Being a theologian for the church

(Phil. 3:12: ‘not that I have already achieved all this…’)

Over the past week, in a variety of ways, a number of connected strands of conversation, each of which I regularly find myself overhearing or involved with, have all come to notice or prominence. All relate to the question of the connection of ‘theologians’ to the life of the church. Often there is an expressed sadness or concern that the various churches – particularly, in my hearing, the Evangelical and Baptist churches that I have the privilege to serve – are not willing, or at least not willing enough, to hear or to use the insights of theologians. As I drove back from giving a lecture in a church conference, in could see in my head a somewhat angry deconstruction of at least several of these strands, which began with the reflection that my own experience is so far from a general unwilllingness to be heard or used that I find that claim almost incomprehensible. Instead of being angry, however, I want hereĀ to attempt a constructive account of how ‘theologians’ should, ideally, be related to the life of the churches.

‘Theologians’ has been in quotation marks so far to indicate the need for a definition. Let me suggest as a first approximation, ‘those whose Christian vocation includes sustained attention to the doctrines of the faith’. considered as a Christian vocation, there are at least two appropriate strands to this: disseminating doctrine; and purifying doctrine.

Dissemination is about helping the churches to access the deposit of faith, both in order to know it better, and in order to correct misapprehensions concerning it. These misapprehensions might be omissions (‘we don’t talk about this anything as much as we should, if we were being faithful to our heritage…’) or errors (‘So-and-so is wrong to claim that Baptists have always believed that…’). The proper task of the theologian here is to be a witness, as unbiased as possible, to the tradition; if I am to be the lens through which a church sees the tradition, then I have a duty (we are talking about theology as Christian vocation here, remember) to be as clear and undistorting lens as possible.

Purification, by contrast, is about challenging the theological tradition: the theologian may come to the view that, in certain ways, some doctrinal positions are in fact wrong, although settled, and so stand in need of reformulation. She may campaign in various ways for such reformulation, publishing, lecturing, and arguing for a few months or for an entire career. The proper task of the theologian here is to be a passionate – and biased – advocate.

This is not a ‘descriptive’ vs ‘evaluative’ distinction, as giving an account of the tradition itself demands the making of evaluative judgements. The judgements here are more nearly historical than doctrinal, but they are judgements, nonetheless. The question of the doctrinal tradition is always going to be a somewhat complex and messy one, perhaps particularly for churches which trace their heritage to the Reformation. They have their birth in a process of doctrinal correction and reformulation, and they profess to remain institutionally committed to further reform, should it appear necessary. In recent decades, the academic theology that relates to them has often suggested that some drastic reformulations are in fact needed, and some of these can seem to have attained a measure of general acceptance in academic discourse. To give an account of what is now standard theology thus requires judgements to be made about the success and importance of various proposed reformulations.

To take an example, consider the question, ‘what is the gospel?’ (a query I’ve seen in several contexts recently), I have a very complex historical narrative in my head which is not easily reducible to a simple answer: differing Lutheran, Calvinist, Roman (& Anabaptist) accounts of the nature of justification; Eastern Orthodox accounts of deification, and the measure of academic interest they have attracted recently; diverse Evangelical traditions, exploring sometimes the link between social justice and salvation, whilst sometimes seeking to protect a very narrow soteriological narrative as being ‘the gospel’; recent developments in academic study of Paul, and the revisionist proposals arising from there; my own estimations of the importance or success of each of these positions; and some awareness, at least, of how my estimations on this last point might differ from the estimations of others. I also have some personal beliefs and commitments which would shape my own constructive attempts to narrate the good news adequately.

I can answer the question – or any such theological question – then, in a number of ways. First, is the questioner interested in an account of the range and limits of possible answers, or a more definite and singular account of one right answer? In either case, I can offer her (at least) my view of what should be said; or my view of what most contemporary theologians (within a particular tradition, possibly) think should be said; or my view of what most people in history have said; or my view of what most contemporary historians think most people in history have said. Each answer has genuine value, but they are different answers.

A theologian who want to be a resource for the churches should be constantly alive to these distinctions, aware of what is being looked for, and clear about what is being offered. It seems to me that too often we are not; in particular, asked for some account of what the church’s teaching has been, we offer instead our own idiosyncratic view of what it should be, omitting any mention of the fact that few others think like this. The exasperation that results, and the sense that theologians are not helpful contributors to the discussion, should not be a surprise.

