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Why Study Theology The Importance of Biblical Knowledge

This series of articles is taken from a class taught in 2006, with some updates added in 2008, 2010 and 2018.

It is not uncommon today for people to question the importance of studying theology.  Many Christians affirm that they just want to hear “practical” teaching, not theology.  Others claim that “theology divides - why can’t we just love one another?” so they conclude that all theology is detrimental.  Many people have the attitude that “it doesn’t matter so much what you believe as long as you’re sincere”.  I believe some of these attitudes stem from a misunderstanding of “what theology is".  We thus recommend reading What is Theology before the other articles within this series.

Other false assumptions derive in part from the Pentecostal movement of the early twentieth century which, with its strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit, contained a strong anti-intellectual element.  Many think we can ignore almost two thousand years of church history and rely on our own experiences.  Because of such attitudes, reputed authorities on church growth warn pastors to avoid teaching doctrine, to make their sermons more “seeker friendly”.  Yet, we must ask, is this a biblical approach?  Are there reasons why we should study theology?  We will attempt to address these questions and assumptions in this series of articles.

Written: 2007.

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Why Not Just Skip to the Practical?

Before we get to the Bible’s reasons for studying theology, I’d like to address a few related questions that I’m often asked regarding study and application.   By far, the most common argument that I hear for minimizing doctrine is Jesus’ reply to the Jewish Pharisee’s question regarding which commandment of the law is the greatest.    Jesus said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Dt 6:5).  This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40 HCSB).

So, did Jesus intend for us to disregard the remainder of Scripture?  Not at all.  Jesus was saying that, love for God and love for others who are made in God’s image is the basis for the Old Testament laws.  That is, all of the OT further develops and amplifies these two points.  Remember, Jesus also said For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Mt 5:18 ESV).

If these two summary statements were sufficient for us, the NT writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could have saved a lot of time and words in their letters.  Indeed, we need the remainder of Scripture to show us how to love God and our neighbor.  To love God with all our heart, soul and mind, we need to know who God truly is; otherwise we’re attempting to love a god of our own creation, one who is merely a concept within our minds.  The word “god” can have a vastly different meaning to various people.

The Bible also tells us how to know if we love God and our neighbors.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands (1Jn 5:2-3).  It is obvious that we must first know His commands in order to obey them.  Regarding the second command of “Love your neighbor as yourself”, we must first know how to properly love ourselves.  Just as we can’t love God without knowing Him, we can’t love ourselves, and our neighbors by extension, in a Biblical sense without knowing who we are in Christ.  We must have an orthodox understanding of the doctrine of Christ and mankind.

Other common questions or objections that we receive are “Isn’t the way we live the most important thing?” and “if that's the case, shouldn't we skip right to the practical Scriptures?”  “After all, non-believers judge us based on our actions, so can’t we just follow the Bible’s instructions to lead a moral life without knowing all the whys and what fors?” 

We can summarize these questions by asking “Can we consistently follow the practical scriptures without knowing the theology on which they are based?”  We notice in the letters of Paul, he first lays out his theology before transitioning to the practical.  If it were possible for us to answer our question in the affirmative, Paul would not have wasted his time on theology, but would have skipped right to the do’s and don’ts.  We can’t act like Christ until we realize who we are in Christ.  Therefore, Paul first tells us who we are (theology and doctrine), then he tells us how we should act (practical).

Why is this?  I believe that God is not primarily into direct exterior behavior modification, but works from the inside out.  He gets right to the root of the matter by changing the heart, which results in altered behavior.  People who study practical passages exclusively, skipping the doctrine behind them, can easily become frustrated and slip into legalism.  By realizing our position in Christ, we can come boldly but humbly into His throne room and ask for the freedom of obedience by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This results in the peace and joy of being able to live a life worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1).

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Theology’s Source, Subject and Reason

By its very definition, the Triune God is the primary subject of Theology.  All systematic categories deal directly with God the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit, His revelation (Bible), His relationship to His Creation (man, angels, sin and salvation, the church), or His history (end times).

God is also the source of Theology, since all we can know of God and His Creation is self-revealed.  This revelation comes in two forms: from His Creation (General Revelation) and His Word (Special Revelation).  Of God’s revelation through the creation, the Psalmist writes:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.  They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.  Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Ps 19:1-4).

Of God’s revelation through the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2Tim 3:14-17).

So, since God is the main subject and His self-revealed Word (the Bible) is the source, we would expect that our reasons for studying Theology (God’s general and special revelation) would also have everything to do with God.  We can certainly cite many Benefits and Blessings of studying theology, but perhaps the best reason is because God commands it.

God’s Word commands us to Study Theology (Sound Doctrine)

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Dt 6:4-9).

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2Pe 3:18).

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2Tim 3:14-16).

