1. Pray for an open mind and heart
While people can intellectually understand truth without the Holy Spirit moving in their heart, no one can accept the truth without his influence (1Cor 2:14-15). The same goes for us as Christians. We may study and have all the information in the world—even the right information—but this does not mean that we are going to be capable of accepting the truth. In other words, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding is meaningless without the power of God to trade your will for his. Pray that God will open your eyes to see and accept the truth.
2. Recognize your bias
From a human standpoint, you are already biased and you need to realize this. Your history, experience, culture, and personality are already present. These have bent you in one way or another. You are always going to fight to keep your bent as it is the place where you feel the most comfort. As my seminary professor John Hannah used to say (tongue-in-cheek), “I am going to teach you many wonderful things about theology and history. However, that does not matter since you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy taught you anyway.” As well, you have “preunderstandings” that effect your views. Previous commitments will cause you to interpret the data through an already constructed lens. The goal is not to get rid of all bias (as this is impossible), but to evaluate information with an understanding that these things exist and are affecting your judgment. It will temper you and allow you to approach things with more integrity.
3. Get a broad overview of the topic
Don’t get into the particulars of the issue yet. You must first get a broad overview of the topic at hand. This is looking at the forest before the trees and is absolutely essential to thoroughly cover before you get into the particulars. Read books and articles that give summaries and overviews, not ones that argue for the particular position. These types of overviews should give you an unbiased look at the spectrum of belief, without arguing for any particular position. Theoretically, theological dictionaries and encyclopedias should be able to do this. Cover this well. You cannot spend too much time getting a basic familiarity with the topic.
Logos Bible Software has many resources for this
(Note: This is not “biblical” theologies such as A Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)
4. Study the history of the issue
This is a crucial step that focuses a bit, but not too far yet. Here you will look at the issue through the lens of history. The goal here is to broaden your perspective and draw upon the historic body of Christ. This will prevent you from “reinventing the wheel” in your studies. We stand on the shoulders of giants. This step encourages you to step down off their shoulders and look at the ladder they have built. This is an issue of submission, respect, and humility. To bypass this step is to fail to draw upon the Spirit’s work in the church for the last two-thousand years and is arrogant.
The History of Christian Doctrines (best concise overview)
The Christian Tradition Vol 1-5 (the most extensive history of doctrine available)
5. Study the issue “across the spectrum”
Now it is time to begin to get into the various arguments for representative positions. It is best to see a concise overview of the arguments rather than reading full-length books devoted to one position or another. This type of study will list the pros and cons for each. It is good to keep a set of notes that highlights the arguments. Here you will begin to strategically articulate your own questions about the issue. Take note of the arguments you feel are strong and those that you feel are weak.
Across the Spectrum (very concise and a must have. BTW: I am writing one of these that will be very comprehensive. Hopefully it will be out in the next year or two)
The Theology Program (Our ministrie’s theological development curriculum which argues for each position in just about every area of theology with delicate balance)
Any “across the spectrum” type series such as Zondervan’s “Counterpoints” and B&H’s “Perspectives” series
6. Engage in an interactive theological community
This is one of the great advantages of studying in a world with the internet. You can instantly connect to millions of people who are not part of your immediate community. During your studies so far, you are engaging in the issue in a rather static way. This step causes you to engage real people on every side of every issue. Here, you will devote yourself to asking questions, listening to answers, and integrating your systematic theology in a dynamic way which helps you to shape your understanding as iron sharpens iron. Whether it be an online community forum or emailing a professor, pastor, or theologian about the issue, here you are intent on refinement of your understanding. It is best to engage many people who are different in their beliefs, as well as different from the ones that you are leaning toward. You need to hear answers “from the horses mouth.” For example, when preparing The Theology Program over a five year period, I needed to engage Catholic belief quite a bit. Besides reading books on Roman Catholicism, I was on the Catholic Answers forum for two years, asking questions and making sure I understood things accurately. This community was able to answer questions and give me what they believed to be the best resources for their positions, which was immensely valuable for the next step.
Theologica Online Theological Community (although an Evangelical site—since I started it—Theologica represents a diverse range of Christian beliefs)
Various blogs and communities devoted to particular traditions and position
7. Focus your studies
Now you are prepared to read and study, engaging in the “best-of” for each theological position. Here you will read books and find study materials that are focused on understanding and defending individual positions. For example, if you were studying the issue of predestination, you will be prepared, because of step six, to find and study with those who influence the particular position the most, both historic and contemporary. This, again, is a time to refine and systematize your own thoughts on the subject.
(Sadly, this is the place that most people start. However, they already have their minds made up and only seek to confirm their prejudice by reading only those who agree with them. Don’t do this. It lacks integrity and does not honor the Lord. Who is to say where you started was right?)
Any book and/or scholars whom you have come to discover is relevant and respected in the area of study. (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries is working on a system of categorization of all the best scholars that are out there in every field, along with how to connect with them).
8. Develop your studies in community
Again, this is the great advantage of doing theology in the twenty-first century. You have a world-wide community and a broad spectrum of engagement available at any time. The best thing to do here is to start a community blog. Begin to articulate your position and open yourself up to the critique of others. Write a blog outlining your position and then ask others to give you feedback. This is not setting yourself up to debate your position, but it is a time to refine your position through articulation. Listen to the feedback of others in order to temper and ratify your thoughts. Lay out all of the reasons for your beliefs on the issue, positive, negative, or neutral. By assuming the possibility of a “neutral” position, I am assuming that some issues you will not have a definite stance on. This indecisiveness is often the best position you can take and is taken precisely because you have studied the issue (informed agnosticism). But you still need to articulate the reasons for your neutrality.
Remember, as Francis Bacon said, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Write your thoughts.
WordPress, Blogspot, and other blog platforms (the only disadvantage here is that your blog can immediately get lost in the millions of blogs that are out there. While you will refine your beliefs through articulation—which is absolutely necessary—you will most likely fail to gain a readership too quickly unless very, very intentional)
Theologica Community (here, there is a place to start your own blog that will be immediately viewed by many people)
9. Start all over
All the time: It is assumed that you will be engaging in biblical studies (and other primary resource materials) during this entire process. You are not only to be reading the Scriptures continually, but cross-referencing everything you study with relevant passages using a proper model of historical-grammatical interpretation (another post!)