How Can We Refine Our Understanding of Biblical Theology?Theology is not limited to the work of professors and clergy. Any serious Christian who has invested time in reading and studying Scripture is doing the work of theology, because theology (from the Greek words theos, meaning “God,” and logia, meaning “utterance, speech, reasoning”) is simply seeking ways to understand and speak about God, and all else in life as God defines it.
This is one of the enormous blessings of being a lifetime reader of Scripture. We are learning God. And learning everything God has said about everything else that really matters in life. What is a person? Why are people violent? What does a good marriage look like? What is our relationship with the animal kingdom? What happens after we die? How can we find peace and prosperity in life? Why does money become a source of tension? Where can we find justice?
What Scripture offers us, in its totality, is a comprehensive knowledge about God and life. This knowledge is not unlimited, for mysteries remain. Believers should not be frustrated by that. The Bible should never be criticized for not being what it never claims to be. It is not a comprehensive textbook of science. It does not address all areas of economics and government. The Bible is not a documentary of all the details of the historical periods it addresses, but rather, the telling of the story of God’s interaction with humanity.
So how do we, in our quest to reason about and speak about God, refine a “biblical theology”? First, we should not rely on the longstanding method of searching for verses, producing a list, and pretending that this produces a coherent and true doctrine or theology. It is easy, of course, to use a concordance or a computer program or an online lookup function to put in front of our eyeballs all of the biblical verses that use the words heaven, sin, Christ, baptism, money, or violence. While this can be a helpful exercise, creating such lists do not render overarching, rational concepts. If we are trying to figure out what the Bible says about violence, we will have to find the passages that offer major insights, and those passages may not even use the word violence at all—for instance, Cain murdering Abel (Gen. 4:8). It is helpful to do word searches, but only as part of a larger strategy of refining your understanding of biblical theology.
Theology is all about synthesis, which is to take many ideas and discover their connections, leading to an overall theory or system. We sometimes talk about our “belief system,” which is what theology leads to, and it is a wonderful thing. Biblically knowledgeable believers are not shocked when people lie, steal, and cheat. When wars break out. When people are used as slaves. We understand these harsh realities because the word of God describes the causes and development of sin—and our understanding is our “theology.” This understanding does not come from looking up the word sin online. Rather, as we read all of Scripture as a lifestyle, we discover and synthesize thousands of places where “sin” is described as transgression, stumbling, iniquity, wandering, crookedness, trespass, impiety, lawlessness, injustice, and more. The Psalms talk about brokenness. Jesus teaches about blindness. Revelation points to evil. Read Scripture as a lifestyle and you lose your naiveté—and that is a good thing.
Maturity is all about synthesis—putting together what you learned years ago, with what you learned months ago, with what you learned today. You see patterns of life. Lessons that are cumulative. So it is with refining a biblical theology. The most important thing we do is read Scripture regularly, widely (not just the parts we like), and for a lifetime. Synthesis happens in our minds automatically. You read along and your mind is picking up bits and pieces of the truth about love, and righteousness, and temptation, and angels, and God, and a thousand other ideas. In the back of your mind, connections are forming. Every time you come back to a certain biblical book, you see things you never did before, but the connections get stronger. You understand Jeremiah’s “new covenant” because you recall the prior covenants with Abraham, Moses, and others, and you remember Jesus and the book of Hebrews’ teaching about the “new covenant.” And so it is with hundreds of other big ideas.
So the main commitment we need to make for the big payoff of gaining a substantial “belief system” is the faithful and thoughtful reading of all of Scripture. The synthesis will happen in our minds. But to ensure that we are reading with understanding and effect, we need to read with concentration. Taking notes is extremely helpful. Just have pen and paper nearby when you read. Note a verse that strikes you, a question that comes to mind, a connection or contrast with another passage, something you want to remember, a thought you want to tell someone else. Do that as a lifestyle and the synthesis will go deeper. Review your notes months later, and you will make connections that are just waiting to happen.
Truth is too good to be viewed as a list. The word of God offers a faithful description of reality. The difference between a flourishing and a failing life frequently hinges on where we have made the effort to discover and live in reality. This is why we want to understand Scripture.