Five Tips for Reading Theology

One goal of reading theology is to become more and more familiar with the various “conversations” that are happening in the Christian world, so that we might have a deeper grasp and understanding of the Christian faith. So I’ve come up with what I hope to be a helpful list of tips for those of you who might want to know how to be more effective in accomplishing this goal. This list isn’t (and could never be) exhaustive, but here are five randomly assembled tips for reading theology:

Read Broadly inside Your Tradition

Since theological reading is about familiarizing ourselves with the various conversations going on in the Christian world, it is important that we read quite broadly inside of our own theological traditions. Sometimes we tend to focus a bit too narrowly on one or two people, immersing ourselves in all of their books and sermons and materials. But this can lead us to having an incredibly narrow view of the faith since we are restricting ourselves to only one or two people.

Reading broadly inside our own tradition will help us gain a kind of mastery over that tradition. For example, in the Reformed tradition there is robust unity overall while at the same time there exists a rich and healthy amount of nuance and complexity. Thus every Reformed theologian seeks to safeguard the primacy of God’s grace over human activity in the work of redemption (unity), but various Reformed theologians explain this relationship a bit differently (nuance and complexity). Reading broadly inside the Reformed tradition, just as one example, will help us understand why a certain theologian has argued one way rather than another, thus enabling us to have a deeper understanding of the tradition as a whole.

Read Important Works outside Your Tradition

It’s also important for us to read works from outside of our own theological tradition. If we are to truly get a grasp on the conversations that are happening, we must listen to the voices which are speaking, and a lot of the speaking voices come from outside of our own traditions.

I’m not saying here that we should read just as many works outside of our own tradition as we do ones inside, but I do think we need to understand at least the basic arguments of those with whom we disagree. So if you’re an Arminian, you should read major works by Calvinists, and vice versa. If you’re a Protestant, you should read works by Roman Catholics, and vice versa. If you’re a continuationist or Pentecostal, you should read works by cessationists. We don’t have to read every single book that another tradition puts out, but we should be able to think of a few when a topic comes up.

Not only will reading outside of our own tradition enable us to more deeply understand the current conversations, but it should also give us more appreciation for other theological traditions. This will help promote unity and charity in the church. While we might continue our disagreements, at least we will have better categories for understanding why a particular tradition believes one thing and not another.

Read Christian Classics

My third tip is that we should read Christian classics. This is kind of a continuation from the second tip, but with an added emphasis on historical rather than contemporary works. The visible church has existed for 2,000 years, and we’ve got a rich history of biblical and theological reflection. Great thinkers such as Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Turretin, Owen, Edwards, and Bavinck ought to be read precisely because their thinking has shaped so much of our own (even if we don’t know it).

I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that we engage in “chronological snobbery” because we tend to think that newer is always better. But that’s not always the case. There are a great many Christian classics that will be helpful not only for understanding current conversations, but also for growing in Christian maturity and wisdom. Most of the great church thinkers of the past were pastor-theologians, actively engaged in the high-level philosophical and theological conversations of their day while at the same time stewarding and leading and caring for the souls of their flock. Perhaps reading Christian classics will help us retrieve the historic role of pastor-theologian for the contemporary church.

Read for Comprehension

I’m stealing this one from my lady, but we should also read for comprehension. This means that we read texts in order to try to understand what the author is saying on their own terms. We should not read primarily to find holes in their arguments, but rather we should read to understand the point the author is trying to make. Only after we have a clear grasp of what the author is saying can we then move toward analysis, critique, and perhaps even application.

The end result of this should be that we are able to represent the author’s arguments in a way that the author him- or herself would find appropriate. For example, if you’re an Arminian who’s read Calvinists for comprehension, you should be able to present various Calvinist distinctives (e.g., the “five points”) in a way that a Calvinist who was listening could say, “Yes, I agree with that. That is what we are saying.” And vice versa for any theological tradition.

Reading for comprehension will increase our understanding of, appreciation for, and charity toward other theological traditions. How quick are we to simply write off an entire tradition for “not believing like we do”? But perhaps if we had read anything from that tradition, we might come to know why it is that they don’t believe like we do. And again, our disagreements might remain, but at least we can have a better appreciation for why other traditions believe certain things.

Read Whole Books of the Bible

And finally, we should read through whole books of the Bible. American church culture is plagued with a kind of “verse of the day” mentality in which we reflect on verses without considering the surrounding context. The problem with this, of course, is that individual verses can seldom be understood apart from understanding something of the surrounding context. Books of the Bible generally contain an argument, a central point that the author is trying to make, and every single word, verse, paragraph, and section supports this point in one form or another.

So reading through whole books of the Bible will enable us to understand something of what that central point might be. It will help us think through the logical connections between words and verses and paragraphs, such that we now see the entire mosaic for what it is, rather than just focusing narrowly on one particular color. This in turn will help us understand more deeply the Christian faith in all of its rich nuance and complexity.

What do you think? Are there any other tips that you would add? And do you think I’ve explained these five tips well? Let me know!

Thanks for reading. Have a comment or question? Leave it below.

2 Comments

  1. Well written, excellent points. Without realizing it, this is largely what I’ve been doing on my own blog. The more sources, the merrier. I have two more, less known, names to add to the list of people to read. Albert Barnes was an 18th Century preacher and theologian who wrote a complete commentary of the Bible. In this commentary, he not only goes into the Word, but he does through the history and original languages. If you really want to delve into the subtext that people usually miss, you either study the works of people like him, or you learn how to speak, read and write Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Jonathan Edwards was a preacher in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the mid 1700’s. He wrote a great many sermons and homilies that were beautifully written and highly effective, but none were more effective than his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. It is said that when this sermon was delivered, people were so moved by the Holy Spirit that they were crying out during the sermon, begging to be have their sins forgiven. These two men have managed to influence some of my work, and I’m glad for it.

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  2. The emphasis on reading Christian classics and whole books of the Bible is great. When you study a full book of the Bible you properly understand the reoccurring messages of the book which cannot be found if you just study a few verses or a chapter.

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