Going back to Paul’s letter to Timothy, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2Tim 3:14-16).  Notice that Paul says “all scripture”.  We must be careful not to build our theology (beliefs and teachings) on just a few scriptures in isolation, but must always consider each text in context with the whole.  For example, let’s look at probably the best known verse in the Bible:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn 3:16 NKJV).

This is the first verse that I ever learned and is still one of my personal favorites, but this verse by itself says nothing explicitly of God’s revelation, man’s sin nature and need for a Savior, the cross, Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection, His second coming, the Church, the Holy Spirit etc.  When speaking with a person who possesses a limited knowledge of the Bible, these and other concepts will need to be explained (Romans 10:14).

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Responsibility for Lack of Knowledge

Knowledge sometimes gets a bad rap because of the Gnostics, who heretically taught that salvation was obtained by special (secret) knowledge.  In contrast, theology involves Biblical knowledge that is available to all who diligently seek it.  We must also note that Biblical knowledge involves the heart as well as the mind.  Perhaps John Calvin said it best: “Biblical doctrine (bible knowledge) is not a matter of talk, but of life.  It is not grasped by intellect alone, like other branches of learning.  It is received by faith not if it flits about in the top of the brain, but only when it fills the soul and takes root in the inmost depths of the heart.” (Institutes, Book 3, Ch 6).

  If we search through a Topical Bible for the words “knowledge”, “understanding” or similar terms, I think most of us might be surprised at the number of references to these subjects in scripture.  The book of Proverbs is particularly full of references to wisdom and knowledge, most notably in the second chapter.  Wisdom and knowledge are sometimes confused, but wisdom is given by God (Ja 1:5) while knowledge is acquired through revelation, study and experience.  We can also think of wisdom as the correct use of knowledge, and the skill necessary to successfully navigate life.  Regarding the wisdom of knowing doctrine, theologian RC Sproul goes so far as to say that theological mistakes are sins.  I believe we are held responsible if the mistakes are due to laziness or neglect of study; however, there are a few doctrines that won’t be completely understood this side of heaven.  I do agree that along with the privilege of interpreting scripture, we also inherit the responsibility of interpreting it correctly (including utilization of pastors, teachers etc).  Let’s see what the scriptures have to say on the subject.

Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; their men of rank will die of hunger and their masses will be parched with thirst (Isa 5:13).

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.  “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.” (Hos 4:6).

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.  They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.  They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom 1:28-31).

Notice Jesus’ intolerance towards the Sadducees who differed from Him concerning the doctrine of the resurrection:

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mt 22:29).

We must also know the scriptures in order to teach others.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20).

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Contend for the Faith

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3 NASB).

Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you (1Pe 3:15 HCSB).

Truth matters!  Yet, the time is fast approaching (if not already here) when we see Paul’s statement in 2nd Timothy fulfilled:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2Tim 4:3-4)

More than at any other time in history, God’s people need to be equipped with the glorious truths of God’s Word, that we might be ready for battle.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:10-17)

Consider Jesus, while being tempted in the wilderness, could have simply blown Satan away without even a snap of his fingers.  Instead, He continued to rebuke the devil with “it is written”.  If Jesus relied on, and exhibited the highest regard for Holy Scripture, we should do likewise.

Now, we know the good news that Jesus will be victorious, but the question that we must ask is, will we be faithful in the battle?  The words of Martin Luther still ring as true today as when he uttered them five centuries ago:  If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

Throughout history, many heroes of the faith fought the good fight by preaching “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in the power of the Spirit.  They studied the doctrines of Scripture, and they helped others apply them to the specific issues of their day.  By God’s grace, we must do the same today; but this will only happen if we diligently study God’s Word (biblical doctrine) so we will be accurately handling the word of truth.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2Tim 2:15)

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Final Comments

Everybody has a theology--the issue is whether it is a good one or a bad one

All Christians are theologians.  Actually, we can even state that all people (including atheists, humanists etc) are theologians.  In the broadest sense, denying that God exists is a theological position.  We all have our own theology.  When people do not want to study biblical theology, it is not replaced with a vacuum of “no theology”, but with “bad theology”.  Therefore the issue is not, “Do we need theology?”  Theology is inescapable.  The question that must be answered is, “Would we rather have a good sound theology based on God’s Word, or a bad theology based on our own philosophy?”

One Final Point: Knowledge and Transformation

We talked earlier about the importance of knowledge.  Increased knowledge of God is a very important objective in studying theology.  Yet we must study not only for increased knowledge and wisdom, but also for transformation.  Paul wrote, Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Ro 12:2).

If we greatly increase our knowledge without transforming ourselves into more obedient disciples, we merely become smarter sinners.  It has been said that teachers cannot lead students anywhere that the teacher has not already been.  Jesus didn’t merely teach his disciples, he led by example.

As we study theology, we must do the same in order to teach others in Christian love!

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