What Good’s a Theologian?

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.

"Interestingly, when I was younger and working long hours, I never walked my dog. Now ..."

The Dog (Walking) Days Of Summer
"Good reminder to get out (not to mention the benefits of being outside). However, during ..."

The Dog (Walking) Days Of Summer
"Hey Richard,Did you see you see my question below?"

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and ..."
"Yo Scot (in line with the book). I like The Blue Parakeet. The emphasis on ..."

Weekly Meanderings, 14 July 2018

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Great post!

    *Several theologians (both inside and outside my own faith tradition) have been very helpful to me at times. Very often they were responding to questions I had raised. On several occasions, I learned that a much broader theological discussion of an issue had taken place in earlier years.

    *I am thinking about two Ph.D students in particular (theology) who made a significant contribution to the life of our church through their teaching.

    *Finally, years ago a young theologian (a professor) invited me to reflect upon my preaching over the past year and consider whether or not their might be some theological gaps. Then consider filling these gaps in over the course of the following year as I plan my preaching.

  • Don

    Great post Scot. Being nested next to Westmont College, our church has ready access to some fine theologians and biblical scholars whom we use on a regular basis for teaching, resourcing us on issues and helping me think through various concerns. Having a living/breathing person in residence provides the back and forth on a topic that a static book cannot necessarily do. That’s why your visit here years ago was so valuable!

  • rjs


    Great post – and important question. I think most of our church has no need or use for theologians – and this includes many pastors. After all they are trying to reach the real person in the pew and carry out real world missional work.

    That comment is a bit harsh perhaps – but over the decades this has been one of the things I’ve found most frustrating. You asked … “Does your church have a “theologian”? What if you have questions … to whom do you go?” There is no one to go to – answering question, not superficial lip service answers requires far to much time and effort. Most pastors simply do not have the time, it is not a good use of scarce resources.

    This is a place though where web, and interactive blogs like this, can play a very important role. This isn’t an “ask the experts” Q and A – but a conversation to which all are invited.

  • T

    I have no “theologians” that are personally part of our church. But that’s where the web and amazon come in!

    Scot, you have been really helpful in being that resource who is such a scholar/theologian and has connections to others as well. Your endless book reviews are so helpful, even though I’ve only actually gone and read one or two of the books by theologians that you’ve mentioned here, I know I can come to this site and search when I have a question that needs help from a place of greater, more careful, depth.

    I found Michael Gorman thanks to you, and am grateful for his work and influence. Of course, N.T. Wright is a bit of a total package for what you describe, and is a great help to many. Your work on “the Jesus Creed” has been enormously helpful to me to give my own discipleship a needed focal point.

    BTW, a very recent devotional discovery: I’ve never “read” Psalm 1’s reference to “God’s law” as referring to the Jesus Creed, I’ve always read it thinking back to the books of Moses, which seemed a bit daunting and unhelpful, but based on Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching, I’m very pleased to now read the wonderful picture in that Psalm as also appropriate for one who meditates on the Jesus Creed and the kind of “love” God seeks to establish in us for him and others. Thanks again.

  • I’m probably in small category of pastors that have advanced academic degrees in theology, and so in that sense I’m able to fulfill that role for my congregation. But, might we broaden the question or at least make a distinction between the trained theologian (which in one sense should include most pastors with M.Div. degrees) and the “lay” theologian. At one level, we are all theologians, in that we are called upon as children of God to reflect upon the nature and purpose of God.

  • rjs,

    You said, “I think most of our church has no need or use for theologians – and this includes many pastors. After all they are trying to reach the real person in the pew and carry out real world missional work.”

    I think this is precisely WHY we need theologians in our churches. Many think theology is just intellectual banter about God; it is much more than that.

    A good theologian is not just concerned about intellectual banter, but how that gets translated into the “real world.” I am entering in my last year of seminary, and there is no doubt on the importance of theology to missional work. For example, when talking on short-term missions, why do most churches as take a mission trip to another country? I would bet most of the time it is for the people taking the trip, not the other way around. Or thinking through the implications of going and building a home for someone who needs it there when all the locals could have used the money you raised to go to build 10 homes and employed some people at the same time.

    That example is one of theological reflection. There is no dichotomy between theology and mission.

    Now, if all you do is discuss the intellectual banter of theology (which needs to happen), but do not reflect on how that translates to God’s mission in the world, then I think eventually people will become complacent and more than likely bitter.

    Pastors need to dispel the myth on “theology.” Maybe we need to reclaim the word in light of mission or find some language that communicates the importance of it to the “every day” person in the pew. I am one of those people, and I appreciated anyone who has a deep pool to draw from theologically. Does this make sense?

