Have you ever felt closer to God at some times and not other times? A good bit of this is what life throws at us. Hard things tend to drive us to our knees.
But hard times are not the only way we grow closer to God. We can be intentional about it. For most of us, studying is something we did along time ago and don’t want to rehash. But when it’s on a topic your interested in–a topic that makes a difference in your life–then studying becomes more like exploration. It becomes fun.
(And, bonus, sometimes a little studying is what keeps us out of the hard times!)
Here are eight kinds of studying you can do that will help deepen your spiritual life.
1. Systematic Theology
This sounds worse than it is. Theology, in its plainest sense, is the study (-ology) of God (Theos).
Systematic Theology is how all the different branches (or “doctrines”) of theology work together. It’s what gives us a fuller and more accurate picture of what God told us in His Word.
For instance, studying eschatology (the end times) apart from creation and the Son–two other areas of systematic theology–can lead to some pretty weird stuff (or if you’re particularly unlucky, a new cult!).
In the end, the job of systematic theology is to give you a more complete picture of how all the pieces work together.
So, where do you start?
Both of these are pretty gigantic. So if books that cross into the 1,000+ page territory are thanks-but-no-thanks for you, then start with Gerry Breshear and Mark Driscoll’s Doctrine. It’s a normal-sized book and does a great job of laying out the land. It’s not shallow. But it’s also not a year-long commitment.
Ethics is the practical application of theology. That is, taking what you’ve learned and applying it in everyday life.
Not everyone who is ethical (or even who studies ethics) bases it on Christian theology. But everyone who applies ethics is basing it on a worldview–a system that tells them what is right and what is wrong. Studying ethics brings this worldview into focus.
My favorite book on ethics (another beast, at over 800 pages) is John and Paul Feinberg’s Ethics for a Brave New World.
A classic (and shorter but denser read) on the ethics-front is Ethics by the pastor and WWII martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
It’s more useful than its reputation. Stick with me.
There’s a joke. A girl at college calls home and tells her dad she’s thinking about changing her major to philosophy. “Oh good,” he replies. “Pittsburgh just opened up a new philosophy factory.” Sarcasm.
Philosophy isn’t that kind of job. It’s not a trade. Rather, it’s a skill that helps us to do better at what we’re already doing.
In short philosophy helps you get behind your own thinking. Why did you take that position? Or, why do you lean this way? Most of what we do is based on assumptions. And that’s not bad. (I’m assuming the roof over me right now is not about to cave in. That’s how I focus and get work done.) But not all of our assumptions are correct. And it’s the incorrect ones that can send us down the paths that get us in trouble. Philosophy (from which the discipline of logic flows) answers this.
Philosophy books tend to get a bit too heady a bit too fast (hence its reputation), but these two scholars (J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig) have created a wonderfully accessible book called Philosophical Foundations for the Christian Worldview. It’s a good one for skipping around by topic, too.
You believe it. You understand it. But in our hostile world, can you present a case for it? Are you prepared to explain why you’ve chosen this path?
Apologetics comes from greek apologia, or “defense,” like Plato’s classic work The Apology of Socrates. (It is, alas, not a reference to saying sorry. Sorry.)
Apologetics is, in a lot of ways, about winning arguments. It shouldn’t be just about that. But it can often deteriorate to this. Perhaps then a better way to think about apologetics is that it’s more about winning people who have intellectual objections to the Christian faith, than crushing their arguments. That means successful apologetics is people-first.
For this reasons I recommend Andy Bannister’s smart (and often hilarious) The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. His heart is to keep the dialog open–to win over the enemies of Christianity–without sacrificing the truth in the process.
John Stott’s Why I am a Christian is a small but powerful book. Or, if you’re into the free variety of things, I’ve written a series of short apologetics ebooks which you can get in the Resources section of my site.
5. Socio-economic Background of Jesus’ Day
Nothing makes reading the Gospel conversations or Acts geography come alive like being there. Okay, that may be a little out of the question. But there has been some fascinating historical research into what it was like during those times.
Exploring the socio-economic world (think: What were normal customs? And how did people look and live?) opens up layers of context and meaning. It’s about as close to time-travel as you’ll get.
Donald Brake wrote a book with more color pictures than words (I think) called Jesus: A Visual History. I’ve read it several times and recommend it often.
For a more in-depth, but still fascinating look at how things used to be, you can also check out Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson.
(Oh, and anything by Kenneth Bailey. He’s more commentary-style, and he goes pretty deep, but he’s one of the best.)
6. Internalize the Biblical Timeline
How long was it from the exodus to King David? And then what about from King David to when Jerusalem fell?
Maybe you’re thinking: what difference does it make? Quite a lot. For instance, the Exodus happened (roughly) between 1200 and 1400 B.C. That means King David reigned only a few hundred years, at the most, after the Israelites walked across the Red Sea floor on dry ground.
But it was over 1,000 years until Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem (even though it was only a few miles away). It’s easy to compress what we read in the Bible to an unspecified, close-together time line. But, like today, the world then changed rapidly between what’s recorded.
Here’s a way to think about it. We as a country have only been independent for just over two hundred years. And if we were to go backwards in time (from present day) by the same distance that separated Jesus and David we’d find an uncivilized Europe of barbarians and warlords heavily influenced by Vikings.
No one would confuse that world–even the world of George Washington–with today. Understanding that sheds a great deal of light on what happened then versus what happens now. The same is true for our Bible. Its writers alone span 1,400 (or more) years. Understanding the timeline can illuminate what we’re reading.
K.A. Kitchen, the noted historian, offers a helpful look into this in his book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Another book, largely out of style for his views on creation, is Archbishop Ussher’s Annals of the World. It is incredibly detailed. Sandra Richter also weighs in from the cultural angle in Epic of Eden.
7. Find an Opinion on Creation
Seems kind of an odd one to include. But the issue’s not so straight forward. It’s nuanced. And it’s one that will cause you to think through and process more than just the issue of creation (which is a doctrine in systematic theology). For most I’ve talked to, diving into its implications stretch how you think about it.
For instance, why do the vast majority of scientists reject a straightforward reading of early Genesis? It is because they reject the Bible and want an alternative? Or do they have something to add, and should we consider how their data might be merged with the biblical record?
David Snoke wrote an argument for this in A Biblical Case for an Old Earth and Hugh Ross has provided a scientific model (against evolution) in More than a Theory. Contra these “old-earth” views, Jonathan Sarfatti has written a rebuttal from the young-earth side called Refuting Compromise. And John Ashton has compiled a book of fifty scientists who weigh in on different possibilities of the young-earth view, In Six Days.
8. Read Church History
Most people (and for a long time, myself included) recite church history like this: there was Jesus, then the apostles, then two millennia of nothing with an occasional spark by somebody called Augustine or Luther or something, and then…us today. Sound familiar?
Do you know the number one thing I learned from reading church history? A lot happened in the last two-thousand years. And more than that, looking at what happened has shed a lot of light on why we are the way we are today.
Understanding church history not only allows us to keep from repeating the same mistakes again, but it illuminates things like, why do we have Catholics and Protestants? And where do the Orthodox guys fit in? Studying church history has helped me to have a more restorative view toward people who are not like me. Because, in the end, we’re actually quite a lot alike.
Bruce Shelley has written a fantastic book on church history called Church History in Plain Language. Between us, I recommend you go the audiobook route. Audiobooks work well for this narrative kind of reading. It also happens to be cheaper right now on audio than it is in print. 🙂
Everything I linked to here I’ve personally read. This will give you a good starting point. From there, follow the footnotes. That’s how the best books are found.
If you see something I missed, or if this has been helpful, leave me a comment below.