How to Study Theology

by Matthias Hafenreffer
translated by Aaron Jensen


This excerpt comes from Hafenreffer’s Loci Theologici, which was published in 1600 and revised in 1603. As the prologue to his dogmatic work, Hafenreffer encourages and advises all those who are or would like to become theologians by expanding upon Luther’s famous axiom: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio faciunt theologum.

A Prologue about the Fruitful Establishing and Continuing of the Study of Theology.

The three chief aspects of the study of theology

It is necessary for those who want to fruitfully and usefully devote their time to the study of holy matters to invest their piety and industry in three chief aspects:

  • Supplication * Meditation * Affliction

And since the whole business and all blessed progress and constancy in the knowledge of holy matters hinges on these three things, the King Psalmist, in the same psalm (Psalm 119) in which he wrote about the indescribable nobility and excellence of the divine Word and its incorporeal usefulness, also elegantly and clearly expresses that same method of theological study with both very direct words and his own example, as will later become clear.

Furthermore, each of these three would be worthy of individual and rather lengthy explanation, but presently let us note each one very briefly, almost as if aphorisms, to serve as a compendium.

Whoever piously and diligently observes these three things when handling holy matters will come to the knowledge of theological things which is given through the Holy Spirit so that, for the public usefulness and advantage of the entire Christian Church, he can affirm with the King Psalmist: “Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts” (Psalm 119:98-100).

But let us hear the aphorisms of theological study themselves:

I. Supplication

Beginning everything with prayer

The Apostle says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), and elsewhere, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).

The best theological study

The more the beginning is consecrated with prayer, the more often we come near to holy matters and the study of theology.

For although God instructs us about his essence and will through his Word, it is still he himself who gives the true understanding of his Word and gives light to our minds in heavenly matters. He himself bestows his Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth when we call upon him.

Therefore light and truth must be sought from him who gives light to our blind minds through the Word. He is the true light that gives light to every man by coming into this world (John 1:9).

For this reason although the king and prophet David had the divine Law before him and held them in his hand every day and night, preaching blessedness, and on it he meditated day and night, yet in Psalm 119 he uses many repeated words and great zeal to ask for divine grace by which he might be able to be blessedly educated and mentally illuminated about heavenly truth in the Word and divine commands with these and other phrases of prayer:

  1. Verse 10: “Do not let me stray from your commands.” 2. Verse 12, 26, 64, 68, 124: “Teach me your decrees.” 3. Verse 18: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” 4. Verse 27: “Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders.” 5. Verse 33: “Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees.” 6. Verse 66: “Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands.” 7. Verse 73: “Give me understanding to learn your commands.” 8. Verse 125: “I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.” 9. Verse 135: “Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees.” 10. Verse 144: “Your statutes are forever right; give me understanding that I may live.” 11. Verse 169: “Give me understanding according to your word.”

Therefore after prefacing with prayers and obtaining the grace of the Holy Spirit (which God denies to no one who seeks it) we are able to penetrate into the deep mysteries of the Holy Scriptures.

On the other hand, those who have neglected to call upon divine help err in holy matters, as they say, with unwashed hands, and make them like the muddy rubbish of pigs. And if they dream up any very absurd opinions they attach them to the Scriptures even though they are contrary to the mind and opinion of the Holy Spirit, and they latch their teeth onto the faithful even to the point of drawing blood. This is not surprising at all.

For whoever neglects the author of the Scriptures by neglecting prayer is in turn himself neglected by the author such that in just judgment he is absorbed by the abyss of darkness (which is the only thing he loves).

Therefore as often as you go into your bedroom to handle holy matters, also pray to the Father of the heavenly lights, from whom every good and perfect gift is promised, through Christ Jesus, who is the true light which gives light to every man by coming into this world, and in the Holy Spirit, who by his gracious presence and heavenly gifts miraculously illuminates the hearts of believers with the knowledge of the truth. He wants to mercifully open the knowledge and true sense of his Word.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

For this reason, whoever approaches the study of theology or any meditation on holy matters while on fire with true and certainly earnest prayers approaches blessed because he has been instructed in this way.

II. Meditation

You must read the Holy Scriptures

And yet to those who are most on fire with prayers, meditation itself, or the daily, tireless study of the Scriptures is not forbidden (as some Enthusiastics dream).

God grants growth, yet Paul had to plant and Apollo had to water. And so the Giver of every good ordinarily sells his goods to mortals for prayers and sweat.

