What does it mean to be a theologian? Martin Luther has an answer:
“By living – no, much more still by dying and being damned to hell – doth a man become a theologian, not by knowing, reading or speculation” (Vivendo, immo moriendo et damnando fit theologus, non intelligendo, legendo aut speculando). Second lecture on Psalm 15-19. [WA 5, 163]
Luther is not saying that the mental tasks and energies involved with doing theology are irrelevant, but simply, that there is something more to the life of a theologian than the cerebral, something which so often goes overlooked, probably because we get caught up in thinking that theology is a discipline much like any other.
According to Jurgen Moltmann’s reading of Luther, a theologian is afflicted both by internal and external enemies: ‘These are not personal enemies; they are enemies of the consoling Word of God’. Just as Luther chose to live as an outlaw following the imperial ban pronounced upon him at Worms, Moltmann implores us to stand with Luther against political and ecclesiastical tyrants that oppose the gospel. For Moltmann, ‘The person who doesn’t contradict is never contradicted; the person who doesn’t resist won’t be persecuted’. Of course, we have to strike the right kind of balance here and not fall prey to the sort of acts that contradict and resist the gospel rather than contradicting and resisting that which opposes the gospel. Such examples are legion and it might serve us well, at some point, to indicate what sort of acts we are not talking about.
Consequences and Responsibilities
If, however, one chooses to stand against the adversaries of the gospel by assumming acts of contradiction and resistance, then sooner rather than later, certain consequences will press in on the life of the theologian. As Moltmann explains, ‘ When faith is subject to persecutions of this kind in the outside world, inward spiritual temptations result too: fear and doubt, resignation, and a sell-out of the self, and ultimately a falling-in with the stronger power at the expense of the conscience’.
To be a theologian requires a good deal of mettle in the face of opposition, but this is not a call for more ‘testosterone theology’ – heaven forbid! What is required is also not a mustering up of more strength for the battle – as if this were even possible, no, what is required is more love for one’s neighbour; Calvin says, ‘Unless you give up all thought of self and, so to speak, get out of yourself, you will accomplish nothing here’ [Inst. III. vii. 5]. If there is an antidote to these ‘inward spiritual temptations’ then perhaps these acts of contradiction and resistance are best put to use when we avoid turning within ourselves for resources and instead we deny ourselves (indeed ‘dying’ as Luther remarked) and go about the task of lending our voice to those around us.
Whatever our course of action, Luther reminds us of one sure eventuality: ‘For as soon as the Word of God dawns in you, the devil will come and afflict you’. As we have seen, this might mean the devil without or the devil within.
If Luther and Moltmann are worth listening to, then this whole theology and being a theologian caper is anything but that, rather it is a risky business in earnest.
Some questions to be asked should include: ‘what might some of these adversaries look like?’ and, on our end, ‘what shape should our acts of resistance and contradiction take?’ We also need to take note of those acts that can seduce us into thinking we are contradicting and resisting opponents of the gospel but in reality we are contradicting and resisting the gospel; I’m sure discussion on this point could be very fruitful, for instance, are there examples we can point to and say ‘they got it right?’ Finally, and this is just as important, ‘Am I ready to get involved in this business?’
Are there others questions we need to ask?