Truth be told, we all fall back on emotional reactions, good and bad learned behaviors, and even our sinful instincts. The Apostle Paul instructs us in Rom. 12: 1-2 to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That passage is rich in meaning and has many applications. I simply want to suggest here that one part of renewing our minds is learning to think theologically. What does that mean?
Thinking theologically is thinking Biblically, but it is also much more. Why don’t I just say “think Biblically”? Well, thinking theologically certainly starts with the word of God. We have to study it and know it. However, thinking theologically is more than just quoting a chapter and verse for every situation. Sometimes that’s possible and the right thing to do. Jesus did it during the wilderness temptation when confronting the devil. There are many times and issues in life that require more than just chapter and verse. It requires knowing the word well enough to “pull together” the stories, the principles, the commands, and the intent of God expressed in multiple passages into a “theology” that will address a life issue.
For example, there is no chapter and verse that deals specifically with pollution. However, a theology of the environment can be developed based on a multitude of passages related to creation, stewardship, and continuity of this world with the new heaven and new earth. The same applies to drug use, abortion, and gay marriage. There are no passages that speak specifically to these (at least in modern terminology), but there are plenty of passages that allow for those issues to be addressed theologically using the entire Bible.
Obviously, every theology or theological system must stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture. The point is that looking for a Biblical address to throw at every issue can lead to frustration. It may take applying multiple Biblical addresses to properly speak to a life concern. This is thinking theologically.
Thinking theologically is thinking for yourself, but not by yourself. Thinking theologically begins with you and your Bible – thinking Biblically. It must also include the church, the community of faith, taking into account both historical and contemporary readings . The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means that every believer has direct access to God through Jesus Christ and that he or she is able to read and understand the Bible for him or herself. Having said that, we need to remember that we are still fallen creatures and need the body of Christ for mutual accountability, admonishment, and correction. If my interpretation of Scripture – if my theological thinking – is running counter to the Body, then I just might need to start over. This does not mean the majority is always right – Martin Luther demonstrated that fallacy. However, we need to think theologically in and with the presence of fellow believers. This is part of iron sharpening iron.
Thinking theologically is applicable to all of life, but is more than pat answers. Thinking theologically is not just for Sundays or for church related matters. It relates to all of life, from marriage and family to work and play to government, civic life, and all life’s moral and ethical issues. Again, this does not mean there is a chapter and verse that can be tacked on to the question of “what car should I buy?” There are, however, plenty of passages and principles about stewardship that do apply. Therefore, thinking theologically does not mean we should give pat answers to every question. That is sometimes the least Biblical and the laziest way to think.
To the contrary, thinking theologically sometimes means agonizing over a question or an issue in life. It sometimes means saying we don’t know and don’t have the complete answer. It sometimes means equally godly believers will arrive at different conclusions and answers. The presupposition to theological thinking has to be, however, that it addresses all aspects of life.
Thinking theologically is a matter of faith, but also much more. We have to believe that Scripture does have the answer, even if we can’t see it right now. We have to believe that God is in control, even if we don’t see the evidence right away. Thinking theologically is a matter of faith. It is, however, more. To borrow from a medieval theologian, it is “faith seeking understanding.” That is, our thinking is grounded in Scripture, it is grounded in faith, but it also employs our God given reason, our observations about life, our personal experiences, our relationships with others, and God’s own general revelation in his creation. We use all of these to think theologically, but all are subservient to the revelation of God in Scripture. Thinking theologically employs all that we are and all the faculties God has given us.
Thinking theologically is confident, but stays humble. Thinking theologically springs from and leads to confidence, but is always wrapped in a humble spirit. We can know the Absolute One and his truth sufficiently and correctly, but cannot know exhaustively, perfectly, or absolutely. For example, we can know and say with certainty and correctly that God is love and that God is holy. We must remain humble because we are unable to describe perfectly and exhaustively that love and holiness. Bottom line, we can know enough to speak Biblical truth with certainty, but we stay humble because we are fallen and our sinfulness, our culture, and our own experience get in the way.
I have certainly not covered every aspect of thinking theologically – there is much more. What I desire for myself, and what I encourage you to do, is to work daily at developing the skill of theological thinking. No, this does not mean you become a holy-roller, a know-it-all, or pick up a bunch of churchy language. It simply means you seek to understand and apply the whole counsel of God to the whole of life.
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