    And on a side note, I think Scot is more of an “expert” on some of these things than others might give him credit for. He is well read and written, and many of my friends in seminary use him as a legitimate scholar.

    Grace and peace.

  • Phillip

    I serve in an unusual church in that we have no “full-time” staff. In our small church (about 80 on Sunday mornings), three of us rotate preaching (two OT profs and one church history/spiritual formation prof). So I guess we are the resident theologians and can question and test each other. Yet, in another sense, our elders are the resident theologians. Two of the three have no theological degrees, but they all have read and studied Scripture their whole lives and invested themselves in the life of the church for decades. So they provide a different and needed experiential theological voice (as do so many of our members).

    As far as theologians who help the church today, there are so many, but I have found Chris Wright to be very helpful. He writes for the church and to the church (i.e., a popular audience can read much of his stuff). His works on mission are wonderful. And I loved that a seasoned scholar like him can write a book like “The God I Don’t Understand”!

  • BPRJam

    I love this post, and go to one of those churches that “don’t have time for theology”. As a non-staff church member with an M.Div and a deep love for good theology, this is often a point of concern for me, especially since the staff has the same “we don’t need no stinking theology” mindset. It hasn’t always been easy to stay committed to a church like this.

    One resource I’ve found that helps is “Who Needs Theology?” by Grenz and Olson. But grunt work makes the biggest difference.

    To chase a rabbit for a moment, I’ve always been a bit baffled by why theology and Christian practice seem to most parishioners to be divorced from one another, but those same people will noodle and oodle over Glen Beck, Keith Olbermann, or whoever, as if political pundits aren’t just a divorced from real American life as theologians can be from Church life. Why the love for one but not the other? Could it have to do with which one is more immanent in their lives?

  • To BPRJam #8 —

    It is unfortunate that too many of our churches — and their pastors — have this sense that in your words “we don’t need no stinking theology.” I’m not a creedalist — and in this forum am one of the more “liberal” participants, but the vitality of the church is undermined without informed theological reflection. This mindset is prominent across the “party” lines, but it seems to be a growing problem among evangelicals.

    But, maybe this is part of a growing anti-intellectualism that seems to be spreading across the country. Get rid of the experts, the elites. Experience doesn’t count. And so we’re left with — “we don’t need no stinking theology.” Of course then we’re more likely to look to Beck or Olbermann for our theology! (I actually like Keith as a sports analyst!)

  • I’m currently reading “Heresy” by Alister McGrath, and it’s fascinating to watch him chart the growth of certain heresies, which he argues mostly developed from an honest intention to explain difficult theology. Good theologians, like Athanasius, are just as important today as they were in the patristic era, as we are as prone as ever to wander past the boundaries of orthodoxy without realizing it. And what a wonderful age we live in when most churches (and all churches in the developed world) have instant access to good theology.

  • Mijk V

    When anyone thinks/talks about God, theology happens by default, there’s no escaping it. So the matter is not theology vs. no-theology, but what kind of theology. And in that vein, then it becomes a matter of good theology vs. bad theology, reflective vs. unreflective, etc.

  • Clay Knick

    If you are a pastor you are the resident theologian whether you want to be or not. When I was ordained as an UM Elder one of the things I was ordained to do was teach. We will be asked questions about God, life, the Bible, something someone has read or seen on The Discovery Channel, the history of Israel & the Church and on it goes. Of course the “big” questions about theodicy always come up. So the pastor, for good or ill, is the resident theologian of the local church.

    Because of this I read, study, attend conferences (I go to Duke Div. every year for Convocation), surf the Internet for great blogs (Jesus Creed is #1!), talk with and e-mail professors and pastors and try to keep up. This is part of my calling and how I grow spiritually, too.

    Theologians? Volf is near the top of the list, but there are others, of course. Recently I’ve gone back to reading Don Bloesch an early influence on my life and a friend. I try to read everything N.T. Wright has published (Mickey Efird at Duke Div. recommended doing that). Willimon is a great pastoral theologian. I love Tom Oden, Hauerwas, & so many others.

  • I married my theologian.

  • Mark

    One hopes that the local pastor is the theologian in residence. This has two problems. First a generation and a half at least have been “trained” that the pastor is a cheap counselor instead of a theologian. (Abysmal mistake just from a practical level.) Second is the 50 mile problem. Theologian, like Pastor, is a title of respect. You might apply it to someone who lives more than 50 miles away – they are experts after all. The local Pastor has to earn that over years of demonstrating the value of theology. And with the average tenure of pastors floating somewhere around 3 year, that just doesn’t happen.

