’t haphazard. God is watching over me and carrying out his purpose for my life, and nothing can thwart his work. How does this doctrine benefit us? The wonderfully pastoral Heidelberg Catechism answers this way: “We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love; for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move” (Q/A 28).
No wonder Calvin said “ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it” (Institutes 1. 17. 11).
So, yes, we must learn doctrine because doctrine is for life.
Doing theology requires a posture of humility, a palpable sense of our own inadequacy, and dependent prayer. Studying theology well requires a certain kind of temperament. It requires “a spirit of docility,” to use Swain’s words. This follows from the fact that God’s Word is his breathed out revelation: “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6). When we open up our Scriptures we are standing on holy ground, and we join our voices with Samuel, and pray, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).
A posture of humility is needful because, by nature, we don’t want to submit to God. Yet because by nature we are worshipers who want to live for something ultimate, we inevitably invent a god of our own making. “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity . . . it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God,” said Calvin (Institutes 1. 11. 18).
Reading the Bible is an exercise in humility because in it we find a God who is sovereign, authoritative, and in control; a God who, when questioned by Job, responds by asking, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it. . . . Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:2, 8).
Since the Bible does not answer every conceivable question one may have, it is important for theologians to display contentment with the revelation God has disclosed and renounce their own intellectual self-sufficiency when confronting issues that are beyond their ability to answer to their satisfaction. As fallen creatures, we own our inadequacies, admit our smallness, confess our limitations, and refuse to judge God by our own fallen notions of fairness or our own self-constructed categories of moral perfection.
Again, it is fitting to end with Calvin: “So if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘humility’” (Institutes 2. 2. 11).
While not comprehensive, I think if students of theology keep these five principles in mind as they study the Bible and read other Christian literature they will be well on their way to becoming well-trained theologians and expositors of Scripture.
 Anselm, Prosologion in Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), Ch. 1 (p. 81).
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 22.
 Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 8.
 Of course, Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated “God is dead” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, [trans. Graham Parkes; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005], 11 et. al). Anselm said God was “that than which no greater can be conceived.” See his Proslogion, Ch. 3 (p. 82).
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust), 26.
 For more on this topic see John Webster, “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life,” in Christ across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 100–116. See esp. 105, 113.
 Speaking personally, this was one of the primary reasons I chose to pursue further theological training, rather than postgraduate study in the area of philosophy. Much of philosophy consists of nothing more than metaphysical speculation, a fact about which at least some philosophers are honest. See, e.g., Richard Creel, Thinking Philosophically: An Introduction to Critical Reflection and Rational Dialogue (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), 36, 60. Some examples of the kind of metaphysical speculation I am referring to would be: Bertrand Russell, “Belief In Life after Death Comes from Emotion, Not Reason,” and Peter Geach, “What Must Be True of Me If I Survive My Death,” both in Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology, ed. Brian Davies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 721–723 and 724–732 respectively. I agree with Calvin: “. . . the knowledge of God does not rest in cold speculation” (Institutes 1. 12. 1).
 John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Holy Scripture,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 52. As Vanhoozer notes elsewhere, “[N]o doctrine of Scripture without a doctrine of providence.” See his essay, “God’s Mighty Speech Acts: The Doctrine of Scripture Today,” in A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, eds. Philip E. Sattherwaite and David F. Wright (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 143–181. See esp. 148. Of course, one must also take God’s sovereignty into account as well. See further Stephen J. Wellum, “The Importance of the Nature of Divine Sovereignty for Our View of Scripture,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4:2 (Summer 2000): 76–90.
 See further Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 133; Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 57.
 R. Scott Clark, “The Role of Creeds and Confessions in Doing Theology” Tabletalk 42:2 (February 2018): 21.
 See further John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson & Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 62–92.
 Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 188; also Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 106.
 D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 47–84.
 Scott R. Swain, “What Is Doctrine?” Tabletalk 39:5 (May 2015): 6.
 Another resource would be Johann Gerhard, Handbook of Consolations: For the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death (trans. Carl L. Beckwith; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
 Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 92. The intellectual life requires moral virtue; namely, the prayerful cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit. One of the early church fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390 AD), said, “Discussion of theology is not for everyone. . . It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study . . . ” (See his On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius [trans. Frederick Williams; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2002], 26–27).
 R. Albert Mohler Jr., “A God-Centered Worldview: Recovering the Christian Mind by Rediscovering the Master Narrative of the Bible,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, eds. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 357.
Good, sound, reformed thinking and writing. He is reading the right stuff.
Thanks for this (and other) considerations of our life as God’s image bearers. Your willing and ability to explain God’s expression of His grace and sovereignty is very much appreciated. As one result of your efforts I find myself wanting more scripture reading, more prayer, more clarity in my trust in my Maker.