Theology is tricky. Among the many reasons for this, I’ll mention two. First, while theology can be studied in systematic fashion, theology isn’t a system and its primary source, the Bible, wasn’t written along a systematic, topical trajectory. Second, while doing theology requires human reason, it’s difficult to discern where biblical evidence ends and human conjecture begins—although theological maturity requires being able to do so. These tensions merely plow the surface of the difficulties inherent in theologizing, so I offer a few cautions for the student in the earlier stages of theological learning, in hopes of aiding growth in both accuracy and maturity.
Be wary of your own heroes and hobby horses.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV) 2 Timothy 4:3 ESVLike the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:12), we, too, can fall into factions, accept uncritically whatever our favorite thinker says, and dismiss uncritically what another says. Many times, our cliquishness comes on the moment’s whim—whoever is en vogue or whatever issue has gotten under our skin. In this way, we can become the very people about whom Paul warned Timothy—those who “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim 4:3).
Be wary of skewed theological constructs.
Reason is useful and necessary, but can be dangerous when it forces revelation to bow to its calculations. One can sure that reason has rendered a skewed perspective when it: a) isolates and elevates certain texts as hermeneutical trump cards; b) minces or dismisses other texts that would otherwise be important; and c) mitigates or ignores the Bible’s master themes. If holding a theological position requires the above three factors, then sooner or later it will crash under its own weight, or run head-long into the brick wall of exegesis.
Be wary of dialectical infinite loops that allow only questions and no answers.
Yes, reading the Bible raises questions—big questions, and it doesn’t always answer them clearly or cleanly (e.g., Why was the tree in the Garden? How did the serpent get in there?). But, the answers the Bible provides are bigger and far more significant than the questions it raises. The Bible never claims to be exhaustive, only sufficient. It reveals what we need to “make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Asking questions is good, asking good questions is better, but believing the answers the Bible offers is best.
Be aware of the way that cultural sensitivity affects doctrinal sensibility.
In his book, Reason for God, Tim Keller recounts when a woman told him that she was offended by the idea of a judging God. Turning the table, he asked her why she wasn’t offended by the idea of a forgiving God. He explains that while secular people in the West are offended by doctrines of hell and judgment, those in more traditional societies are often offended by Christ’s teaching to “turn the other cheek.” In both instances, a basic sense of justice, rooted in some cultural value, is disrupted. Keller concludes that since Christianity is trans-cultural and transcendent truth, we should expect it to offend every culture at some point. Learning our own cultural sensitivities can help us discern the reasons we resist some biblical teachings, make us aware of our own blind spots, and aid us in remaining doctrinally sound even while live culturally submersed.
Be aware of the relationship between your story and your theology.
Greg Thornbury masterfully demonstrates this point in an article that begins with the story of Friedrich Nietzsche. Evangelicals often “portray Nietzsche as some sort of monster filled with unreflective hate toward theism in general or Christianity in particular,” he says, but then reminds us that Nietzsche’s famous statement on the death of God is “lament, not broadside.” Nietzsche’s belief was a product of his pain—his loss of faith came after the loss of his family. As you study theology, be cognizant of its interaction with your biography. You may embrace some doctrinal formulas and resist others due to experiences. The goal, however, isn’t for your story to dictate your theology, but for right theology to tell your story, and to do it along the Bible’s own story—the gospel itself.