    Now here is the real problem. There are people 50 miles away that beam themselves directly into your parishoner’s houses. If they are reading blogs that is actually better. Its the popular preachers that are scream inducing. Because as a local pastor you then are spending time arguing with the “50 mile expert” trying to correct really bad theology.

    The best thing that good theologians could do for the local church is blog or make themselves some kind of public presence. And most of all don’t be an academic squish. I love to be able to make an argument and then point at a “50 mile expert” who I know is solid.

    Three names other than this site that are useful are Jim West, Ben Myers and Gordon Atkinson. (I know that last one can be squishy – but he’s an honest squishy.) They all look at life as it is lived with theological eyes. They are honest and widely divergent examples of practicing theology.

  • If I were going to have advice for theologians, it would be to become fluent in one more language (beyond the ones they learned for Biblical studies and research purposes. When theologians can speak the language of the people in the pew. This is hard, I think, because theologians carefully choose their words, they understand better than most that specific meaning for a word matters. But, the people they speak to don’t care as much, and they don’t have the time to comprehend all the nuances. They want to wrestle with theology that leads to clear and compelling actions points for Christian life in this world.

    I think that N.T. Wright works hard at this and is pretty successful – for pastors. But I still feel like I must “translate” Wright’s work so that my congregation can comprehend the “so what?” and formulate a plan of action. I minister in an urban working class neighborhood, a mix bag of educational accomplishments – smart people but not ambitious towards rigorous, disciplined thinking.

    I serve as the pastor and resident theologian. I just typed up an email the other day on why I don’t like the popular gospel song “I’ll Fly Away. Having read lots of Wright’s stuff on resurrection, I felt like I was able to give a clear and comprehensible explanation for my position. It elicited some insightful responses. But the overwhelming response from others was of disinterest. They like to sing the song, why should I get picky on eschatological differences. 🙂 I have a ways to go with my congregation, but we’re getting there.

    Theology matters, but it’s usually up to the theologian to prove his helpfulness to the people in need.

  • MattR

    To answer your question Scot, I think the pastor, or teaching elders (depending on you tradition) should be the theologians of the local church, and in regular contact and collaboration with those who are teaching in academic settings.

    Unfortunately I think the divide goes both ways… with some in the academy seeing their job as ‘truth,’ and pastors trained to see their job in the church as ‘practical.’

    You’re right on… what we need is wisdom, and we need pastors who are doing ‘street theology,’ and professors who are doing theology in and for the church.

    There are several great recent examples, some already mentioned here… Volf, NT Wright, Clark Pinnock, and recently Dwight Friesen put out his first full length book
    he’s a great ‘younger’ theologian/pastor… and of course would have to give you Scot a mention 🙂

    On the pastoral side, I would point out guys like Greg Boyd and Rob Bell who are engaging with theological issues in pastoral ministry.

  • Bob Young

    Well, I like McKnight leading off and playing center field – he’s kinda spunky. N.T. Wright out in left field and Piper in right (so long as we have a lefty pitching so they don’t hit too many balls his way). I think I’d go with Rob Bell on the mound with Brian McLaren behind the dish calling the pitches – that way the opposing team will have plenty of balls to hit and hopefully the infielders will do their job. Maybe Irenaus at first base, with Calvin and Luther up the middle, and Peter Rollins at third base. Macarthur can be the bullpen catcher – not sure I want him on the field. John Bunyan and Francis Schaeffer in long relief. Perhaps Packer as the set-up man with Bilezikian as closer. And of course Mark Driscoll as designated HITTER.

  • Thanks for this. I just finished reading and reviewing McGrath’s book The Passionate Intellect and loved it, especially the challenge that theology which does not impact society is not good theology. Great book and good review. My experience though, is that many pastors seem themselves as the only “go to” guy/gal in the church and often get intimidated if parishioners go to someone else (say a resident theologian). I’m thankful I do not have such a pastor, mine loves theology and dialogue. I do wish, however, that we had a professional theologian at our desposal.

  • Alan K

    RJS #3 suggests that the tyranny of time is what is undermining the capacity of the pastor to be a theologian–busied by reaching the real person in the pew and carrying out real world missional work. It seems that the church ran into this problem a couple thousand years ago, and so the twelve said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on table. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to the serving of the word.” And lest we view such thinking as outdated, hierarchical, or simply in bad taste, Luke adds as comment: “What they said pleased the whole community.”

    The calling to pastoral ministry is to that of being a theologian. I cannot fathom the work of doing theology being separated from it. Eugene Peterson used to block out huge tracts of time in his day when he was not to be bothered by appointments so that he could read the fathers and read the greats. This, of course, required that he have confidence in the rest of his church that the church’s mission did not require his constant handholding or his presence. Of course they were equipped for mission because Eugene led them as a theologian, not as a CEO.

