Approaching the study of God
There are different ways to cut a pathway through a forest and each can get you through to the other side. So it is with the study of theology. There are several ways to investigate the cosmic scope of biblical revelation.
The grand panoramic story of the bible is hung upon four major events; Creation and Fall, the Exodus, the Christ event (life, death, resurrection), and the Consummation. The bible takes history seriously as the locus of the activity of God and the outworking of God’s plan in the midst of human rebellion.
Biblical theology is cosmic in scope. It begins in a beautiful garden and ends in a beautiful city with new heavens and a new earth. The bible is the inspired source of this revelation. As God’s word written it is considered Truth and those who reflect directly on the text of Scripture are doing, however poorly, Biblical Theology.
Robert Webber, one of my seminary professors, used to say, the word of God is the Truth but our biblical theology is merely “thinking about Truth.” We should not equate or confuse our thinking with the Truth. Nonetheless, we have to think about it while, at the same time, admitting that “thinking about Truth” is a human endeavour.
Because the bible is not organized into topics, another way to study theology is to do it in a systematic way according to certain questions. So, when we do Systematic Theology we are “thinking about thinking about Truth.”
Systematic Theology has several logical divisions. It may be compared to a building with seven stories. The foundation is the presupposition that God has communicated Truth in the bible.
The first level is Theology Proper: the doctrine of God. The second level is Theological Anthropology: the doctrine of creation, humanity and sin. Christology: the doctrine of the person of Christ, who was sent to redeem could be considered the third level. Soteriology: the doctrine of Salvation is the study of the work of Christ and how he accomplished Salvation, and how the Holy Spirit applies Salvation. Ecclesiology is the doctrine of the Church, the community of the faithful. It seeks to understand what the church is and what the church is to do. The final level is Eschatology, the doctrine of the last things.
Because all those who read and interpret the bible are located in a particular space and time, we must always pay attention to the history of its interpretation. When scholars gather the various works of those who have been “thinking about Truth” and write about them, they are doing another kind of theology.
Historical Theology is the history of thinking about what others have thought about the bible. So, those who study the works of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Barth, etc., are doing Historical Theology or “the history of thinking about thinking about Truth.”
There are even more ways to approach theology. For example, Practical Theology covers such areas as church ministry, counselling, missions, preaching, etc. You get the picture! There are many different ways to cut through a forest.
Ultimately, all theology must be judged by the bible as God’s word written. It is the standard for faith and practice. Humans can never produce infallible truth. There is always more light that God desires to shine from God’s word. The source of authority is the bible and we approach it humbly and respectfully never equating our thoughts with divine revelation. We seek to understand it and to stand under its authority.
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