And so prefaced with prayers you must next ardently and eagerly press on to the study of holy writings.

Frequently and constantly

But studying is a constant and vehement occupation applied to something with great willingness.

The Apostle commends Timothy because from infancy he has known the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15), and yet he encourages him, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).

Therefore it is not enough to have read the biblical text once or to have unrolled the holy scroll once. Anyone who, when he has read a certain pericope once, too hurriedly assures himself that his knowledge is already perfect and complete in all accounts, is like an undeveloped fetus.

Scripture is an ocean whose depths cannot ever be sufficiently explored and whose abundant supply of goods cannot ever be exhausted.

Therefore be vigilant, study, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture. For in the reading of the Holy Scriptures you will never be too diligent. And whatever you read diligently you will never understand too accurately. And whatever you understand excellently you will never teach to others too faithfully. And whatever you teach very faithfully you will never express by your life’s example too earnestly. As Luther says, “Believe a man who knows from experience.”

By the fervent Spirit

But it is not enough to read a lot, because rather slothful and servile things can come before the mind. Rather it is necessary that the studying be diligent, with great willingness, and completely aflame with the ardent fervor of the Spirit.

“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). The Lord addresses those who neglected the Spirit and were numb to him with these words: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

The king and prophet David commends to us this second chief aspect of theological study, diligent meditation, or the reading of Holy Scripture, in Psalm 119:

  1. Verse 13: “With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.” 2. Verse 16: “I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” 3. Verse 48: “I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees.” 4. Verse 97: “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” 5. Verse 131: “I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands.” 6. Verse 148: “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.”

From these it is clear with how little interruption and with how much fervor of the Spirit worshippers must spend time on the study of most holy theology.

By consulting and examining the Hebrew and Greek source

But this diligence will cause individual words of the text to be examined correctly and with great judiciousness. For in more obscure passages, often a single term miraculously makes the entire argument clear.

But this thing requires a bit of knowledge about the Hebrew and Greek languages. For the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and the New Testament is written in Greek. And the knowledge of each language delights the reader marvelously both by its sweetness and its peculiarity and, in the midst of so many different versions, it carefully warns against embracing false or ambiguous translations in favor of the true Hebrew and Greek.

By gathering like passages

But we must spend so much time in the holy books that we relate whatever we read to certain like theological headings and passages, or that we diligently ponder and faithfully fasten in our memory the ones which are now referred to by others. This must be done in order that concerning every article and chapter we may have unified body of heavenly doctrine which is perfect and complete. Without this we will never be prepared concerning theological questions.

But having correctly leaned these things in this way and by this method, they are able to educate themselves in every theological question which is unfolded in the Holy Scriptures and to save others who hear them.

Do not neglect antiquity

Furthermore, although every interpretation of Holy Scripture is to be taken from the Scriptures themselves (by which the analogy of faith ought to be). And from these alone, because they are *divinely *inspired, “Theology” obtains its very clear name and title. Nevertheless it is not without usefulness if along with them some knowledge of purer antiquity is joined.

What is meant by the term “Antiquity”

But by this term “Antiquity” are meant both the teachers of the Church, or the fathers, who taught Christ’s Church and interpreted the Holy Scriptures for about eight hundred years after the times of the Apostles. For this reason they are distinguished from the Scholastics, especially Peter the Lombard, the Master of Sentences, who wrote their commentaries in following times, and badly mixing philosophy with theology made from two things (one of them perfect in type and method) a mixture which is imperfect, obscure, and inextricably enveloped by darkness. With this they defiled every lectern of the schools and from this they obtained the name “Scholastics.”

Then also coming under that term “Antiquity” are the councils of purer antiquity by which the orthodox truth of the Gospel was asserted and fought for against various heresies of every time.

Finally also the history of the Church is meant, by which its fate, origin, growth, persecution, and every appearance and face are made known.

When these are joined to the Scriptures they have sizable usefulness. For anyone who correctly and prudently spends time in these will be rendered prepared in explaining by the exegetical writings of the fathers, sufficient in confirming by the didactic writings, prepared and acute in confuting by the polemical writings, and finally elegant and splendid in illustrating, and therefore he is completely admirable.

When to begin the study of antiquity

But these thresholds of antiquity must not be crossed indiscriminately by everyone or without accurate judgment.

