1. Pray for an open mind and heart
While people can intellectually understand truth without the Holy Spirit moving miraculously 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.
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.
2. Be ready to change your life
If you are not ready to change your life and thought in your studies, stop right there. The Bible says that faith is a gift. If we don’t or are unwilling to steward the gifts that the Lord gives to us, then not only will God not give us any more, but even what we have will be taken away from us (Luke 8:18). It is a dangerous thing to sit at the feet of Jesus as a curious spectator with neutral wills concerning the wisdom given. If God told us not to cast our pearls before swine how much more will he retain what is his when he notices a casual handling of his word. Every time we enter in to the presence of God’s truth being discharged, we must be willing to carry it. If not, run with me away from such. How much more dangerous to become callous to obedience than to not hear God’s will at all?
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.
3. Recognize your bias
I remember one of my first classes with Dr. John Hannah, historic theology professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. As he introduced the subject of the course he said something like this: “We are going to teach you so many wonderful things from the history of the church. You are going to enter in to the world of the greatest most godly men of all time. But in the end, you are just going to believe what mommy and daddy told you when you were a kid.” There is a lot of truth to this. From a human standpoint, you are already biased and you need to realize this. Your history, experience, culture, “mommy and daddy”, 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 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 openness to change. This is integrity.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.
4. Get a broad overview of the topic
This is the telescope before the microscope axiom. Don’t begin with the particulars. 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 a more 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. I often find people who are incredibly well versed in the particulars, but fail to see how these particulars fit into the big picture. I love how Stephen in Acts 7 gave an overview of the history of the Jewish people in five minutes. Can you do that with church history? Can you do that with the message of the Bible? Can you do that with the message of an individual book of the Bible?
(Note: This is not “biblical” theologies such as A Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)
5. 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, frankly, the epitome of theological arrogance.
The History of Christian Doctrines (best concise overview)
The Christian Tradition Vol 1-5 (the most extensive history of doctrine available)
6. 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 main points of 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. Write them down.
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 ministry’s theological development curriculum which argues for each position in just about every area of theology with delicate balance)
7. 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.
8. 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. 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?)
9. Develop your studies in community
Francis Bacon said: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” This step forces you to articulate yourself by way of the pen. Write your thoughts. 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.
10. Take a position
Some people are in a hopeless spiral of always listening to something new. They get into this method of studying theology and remain forever agnostic. We sometimes call this “academic agnosticism.” This relates to number two. Don’t be scared to take a position. Yes, it will separate you from others who don’t share your conviction, but it is the ultimate purpose of your studies. While indecisiveness is often the best position you can take (and is taken precisely because you have studied the issue (“informed agnosticism”)), it is not always the best decision. Take a position and hold to it to the degree that your studies will allow.
11. Discover the relative importance of the issue
Just because you may have taken a position does not mean that you are to militantly hold this position. Some theological issues are more important than others and, therefore, require a greater level of commitment. The best way to discover the issues importance is to ask these four questions:
1. How important do the Scriptures make this issue?
2. How important is this issue in the history of the church?
3. How clear is the issue in the Scriptures?
4. How clear is the issue in the history of the church?
12. Start all over