Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, the first of this series, I suggested that anybody — whether holy or horrible — can say a theologically true statement. All theology done by humankind (or Balaam’s donkey) is “secondhand” because it is only ever responsive to the “firsthand” theology that is done by God. We do our “secondhand” theology thanks to God’s self-revelation.

This post begins to describe the Christian theologian as a specific kind of person. Yes, anyone can say a theologically true statement; but only a certain kind of person is a Christian theologian. What makes them different? Why should they be different? Read on and weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.


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

In introducing his book of essays about Johnny Cash, Michael Streissguth writes about an experience he had backstage at a Johnny Cash concert. “I kept playing in my mind ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘The Baron’…Would these songs take on new meaning when I met the Man in Black?” He then goes on to describe watching Cash interact with an old steel mill worker. Cash, as Streissguth had known him, was a celebrity of critical acclaim. Streissguth knew his songs. He could hum the tune and spout off the lyrics. Anyone could do that. But upon meeting Cash, and watching him interact with a weathered old man, Streissguth realized that the songs were not just words but stories from a life “defined, in part, by hard work.” Johnny Cash songs became more “real” to Streissguth in a way they could not have without meeting the Man in Black. This story highlights the difference between someone who might make a theological claim and someone who is a Christian theologian: anyone can make a theological claim, but a Christian theologian knows God and, in light of that knowing, theological words take on new meaning.

The notion that the Christian theologian is someone who knows God is not new. (I do not assume “knowing God” to be tantamount to having perfect knowledge about God.) Historically the Christian theologian has been a member of the worshipping community who is called to guide the Church in faithfully thinking about and responding to God’s self-revelation. This description is not as obvious today as it once was. It still seems to be a fair description, even in light of significant social and ecclesial changes. What follows is an elaboration of each part of the description that draws from major thinkers throughout Christian history.

augustine-at-his-deskFirst, the Christian theologian is a member of the worshipping community. What this means is that being a Christian theologian involves more than just working with Christian literature. Being a Christian theologian involves participating in the life of the Church. This must be true because the Christian theologian is supposed to know God, just as a biographer knows their subject, and we can come to know God through worship. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, writing about the liturgy, says that worship “implies a real relationship with Another (that is, the Triune God), who reveals himself to us and gives our existence a new direction.” Similar sentiment is echoed throughout Christian tradition when theologians expect that prayer will give way to “insight” or “knowledge of God.” Moreover, the point is clearly made by Augustine, whose seminal work Confessions, written entirely as a prayer, is not only autobiographical but immensely theological. Participating in the life of the community, including prayer and worship, is like a biographer meeting Johnny Cash backstage after having heard his songs. In worship one comes to know God differently and, therefore, God’s theological words take on new meaning. The words “Jesus is Lord,” for example, might make sense to someone outside of the worshipping community; they can be defined and potential implications of the sentence can be ascertained. But apart from worship they cannot maintain the significance that they have for someone saying them as an act of confession. The words “Jesus is Lord” direct the community who confesses them toward worship of Jesus. For someone outside of that community, Jesus is Lord bears little significance. For this reason, the Christian theologian must be a member of the confessing and worshipping community.

“What has happened,” Stanley Hauerwas rightly asks, “that we now need to ask what role theology might have for those in ministry?” The same should be asked regarding why someone needs to specify that a Christian theologian is a member of the worshipping community. The questions are, of course, interrelated. One ought to consider the possibility that these questions are the result of theology being made a subject within the University. Theology being studied in academic settings is not inherently problematic — Aquinas, Luther, and Barth all taught at academic institutions. In fact, many universities were founded by Christians. Many suppose that the trouble came when universities became state institutions, “organized around a coherent, rational ideal,” and demanded theology to prove that it belonged. Questions began to be raised about concepts such as “revelation” and “sacred books.” These concepts did not belong to the kind of reason espoused by the University and posed a problem if theology intended to stay in the University. So, “theologians” in the University found themselves not so concerned with the Church but with defending theology’s place in the University. This period, according to Hauerwas, produced theological work that was no longer much use to Christians or the ministry of the Church. Other events also wedged (and continue to wedge) theology away from the Church, yet none quite like theology’s move into the University. In light of this, there must be a bold reaffirmation that the Christian theologian is, first and foremost, a member of the confessing and worshipping community. Otherwise, it will continue to be assumed that theologians are primarily academics rather than servants of the church.


This post is part of a series. Click here to see other posts in this series. The next post will explore the Christian theologian as someone who is “called” for the task. Subscribe to our blog if you’d like to be updated when the next post comes!

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