In this short video clip, Fred Sanders offers two pieces of great advice to his theology students. But it’s advice that I think would benefit anyone wanting to study theology more effectively.
- Pick a major doctrine to focus on.
- Master a classic text.
As he says, the “major doctrines of perennial importance” are daunting in their significance and the wealth of material devoted to them, but they’ll certainly stretch and challenge you. And every major doctrine connects in important ways with all the other ones as well. So having a specific doctrinal locus provides a nice focus for your studies while also giving an entry point into systematic theology as a whole. I stumbled onto theological anthropology early in my studies and have concentrated on that ever since. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but having that focus has been amazingly helpful for me. (FYI – Eventually you will want to branch out form that primary focus, but you don’t need to worry about that at the beginning.)
And I think mastering a classic text is excellent advice too, though I haven’t done as well on this one. I tend to be less focused with my historical dialog partners, ranging widely throughout church history and using many classic texts, but none to the level of mastery that he suggests. And I think he’s right that I would have been well served to focus earlier on a few primary sources that I could know inside and out. As with the theological topic, a focus like that doesn’t preclude engaging other texts; it just gives you a focus or a starting point, a source you can always return to because it always has something fresh to say (that’s why it’s a classic!). I’ll have to reflect on whether I can and should do better on this one.
At the end, he makes a brief comment about the biblical languages. I know that studying Greek and Hebrew isn’t possible for everyone, but I strongly recommend it for those who can. The biblical languages are immensely valuable tools for the theologian, keeping you firmly rooted in the text and committed to developing your theology in close dialog with biblical studies. I know that many manage this without having studied Greek and Hebrew, but it’s much more difficult.
If you’re interested in studying theology, whether as a layperson or a doctoral student, this is great advice.