Listen With Sheep’s Ears: Discerning Sound Theology
By Margaret Rose Bronson
In my last post, we talked about how the Bible is full of truth accessible to anyone with a willingness to read. God wants you to know Him. To that end, He has made Himself available in Scripture. It is my prayer that women who read this blog become curious or even emboldened in their pursuit of not just a knowledge of God, but an intimacy with Him. Not the shallow, cutesy ‘intimacy’ to which we’ve grown accustomed, but the rich depth of submission to the love and authority of our Creator.
The first step to discerning sound theology is being with God. You cannot truly know Him by reading what others have to say about Him. The result would be as if you studied a foreign culture instead of visiting it. You might know lots of facts about the culture, but until you have lived in it and experienced it, you do not truly know it.
We move beyond merely knowing things about Him by spending time in His Word and in prayer and meditation, sitting under the preached Word, and submitting to the teaching of the Church. Consequently, you can start developing your theology without ever reading a theological textbook or attending seminary. The Bible is sufficient to accomplish this. Everything else–commentaries, popular works, etc.–is very helpful, but don’t let a lack of resources hinder you from studying the Word. (This page has a list of online, free resources that will be helpful.)
Thus, discerning sound theology begins with reading Scripture well. I hope the following guidelines give you some useful tools with which to begin your study:
Scripture is Literature
In a sense, the Bible is just like any other book as it follows the normal laws of language and grammar. Incorrectly identifying a direct object can completely change the meaning of a text, whether it be Shakespeare or the very Word of God. This means that sometimes you’ll need to check a dictionary for the meaning of a word, or carefully identify the parts of a sentence in order to properly understand the passage.
Look It Up!
And, just like any other book, you might come across concepts or idioms with which you are unfamiliar. Please use a dictionary! Even doing a Theopedia or Google search on terms you don’t know can be very helpful, especially to gain initial understanding of the historical context. If you aren’t sure about something you read, look it up!
Know the Genre of the Book
The 66 books of the Bible represent a variety of different literary types, ranging from historical narrative or poetry, to prophecy and letters. Imagine the confusion that would result if you read fantasy fiction as though it were historical nonfiction. You can’t properly know what a passage means until you know the genre of the text! For example, take this verse:
[The sun’s] rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat. Psalm 19:6
At first glance this looks like it’s saying that the sun that moves around the earth, which we know from modern science is false. Does this mean that our Bible is inaccurate? No! Psalms is a book of poetry, and its genre informs the way we are meant to understand this text. The psalmist is not intending to make a statement on the exact movements of stars and planets in our solar system. Rather, he is seeking to magnify the greatness of God and His creation, so he uses poetic, not literal, language to achieve that end.
Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog
Do not go to scripture looking to prove your point. Read scripture with prayer and care, seeking to find what it was intended to convey. When we delve into scripture with a preconceived notion of what it says, we will very often interpret it wrongly. It is not worth defending your theological system of choice if the consequence is a twisting of God’s Scripture. The text cannot mean for us what it did not mean for the original audience.
Scripture Interprets Scripture
In order to find a proper balance, use other scriptures, or cross references, to help you find clarity. For instance, we’re told in Ephesians 2:8-10 that salvation is by faith and not by works. But in James 2:24, we’re told that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone. How can both be true? If we dig a little deeper, we can learn from the rest of Scripture that Paul and James address the same problem from different angles. Both write to correct imbalances in the church: Paul explains that works have no ability to save us from sin to counteract the desire to work for one’s salvation, while James states that no one can claim to have faith if no obedience to God’s commands is evident as a result of that faith.
Clearest Passages are the Loudest
If you come across a confusing passage, but you can find another passage that speaks on the same subject, always make the clearest passage the most instructive. Usually, you can straighten out knotty theological problems by utilizing this practice. A peripheral warning here: it is unwise to develop a theology based on a single, difficult-to-understand text. Don’t go baptizing your dead great-granduncle because of 1 Corinthians 15:29!
Read Each Passage in Context
Context is King! This means that you cannot understand the meaning of a phrase without knowing what came before and after it. Do not isolate a passage and read it on its own. Sometimes, there are helpful hints that this verse is part of a longer section of the text: words like “therefore,” “but,” and “then” provide context clues that we should consider the preceding sentence or paragraph before we determine a passage’s meaning. Always read the surrounding verses and understand the context of the book you are reading. Which is why it is also important that you…
Know To Whom the Author Was Writing
Scripture was written for us but not to us. It is immensely helpful to know the intended audience of the author. Is he writing to Gentile believers or Jewish believers living under persecution? Is this letter intended to be read to a church or written directly to an individual? All these things will have bearing on how you should read and interpret the text.
If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.
When you read a passage, the simplest interpretation is usually the safest. For example, when Genesis 1 speaks of “days,” it is safe to assume this is meant as a literal 24-hour day. After deeper study, you may come to a different conclusion, but as a general rule, you won’t go terribly wrong by reading the text as it is most naturally understood. WARNING: This doesn’t discount the importance of taking genre, historical context, and audience into account. If you go home and gouge your eye out after reading Matthew 5:29, then you’ve missed something!
Finally, the doctrine of perspicuity means that you have the ability, and the responsibility, to seek after God. You must study Him for yourself. No Christian escapes the weight of this responsibility! But, what is indescribably beautiful is that no amount of obedience is too small. Perspicuity is a gift from a God who wants His children to know Him and who blesses their smallest efforts by revealing Himself to them. Knowing God is a foretaste of heaven, and we can begin feasting on this good gift from our Father today. Enter into your inheritance of Biblically-informed intimacy with the Lord!