5 Ingredients to Being A Good Theologian

StAugustine

St. Augustine — patron saint of theologians, sore eyes, and brewers. No wonder the Reformed love him.

As a part of my reading during this Lenten season I’ve chosen to finally hunker down with Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?–a theological defense of the doctrine of God’s impassibility. God’s wired me to worship through my engagement with systematic theology, so I figure deep meditation on the issue of God’s immutable nature in light of the reality of sin, suffering, and the cross are just the ticket. Only two chapters in I can see why Kevin Vanhoozer listed it as one of 5 of the best books on the doctrine of God for theological students to engage with. He is nothing if not a model for Christian scholarly engagement.

Using primarily the words of its best advocates, Weinandy first reconstructs one of the strongest presentations in favor of passibility I’ve read yet. I even started to doubt my own newfound impassibilism (which is saying something after the amount Moltmann that I’ve read.) Thankfully he moves on to make a stunning case for the traditional doctrine. Still, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this level of fairness, honestly, and intellectual integrity in a theological teacher.

Weinandy then moves in the next chapter to sketch his own understanding of the theological enterprise. In it he lays out 5 “ingredients that help foster and encourage the theological enterprise, and so help define the task of the theologian.” (pg. 27)

So according to Weinandy, what makes for a good theologian?:

  1. Theologians Reason About Faith - “First within the very nature of Christian revelation is the principle that faith seeks understanding…Christian theologians, their reason guided by faith and the light of the Holy Spirit, clarify, and advance what has been revealed by God, written in the scriptures, and believed by their fellow Christians.” (pg. 28) The theologian is to use the reason he’s been given, in submission to the Holy Spirit in order to elucidate what has already been revealed in such a way that it can edify and bless the community.  It is both an exercise of faith and reason, in precisely that order. It is reasoning about what we have accepted by way of God’s revelation–thinking more deeply about what we have believed in God’s testimony about himself. 
  2. Theologians Calm Down and Make a Case - “Second, Christian theology also wishes to defend, by reasoned argument, what has been revealed against those who question, distort, or attack it.” (pg. 28) There is a real place for reasoned ‘polemics’, or persuasive argument. Weinandy goes on to say that this shouldn’t be done with an attitude that assumes any and all questioning is made in bad faith or with hostility, or that doesn’t recognize the benefits of theological controversy. We would not have the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definitions if the theologians of the Church were not forced to think more deeply on the mystery of Christ because of the doctrinal controversies in those early centuries. The point is, theologians make a case.
  3. Theologians Connect the Dots - “Third, Christian theology also wishes to demonstrate the inter-relationship between the various truths of faith.” (pg. 29) Weindandy gives the example of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In thinking through what it means for Jesus to be the eternal Son of the Father, the Church had to think through a bit more clearly what it meant to be a “Son” and what it meant to be a “Father.” Or, for that matter, what we mean by the idea of a person at all. No doctrine can be examined abstracted from the whole, but must be set within the full body of Christian doctrine otherwise it loses its proper shape. In other words, it’s not a bad thing for theologians to be “systematic” about things.
  4. Theologians Don’t Fly Solo - “Fourth, the work of individual theologians is not done in isolation. Theologians work within an historical context and within the Christian community.” (pg. 29) All good theologians stand on the shoulders of those who have come before them. Wanna make sure you’re a crappy theologian who runs into heresy? Do whatever it takes to remain ignorant of Christian history and the history of doctrine; never read or consider the teachers of the church in other times or places who have wrestled with the subject matter you’re studying. For the rest of us, we need to understand that neglecting the studies and advances in understanding that the Church has made over the centuries in our theological reflection is like trying to reinvent the wheel instead of trying to make it smoother. That is not to say that in certain times and places, the church can’t make advances in our understanding of doctrine (for instance the 4th century on the Trinity, or the 5th on the person of Christ, or the 16th on justification, or even now on the doctrine of impassibility) it is to say that it’s unwise to try and fly solo theologically.
  5. Theologians Worship - “Fifth, personal prayer and communal worship likewise foster theological understanding. Liturgy is a living expression of what is believed and so through participation in it one grows in an understanding of the faith.” (pp. 29-30) As the old expression goes, lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of belief). Weinandy points to the fact that in the past liturgical practices, the concrete worship of the church, shaped and gave the raw material of theological explanation. This was certainly the case in Basil the Great’s arguments about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in the 5th century. Beyond this, we can’t begin to think we’re truly speaking of God, reasoning about the faith, if our own faith isn’t growing through a worshipful encounter with the Triune God. If theologians are not worshippers, not personally involved with the God they’re speaking of, then they’re trying to approach the task from some sort of neutral, 3rd-person perspective, describing the faith in the way a sociologist or ethnographer would. That might make for some interesting texts in religious studies, but not good theology.

There’s more to be said about the task of the theologians. I’m sure many of you have your own suggestions (feel free to suggest some in the comments.) Still, for those aspiring theologians among us, these are a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria