In this short, practical article, Anita Lovell encourages us to think theologically and shows us how to do so. It's a timely reminder at this time of the year as many of us are organising our calendars, setting ministry priorities, and preparing for a year of Bible study in various forms.
What does it mean to think theologically? Thinking theologically means seeing all things through the lens of what we know of God from his word. It involves focusing our mind on studying God, and letting that understanding shape how we think. As we do that, we love God with our mind as well as with our heart and soul.
But thinking theologically is not an end in and of itself. It fits within the context of people coming to know Jesus, maturing in their knowledge of him, and becoming more and more like him, so that on the last day there are people from every nation, tribe, people and language bowing before Jesus and declaring his praises. Revelation 7:9-17 says:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no-one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know”. And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
In this passage John pulls back the curtain on the heavenly reality. This scene is the culmination of all of history. It is the goal that God, humanity, and the universe we live in are heading towards. God’s agenda is that people come to know, trust, submit to and praise his Son. This ‘end goal’ guides and motivates us in helping women to think theologically here and now.
Keeping the end goal in mind, it is no surprise that reading the Bible is key in helping us to think theologically. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that:
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.
The Bible is God speaking to us. As people read his word, lives are changed to be more like Jesus and to declare his praises.
Further, God’s word achieves his purposes. Isaiah 55:10-11 says:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Wherever it lands, God’s word bears fruit for his end goal.
1. Read the Bible
Think about the opportunities you have to set an example to, influence or teach women. How centred are those times on reading God’s word? Often we get caught up thinking about what courses or Christian books we want to study, but our first priority needs to be letting God speak by his word. More than anything else, my sister in Christ needs to hear God speak by his word so that she can know him and how to bring glory to him with her mind, heart and soul.
2. Read the Bible… with an enquiring mind
When you read the Bible, read it with an enquiring mind. Be curious about what you are reading. Be childlike. Ask questions and search for answers in the passage itself. Model this to the women around you, and help them to be curious too.
Questions enable women to grow in their ability and confidence to interact with God’s word and let it shape their thinking. If you lead a Bible study you might write specific questions to draw out the truths of a passage, but there are many general questions that we can ask of any passage in the Bible. A classic example is this series of questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
After we have read the passage and searched for answers there, sometimes we need a reference book to fill in the blanks. The New Bible Dictionary is a great tool for providing a map, a definition, or an historical date. As you read the Bible with women, have the dictionary handy and model how to use it—not as a guide for studying the Bible, but as an extra help after having scrutinized the passage itself.
3. Read the Bible… with Jesus at the centre
As we read the Bible with an enquiring mind, we notice more and more that there is a message that unfolds throughout. It is a message of grace—God’s undeserved kindness to sinners that they might have a restored relationship with him. Understanding this message of salvation in Jesus is so important as we read the Bible. It is a key framework God gives us in order to think theologically.
To think theologically is to ask of any passage in the Bible, “Where does this fit in God’s plan?” Asking that question keeps Jesus at the centre and helps us to see that our needs, hopes, questions and desires actually fit within a bigger story about Jesus and the glory that is due him. God’s Big Picture: Tracing the storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts is a great resource for explaining this bigger story in a clear, memorable and useful way.
4. Read the Bible… with others
As you read the Bible with an enquiring mind and with Jesus at the centre, consider what others have had to say about it. Thinking theologically involves recognizing that I am not the first person to have ever read this particular Bible passage or thought about this particular question that has arisen from it. I read the Bible ‘with others’ when I take into account what other Christians have thought and written about over the past 2000 years.
There are so many resources, particularly in English, that help us to understand God’s word. Whether it be books, online sermons or theology courses, it is important that we are discerning in what we read. Sarie King points out that “if we’re not careful, not discerning, we become vulnerable to swallowing poor teaching; we quickly become taken in by ‘emotion over content’. What we might like to hear, rather than what we might need to hear.” She lists six questions to ask as we read Christian material:
- Is Scripture at its core?
- Does it teach sound doctrine?
- What do you know about the author?
- Is the book God-centred or man-centred?
- Is it teachable and useful?
- What does it say about women’s roles and biblical womanhood and disciple making?
In terms of reading the Bible with others, who are you keeping company with? Think about what types of Christian books and which Christian authors you are reading. What is your spiritual diet made up of? What recommendations are you making to the women around you? Please encourage women to read, and to study theology, but be discerning in what you recommend.
5. Read the Bible… prayerfully
Helping women to think theologically serves the end goal that there be women from every nation, tribe, people and language before Jesus’ throne on the last day—those who know the salvation of the Lord Jesus, those who have persevered despite persecution and pressure not to trust in him. We need to humbly pray for self-discipline in reading God’s word ourselves and with others, and we need to pray that we will trust God to change us and other women by it.
But don’t stop with just the women you know! Think of how you might pray for Christian women in other parts of the world, often with far fewer opportunities for theological education. As you pray for those women, consider whether you can share the gifts, training and opportunities God has given you with them too.
This article is an edited version of a talk Anita gave at the Equip women leaders conference in November 2015.
Anita Lovell lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with her husband, Adrian. They are CMS missionaries serving as the regional directors for MOCLAM in Bolivia. MOCLAM uses the material produced by Moore College External Studies to provide theological education to Spanish speakers around the world. In her free time, Anita enjoys making the most of Cochabamba's spring-like climate and sampling its culinary delights. Anita's favourite drink is ‘api’—a thick, sweet, purple corn drink, served hot in a glass.