Birds fly, fish swim, and Christians read. The necessity of Scripture reading as a spiritual discipline for Christians is an accepted and uncontroversial position, so I don’t anticipate any push back on that point. What I would like to suggest however is that, today, alongside Scripture reading, theological reading is one of the most important disciplines a Christian can practice in their life. Theological reading should not be viewed as an optional accoutrement to the Christian life we can take or leave. Nor is it simply a discipline reserved exclusively for seminarians and elites. Rather, it is a discipline all able Christians should be actively pursuing as a means of deepening their understanding of and fellowship with God, as well as a means for building up the body of Christ.
To be clear, by “theological reading”, I mean the reading of (or listening to) books, sermons, articles, or any other materials written from a Christian perspective, addressing the subject of the Bible and any doctrines related thereto. From thousand-page tomes exhaustively treating the doctrine of God to fifty-page pamphlets dealing with a Christian view of money; even 6-hour audiobooks about assurance played at 1.75x speed – it all counts. The impediment we face – particularly in our modern context – is not the ease of access we have to these resources, but the intellectual sloth which has ensnared our culture, resulting in an atrophied attention span unable to think hard or read long. When we neglect this discipline, we rob ourselves and each other of the blessing God has in store for us, for, theological works, which conform to “the pattern of sound words” found in Scripture, are a powerful means of grace which God has given to the church for her growth in knowledge and maturity (2 Tim 1:13). Let’s explore how we can know this to be the case.
God’s Method of Communication
Teleology is a word typically associated with apologetics seeking to prove evidence for God from the apparent design in the universe. However, examining God’s teleology from His creative acts and providence is also something we see in Scriptures – where writers see what God has done and extrapolate meaning and intent from them. In 1 Timothy 2:11, Paul puts forth his doctrine regarding gender and teaching roles. He makes it clear here that, particularly in the context of the church, women are not to teach or exercise authority over men. Interestingly, he does not justify this instruction based on a new revelation from God, but from God’s teleology in the created order: “Adam was first created, and then Eve” (1 Tim 2:13). Paul understood that there is no randomness in God’s creative acts or decisions, but there is actual purpose and intention in them whereby He teaches us His will. When we examine God’s creative act of revelation, we can see something instructive for us also: God wants us to read.
Consider the place God has assigned to reading in His providence. In history we see that typically God speaks directly to or through prophets, and then either commands the words to be written down or ensures providentially that His words are recorded. In some instances, God even writes His words down Himself (Ex 31:18)! If God had so desired, He could easily, without impediment to or diminishment of His ability and strength, directly reveal Himself to every single person uniquely, and instruct them personally every minute of every day simultaneously. This is not how He has chosen to act, however. God has not chosen to preserve for us any audio of His revelations, the melodies of the Psalms, or even the exact pronunciation of words. He has instead preserved written texts for us. 2 Timothy 3:16 declares that “All Scripture (graphē) is inspired by God”. That is, the actual written document is what is breathed-out by Him. This demonstrates that reading is the normative means by which He intends us to learn from and hear Him.
God’s Design for Our Equipping
Alongside reading the exact words of His written revelation, God has assigned the teaching and preaching of the Scriptures as of equal importance to our understanding. In the very place we see that God inspired the actual graphē, we also see that it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”. We see this very thing patterned in Nehemiah 8:1-8 where Ezra the priest read “the book of the Law of Moses” to the assembled Israelites, and, along with him, the Levites “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” In Luke 24:27, Jesus encountered some disciples on the road to Emmaus, who, though familiar with the Scriptures, lacked understanding into what they taught. Jesus’ response is that “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Note that Jesus did not simply read to them the text, but He explained to them the meaning of the text. Again, we see in Acts 8:27-35 the account of Phillip’s encounter with the Ethiopian. Phillip finds the Ethiopian in his chariot reading aloud from the book of Isaiah, and asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Interestingly the Ethiopian humbly confesses, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” So, Phillip, “beginning from this Scripture…preached Jesus to him.” This is the established pattern: the meaning of the inspired text is to be faithfully taught and expounded.
This is not just a practice of God’s people throughout history, but the explicit purpose of God in the organization of His church. In Ephesians 4:11-13 we read,
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
That’s one mouthful of a sentence! For our purpose we want to focus on the fact that the perpetual offices God installed in His church are the teaching and shepherding roles. This is not just superfluous hierarchy at play, but offices explicitly designed to equip the saints for works of service. God wants you to learn and be taught by the pastors and teachers which He gave to the church.
