Formation of Biblical Doctrine – Part 28 min read
The Tools We Use
Living in the third millennium A.D., we have the advantage of several tools to aid us in studying Scripture texts and topics. To depend fully on these tools is to be naive. But to ignore these tools is to be presumptuous. Both teaching and self-study are essential in the understanding of Biblical truth. To ignore the teaching of others and the resources they have provided is not noble, because God Himself ordained that we function in a community, both in practice and in doctrine. We do not need to re-invent the theological “wheel” every generation; this is both unhelpful and unbiblical. We must use our resources with intelligence and discernment; but we must use them nevertheless. So then, a brief survey of essential kinds of resources might be helpful.
Didactic Tools (Resources that teach doctrine). Ideally, the primary resource of the believer for doctrinal teaching is his own assembly. This must never be discounted, nor under-emphasized. But for personal study, various resources are available, primarily in the forms of books and audio. While specific resources could be given, it is really the responsibility of the reader to discern his best resources as to teaching. So then, the best approach would be to start with a few unquestionably solid resources by conservative teachers and slowly build a trustworthy library or media database from there.
Linguistic Tools (Resources that help with words). When studying the Bible, we will encounter words that need to be defined properly and comprehensively researched. For this, the Bible student will find a few categories of books helpful: (1) Concordances list the uses of a certain word in Scripture; some list English words, while some list Greek/Hebrew words. Both types of concordances will be necessary to compile relevant verses. (2) Dictionaries define words. There are dictionaries of theology, dictionaries of proper names in Scripture, expository dictionaries, etc. Probably the most helpful are the expository dictionaries, which give both the definition and the usage of the word. (3) Original language resources aid in examining and defining the underlying Greek and Hebrew words in our Bibles. To properly study a text, one must at bare minimum be able to interact with tools that explain the nuances or translation of an underlying Hebrew or Greek phrase. Lexicons and word-study commentaries are helpful in approaching an original language issue.
Textual Tools (Resources that explain the Bible). First and foremost, the Bible student must use a literal Bible translation that strives for exactness in its translation. He must also learn how to compare Bible versions to get the different senses that other Greek and Hebrew scholars have seen in the text. Secondly, topical Bibles are helpful in giving references according to topic, as opposed to a concordance which gives references according to words. Thirdly, we must learn to use commentaries, books that explain individual texts of Scripture. It is helpful to have both one volume commentaries that are straight to the point in explaining the text and commentary sets that take more time to deliberate about the meaning of a verse. Fourthly, we should familiarize ourselves with study Bibles – Bibles that contain the text of Scripture with explanatory notes as well.
The Scripture We Handle
Doctrine, though topic-based, is essentially found by faithfully handling Scripture texts. And since Scripture contains many layers of truth and teaching, we need to be thorough in our investigation of it. That means interacting with several different factors. These factors are not meant to form a final checklist so much as to broaden our scope and excite our hearts in light of the richness which studying Scripture can have.
The Big Picture We Acknowledge. The faith which we are committed to is a unified whole; it is part of a singular purpose. God is working out His purpose through the ages to glorify Himself and manifest His righteousness in His interactions with man. Thus, no doctrine or text is fully separate from one another; rather they will find their place in relation to the rest of the body of truth. The more we understand the big picture, the more coherent our understanding of its parts will be.
The Books We Survey. At times, entire books in the Bible will be stamped with one or more key doctrinal themes; when we find these books, we must take time to develop their significance in our minds so that the doctrine can be developed as well. For instance, if we want to know something about the local assembly, 1 Corinthians and the pastoral epistles are necessary to understand. If we want to know about the Body of Christ, we go to Ephesians. If we want to know about the destiny of Israel, we go to Zechariah. For reconciliation, we go to Philemon. For salvation and related doctrines, we go to Romans. For the rapture, we go to 1 Thessalonians. In studying Bible books, also taking into account the setting, the audience, and the structure will greatly enhance our appreciation of the doctrine it emphasizes.
