Inside the lecture room we make a distinction between biblical scholars and theologians. The former are either Old Testament or New Testament, and the latter specialize in systems of thought, whether they focus on telling us what theologians teach (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Barth) or what is to be taught (systematics).
But outside those walls, and particularly in the local church, that distinction vanishes quickly when folks want wisdom or answers to questions. They don’t care if I’m a New Testament guy, they might ask me about Genesis or about Jonathan Edwards. Sometimes, frankly, Christians disparage the academic life of a theologian; they can put-down those who have intellectual pursuits; they can even get into the “real life” vs. the “speculative” stuff. This is not particularly helpful to anyone, and so we need to chase down a better way.
What the Church wants from specialists is wisdom, and this brings me to something Alister McGrath recently wrote about in his new book in Alister McGrath’s newest book, The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind.
He discusses what theologians– and I post a pic to the right of Miroslav Volf, one of America’s premier theologians — can provide for the church under four categories, but before I get there I wonder what role a theologian plays in your local church? Does your church have a “theologian”? What if you have questions … to whom do you go? What advice do you have for theologians? Which theologians do you think are really of help to the church today?
McGrath sees four components of the professional theologian’s contribution to the life of the church, and in this neither he nor I are diminishing the theological role of the pastor – and in some ways the pastor as theologian plays the same role as the professional theologian:
First, the theologian can be a resource person for the local church. Every church and every pastor has questions; often the pastor is in communication with a college professor, a seminary professor or even an author who happens to know a subject.
Second, the theologian can be an interpreter of the Christian tradition for the local church. Just recently I got a note from a pastor friend who got a letter from a parishioner who took her to task for something she said, and sent me the note — not for gossip but for genuine help with a perplexing set of inquiries. I was able to sort through some of the letter because I had been there and knew the subject and I made a few suggestions. But the whole issue came down to the letter writer having a substantially different theology than the pastor. Theologians can help here, and they can often bring the history of theology to bear on a particular issue.
Third, a theologian can be an interpreter of the Christian tradition to those outside the church. We often call these “public intellectuals” today, but think about the number of times that Christian thinkers are called into play when questions arise, and what I’m seeing in the age of the internet is the presence of theologians now on the internet and on cable TV — though sometimes the theologian is one person removed for a pastor is the one who is called into play (and the pastor has been in touch with some theologian). We needed theologians for the DaVinci Code fiasco.
Fourth, a theologian is a fellow traveler with and within the community of faith. Augustine and JI Packer are theologians who were (and are) involved in the local church — theologizing and pastoring and mentoring. Yes, some theologians seem not to care about the local church but far more care and care deeply. What happens in the community often shapes what the theologian cares about and thinks about and writes about.