Let no one apply his mind to reading the writings of the fathers unless he is well-versed in the knowledge of the Scriptures and theological passages and therefore rightly confirmed in his judgment of theology.

He who does otherwise and while still weak in the knowledge of theological matters hurries to the reading of the fathers will most often leave with a quarrel either with others or with himself before he has come upon such things, and so he will not only not become more learned and confirmed but also more uncertain and much more entangled.

The distinction between Holy Scripture and human commentary

You must make an accurate distinction between Holy Scripture and the fathers and also between the fathers themselves and with others who are lumped together with them.

Holy Scripture is God-breathed and self-evident. It is divinely inspired and believed on its own accord. The recordings of the fathers were set forth by men and their faith has as much merit as it has agreement with Holy Scripture.

Therefore it is absurd and blasphemous to appeal to the interpretations of the fathers instead of the clear words of Scripture. Rather, as the Apostle testifies, every spirit must be tested and any interpretation must be returned to the analogy of Scripture.

The writings of the fathers

As pertains to the very writings of the fathers, some are in German, set forth by those undoubted authors whose names are signed. Some are counterfeit and spurious, which, having been produced by others, are sold under false names.

The result of spurious writings can be good, such as when it appears that the opinions and conversations of the ancient teachers are undoubtedly expressed and authority is procured for some orthodox opinion of former times.

The result can also be bad, such as when clearly false and superstitious opinions are clothed with some appearance of holiness and truth using the names and titles of greater men. 

Counterfeit and spurious writings are discerned either from the difference in style and strange character of speaking, such as when impure, barbarian speech is attached to pure, Latin antiquity.

Or from the discrepancies in the circumstances of the times when things are attributed to a writer of past ages which were written much later.

Or from the newness of the material, such as when to the ancient authors are attributed the treatment of things about which they were never delirious enough to dream up.

But as pertains to what is genuine, the pronouncements of the fathers which are in harmony with the Scriptures merit approval. Those which are not in harmony are rejected as easily as they are shown to depart from the Scriptures.

Yet here the judgment of fairness and openness must be doubly applied, first, so that we form our judgment about the author’s opinion from words well-weighed and rather plain, not from those which are ambiguous or rather obscure, and second, so that we do not make any of the fathers out to be equal with the authority of the Scriptures because of their many excellent and very useful works for the Church. Let us in this way no longer immolate with anathemas a well-qualified author of the Church because of some clinging errors (which were consumed like straw and hay in the testing fire).

Let us flee the errors detected by the grace of God and the light of the Gospel. Out of Christian charity let us have compassion upon the fathers who themselves were not without moles. With thankful minds let us thoroughly enjoy the rest of their works to the usefulness of the Church.

Councils and some other writings

Concerning councils and some other confessions and writings, both public and private, the judgment is clearly the same as it was about the men of the past. For it makes no difference whether it is a few people or many people who pronounce or ordain anything. Whatever is contrary to the Holy Scriptures is foreign to the truth, even if the whole world or an angel from heaven would so appoint it.

Yet the purer councils, creeds, and confessions publicly accepted in Christ’s Church have great praise and usefulness, both because they excellently unravel theological questions with the Scriptures as their foundations and because they greatly support consciences disturbed by the waves of affliction with the public testimony of agreement.

Yet they have their authority not from themselves, nor from the excellence of the authors, nor from the size of the consensus, but from the Scriptures alone, on which they lean as on firm foundations.

III. Affliction

That is enough about meditation for now. Now let us also add a little about affliction, which is indeed the final thing which gives completion to theology.

It is so manifold and varied that it cannot be explained with a definite number or certain kinds, but this numerous variety can be reduced to two primary categories.

For affliction is either internal or external.

The most serious internal affliction

Internal affliction is affliction either of the spirit or of the flesh, and the truly most serious affliction of all, and by far the most dangerous, is the affliction which with its word and will set against us disturbs our very spirit or mind about trust in God.

For there is no greater or more exquisite torment than when those fire-tried spears slay our mind: “Does God* *care about our Church in so great a disturbance?” “Are the promises made in the Word true?” “Are we safe enough in leaning upon the Holy Scriptures?” and others of this kind.

Afflictions of this kind were experienced not only by the prophet David and other holy men of God*, *but also by the Son of God in his days in the flesh.

