February 22, 2006
Today, I want to think with you about some of the goals of reading and studying what we aim at in studying. Now as to goals in study, obviously among them will be God’s glory, your personal growth in grace, the edification of others, and the increase of your own capacities to teach and preach. In this connection it would be good to remember the three famous dicta of Herman Witsius (the famous seventeenth century Dutch theologian and pastor) who said: "No one teaches well unless he has first learned well;" "No one learns well unless he learns in order to teach;" and "Both learning and teaching are vain and unprofitable, unless accompanied by practice." These words are well worth pondering, as is Witsius’ little classic On the Character of a True Theologian (Greenville: Reformed Academic Press, 1994).
Additionally, let me mention these as proper goals for your study. One appropriate goal in study is to acquire true and useful information or knowledge. Primarily, of course, you will be concerned to get knowledge that consists of the knowledge of God revealed in the Scriptures. But you will also properly want knowledge of God’s creation, including ourselves, our times, the world, and our flock. The major source of this knowledge will of course be special revelation, but our study will of necessity include basic insights from general revelation.
A second aim of your study will be the acquisition of the ability to employ the right use of that knowledge which you gain in study. The sort of knowledge of God which can be gained by book study is not an end in itself but a means to an end. That end is the glory of God and union with Him, from which flows the benefit of communion with Him. We learn about God in order that we might know Him, that is, enter into relationship or fellowship with Him. To repeat this idea another way: saving knowledge is covenant knowledge the knowledge of communion and fellowship with the living God. Propositional knowledge is an essential element of that saving knowledge, and hence imperative in all Christians’ spiritual walks. But it is neither the only element of saving knowledge, nor the end/goal of our study. May God grant you not only a firm grasp of saving truth but also a right understanding and employment of its proper uses.
A third goal of your study will be the development of your analytical skills. You need to develop your abilities of discernment to the point that you are capable of synthesizing knowledge, critical thought, and possessed of good judgment. For you will be a walking reference point for your flock. Moreover, every sermon or lesson that you prepare will require you to be discerning and analytical of the text (in the original and translation), the tools (dictionaries, commentaries, lexicons, and other literature), the context (when and where the lesson is being taught, what are the burning trends, issues, sins, and worries of the day), and the congregation (where are they spiritually, what do they need, etc.).
A fourth aim of study ought to be an ongoing refreshment of our desire to learn, obey, worship, and pastor. We should be thirsty for knowledge of the word of God and of his world (including his people and their context). Not all of us will be equally interested in the same things, but each of us should be hungry for commanding knowledge of something. We must also be hungry to put this knowledge to work in the service of obedience. True, some more "practically" oriented folk want to skip the thinking and get to the doing, but that kind of zeal without knowledge is prideful and potentially destructive. We ought to burn in our hearts to worship and most of all to pastor. But all these desires need stoking. Study can help add fuel to the fires of our devotion.
A fifth aspect of our aim in learning out to be to enable our capacity for self-criticism and to increase our ability to exercise appropriate repentance. It is a sober work to which we are called and the dangers to our souls (and those of our congregations) are many, should we be careless in our vocation. We are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God and one day we will give an account of our conduct to the Almighty. Spiritual self-examination and self-criticism (evidences of a repentant spirit), and openness to rebuke from others are absolutely essential if we are to avoid pitfalls in the Christian ministry.
Sixth and finally, we ought to aim in our study for the cultivation of a warm, full, natural, biblical, practical piety or godliness. This piety should be characterized by reverence to God, love of neighbor, seriousness of purpose in one’s calling, and determination to holiness. My desire is that you will be, as a servant of the Word, by God’s grace (to borrow an apt summarization from David Wells) "God-centered in your thoughts, God-fearing in your heart, and God-honoring in your life." And if you have a moment, please pray this for me, too.