Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 3

In the first two posts of this series, I have tried to think about who can do theology and the importance, for a Christian theologian, of knowing God through the faith community. In this post, I argue that a Christian theologian is “called” to the task of doing theology.

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

The Christian theologian is someone “called” to be a theologian. One way to understand the word “called” is as referring to Divine appointment. Gregory of Nazianzus did not question that the place of the theologian is in the Christian community; they were to be wholly shaped by it. Their character, he thought, must be in line with Christian living; their “theologizing” is an act of sowing (calling to mind the concept of evangelism); and the proper occasion to do theology is when the theologian is practicing spiritual disciplines common to the Church. Yet, Gregory also suggests that the “range” of the theologian’s theology “should be that of our God-given capacity.” In light of this statement, it seems that Gregory sees the vocation of theologian as one of the parts of the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul lists eight “parts” that “God appointed for the Church.” Not only did God appoint those parts but, through the Holy Spirit, God gives particular people the ability to fulfill the function of those parts. One of the parts named is didaskalos, usually translated “teacher.” There is no consensus regarding what function the “teacher” fulfilled in the Corinthian community. Certainly teachers had something to do with “constructing and instructing the community” and in this sense the category probably includes the theologian. All of this is significant because Gregory rebukes the Anomeans in Oration 27, saying, “accept the rebuke of Paul…Are all apostles? Are all prophets?” That Gregory cuts off the quote just before Paul introduces didaskalos is interesting, perhaps emphasizing the point that not all are didaskalos; but what is certain is that Gregory is critiquing the Anomeans for being careless theologians precisely by pointing to Paul’s exposition on God giving people certain gifts in order to fulfill roles “appointed by God for the Church.” If Gregory has Paul’s words in mind, then he must believe not only that God gives people the capacity to do theology but also that God calls certain people to be teachersand theologians are among them.

Gregory of Nazianzus“Called” can be understood in a second sense, that is, to be called by the Church. This might seem odd at first given that most people who identify as theologians work primarily in academic settings, not in Churches. When one thinks of being “called by the Church,” they probably first think of pastors or missionaries. Yet as we have seen, the Christian theologian belongs first to the community of God and is gifted by God to do theology for the community. So, should not theologians be called and ordained by the community just as pastors are? This has suggestive precedence. I suggested above that there is no consensus concerning the function of a didaskalos in the early Christian communities. Paul just does not give us enough detail to know what the job description for a didaskalos might be. One early Church practice, probably related to this ambiguity, is that early communities ordained all of their leaders — praying for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them — in order that they might “unceasingly…offer to Thee the gifts of Thy holy church.” Significant theologians such as the Cappadocians, Augustine, and a great deal more were all ordained as Bishops (albeit at times they would have probably rather not taken the role of bishop!). Theologians have a long history of being called, both by God and the Church, to serve God and the Church.

One concern should be addressed before moving on. To define the theologian as one who is “called” by God hands the theologian a great deal of authority. Some may fear that authority will go to the theologian’s head. This fear is warranted by the reality that theologians have misused their authority to mislead and mistreat people. There is no room for manipulation of power by God’s people; we do, however, live in a world wrecked by sin — as Paul Griffiths calls it, “the devastation” — which means that there is always the possibility for manipulation. Fortunately, there is (ideally) a preventative measure built into the definition, that is, the community. Placing the Christian theologian primarily within the Christian community implies that the theologian is held accountable by the community, by other leaders and other members. The community’s role does not end at ordination, as if laying on hands is symbolically pushing the theologian off a cliff. The theologian needs the ongoing support of the community as much, if not more, than anyone else.

This post is part of a series. You can read other posts in the series by clicking here. The next post will explore the Christian theologian as someone who is a “guide” in the community of faith. Subscribe if you’d like to be updated when the next post comes!

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