  1. Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope (Psalm 119:49). 2. My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, “When will you comfort me” (Psalm 119:82). 3. How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors? (Psalm 119:84). 4. In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!” (Psalm 31:22). 5. O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent (Psalm 22:2).

But this affliction must be resisted with a diligent meditation of divine truth, righteousness, and omnipotence. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). “Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 119:89, 90).

Afflictions of the flesh

Furthermore, the attacks of our flesh, which is totally corrupted by the malice of sin, against pious minds, especially those studying theology, are many and at the same time very dangerous.

For while doubts concerning the truth and constancy of the divine Word and every good and merciful will of our Lord God do not train a theologian, yet the depraved flesh which they surround always tingles for the many transgressions which bring about stumbling blocks.

These kinds of transgressions include inaction and negligence in performing a duty, mercilessness and callousness towards the poor and the fallen away and the barely attentive listeners, greed, envy, drunkenness, moral impurity, and many other sins which are of this kind. On account of these things not only do people barely listen to the transgressors but also the very purest and holiest divine Word, of which they are ministers, is mocked with the insults of impious men.

Not only do Noah, Lot, David, Judas, Peter, Jonah, and others serve as examples to the fact, but it is also evident today that no one is without sin, and so it is not uncommon that those greater defects disfigure some theologians, causing a great church scandal and the highest shame of the minister.

Arrogance, the supreme pest of the theologian

But the most harmful pest of all in a theologian is arrogance. It is the first mother of all of our calamities, and, as the history of every age most faithfully testifies, it is the most fruitful root of every evil in the Church.

These things harass not only the ordinary, but at the same time also the first and foremost men in theology.

For example, there was a troublesome debate among the Apostles at the Lord’s Supper because of their love of glory.

But the most pestilent thing of all in a theologian or in one studying theology is arrogance, when they have read the periscope once or twice, as if they already knew both it and everything else perfectly. But they have falsely and arrogantly persuaded themselves. This is a rich spring of errors and heresies in the Church.

The great Luther both bemoans this evil affliction with very weighty words and also invites everyone to humility and diligence by his own example when he comments on Psalm 117:

“Each and every word of Scripture wants to be diligently examined and pondered, not looked at through the altar rail as if with the first look you instantly knew everything and correctly and accurately understood every most hidden thing. This is what rash spirits overabundant in arrogance and nausea customarily do. When they have heard a pericope of the divine Word once, it immediately becomes old and they desire new things and have to have them, as if they knew everything which they heard exactly.”

And a little later:

“Today the devil has a large number of these kinds of worthless men, especially among the Schismatics, for everyone is audacious who if he has heard one sermon or can read one chapter of German immediately makes himself a doctor and places a crown upon his donkey because he is most vainly persuaded that he is now much more learned than all his teachers. The kinds of men who place the reins on the back ends of the horses are called critics. This pest originates because they read and hear the Word of God with such levity and they do not attend to it with due fear and reverence or suitable humility, study, and diligence.”

But he adds his example to those of the past in this manner: “I myself have often experienced the devil and afflictions of this kind. And today I cannot warn against them and curse them sufficiently. As an example for others who wish to know I confess it freely: I, who have been a teacher for already so many years and am a herald of the divine Word, either rightly possess, or certainly ought to possess, as much knowledge of the Scriptures as all those arrogant men. Yet I am forced to behave like a child and every day early in the morning recite out loud to myself the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, my Psalms, and selected passages from Scripture, in the exact manner in which today little children are customarily educated and trained. For although I handle the Scriptures daily, employing them in battle against the devil, still I would never dare say in my heart, ‘The Lord’s Prayer is old. You are keeping the commandments. You know the articles of the Creed, etc.’ Rather, I train myself in them daily and I am a perpetual disciple of the Catechism. I also feel that I have received valuable gifts and I use them and yet the depths of the divine Word can never be exhausted. Rather, Psalm 147 is very true: “His understanding has no limit.” And in Sirach: “Whoever drinks from me shall still thirst.” But if this happens to me, why would it happen differently to those complacent and nauseating self-taught people who neither struggle nor are trained in holy matters.”

But you must also studiously resist each and every one of these afflictions of our flesh by calling upon and receiving help from the Holy Spirit.

For if it is the theologian’s greatest sin to have admonished others about these warnings with too little seriousness (Ezek. 33:2), what crime and punishment will be his for having himself committed the sin of regarding the warnings too little and shown others by his example to do the same?

