Evaluating theologians

Ben has opened a poll on the ‘world’s best living theologian’ here. His list of contenders itself will raise plenty of eyebrows (isn’t David Bentley Hart a bit, well, new on the block to be a contender? I’d say the same of Milbank, even, although he has at least written more than one significant book) and generate plenty of comments. Me? I vote for Augustine, on the basis of Lk 20:38…

The interesting question it raised in my mind is how one assesses such a category. What is ‘good’ theology, and what makes a particular theologian ‘the best’? Some answers look attractive, but probably need to be dismissed because they are inoperable as criteria: the ‘best’ theologian is not the ‘most right’, or else who would judge? (At present, I have to assume my own theology is the best on this criterion, because, uniquely I believe, I do not hold to any positions I consider to be wrong…)

Is the best theologian merely the cleverest? Or the one with the deepest knowledge of the tradition? (In that case the winner is almost certainly some French Roman Catholic monk none of us have heard of…) Or the widest knowledge of contemporary thought? (Milbank might well win on that criterion.)

I think a good theologian prays well, first. No theologian who doesn’t has even begun to understand the discipline. And then s/he serves the Church, and his or her particular part of it (down to a local congregation) in humility and faithfulness. Theology belongs to the Church; any theologian divorced from the Church is a bad theologian, however brilliant or knowledgeable. A good theologian has a grasp of gospel values, and would swap everything s/he has written to see one sinner repent, or one broken life healed. A good theologian writes and speaks only to help the Church be more faithful to the gospel, bringing whatever knowledge of the tradition, whatever insight into contemporary modes of thought, and whatever native cleverness s/he may possess, all into service of this one end. A good theologian is marked by humility and cheerfulness, knowing how far short of the mystery of God and God’s works his/her best efforts fall, and knowing that in the good grace of God something of lasting worth may still come from them. A good theologian, finally, does know something, and has some capacity of thought, and so can make a contribution through his/her God-given vocation.

I am not a very good theologian.


  1. michael
    Jan 15, 2008

    Neither me. Though I LOVE this post. And, checking one of your books out in the Wycliffe library (the one about tradition) I’d say you areat least doing a pretty fair impression of a very good theologian.

  2. Jim Gordon
    Jan 15, 2008

    I found this post reassuring in its questioning of how we decide which theologian has The X Factor! These polls are good fun, and fun is ok as long as it doesn;t start pretending it should therefore be taken seriously.

    Isn’t there an inevitably subjective element in our judgements about whoe theology is best, good, bad, worst? And supposing we reversed the question and asked who is the worst living theologian? Same problem, how would we find criteria that aren’t already betraying the prejudices of both the criteria-setters and the poll respondents? And unless we have read all the likely contenders how would we judge fairly and properly informed. I think by the way you are right about the obscure French Catholic Monk!

  3. michael
    Jan 15, 2008

    I think, according to your criteria, John Webster is a very good theologian (from what I know of him). And Oliver O’Donovan too.

  4. Steve H
    Jan 15, 2008

    The worst living theologian?

    There was this preacher I heard once on holiday … told us the three things destroying the church were, in order, women in ministry, homosexuality, and the European Union.

    I count it one of the few evidences of my sanctification that he is still living…

  5. Steve H
    Jan 15, 2008


    I certainly wasn’t intending to criticise Ben’s post–just recording some reflections that occurred to me after reading it.

  6. Jordan
    Jan 15, 2008

    Thank you for this refreshing post. I often hear that the best theologians are those who are creative. Yet their works are usually so “creative” that one can hardly understand their point. I definitely prefer and applaud your understanding

  7. Fernando A Gros
    Jan 19, 2008

    Thank You. Of course, I’m not a good theologian either. But you said some things there that don’t just resonate with me, they’ve stirred me up a little as well. I’m staring at a fairly open year with a big scope for writing and you’ve given me a timely reminder of why I’m even in this game at all!


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