From Theology to Doxology
Words By Hunter Beless
I’ve never considered myself much of a theologian. Theologians are the type who attend seminary, are employed by churches, and, generally speaking, have beards. No, I’m far from a theologian. I’m a twenty-something woman with a college degree that I don’t use. A theologian’s day is devoted to study and debate and casually sprinkling words like “eschatology” or “hermeneutics” into conversations. My days consist of wiping bottoms, folding laundry, and chatting with my girlfriends via Voxer. Theologians are supposed to spend hours in meditative study of God’s Word, while “quiet times” for me are anything but quiet. My most referenced text is not Matthew Henry’s commentary, but instead The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones. By my working definition of what a theologian is supposed to look like, I hardly fit the bill. However, a careful study of the word “theology” suggests otherwise:
Theo: Relating to God
Ology: A subject of study; a branch of knowledge
Simply put, theology is the study of God. In order to study God, we have to discover him through the means he’s given us. Scripture tells us that we can see God through all of creation (Rom. 1:19–20), and that faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). The study of God’s Word is key to knowing him. Yet in my self-centeredness I read it to see what it says about me, instead of reading it to see what it says about God. But when you study with the end in mind, you will retain the entirety of the matter, as opposed to objectively ingesting a series of facts, which are fragmented and stand alone. This is what leads to Scripture being misinterpreted, taken out of context, and isolated—but it sure looks good on a coffee mug!
For example, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Ex. 14:14).
Have you heard people use this verse to justify their actions (or lack thereof)? Remember with me, in Exodus 14 Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, but again Pharaoh changed his mind and chased after them. The Israelites trembled in their sandals, saying they shouldn’t have left! Moses basically said (my paraphrase), “Hush it! God will fight for you! Just watch!” He wasn’t offering a blanket “how-to” for Christians dealing with opponents (though this is a common misinterpretation). In fact, directly after Moses says this, God responds, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward” (Ex. 14:15). Furthermore, in the New Testament we’re taught to actually give an account instead of remaining silent in the face of opposition (Matt. 10:19–20, Acts 18:8, Eph. 6:19–20, Col. 4:3–4, etc.). And yet, why do believers frequently use this verse and many others like it for their own agenda?
It happens when we fail to study Scripture:
- Prayerfully and Patiently
When you pick up a novel at the library, what’s the first thing you do? You might read the back cover, the book jacket, or the foreword nestled within the first few pages. Bolder readers may jump directly into the text, but even then one wouldn’t leap to the end of the book and be able to grasp the storyline. Instead, while reading the first few pages we’re asking questions like: who, what, where, when, why, and how is the story taking place? The same is true for our study of Scripture. Establishing the message intended for the original hearers sets the framework for our own personal application of the text. In order to really understand the context we must consider the history of the book, take note of repeated words and phrases, consider the time and location in which it was written, and try our best to orient ourselves to what the original message would have meant for the original recipients. We could easily spend most of our time in Bible study doing this, which isn’t a bad thing, because observation lays the foundation for good interpretation.
The goal of reading contextually is to slow us down as we read, so we don't miss important elements of the message we're seeking to uncover. This is where using the whole story of the Bible—the metanarrative, or overarching storyline of Scripture—comes in. We can use other parts of the Bible to better understand what we're reading. The fancy term for this is cross-referencing. If you have a study Bible, cross-references are usually found in the margins next to the verse. You can also compare translations to get a better feel for what's being communicated. Only after cross-referencing and comparing translations should we seek answers from footnotes and commentaries from reliable sources. Again, the question we're seeking to answer is, "What is the message of the text?”
Narcissism. This is my biggest struggle in Bible study. I almost always want to uncover what the text means for me before understanding what it says about God and humanity. Just as reading with the context in mind sets the foundation for understanding the message of the passage, approaching the Word with humility helps us make wise application. Once we seek to understand the original message intended for its original audience, we can begin asking the question that hits at the heart of Bible study: "What should I do in response to what I've read?" This involves acting in light of the truths we’ve uncovered in our study.
As a thinker, I can easily allow my study to be motivated by loving the Lord my God with all of my mind, while entirely neglecting my heart. It's important to remember that our goal isn't just to gain information, but to experience true heart transformation. Whatever method of Bible study we use, we must seek to know God both personally and intimately through his Word. Our minds are renewed by the knowledge of God, and our reverence of him increases in proportion to our knowledge of him. For some, this might be frightening, as we will become even more aware of our insufficiency and our need for Christ. But reading with the context in mind we know that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:6–11).
Prayerfully and Patiently
In our quest to know God, interruptions and frustration will inevitably ensue. In fact, I think the enemy will do his very best to throw them your way. When you feel like you’re doing everything you can to protect the time you need to study, and yet you’re interrupted, ask him for time. When you feel distracted, pray and ask for focus. When you don't understand what you're reading, ask him for eyes to see. When you do understand, bless him for revelation! Ask for help to act in light of the truths he's revealing through his Word. If you’re feeling overwhelmed even as you read this I encourage you to confess, repent, and ask for God’s help right now. Through patient study and prayer, the Spirit will lead you to see and adore our God—this is worship! Knowing more of who God is helps us understand who we are in light of him, and our need for his son Jesus. This beautifully and organically leads us to worship God and to bend our hearts in submission to his will for our lives. Good theology leads us into good doxology, or praise to God. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” especially the gift of his Word.
Questions for personal reflection:
- Do you find yourself jumping to personal application before understanding the context of a verse?
- Do you allow your study to be motivated by loving the Lord your God with all of your mind, yet neglect your heart (or vice versa)?
- Do you muscle your way through Bible study instead of asking the Spirit for his help?
- Do you consider yourself a theologian? If not, why? What obstacles are holding you back?