And because arrogance is the source and spring of all other sins, the theologian will curse it with all his mind like it were Satan himself, the first parent of all arrogance.

Here it is worthwhile to quote the opinions of Doctor Luther, by which he chases away haughty spirits with elegant and exceedingly deserved mockery, which is satirical, among other things:

“But if you marvel at yourself and dream that you have certainly obtained everything rather certain and you tickle yourself by publishing pamphlets, teaching, and writing, as if you had written or preached anything remarkable, and if being praised and preferred by others pleases you, and if you also are very desirous of praise, and if you don’t get it you will be sad or remiss, then what kind of person are you? C’mon, I beg you, touch your ears and search more diligently, for you, most excellent man, will grab onto a pair of donkey’s ears, open, shaggy, sticking far out. Therefore, c’mon, add the extra expense and decorate them with golden bells so that everywhere you go you can be heard and pointed out and commended: ‘Behold! It is that animal which can both write remarkable books and preach remarkably.’ And so you are just blessed, three and four times blessed, in the kingdom of heaven, while eternal fire is prepared for the devil and his angels. For although in other matters someone might be pleased to seek honor and strive after praise, in this book (the Holy Scriptures) the honor is God’s alone, and the axiom stands true and unmoved: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:1). The glory is his forever and ever. Amen.”

Therefore, as remarkable as the other gifts and divine presents may be, yet they are all defiled by arrogance as by a vial full of evil, for the added arrogance contaminates the excellent actions. Whoever pleases himself pleases a fool.

External afflictions

We have spoken up till now about the internal sources of afflictions. Now remains to touch upon the other kind some too.

For although faith in God is certain and life by him is whole and pure of crime, yet there are a thousand worldly misfortunes, a thousand dangers, a thousand insults and endeavors of the devil, which strive to move the theologian from his station and very violently cast him to the ground as if his feet were pulled out from under him.

Afflictions of this type are hearers who are unteachable, unaccommodating, and ungrateful, those who not only daily defame faithful pastors of souls with the most filthy insults but also very malignantly plot against their lives and all their safeties. They are false brothers. They are slanderers. They are the most bitter haters of the ministry. They are furious persecutors of the Church and of all the pious, but especially of the faithful ministers of the Word.

Each and every one of them slimily lays very wide nets of afflictions for the theologians in the hope that they might be able to somehow ensnare them and drag them back to the cliffs of either impatience or defection.

But we must strive against these insults of the afflictions also with divine grace and aid, and in the midst of every savage and threatening appearance of the world we must turn to the merciful and fatherly face of our Lord God. We must call into memory that we are going to be compensated for all the insults the world heaped against us, and for whatever other abundant, infinite, eternal dangers, and for that which no speech could sufficiently or worthily explain, with the heavenly glory which rightfully shines around heralds, the scum and refuse of the world, above all others. And we must meditate upon how the measure of the future eternity is beyond comparing to these swift and very brief moments of time of the present world.

These and other things of this type, when placed before our eyes and minds, render our spirits firm and invincible against any danger of the world, imprisonment, and even the most savage deaths, such that whatever happens to us, we cling unmoved to God and his Word.

We have David’s example of this, a description of which he leaves for us in the aforementioned psalm.

  1. Verse 22-23: Remove from me scorn and contempt, for I keep your statutes. Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees.

  2. Verse 69: Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. 3. Verse 78: May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts. 4. Verse 87: They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. 5. Verse 110: The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts. 6. Verse 157: Many are the foes who persecute me, but I have not turned from your statutes. 7. Verse 161: Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word.

These are the three chief aspects—supplication, meditation, affliction—in which the theologian must occupy himself daily.

Whoever has overcome afflictions by the grace of God and between serious and holy prayers applies himself to theological meditations in such a way that his delight is in the law of the Lord day and night, at any time can change his condition and fortune even though he may be low and humble and without the most splendid dignities of high power.

For what else could this kind of life be other than the happy entrance to a heavenly happiness which will be the perpetual and most fortunate meditation of divine matters?

May the eternal God make it so that so that the meditations of heavenly matters which here begin in a mystery there we will solve in truth and with a view of the divine, and, blessed by Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, we will thoroughly enjoy an eternally blessed meditation and contemplation.


As a prologue to a dogmatic work, Hafenreffer advises his readeres on the study of theology.

 Apr 17, 2020