God’s Provision in History
This brings us to the importance of theological reading as a discipline for the Christian life. In the two thousand years since He established the church, God has given her an embarrassment of riches in the form of faithful pastors and teachers, whether by publication, or, in the modern era, audio recording. That’s two thousand years of Scriptures explained, controversies abated, heresies refuted, doctrines proved, encouragements issued, godly living expounded, and the Christian faith established, all for the equipping of the saints so that we might attain unity in faith and knowledge! When you take in theological works, you are sitting at the feet of these teachers; you are the disciples on the road to Emmaus; you are the Ethiopian in his chariot. Just as the “sincere faith” which dwelt in Timothy first dwelt in his grandmother and mother, and became his through the means of their faithfully teaching him the “sacred writings” (1 Tim 2:5; 2 Tim 3:15), so God intends each successive generation of the church to receive their inheritance from those who have gone before them.
Individualism, on the other hand, is the enemy of the church. Christ did not save us unto ourselves; He saved us to make us His united body. Therefore, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rm 12:5). There is therefore no room for “lone wolfs” in the church – not in fellowship, and certainly not in theology. Those who seek to ignore the narrow path traversed by those who journeyed before us will find themselves with Pilgrim, lost in By-Path Meadow, or more likely alongside Vain-confidence, who, “not seeing the way before him, fell into a deep pit”. Instead, let us “look to the rock from which [we] were hewn” (in this case, our theological forebearers) so that we may “stand firm and hold to the traditions which [we] were taught” (Is 51:1; 2 Thes 2:15).
God’s Approved Method for Growth
It should be apparent by now that God has not designed us to be theological silos. Individually we lack the ability to – in a vacuum – construct and synthesize a faithful theology and understanding of the Scriptures for ourselves. The question is not whether you will be a theologian – assuredly, if you have any beliefs or opinions about God and the Scriptures, then you already are one; the question is what kind of a theologian will you be? Will you be a theologian who, through faithful study, honors God by thinking His thoughts after Him, or will you be a theologian who, through presumptions and laziness, exchanges “the glory of the incorruptible God for an imagine in the form of corruptible man” (Rom 1:23)? If you opt for the former, I assure you, you cannot do this alone.
Kuyper provides great insight into this when he says:
There is, to be sure, a theological illusion abroad…which conveys the impression that, with the Holy Scripture in hand, one can independently construct his theology…Isolated investigation can never furnish what can only be the result of the cooperation and mental effort of all. Actually, therefore, this illusion is a denial of the historic and the organic character of the study of theology, and for this reason it is inwardly untrue. No theologian, following the direction of his own compass, would ever have found by himself what he now confesses and defends on the ground of the Holy Scripture. By far the largest part of his results is adopted by him from theological tradition, and even the proofs, which he cites from the Scripture, at least as a rule, have not been discovered by himself, but have been suggested to him by his predecessors.
This echoes exactly what we read earlier about how God designed the church to flourish as a united body, and not as individuals separated from one another. Paul confirms this as well when he says that Christ “causes the growth of the body” through the function of “the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies” by “the proper working of each individual part” (Eph 4:16). When we engage in theological reading, rather than isolated introspection, we demonstrate our dependence on one another for growth and edification.
God’s Goal for Theological Reading
We have seen now how God has chosen to communicate to us through the medium of texts which He desires us to read; We have seen how He intends His Scriptures to be faithfully taught to the church, and that He has given gifted teachers to execute this task for her equipping. Finally, we have seen that our maturity as theologians can only happen within the context of the church and her rich, historical body of thought and teaching. Therefore, we should be eager to cultivate the discipline of theological reading in our lives. Theological reading, however, cannot be viewed simply as an individual discipline for the building up of oneself. After all, “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Cor 8:1). Rather, it should be viewed as a means by which you fulfill the command to love your neighbor and brother.
Paul stresses the interdependence between each member of the body of Christ when he says, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Thus, the faithfulness which you employ in this type of learning will not only deepen your understanding of God and help you to form a theological framework by which you can understand the Scriptures with greater cohesion and clarity, but as you are strengthened in this, so will the body of Christ be strengthened with you. As you are equipped, so will the body of Christ be. When you can come alongside fellow believers and accurately teach, admonish, exhort, and rebuke, Christ’s body is built up. Conversely, if, for lack of effort, you are unable to answer important questions, encourage with sound words, or defend fundamental doctrines, the body suffers. The ability to fulfill these needs in the body will not spontaneously arise in you ex nihilo, but will be cultivated and formed through the discipline of theological reading.
Ultimately, this discipline will enable you to carry out your call to love in every calling and vocation God has providentially placed you in. As a father or mother, you will be equipped to bring up your children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). As a husband, you will be competent to teach and shepherd your wife (1 Cor 14:35). As believers among skeptics, you will always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15). Theological reading will even give you practical instructions on how to live the Christian life, so that as citizens in a pagan world, the testimony of your good deeds will cause them to glorify God (1 Pt 2:12). This discipline touches and informs every realm of our existence. By it the church is beautified, the world is admonished, and the Lord is glorified. Let us, therefore, resolve to secure theological reading as an essential discipline for our Christian life.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, (Suzeteo Enterprises, 2011), 91.
Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, trans. J. Hendrik De Vries (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 574-575.