How Much Should I Study Doctrine?
by Jen Wilkin
I stumbled onto Reformed theology as a bleary-eyed new mom. During an inductive study of the book of romans, I began to detect that I had been quite a bit more dead in my sins than the church of my upbringing had taught. concerned that this insight might be the product of sleep deprivation rather than spirit-wrought inspiration, I began searching for doctrine that confirmed or denied what I was seeing. My husband took note of my burgeoning interest and gave me Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology for my thirtieth birthday. From there, it was a straight shot to seminary.
Except that it wasn’t, because I had four children under the age of five. Seminary was nowhere in my trajectory, and though I was learning to value the role of doctrine in my spiritual development, I could barely find time to read the Bible, much less absorb a systematic theology text. Berkhof languished reproachfully on my bookshelf, referenced only occasionally when my study of Scripture turned particularly confusing. What was wrong with me? Was I lazy? Not smart enough? How could I hope to have a fully functioning faith if I never nailed down the finer points of Christology and pneumatology?
Maybe you can relate. You’re not a pastor or a theologian—you’re just an earnest Christian who doesn’t have the luxury of spending your days buried in Berkhof either. You know that doctrine matters, but it’s difficult to know how much time to devote to it among the demands of everyday life. You’re not agile with cross-references, you don’t know Hebrew or Greek, and you’re not terribly familiar with ancient Near eastern culture or history. And your day job, whether it’s checking inventories or chasing toddlers, conspires to keep you from devoting much time to honing these skills. So, how much time should the average believer dedicate to studying doctrine?
The answer is simple: it depends.
First, it depends on how well you know your Bible. We live in an age when access to Bible doctrine—study about the bible—abounds. It comes to us in the form of podcasts, sermons, creeds, commentaries, blog posts, topical books, streaming videos, and study bible notes. If we’re not careful, we can replace study of the Bible with study about the Bible. Doctrine is of limited benefit apart from study of the Bible. Without study of the Bible, we have no means of judging which doctrine is spiritually nourishing. When we are choosing how to allocate study time wisely, firsthand study of Scripture is a nonnegotiable. If you don’t know your Bible well, focus on becoming biblically literate, working in doctrine as supplemental study.
Second, how much you should study doctrine depends on your personal history. Study of doctrine should function as a supplement to, not a substitute for, study of Scripture. but it is an essential supplement, particularly if you have sat under poor teaching in the past. Unlearning bad thinking cultivated by bad teaching can take a long time. Be aware of your own damage level. If you know you’ve been a student of bad doctrine, learning good doctrine will be essential to recovering a purer interpretation of Scripture.
Third, how much you should study doctrine depends on your level of influence. Are you responsible for shepherding others? Do you aspire to teach, or are you already teaching? If so, you’ll want to prioritize learning doctrine. Exercising influence requires recognizing inadequacy. The more we feel our limits, the more we should embrace our need to access the time-honored teachings of those who have gone before us, whose extraordinary gifting and extensive study gave them insight we will likely never achieve on our own with our journal, our latte, our bible app, and our good intentions.
Finally, how much you should study doctrine depends on your schedule. Make an honest assessment of how your time is currently being spent. We go through seasons of life that are busier than others. We give what we can during busy times, but once a busy season has passed, we should revisit our commitment to study. As my kids grew older and my sleep patterns got more predictable, Mr. Berkhof and I got better acquainted. It turned out that my desire to learn doctrine wasn’t futile, just seasonally delayed.
We must also honestly assess how we use the discretionary time we have. Yes, we’re all busy, but we find time for TV, social media, books, or movies—all of which teach their own belief-shaping doctrines. Examine your consumption patterns. If you consistently find time to study the doctrinal offerings of Facebook or ESPN, you might just be able to reallocate a little of that time for studying Christian doctrine.
There is no foolproof formula for how much we should study doctrine. For most of us, it is a privilege we savor as we are able, according to need and opportunity. We are not all called to be PhDs in theology; we are each simply called to be faithful with what the Lord gives. Some plant and some water. May we treasure the gift of doctrine as we are able, and may we trust God to grant the increase.