  • DRT

    In my last church the pastor knew quite a lot of theology from various perspectives but when pushed to have us actually teach the theology he would say “theology divides the church” and refused to actually teach anything other than basic Moralistic Therapeutic Deism while only hinting at anything better during service. He was so afraid of the people that he refused to teach or have anyone else teach.

  • Phillip

    Some in my church make statements akin to “we don’t need no stinkin’ theology.” I think their gripe is with the kind of theological speculations and jargon that do not actually help in living the Christian life. One of my colleagues tells his theology classes that they can always stop him and ask “so what”? It’s not a bad question to keep asking. As to jargon, one of my co-preachers has been good to remind me that some words I drop in sermons aren’t “church words.” In my context, it includes words like canon, any Greek or Hebrew word, and missional. The books I read use them, but not the people in my church’s pews.

  • I’m part of a small developing church plant in a university town. Being ‘new’ have had a lot of freedom to try out stuff.

    One thing I’ve really enjoyed is what we call ‘Forum’ where someone prepares and sets up a topic for discussion (we have a few theologically trained people around). No opinion is off limits, what is said there stays there, its open to anyone (over 18) and its a ‘safe’ and civil space to ask questions, debate, agree and disagree. We’ve seen someone move from sceptial agnostic to Christian faith as a result of seeing that you can believe in God and be a scientist (one of the topics we covered).

    It’s a small low key thing, but we’re trying to ‘do theology’ arising out of ‘lived life’ questions of faith. That seems to me what the NT essentially is and what theology should be about. BTW, Volf came to the unversity a while back. I remember him passionately urging that theologians write about big issues of life not incomprehensible minutiae a couple of people will ever read and one may understand.

    Scratch a bit and people have all sorts of theological questions tho they might not describe it that way. The church (and pastors) need not to be afraid of debate and challenge. As RJS says, if there is no opportunity to do so at church, people have plenty of easy opportunity to seek answers elsewhere. This may be good if they go to Jesus Creed, but not so good if its … well I’ll be civil in light of Scot’s post on blogging manners!

  • scotmcknight


    A forum-like event is happening over here too and I hear great results. Open candid questions are good opportunities and I’m glad to hear you are doing this … and where are you involved in starting a church?

  • It’s actually the place you spoke at – its a daughter church started a while ago with a small core group. And nearly 3 yrs ago became an independent church within the denomination.

  • Bob Young #17

    So Bob, who do you see as the opposing team? 😉

  • What bugs me is when theologians disparage pastors – often biblical theologians – for incorrect exegesis, or exegetical methodology. I want to push back and say, then teach us better!

  • Bob Young

    Michael Kruse #25

    The opposing team is probably the All-Stars from the Jesus Seminar and the New Atheists.

  • We do have a very fine resident theologian at our church, Byard Bennett, who is also a professor at a local seminary. I imbibe your writings, Scot, along with the likes of Miroslav
    Volf, N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, and some others.

    The Christian heritage is so rich in theological tradition, that this should be one stream entering the church at all times, in one way or another. Or ideally, anyhow. And we Christians need to come to understand that our interface with faith in life is within story, which ends up being theological at its core in terms of God’s working in Jesus for the world.

  • scotmcknight

    C’mon Bob, pull your chair up to the table (I’ve got red wine, a wise choice for me) and let’s hear the other side:

    I’ll start it out:

    Leading off, Richard Dawkins, playing RF so he can sit back and watch and then try to make a big throw.
    Second, playing catcher and chatting and crowing is Sam Harris.
    Third, the big slugger is Marc Borg, who thinks there’s no apocalyptic hope for the home team but …

    Bob, who is hitting in the fourth hole?

  • Bob Young

    Scot re #29:

    Like I said – SPUNKY! I’ll grab me a non-American beer and join you. OK, here we go…

    4. 1B – Penn Gillette
    5. SS – Alan “Hawkeye” Alda (just to hear his chirping)
    6. 2B – Christopher Hitchens (a guaranteed out)
    7. LF – Bill Maher (but he WANTS to bat 3rd)
    8. CF – Brian McLaren (he plays both sides, right?)
    9. 3B – Steven Hawking (and if he gets a hit, it’s truly the end of the world)

    I’ll leave the bench to you. 🙂

  • Just ordered this book. I love Alister McGrath, even though he writes too much and gets too derivative sometimes.

    Here is what really caught my attention: endorsements by Michael Horton and Millard Erickson??? To a non-inerrantist, theistic evolutionists book on theology??? Very interesting.