Resolved: Learn More Doctrine
I don’t know exactly why, but the days at the end of December often feel a bit slower than the rest of the year. Perhaps time attempts to atone for rushing us through the rest of the year. In any case, this slow feeling creates space for reflection and planning. Reflection on what filled the prior year, and planning for what will come in the new year.
Personally, setting New Year’s resolutions isn’t part of my normal routine. In part, I think this is because my family never seemed to emphasize resolution making. Instead, I generally take up resolution making as I see the need for it. Might as well strike while the iron is hot. One of those resolutions for me right now is to dig deeper into my own theological tradition. Ultimately, of course, the goal is to develop a better understanding of what Scripture actually says about who God is, who I am, and how I ought to live in light of these revelations.
In a rare, unequivocal statement, I would suggest that this resolution (to gain a greater understanding of the Scripture) ought to be one of your resolutions, whenever you choose to make them. Knowing who your king is and what he commands of you is imperative to your Christian walk. That being said, there are practically limitless options available for your further study (just look at the variety of topics tackled by our authors). How do you decide where to study? This is where I hope to shed a bit of light. For some, it might be needlessly redundant. However, I’m convinced that for many of you the information will at least be a helpful reminder.
Our first step is to ask what questions are already running in the back of our minds? Questions always provide an excellent starting point for exploration. They highlight the gaps in our understanding and give us a set of starting points for new adventures. For ease of reference, you might consider following the lead of Senior Editor, Benjamin Winter. He has a running document of the various questions for which he would like to find answers. Whether you have the questions listed somewhere or keep a mental tally, reviewing them will set you up for the next set of analyses.
After identifying the questions you are already pondering, ask which deal with substantive vs. peripheral issues. Because our goal is to understand who God is and how he wants us to live, questions that deal with key issues of the faith have a high priority. At the same time, we are not robots, so there isn’t a set progression of questions through which we must work. This means that you’ll also want to consider which questions are personally important or pressing. This would include the questions that you find particularly troubling or puzzling, as well as the questions that those around you are asking. Between these two criteria (substantive and pressing) you should be able to identify a particular question/issue that will help you to become a better Christ follower in a significant way.
Armed with a topic to study, we should start asking how our tradition addresses the issue. You currently follow a particular denomination for a particular reason. You or someone close to you took time to look into how various denominations interpret the Scripture and then intentionally aligned yourself with the one which best reflected your understanding of Scripture. This work should not be tossed away lightly. Better by far to start from the solid location of a theological system you have already worked through than to cast your net wide and picking up who knows what ideas.
For some issues, that will be the extent of our hunting. Understanding how to answer a question from your theological framework is often all that you need, in which case it’s time to repeat the cycle and pick a new question. For other issues though, we’ll want a fuller understanding. In this case, our next step will be to see how other traditions grapple with the issue we are studying. In some cases, you’ll find that they have a better answer for the issue. In the other cases, you’ll have a better understanding of why a different answer is more satisfying. When we talk about a “better answer” we presuppose a standard by which to judge the answers we receive. This standard is the Scripture. All of our study, in and of any tradition, includes looking back to Scripture for a confirmation of what others have said.
Outside of the organizational scheme outlined above, there are a few other things to keep in mind. First, this is not the only method for prioritizing questions. I did not lay out this thought process to provide the definitive word on how to study. Rather, I wanted to provide direction for those without a practical plan for breaking down their study goals. If it helps, use it. If you already have a plan that works well for you, keep with it. Second, and more importantly, don’t let your studies take up all your Scripture reading time. Like any other book, you interpret individual Scripture passages in the context of the rest of the book. Practically speaking, this means that you ought to regularly read all of Scripture to have the context needed to interpret the answers to your specific questions. General reading and specific study go hand in hand. Finally, study is best accompanied by prayer. God isn’t a series of propositions1, he’s a person. As such, our study isn’t primarily about playing in a linguistic jungle gym, but the process of communicating with our king and father. And communication requires talking as well as listening.
I don’t know whether setting new resolutions at this time of year is part of your routine already, but it definitely serves as a good time to step back and evaluate how you want to understand God better in the near future. Hopefully this flow of thought helps both to remind us of the ultimate goal of our studying, and to provide direction for how to best accomplish that goal.
What are some of the questions that you would like to answer in the new year?
What are resources that you have found to be good study aides in the past?
Photo Courtesy of Jon Ottosson