You Are Already a Theologian
(You Just Need to Be a Better One)
Are you a theologian? Most of you would answer, “No.”
Perhaps you think theology is fine for academics but feel it doesn’t really apply to everyday ministry. Maybe you have forgotten most of what your Bible school professors taught you.
Perhaps you figure all you really need is the Bible to deal with every situation. In part, you are correct. If someone asks, “Can I marry a non-Christian?” you can just point them to 2 Corinthians 6:14,15 without resorting to any hermeneutical principles, exegetical tools, or philosophical arguments to make your case. And the believer who accepts the Bible’s authority will accept your answer.
Ah, but it is not always this easy, is it? What pastor has not faced a question like, “Can I divorce my husband, who has been abusing our kids and is going to jail?”
I’m sure military chaplains have heard, “Our unit ended up killing some civilians. Doesn’t the Bible say not to kill?”
Surely, American missionaries have been asked, “Why does God make your country so rich and ours so poor?”
It takes more than a Bible verse or two to answer such questions. It involves many verses, extracting biblical principles from them, and constructing an answer that fits the pattern of Scripture.
This, my friends, is doing theology. The answer to my first question is: Yes, you are a theologian. The more important question is: Will you be a good theologian? Maybe I can help.
Step One: Biblical Theology
Many make the mistake of jumping to step two without doing step one. Step two — systematic theology — involves synthesizing what the entire Bible has to say about a subject. But without good biblical theology, systematic theology becomes an exercise in extracting Bible verses without context, and possibly drawing bad interpretations.
Here is my working definition: Biblical theology is the process by which the interpreter examines what the Bible has to say about its subjects in its terms. Rather than bringing our questions to the Bible, we start with what the Bible wants us to know. We can still ask our questions, but only after we understand God’s message.
Hopefully, you already do much of the process of biblical theology when you prepare sermons. The first step is doing good exegesis on individual Bible passages — considering the language, genre, and historical background.
The next step in doing biblical theology is examining the themes that come out of a text. Look at the rest of the book for recurrence of those themes. Sometimes a particular subject only appears in one passage. Other times, it emerges as a major theme. If you trace, for example, the kingdom of God in Matthew or social justice in Amos, you will be busy for quite a while with what will prove to be a major component of biblical theology. As a side benefit, you should get quite a few sermons out of your studies, too.
Further, there are many good books that deal with major themes of each testament. (See the related sidebar.) These works will help you gain a greater sense of the theology of the entire Bible.
Another tool is the introduction section of commentaries on individual books of the Bible. Though preachers often skip over these to get to the passage they are currently addressing, such commentaries are a gold mine of information for developing biblical theology.
Step Two: Systematic Theology
Only after doing significant work in biblical theology can we confidently bring our questions to the Bible. We call this process systematic theology. Be careful of books that purport to be systematic theologies, however. Many of them do little more than pile up Bible verses — without context — that seem to relate to a subject. Use such references carefully. Look up every verse cited in its context, and examine how it fits in the biblical theology of the book from which it comes. Then you can decide how well it fits the subject.
Most of you are not interested in constructing an entire systematic theology, however. You just want to know what the Bible says about a certain subject. What do you do? First, the more work you have done in biblical theology, the better off you will be. So when someone asks you about abortion, you will have more than a few proof texts that do not address the subject at all. You can draw on what the Bible teaches about creation, fruitfulness, and the sanctity of life. This is a cumulative process that should consume the minister throughout his or her years in ministry.
Additionally, in spite of my warnings above, you can go to books on systematic theology or on your particular subject. Just be careful to examine how biblical passages are treated.
I Don’t Have Time for This
This sounds like a lot of work that will take time that you don’t have. Consider these points.
This is important. Remember, you will do theology. Will you do it well?
This process is a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot master theology in a month. A little time spent each week will pay big dividends over the years.
You have the time if you plan wisely. First, expand your sermon preparation time by one hour to examine themes suggested by your sermon passage. Make a few notes on that theme in the rest of the book of the Bible, and file it away.
Second, spend just one hour per week reading something theological. I don’t mean another book on leadership or church growth but something about biblical exegesis or a theological topic. (See the related sidebar.)
You can take a class. Many Bible schools and seminaries offer continuing education classes. You might be able to take one near your home or even online.
You can use the Assemblies of God’s best secret resource: college professors. These knowledgeable men and women are invaluable resources. Chances are, they have already considered your topic. They may have their own thoughts on the topic, or they can quickly direct you to a source that is even better.
You need to be able to work with theology in your ministry. These steps can get you on track to becoming a better theologian. Embrace you calling as a theologian so that you can do even more effective ministry with the ones God has called you to serve.
BOB CALDWELL, theologian in residence, Network211, and adjunct professor, Global University, Springfield, Missouri