The Texts We Exposit. While there may not be an entire book devoted to a subject, often there are key texts that hold a storehouse of truth in them concerning a certain topic. Philippians 2:5-11 is an example of a key text surrounding the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. John 1:1-18 is another such text concerning the incarnation of Christ. With passages like these, we will not appreciate the doctrine unless we appreciate the depth of the Scriptures that develop them.
The Verses We Cite. Aside from books or large passages that develop a doctrine, we must also take into account all the verses that contain reference to it. An example of this is John 10:35 – “the Scripture cannot be broken.” This is a key statement about God’s Word, though it is not the primary topic of the passage. When handling an individual reference, a number of things must be done: (1) its context must be determined, (2) the best translation of it must be determined, (3) its significance in relation to other verses and/or passages must be considered.
The Implications We Derive. Upon finding a verse with an obvious statement, we must look for implications that flow from that statement. An illustration of this can be seen in Hebrews, where the writer says “In that he says, ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first old.” (Heb. 8:13). Obviously the text didn’t say the foregoing covenant was old, but embedded in its statement was that implication, which the writer to the Hebrews could legitimately capitalize on. Now, we must be careful when finding implications on account of human bias being possible, but when true implications are found they are certainly legitimate.
The Presuppositions We Identify. Sometimes, similar to an implication in a verse, there will be an assumption made by the author embedded in the text that gives legitimacy to what he is saying. For instance, in Matthew 9:3, the Lord forgave a man’s sins. The Pharisees responded by saying “This man is blaspheming” as if Christ claimed to be God by that. The Lord did not directly claim to be God, but His statement assumed it, meaning two things: (1) True forgiveness of sins can only be granted by God (2) In that the Lord forgave sins, He acknowledged His deity. Learning to identify a text’s presuppositions will give a richer understanding of its force and a wider application to other doctrines.
The Comparisons We Make. A comparison is examining a certain object in light of something else so as to shine light on its distinctiveness and true meaning. For us, there are three main types of comparison that need to be done:
(1) The Use of Practical Illustrations: these give a relatable word picture for easier understanding of a concept. Paul used illustrations many times, whether in Galatians 4 with Sarah and Hagar, or in 2 Timothy with images of a soldier, an athlete, etc. With illustrations, the truth isn’t the illustration itself; thus we must be careful to distinguish the limitations of the picture as well as its strong points.
(2) The Comparison of Similar Texts. Many texts have counterparts which approach the same doctrine, but from a different angle (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and John 14). As well, some passages have parallel texts, such as Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 on the topic of singing. A tool like Treasury of Scripture Knowledge can be immensely helpful in finding these. Scripture is the best commentary of itself. Learning to correlate Scripture texts enhances our comprehension of the topic as well as our appreciation for God’s design.
(3) The Comparison and Contrast of Similar Topics. For a richer understanding of a doctrine, we must also determine how it relates to other doctrines. This means contrasting where necessary as well as comparing where necessary (Heaven v. Hell, saved v. lost, 1st & 2nd comings of Christ, sovereignty and responsibility, grace and truth, etc.)
The Words We Define. Every text is made up of words that must be exactly defined and understood. Otherwise, an entire concept could be maligned due to sloppy definitions. This will require an accurate translation and knowledge of how to do word studies and study translation issues in a passage. As well, we must be mindful of words that differ in English but are in fact the same in the original language (e.g. justice and righteousness, sanctification and holiness, master and teacher in some cases, etc.)
Doubtless, months could be spent studying each of these aspects of Scripture. The fact of the matter is, Bible doctrine is rich in its content. It has depths that take a lifetime to tap into, and it has breadth which baffles even the most learned of minds. While we strive for comprehensiveness in doctrine, we will never reach the limit of its depth. There will always be more to apply, more to worship from, more to compare, more to marvel at. A good theological method will never limit the depth a Bible student can delve into the Scriptures.