What makes a theologian “great”?

Ben Myers, Faith and Theology, has sparked an interesting conversation by conducting a pole to nominate the “best” living theologian (my man Pannenberg is running a close race for third). It prompted Stephen Holmes to post some illuminating comments on his blog, Shored Fragments. I quote them at length because they are worth reflection.

“I think a good theologian prays well, first. No theologian who doesn’t has even begun to understand the discipline. And then s/he serves the Church, and his or her particular part of it (down to a local congregation) in humility and faithfulness. Theology belongs to the Church; any theologian divorced from the Church is a bad theologian, however brilliant or knowledgeable. A good theologian has a grasp of gospel values, and would swap everything s/he has written to see one sinner repent, or one broken life healed. A good theologian writes and speaks only to help the Church be more faithful to the gospel, bringing whatever knowledge of the tradition, whatever insight into contemporary modes of thought, and whatever native cleverness s/he may possess, all into service of this one end. A good theologian is marked by humility and cheerfulness, knowing how far short of the mystery of God and God’s works his/her best efforts fall, and knowing that in the good grace of God something of lasting worth may still come from them. A good theologian, finally, does know something, and have some capacity of thought, and so can make a contribution through his/her God-given vocation.

I am not a very good theologian.”

Reading Holmes’ comments reminded me of a Rabbinical saying I once heard: “Spending a lifetime in Torah is like dipping a teaspoon in the ocean.”

Perhaps we begin our quest to become “faithful” (perhaps a more apt term) theologians but shoring ourselves against any tendency to lose our sense of wonder, awe, shock, and even discomfort that should accompany our thinking, speaking, writing, and living with the God who confronts and reconciles us in Jesus Christ.


6 thoughts on “What makes a theologian “great”?

  1. [Kyle writes…] I have always been fond of Avagrius Ponticus’ line about what a theologian is: “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian.”

    There is a sense where this sentiment forces me to constantly evaluate what I am doing when I “do” theology. If I am honest, the teleology of my task is much more often “new” knowledge rather than something like faithfulness or prayer. I guess I am not a very good theologian either!

  2. [Kent writes ]

    Kyle –

    Your comments remind me of how John Coe defined “curiosity” as the pursuit of knowledge without the love of God and neighbor as its intended end. That concerns teleology as well and when set in that register, it shifts the entire focus.

    In that regard as well – I have a long way to go…


  3. Yes, I agree with Kent on the piority of the church. great theologian should have a great heart for the church. I am recently reading Colyer’s How to Read T. F. Torrance and realize that Torrance’s books are good for pastoral ministry. Torrance’s scientific theology is well known. I have never thought of his rigorous thinking can deeply help for pastoral ministry! I think that evey pastor as well should ask the question: Why theologians such as Torrance are still be considered widely as pastors?

  4. Simon –

    Torrance does indeed have much to offer pastors. In my pastoral ministry, the problem with reading theologians such as Torrance was more an issue of time. For those who have been in parish ministry they know the incredible time demands. In addition, there are many churches that simply don’t cultivate the value of reading theologians like Torrance (or a host of others).

    I am interested in what it would like look for more churches and pastors to cultivate those values.

    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Pingback: Excellent Quotation on What Makes a Theologian ‘Great’ | EarlBarnett.com

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