Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 1

Summer tiiiime and the livins easy. We are on the other side of July now, but summer (in Nashville) is still alive and well: the Olympics are just starting up and iced coffee is just as refreshing as it was back on July 4th! I have had the gift of taking the summer off — save my “house hubby” duties — from work. A great deal of my time has been committed to reading, and applying for jobs. But, I haven’t eked out the quantity of writing that I would have liked. That being said, I have decided to revisit a paper I wrote for a class during my time at Duke. The paper attempts to describe “the Christian theologian.” It was a bit longer than the average blog post ought to be and, in any case, I am unsatisfied with some of my own conclusions. So, in an effort to continue thinking, I will be posting it, bit by bit, and revising it along the way. Please do feel welcome to disagree and help me to clarify my thoughts. I take myself to be a Christian theologian, so if I go astray here, then I am mistaken in who I think I ought to be!


A picture of several theologians with the text "Who is the Christian Theologian?"

People like to think what they do is important. That is probably why the first question following an introduction is often “What do you do?” It presumes that the other person thinks what they do is important enough to, in some sense, define where the rest of the conversation goes. I try to do theology. So, when one reading suggested that theology is not actually all that important, I felt offended. I have since come to realize that, in fact, anyone can do theology — sometimes it is not even a choice. However, there does still need to be, I think, a distinction between “doing theology” and “being a theologian.” Church tradition often reserved the term “theologian” for a specific kind of person doing theology for a particular purpose. I want to propose that the Christian theologian is a member of the worshipping community who is called to guide the Church in faithfully thinking about and responding to God’s self-revelation. In order to support that proposition, I want to begin, in this inaugural post, to try and answer the question “Who can do theology?”

All Christian theology has already been accomplished. It had already been accomplished in the beginning when the Word (logos) was God (theos). Theology exists fundamentally as the Word of God, not as words uttered by men or women. “The Word of God,” writes Karl Barth, “precedes all theological words by creating, arousing, and challenging them.” In this primary sense theology is God’s self-articulation — words used by God to describe God. These words are true and complete. Any conversation about who does theology or who the theologian is must begin here, for God was, is, and continues to be the only pure theologian.

Barth lecturingAny person claiming to do theology is doing what I will call secondhand theology. Secondhand theology is when God’s created theological words arouse human theological words. Secondhand theology, then, is an entirely responsive act. It does not entail the creation of words and phrases but echoes of words and phrases. When someone yells into a canyon, we will hear the sound waves reproduced against the canyon walls. The echo is however always quieter and less clear than the original. Likewise, God’s theological words are those words yelled into the canyon; secondhand theology is the echo in the canyon. That secondhand theology is like an echo exposes its fragility. Human words are not capable of fully reiterating God’s self-disclosure. Moreover, the human mind cannot fully comprehend God’s self-disclosure. That humans cannot fully comprehend or articulate God’s self-disclosure means that secondhand theology is always incomplete and, quite naturally, prone to error.

Because the primary sense of theology is words used by God for God, and secondhand theology occurs anytime that a human responds to God’s theological words, we must ask: how does God arouse human theological words? Traditionally, the Church has understood God to arouse words through revelation. Historically, there are assumed to be two types of revelation. First, some theological words are revealed generally and can be discovered by anyone. Human ability to discover generally revealed theology is what Calvin calls the “natural instinct.” Because “all things came into being through” the Word of God, all people are capable of comprehending some theological truths. Basic theological claims such as “God exists” or “God acts” can be discovered by using our natural instinct. It is for this reason that Augustine can draw openly from Neo-Platonism and Aquinas from Aristotle. Neo-Platonists and Aristotle did not attend church services nor did they confess Christ as Lord. They nonetheless discovered and disseminated generally revealed theology through observation and reason.

A second kind of revelation is specific revelation. Specific revelation occurs when God makes specific aspects of theology, unattainable through reason or observation, known through someone or something. Scripture is often considered specific revelation. Catholic and Orthodox Christians also consider certain teachings of the Church — such as creeds, encyclicals, or teachings of the Saints — to be specific revelation. However, specific revelation can and is given to and proclaimed by non-Christians in non-Church settings. Caiaphas, the High Priest in Matthew’s crucifixion narrative, exemplifies God’s giving specific revelation through a non-Christian. “Tell us,” Caiaphas demands, “whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” In this statement, Caiaphas intends to condemn Christ but unknowingly disseminates a specific revelation of theology to which Christ responds affirmatively: “You have said it.” Paul Griffiths writes “even extra-ecclesial theologians are responsive to and cooperative with grace when they do good theology — when, that is, what they say and write about the LORD is true.”

Anyone, holy or horrible, can make secondhand theological statements because all theology has already been accomplished by the Triune God. All that remains to be done is respond to the truth that has been revealed. It comes as little surprise, then, that even a jackass can respond to God’s revelation. There is a difference, however, between making true theological claims — which anyone can do — and being a Christian theologian.


This post is part of a series. You can read the other posts by clicking here. Subscribe to our blog if you would like to be updated each time a new post is published!

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2 thoughts on “Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 1

  1. “It comes as little surprise, then, that even a jackass can respond to God’s revelation. There is a difference, however, between making true theological claims — which anyone can do — and being a Christian theologian.”

    I wonder about the implied absoluteness of the distinction here. I think it’s safe to assume that all Christian theologians are jackasses at times and/or make false theological claims (even Barth in his relationship with Charlotte was arguably a bit of jackass). Given that this is the case, what exactly do you consider the difference between a Christian theologian and someone who makes true theological claims?

    • Hi Lexi! Thanks for asking. I was actually referring to the jackass in the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22. (Of course, you are still right to suggest that all Christian theologians can be jackasses at times.)

      As for the difference between a Christian theologian and someone who makes true theological claims, that is what I will be trying to describe in the next few posts of this series. Though at the beginning of this post, I do offer a one sentence description: “the Christian theologian is a member of the worshipping community who is called to guide the Church in faithfully thinking about and responding to God’s self-revelation.” So, we might see the distinction between, for example, Aristotle and Aquinas. Aristotle made true theological statements but was guided by his own interests; Aquinas was a part of the worshipping community of the Church and worked specifically to help the Church better understand and respond to God’s self-revelation.

      In the posts to come, I will be trying to clarify this. I hope you’ll follow along and continue to raise important questions like this one!

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