Imagine you’re an engineer at NASA during the height of space exploration. The success and safety of the next launch, and of the astronauts being launched, depends on you and your team getting every last mathematical detail right—
Exactly right, with no room for error.
You would never consider your responsibilities as an engineer and think, This seems a tad extreme. Maybe I need to tone it down a bit… No, a space engineer would simply be doing what he’s supposed to for the sake of human life. He’s a student of the numbers. And the stakes are much too high to get them wrong.
How much more precise should be the student of God’s Word?
One Thing Theological Precision Isn’t
Theological precision—carefully aligning our thoughts about God with what God himself reveals through his Word—is not arrogant. It isn’t a prideful hobby horse that “certain Bible Christians” ride, nor is it (necessarily) arrogance arising from theological education.
Knowing God as he is by taking him at his Word is anything but arrogant. It is what God expects of us. It is wise. And it is humble. Scripture itself is precise, so we want to make every effort to be precise when dealing with it.
Can theological precision be pursued in an arrogant way, or for prideful reasons? Absolutely. The heart is capable of anything—my heart is—and if we aren’t careful we can cross into dangerous, self-righteous territory, thinking we are better Christians for knowing more than others do.
Yet, while it’s possible for theological exactness to be pursued in an arrogant way, it doesn’t need to be, nor should it be. A heartfelt attempt to grasp God’s mind, character, and ways in Scripture is a humble pursuit for at least two reasons.
A Humble Pursuit
First, since God is the author of Scripture, when we search the Word for truth, we are submitting ourselves to him. We are saying, “Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live” (Ps. 119:144). We are looking to him, through his very words, to reveal truth to us, and to use that truth powerfully in our souls.
When it comes to knowing God, he calls us to do so with all our heart, understanding, and strength (Mark 12:30–34). So theological precision is not arrogant. It is a response to God’s command. It is humble worship.
Second, our pursuit to know God rightly through Scripture humbles us because we can’t do so unless he helps us by his Spirit. Reading our Bibles is otherworldly; we are unable to see God’s beauty, grasp his truth, and abide in his words unless he opens the eyes of our hearts (Ps. 119:18). So theological precision isn’t something we pursue on our own strength or efforts. We are humbled from start to finish, knowing we need the Spirit’s help to rightly interpret and apply the Scriptures, to the praise of God’s glory.
Two Realms of Theological Disagreement
As we consider the importance of theological precision, it is helpful to note the difference throughout Scripture between unconverted false teachers whose aim is to mislead, and well-meaning believers whose theology needs greater precision. As Paul distinguishes in 2 Timothy, the former “oppose the truth” and are “corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8). The latter “have learned and have firmly believed” but need teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (3:16). The two motivations and messages differ.
Consider Apollos in Acts 18, who “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” and who “spoke [boldly] and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:24–25). Yet, his teaching had some unintended theological inaccuracies that his friends gently corrected (18:27), which made him a better, more influential teacher for Christ’s sake (18:27–28). His motives were good, and even though his theology needed fine-tuning, he humbly received it.
When I first started my job as an editor for a Bible-teaching ministry, my supervisor carefully read all my articles before I published them online. I remember feeling sheepish when he would point out subtle inaccuracies that needed refining (even omitting!), but I’m so glad he did. While slight embarrassment lingered for a moment, his kind correction saved me from more public embarrassment and from misleading readers. God used his teaching to help me grow as a writer, a teacher, and mostly, as a Bible-believing Christian.
Discernment will help us give and receive proper correction, so we don’t treat every case the same and potentially hurt people (or oppositely, give divisive people too much leeway). Are we dealing with blatant false teaching, rooted in pride, that requires calling out or even church discipline? Or, as my supervisor discerned, are we addressing well-meaning believers who need to know “the way of God more accurately” (18:26)? And if we are approached ourselves, how does our response to correction reveal our motives?
What’s at Stake?
Since Scripture is precise, it is every Christian’s joy to make heartfelt efforts toward precision when dealing with it. If we don’t—if we believe this pursuit is arrogant, or if we simply don’t prioritize time in our Bibles since we aren’t convinced it is God’s very Word, or if we aren’t careful to compare what others are saying to Scripture itself, or if we are defensive against correction—we will, in time, suffer the effects of lackadaisical, muddy theology, however good our intentions may be.
But if we do seek precision—if we value a humble theological pursuit and submit ourselves to God’s Word on a consistent basis, prioritizing it and holding it above all other voices as the litmus test of truth—our souls will benefit in at least three significant realms:
First, in our worship.
Knowing God as he is, as he reveals himself to be in his Word, will fuel our affections for him and our praise of him both privately and corporately. How can a husband say he loves his wife if he doesn’t truly know her—her intricacies, character, pursuits, and desires? He can’t. It doesn’t make sense. Similarly, how can we worship a God we don’t know? It is possible, as Paul notes in Romans 10:2, to “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”
Worship is not isolated sentimentality, but emotion made genuine by truth—zeal according to knowledge, adoration stirred by precision (John 4:24). Is the God we worship the God of the Bible? True worship is at stake in how we answer this question.
Second, in our witness.
I love what J.I. Packer says about the importance of right theology for Christian influence: “So one who theologises in public, whether formally in the pulpit…or informally from the armchair, must think hard about the effect his thoughts will have on people—God’s people and other people.” The believer’s high calling to teach others about Christ (Matt. 28:11) means we impart his truth with care so we don’t lead people astray, even unintentionally.
As God’s Spirit uses his Word to impart truth to our minds and implant faith in our hearts, the goal of our witness is the same: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Again from J.I. Packer, a lack of theological precision is “accordingly likely to instill defective notions” of the gospel. But what an encouragement to know the fullness of God’s Word ourselves so we may rightly proclaim and teach it to others!
Third, in our endurance.
When life gets hard and suffering comes, what will be our reason for pressing on? What will propel us forward with faith? Theology not only affects our worship and witness, but also our daily perseverance. Rather than seeing Scripture in light of our circumstances, we choose to see our circumstances in light of Scripture. We submit ourselves to God’s Word, the lens through which we look at life and interpret all things. And, by grace, we learn to increasingly depend on and trust God’s character as displayed through the giving of his Son, our eternal hope, peace, and righteousness. Through his Word, we look to Christ, who endured the cross for the joy set before him, and we also endure (Heb. 12:1–2).
Nothing Apart from Him
Our reality in reading our Bibles and seeking theological precision is that we can do nothing apart from God’s Spirit (Ps. 119:18; Eph. 1:17). So we come to his Word acknowledging our dependence on his help, both to desire and grasp a deeper, fuller knowledge of who God is, while also acknowledging that we can never, will never, exhaust him:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!…For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.Romans 11:33, 36