Are you a theologian? Most Christian workers would answer, no. Perhaps you think that theology is fine for professors, but that it doesn’t really apply to everyday ministry. Maybe you have forgotten most of what you learned in Bible school. Possibly you figure that all you really need is the Bible and you can 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, “My husband has been abusing our kids and is going to jail. Can I divorce him?” I’m sure that military chaplains have heard, “Our unit ended up killing some civilians. Doesn’t the Bible say not to kill?” Surely, missionaries have been asked, “Why does God make your country so rich and ours so poor?”
Questions like these can be answered, but it takes more than a Bible verse or two. 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 question is, yes, you are a theologian. The real question is, Will you be a good theologian? Maybe I can help.
Step One: Doing 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 it becomes an exercise of piling up 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 own subjects in its own terms. Rather than bring our questions to the Bible we start with what it wants us to know. We can still ask our questions, but only after we understand the Bible’s own message.
Hopefully you already do much of the process of Biblical Theology already when you prepare sermons. The first step is doing good what we call exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text) on individual Bible passages; considering the language, genre, and historical background.
The next step in doing Biblical Theology is to examine the themes that come out of a text. The rest of the book is looked at for other presentation of the same theme. Sometimes the particular subject is only discussed in a single passage, but at other times it will prove to be 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 it too.
Further, there are many good books that deal with major themes of each testament (see Appendix A, below). 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. Preachers too often skip over these to get to the passage that they are currently addressing, but the introduction is a gold mine of information for developing Biblical Theology.
Step Two: Doing Systematic Theology
Only after doing significant work in Biblical Theology can we be comfortable in bringing our questions to the Bible. This process is called 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. Some are done poorly. They need to be used 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 are just interested in 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 you are asked about abortion, you will have more than a few proof-texts that do not address the subject at all; instead 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, despite 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 a lot of time that you don’t have. You are not wrong. You cannot just start doing Biblical Theology when a question arises; that’s much too late. You really need to have already built a database of knowledge in notes or in your head from which to draw.
Therefore, you need to be practicing Biblical Theology long before the need arises. This is a task that should be done nearly daily. The more Scripture that you read and memorize, the more that you study a text just to find out more about its context and meaning, the more that you listen to the Bible establish its own questions and answer, the more you will be able to adequately deal with questions that arise.
Have I depressed you? Do you feel that you are too far behind? Well, cheer up. As with life itself, ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. If you start now with what you already know and commit to adding to that knowledge, you will become more and more equipped over time. Take the long view of your calling from God.
When it comes to the time needed to really get good at this, consider these thoughts:
1. This is important. Remember, you will do theology. You want to do it well
2. Though you cannot master theology in a month, a little time spent each week will pay big dividends over the years.
3. 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, something about biblical exegesis or a theological topic. (See Appendix B, below)
4. Take a class. Many Bible schools and seminaries offer continuing education classes. You might be able to take one near where you live but nearly every school has classes on-line.
5. Use the Church’s best secret resource: College professors. They are invaluable resources who have probably already considered your topic. They may have their own thoughts on the topic or can quickly direct you to a source that is even better. Some will be more accessible than others but are all easily reachable by email or through social media.
You need to be able to work with theology in your ministry. What I have tried to do is show you some steps to better do so. Embrace you calling as a theologian so that you can do even better ministry with those you have been entrusted.
Bob Caldwell is Theologian in Residence at Network 211 and adjunct Professor of Theology at Global University.
Books on Systematic Theology abound, but works on Biblical Theology are less known. Here are a few:
Brevard S. Childs. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992.
Walter Brueggemann. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2008.
Paul R. House. Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1998.
*Larry R. Helyer. The Witness of Jesus, Paul, and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2008. (This work has a terrific introduction on how to practice Biblical Theology.)
George Eldon Ladd. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974.
You can’t afford to add any more books to your library right now? Most ministers live near a Christian college or seminary; they have libraries. You may need to pay a fee to be a patron (the seminary from which I just graduated charges $50 per year), but if you end up checking out ten books a year, it will be worth it. Don’t fear using a library from a school that is not conservative. They still have good books and you should be able to discern them which will be helpful and which will not.
Another way is inter-library loan. Check with your local library to see their policies, but most of them belong to networks where they can get books from other libraries. Or perhaps you can use a search engine to find a book you would like to read and ask your local public library to get it through inter-library loan. There are ways to expand your theological knowledge, if you have the desire to do so.