The theologian who can help the churches will be constantly locating her comments: ‘Well, I think X, but most others think Y’; ‘There are various live options here – A, B, C – even D – I’m committed for various reasons to B, but you need to know about the others’; ‘I think the history of our denomination lends support to this proposal, but you should be aware that others would disagree…’ Equally, she will be ready to be definite when that is required: ‘in my view, X’. Her task, however, will more often involve helping others to appreciate both the range of possible positions, and the definite limits that the tradition has placed on that range; and helping them also to understand some of the significance of the arguments – ‘these are the texts appealed to’; ‘the difference that this argument makes is …’

The theologian who is willing to relate like this does not seek to promote her own good ideas, but instead to help the churches to think better about the questions that concern them, and indeed to think better about which questions should concern them. This is a worthwhile Christian vocation; being seen to be clever – isn’t.


  1. Terry
    Jan 25, 2012

    Good stuff, Steve. But my experience is that people generally want to be told what to believe without knowing about the live options – or they’re not interested at all. How does one overcome that barrier?!

    • Steve H
      Jan 25, 2012

      Hi Terry, thanks.
      I think it depends on who you’re talking to; what you say is often true for lay folk – and reasonably so; I want an accountant or software engineer to give me an answer, not to induct me into the discipline… For church leaders, however, an awareness that there is room for difference becomes very important.

      • Terry
        Jan 26, 2012

        So that raises another question. If it’s church leaders who need to listen to the ‘theologian’, what ought to be the relation between the ‘theologian’ and the lay folk – especially when the ‘theologian’ is one of the lay folk as well? (Of course, I’m speaking about a friend of a friend…)

  2. Mike Higton
    Jan 25, 2012

    One implication of this is that any theologian who wants to be heard by the church needs to spend time and energy listening to the church – or, perhaps better, *attending* to the church. That means (amongst other things) attending to the thinking that is already going on – learning to recognise the locations in which it is going on, the patterns of reasoning and the kinds of resources involved, the questions being asked. Of course, one might need to broaden one’s definitions of ‘thinking’, ‘reasoning’ and ‘resources’ – but my sense over the years has increasingly been that it is best to begin with the assumption that far more thinking is going on, in far more complex ways, than meets the inattentive eye.

    The normal task of a theologian in relation to the church is occasionally to adjust the stream of existing faithful thinking – or, perhaps better, occasionally, by the grace of God, to be part of the process by which that stream shifts its channel over time.

    Another way of putting this: beware of any theologian who wants to start a movement – or who aspires to become an adjective.

    • Steve H
      Jan 25, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by, Mike.
      Yes to most of that. Although I don’t have a problem with someone wanting to change the mind of the church, just so long as they are clear and open about what they are doing. What annoys me (& I’ve seen it rather too often) is the rhetoric of ‘I am an expert, and I say this is truth,’ when ‘this’ is in fact my current pet theory…

      On the last, I aspire to become a gerund – so much more exclusive and classy…

  3. Steve Walton
    Jan 25, 2012

    Good stuff, Steve! I’m reflecting on some related questions in preparing my inaugural lecture on ‘What is progress in New Testament Studies?’

    • Steve H
      Jan 25, 2012

      Thanks, Steve – and congratulations on your chair!

      I hope the lecture goes well – a bit far to come and hear you, unfortunately.

  4. Howard
    Jan 27, 2012

    Some of the answer of how a ‘theologian’ speaks to the church has, on a pragmatic level, to be seen in terms of relationship and time.

    Theologians in academic life and not those in church leadership have the ability to speak into the church through 1. The teaching and mentoring of emerging generations of leaders as they lecture and influence them during their ministry formation. 2. through published material they amplify that influence (for example as an antipodean presbyterian I have read your blog for the past year). This in actual fact gives theologians a pivotal and significant role to bring change and shape the church and churches they and the institutions they are part of serve.

    It may take time but as a students move out into the church and take up leadership roles it gives context to do the dissimination and purification you see your role as. It has been interesting in New Zealand to watch the impact Jason Goroncy has made over a relatively short period of time because of that relationship with ordinations students here.

    The third way in which theologians are able to speak into the church has to be through accessibility. While bloging and other internet broadcasting are no substitiute for personal relationship they do allow people like me to have access and a small window into theologians reflections on various issues. This is no a substitue for acdemic rigour but opens the door for that. Again for example as I have been in contact with people and other church leaders who have wantyed to rip Rob Bell ‘a new one’ or ‘see him as the new mesiah’ (emotive languge used here) over ‘love wins in the end’ I have been able to point them to your blog and reflections as a sane and balanced response that allows people to be able to think through the issues the book raised.

    As a theolgian pratiioner (a humble church planter, pastor) who has been working with university students for the past three years I find myself agreeing with your formula of answering questions. It is the template I use.

    • Steve H
      Jan 27, 2012

      Welcome, Howard, and thanks for this. I’m not sure I have anything to add.

      Always good to hear of an alumnus (or alumna) making a difference!

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