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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Learn Theology Without Losing Your Soul, Part 2: Habits

Books on a shelf

In my previous post, I described the sort of virtues that we need to be good theologians: holiness, love, faith, and humility. I am convinced that what we are after is not merely a set of facts about God, but personal knowledge of him. To have that, we need pure hearts. The virtues I described do not appear accidentally. God forms them in us through habits. To be good theologians, we need good habits. That involves balancing the inner and outer life — time alone with God and time spent with his people. I will call these habits of solitude and habits of community. In total, I can think of five essential habits for a theologian.


Habits of Solitude

Prayer

All Christians must be praying people and theology students are no exception. Theologians need prayer especially because we need God's help to think and speak rightly about him. Reading, writing, and speaking should be prayerful exercises. Further, we ought to pray for forgiveness for anything untrue that we may say or think and for any impure motives we may have. We must also ask God for grace to give us the virtues listed above and many more.


But prayer is essential to the theologian for other reasons. Again, the knowledge we are after is not mere data. We are after personal knowledge — knowledge that must be communicated to us by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. If the God we theologize about is a deaf and mute object somewhere out there, he is no God at all. The God of the Bible hears his people. Of course, almost every Christian is going to say this, but how often do we speak of God without speaking to God? To do theology well, we must know God as our Father, Christ as our brother, and the Spirit as our advocate and comforter. When we pray, these ideas become a lived experience.


Meditation

By meditation, I don't mean the process of emptying our mind, but rather filling it with Scripture. This sort of meditation only happens with Scripture present. All Christians should be people of the book, but theologians especially. It is a sad thing that so often we find ourselves more excited to read other books than to read the Bible. Other books are wonderful and even necessary, but the Bible is the only one that we can call God's infallible Word. It is our teacher and the rule by which we measure all our thoughts and ideas. It is the source from which all good doctrine grows. A theologian should not simply read Scripture and be able to recall it. We must be shaped by it. Our imagination should be formed and saturated with Scripture. It is there that God speaks to us. I don't have a particular method of meditation to prescribe. I simply mean that we must not skim the Bible. We must read slowly, carefully, and repeatedly. We must pray and think about what we have read. We must ask questions and reflect on the text. In sum, we must fill our minds with the Scriptures.


Fasting

In my circles, fasting is often neglected and misunderstood. There are a variety of legitimate reasons that one may fast, but it serves a special purpose for theology. Deuteronomy 8:3 reflects on the wilderness wanderings when the Israelites had no food besides the manna the Lord provided. It says this happened to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on the Word of God. Jesus quoted these verses to Satan as he was tempted in the wilderness after fasting for 40 days. Food is not sinful; it is a gift from God to be enjoyed. However, we do often sin by becoming more attached to God's gifts than to the giver. Fasting gives us a way to embody what we say we believe. We believe that God is better than all that is in the world, that only he can fully satisfy us, and that only he sustains us, but it is much easier to say this than to live it!


Fasting teaches us to discipline our bodies and regulate our desires. Please note that I am not talking about fasting from things we don't need. It may be a good idea to take a break from social media, but you won't die without social media. You will die without food. Fasting is not just inconvenient; it is physically challenging. When we fast, we learn that we need God more than the food that sustains our earthly lives. In this way, fasting helps us develop the holiness and love that we need to be good theologians. Sin pollutes the mind, but fasting brings a kind of clarity of soul that is essential to the task of theology.


Habits of Community

Theological Fellowship

Unfortunately, I lack a good term for what I mean here. I mean that good theologians have peers and mentors who share their love of theology. Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Books, videos, and podcasts are great ways to learn, but they cannot speak back to us. That is why having face-to-face friendships with like-minded believers is so valuable. There is no substitute for mentors who can show us the ropes, answer our questions, and point out flaws in our thinking. Having peers who share our passion will also sharpen our thinking but also spur us on to continue learning. Perhaps most importantly, godly peers and mentors will correct us when necessary — and not just our theology. We need friends who see enough of our lives to know when pride is setting in or when we are being enticed by error. Anyone interested in learning theology at any level should find like-minded believers and foster this sort of fellowship with them.


Church

There is significant overlap here with the last point. Ideally, we find theological fellowship with some fellow church members. However, it is a good thing that our churches include people who are not as theologically inclined as we may be. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget how to talk with normal people. While there is a time and place for jargon and technical arguments, ultimately theology serves the church. This doesn't mean that every theologian needs to be able to teach their ideas in church. Some believers may be gifted by God to be thinkers without being gifted teachers or communicators. However, it is good for every theologian to know and love children and other believers at all stages of maturity and theological depth. They are God's people, and God uses them to teach us. Our study should be motivated in part by our love for them, even if they never see our work. If we cannot love people who do not share our particular interests, then we have not learned to love as God has, and we have likely bought into the prideful lie that we are more spiritually advanced because of our studies.


But a church offers even more. First, it gives you a pastor. Ideally, your pastor should be your first theological mentor. Unlike other mentors, pastors "keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account" (Heb. 13:17). A good pastor cares about your doctrine, and would probably be delighted to teach you and guide your learning. But a good pastor cares about your soul — not just your doctrine. The Bible tells us to gather in churches (Heb. 10:25) and to submit to our pastors (Heb. 13:17). Theological knowledge does not make us immune to sin and error. God says that we need someone to keep watch over our souls, so we should be glad to submit to our pastors.


Second, a church makes you accountable to a tradition. As I said in my last post, we often think too much of our independent thinking, but a church won't tolerate our idiosyncrasies (or at least they shouldn't). We don't get to arrive at a church and demand that they bend to accommodate all of our pet doctrines. For the most part, we arrive at established churches belonging to some denomination and its theological tradition. Its doctrine and practice are by no means infallible, but they are hopefully at least coherent. This gives us some theological guardrails and accountability, as well as a place to worship according to our convictions. Of course, many people do not consider theology when they choose their churches, and sadly many churches don't think much about theology or operate within any coherent theological system. I don't think this is a good state of affairs for any Christian — not just those interested in theology. To get all the benefits God intends for us to get out of a church, it is important that we find a church that cares about its doctrine and practice and that we are in substantial agreement on it. This does not mean we need to find a perfect church; no such church exists. This does mean that if you are a Baptist, for example, you should go to a Baptist church that takes its Baptist doctrine seriously. If you are not a Baptist... you should consider becoming one. (I'm joking, but only somewhat!)


Finally, a church is important because God promises to meet us there. We are not meant to know God apart from the preaching of his Word, fellowship with his saints, corporate worship and prayers, and taking the sacraments together. God forms his people through these things. Through them, we gain a personal knowledge of God — not merely knowledge about God. We should not imagine that we can do theology well apart from these things.


Learning Theology

It is good to be interested in theology! May God bless you through your learning and bless others through you. But be aware that there is more to theology than books and research. We need hearts and minds prepared for a holy God. We do not need more wannabe theologians untethered from the church speaking arrogantly and dividing believers with their pet doctrines. We need men and women full of holiness, love, faith, and humility, seeking after God and serving their neighbors. May God make us good theologians.

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