I remember a meeting I had some years ago with a couple of brothers in Christ. We needed to find a speaker for a men’s retreat. One man said, “The last thing we want is theology. We need something practical.” Too often, that’s the assumption: theology is not helpful. But when the retreat was done, the speaker proved to be quite helpful precisely because he was theological. He taught the doctrines of God’s Word with clarity, conviction, and a call to respond.
What Is Helpful Theology?
Theology is serious thinking about Christian doctrine. The doctrines of the faith summarize and explain the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. The Bible commends “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), which means healthy teaching.
Systematic theology is the study of what the whole Bible teaches about a given doctrine and its connection to other doctrines. For example, how can a sinner be justified or counted righteous by God? What does justification show us about God, Christ, and ourselves?
The purpose of systematic theology, like all Christian teaching, is not to cause arguments but to strengthen faith and godliness (1 Tim. 1:4–5). As Reformed theologians have said, “Theology is the doctrine of living to God by Christ.”
But that does not mean that all theology is helpful. When I opened the first systematic theology I ever read, I thought, “This is great! The author is thinking deeply about the faith.” But in that book, the author said that it is absurd to talk about the resurrection of Christ’s physical body from the dead. The author was an unbeliever. Needless to say, I put that book down.
Systematic theology is only helpful if it is faithful to the Word of God, especially the gospel that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Therefore, we should exercise discernment. We can learn something from virtually anyone, even unbelievers. But when we study doctrine and theology, we must choose our teachers wisely.
Why Is Theology Helpful?
Systematic theology is helpful because knowledge is a key to growing in grace (2 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 3:18). The very essence of eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). The Apostle Paul treasured the knowledge of Christ above all other things (Phil. 3:8). Paul counted himself privileged to preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
Too often, we just go through life without thinking about why we do what we do. Systematic theology draws from the Bible answers to life’s biggest questions. Who is God? What is His purpose for the world? Who am I? Why am I here? Why is there evil? How do I overcome it? Who are the people who can help me? Where is history going?
Best of all, Christian theology is a means of knowing the triune God: the Father in His eternal love, the Son in His saving grace, and the Holy Spirit in the sweet fellowship He gives us with God and each other (2 Cor. 13:14). The knowledge of the Lord is worth more than all human wisdom, power, and wealth (Jer. 9:23–24). God uses His Word to set us free and make us holy, as He is holy (John 8:31–32; John 17:17).
How Can We Read Theology in a Helpful Way?
The responsibility to make theology helpful does not rest solely on the author. The reader has work to do as well. Here are some tips on how to make the best use of systematic theology.
1. Read theology to feed your love, not your pride.
Knowledge tends to puff us up with arrogance, but if our motive is love we will aim to build up other people (1 Cor. 8:1).
2. Read theology with an open Bible.
Look up Scripture references. Read them in context. Be like the Bereans, who were “examining the Scriptures daily” to verify what they heard (Acts 17:11).
3. Read theology prayerfully.
Don’t just read about God; read in the presence of God. Seek God as you study. Feed your soul with His glory and grace (Ps. 63:5–8). Love God with “all your mind” (Mark 12:30).
4. Read theology with faith in Christ. Christ is the Word, the revealer of God (John 1:1, 18).
Depend on Him to open your mind to understand the Word (Luke 24:45).
5. Read theology with attention and meditation (2 Tim. 2:7).
We read some books quickly for tidbits of insight. But a good systematic theology is worth reading carefully.
6. Read theology knowing your limitations.
You are not God. Therefore, it is foolish to think that you can fully understand God (Ps. 145:3). But you are a human being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, by Christ’s grace you can know God (1 John 5:20).
7. Read theology for doxology.
Frequently offer God praise and thanksgiving for what He is revealing about Himself (Ps. 119:164). That makes theology a foretaste of heaven!