We all believe something about God, no matter how we define or describe it. Even atheists and agnostics have a form of theology—one doesn’t believe God exists and the other is unsure or indifferent. It’s still a belief about God.
Many types of theology exist. Some theology is complex. It requires a PhD to know authoritatively. But most people have a much simpler theology based on their personal experience with spiritual truth. Theologians categorize Christian theology in various ways.
The most common one is systematic theology. It’s a system of beliefs, but often with an embedded viewpoint. Systematic theology sets out to be objective, but the starting point is often based on a certain belief system, such as—Evangelical, Reformed, Pentecostal, or Roman Catholic perspectives.
Another major area of Christian theology is Biblical theology. It’s based on what is revealed from the written Scriptures and is, I believe, more likely to bear the original intent of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (2 Tim 3:16). Of course, Biblical theology can be both objective or subjective depending on how it’s approached. If we apply an objective approach to exegesis, such as inductive study—a basic applied exegesis, the theology gained should be more objective, systematic, and trustworthy.
A cultural theology is also common for many believers. This tends to be highly subjective and personal. In other words, it’s distinctively not objective. One example of an American version of this became known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Unless you’re a seminary grad or highly motivated Bible student, most Christians believe what they’re told or taught by influential leaders in their lives. These would include pastors, evangelists, and popular speakers and authors. It’s easy to be swayed by the opinions and biases of others unless you develop an objective and systematic approach to studying the Bible.
Paul the apostle’s exhortation to the young leader Timothy reflects this—
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
This is the value of an approach like Inductive Bible Study (IBS). The IBS approach employs three primary steps to study a Bible text—observation, interpretation, and application.
One question I think we all need to answer is this—How does our theology define us, or do we define our theology? A follow-up question is—How have we developed our personal theology?
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all developed our own theology. It develops over time as we learn and internalize truth as we understand it. That’s the key thing. How do we understand it? It comes down to whether we have a belief-based or relationship-based theology. What’s the difference? One is grounded in certain beliefs but often leads to dogmatism. The other is grounded in relationship but based on the truth revealed by God’s Spirit (see John 14:26 and 2 Tim 3:16-17).
When dogmatism is the basis of a person’s spiritual assurance, a person’s faith can fragment if something undermines their belief. When our theology is relationship-based, it grows out of an abiding, continuing relationship with Jesus and His word abiding in us (John 15:5, 7-8).
Understanding spiritual truth requires spiritual discernment (1 Cor 2:10-14). I know this from experience. As mentioned in my first book, I read the Bible every day for about two years before I began to understand it. My openness to God was the key, not the time I spent reading. When I opened my heart to the Lord, He opened my eyes to understand the truth in His word (the Bible).
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:10, 14)
So, how can we develop a sound theology and a true understanding of God? A rule of thumb that’s helped me is found in John’s gospel, where Jesus rebukes some Jewish religious leaders—
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. (John 5:39)
Studying the Bible ought to deepen our relationship with Jesus. If we only gain more biblical knowledge, then we become more like the Pharisees than Jesus’ disciples.
Finally, everyone needs to be careful about how they interpret the Bible. It isn’t just how it suits one person or another, nor how it should be understood from a certain religious viewpoint. It needs to be consistent and congruent with what the author of the Scriptures intended. The author is God via the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Peter reminds us—
No prophecy in Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. No prophecy ever originated from humans. Instead, it was given by the Holy Spirit as humans spoke under God’s direction. 2 Peter 1:20-21 (GW)
Here are 3 things I want to challenge you to do—
- Review your own life as a believer in Jesus—What stands out as most important and why?
- Who is the most influential spiritual leader in your life so far? Why?
- What’s been most helpful to you in your pursuit to know God?