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One of the questions that you might sometimes hear around a Bible college is "Why do we need to bother with historical theology, or with studying the writings of prominent theologians?" Although it may just sound like a little bit of laziness at first, there are actually some good convictions that lie behind the question. One is to do with the authority of the Bible. Given that we don't give reason, tradition or experience primary place in our methodological framework, it does seem reasonable to ask about the value of studying too much other than the Bible itself. Furthermore, this impetus to concentrate on the primary text is only increased when we acknowledge that it is a big book and we each only have limited study time available to us. Surely this should 

mean that we'd be best off just using our college time to get our biblical Greek and Hebrew as sharp as possible in preparation for a lifetime of better Bible reading.

 

A second conviction that can also lead us to want to pour our energy into learning from the Bible itself, and not into the writings of others who have studied it, is that we believe the Scriptures have a particular power. We do not believe that the words of theologians are sharper than any double-edged sword, nor that they are always especially profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. But we do believe all this of God's words in the Bible. And consequently, we believe that faithful, fruitful gospel ministry is not built upon the words of the theologians - as though telling someone what Augustine, Zwingli, Barth or Erickson say has the same power as helping them understand what Daniel, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul say. So, we can clearly see that it is quite commendable to stand firm in our belief that it is the words of the Bible - not the words someone has said about the Bible - that are most important.

 

But as true and helpful as this position is, it is also somewhat inadequate as it doesn't finally prioritise Scripture alone as it at first appears to, but it also prioritises the individual who thinks this way. That is, the person who moves from saying that the Bible is the most important text to study to saying that it's the only text to study has presumed - in the language of a former college professor - that no one between St Paul and themselves has had any thoughts worth us thinking over. And that comment really brings us to the reason that we do choose to read the great theologians: not because we think their words are equal to, or more important than, the words of the Bible, but because they can help us by casting more light on the words of the Bible than we are able to by ourselves. They become our 'brains trust', our invaluable interlocutors, even as the biblical texts remain the primary subject of our thoughts and conversations. By reading the theologians as we study the Bible, we get to have their observations on different biblical texts highlighted and we get to share in their thinking on how the different parts of the Scriptures fit together. We also get to see how different contexts affect how the Bible is read and how the Bible has its impact in different contexts. In short, reading the theologians taps us into a huge, rich, long and varied vein of Bible reading.

 

And of course, there's no requirement at all for us to always agree with the 'great ones'. Indeed, if we don't disagree once in a while we risk imputing an interpretive infallibility onto those whom we read, something which few would ever claim for themselves. But if we don't read them, we risk assuming that interpretive infallibility for ourselves as we cut loose from a heritage that contains generations of concentrated and faithful Bible study. At Bible College SA it is our primary concern that we learn the Scriptures well. But we're certainly not reluctant to ask for a bit of help from the experts as we go about our studies!