Students ask tough questions. A few days ago one raised his hand: “If you believe the Bible is God’s Word, why do you put your theology into a system so different from the Bible? Don’t you like the way God does theology?”

Now that’s enough to make the juices flow for someone like me who has spent a lifetime teaching theology under the time-honored rubrics: God, Trinity, Creation, Man, Christ, Atonement, Salvation, Authority, Eschatology—just the way you don’t find it in the Bible.

I had been telling my students all along, of course, that we get our theology from the Bible. So why wasn’t I following the biblical order?

Have you ever tried it? Begin with the seven days of Creation, the story of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. Cain made the wrong sacrifice; Abel did it right. He built an altar, killed a lamb, and offered the lamb as a sacrifice to God. So, using the Bible as my guide, I should go out in my back yard, redo my stone grill, buy a lamb from a farmer, and offer it on my ex-hamburger grill.

“Oh, no!” you object. That was the right thing for Abel to do, but not for us. His sacrifice was an object lesson to teach us about Christ, but now that Christ, the perfect Lamb, has come, we shouldn’t sacrifice lambs anymore. God offered his son as a final sacrifice on our behalf. The Bible tells us that in the four Gospels, Hebrews, and even in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah.

That’s theology. It seeks to understand each biblical passage in its own context and it pulls together all the relevant biblical passages.

Using the whole Bible is important. Most passages are addressed to a group or individual living in a particular culture. To tear a verse out of its historical and cultural context and assume that is God’s directive for everyone in every culture makes the Bible say unbiblical things. Unbiblical theology results.

True, some biblical instruction does set forth universal rights and wrongs—like the Ten Commandments and the Law of Love. But we don’t put our disobedient children to death. Modest young ladies would not seek a husband the way Ruth did. We don’t insist that all women everywhere keep silent in the church. I don’t even talk in a (completely) unknown language (though my German friends think I come mighty close to doing so when I speak German). In doing theology, I try to understand what all the biblical passages, in their context, really say on each topic.

Of course, I don’t have to figure all this out by myself. I have 2,000 years of older sisters and brothers in the faith to instruct me; and I have the living church to disciple, warn, comfort, encourage, and exhort me to see truth and do right. And I have the Holy Spirit who illuminates my mind to understand and apply Scripture faithfully.

Hence, theology demands that we interpret the Bible in its context and organize (systematize) its teaching.

If that’s what theology is, why didn’t God do it that way?

There are reasons why the Bible is given to us in story form, an unfolding of God’s dealing with us. God knew it was best to give it a bit at a time—“line upon line and precept upon precept.”

And by revealing himself in history God showed himself a personal God who lives and acts today. The Bible spells out its guidance for us, not often in general universal propositions, but in instruction specifically honed to meet the tensions of real life. The story of Joseph’s integrity in overcoming the real-life temptations we too must face inspires us. This vivid narrative helps us far more than the general command: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

The Bible and theology (the earlier church called it “Christian teaching”) serve different purposes. We need both. The Bible is God’s instruction spelled out in real life. Christian teaching (theology need not be written) helps us know what we must think or do.

I urge my students not to preach a theological system or teach one in Sunday school. They need a theology, and they should encourage every believer to have one. But they should preach and teach the Bible, the best way for us to absorb biblical instruction and use it to solve the tensions of daily life.

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