What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1

What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1 May 26, 2013

What Is “Theology” and Who Does It? Part 1

            It may sound like a simple question (or two simple questions), but it’s not. I’ve been a “professional theologian” (someone who gets paid for being one) for thirty-one years and before that I was preparing to be one for several years. The dream of being a theologian probably formed in my mind during seminary. I sensed that I would never understand my Christian faith as fully as I wanted to without being a theologian myself. And I desperately wanted to understand my faith. But the roots of my vocation go back to childhood. I was raised in a pastor’s home and in a “high demand” church. Jesus and the Bible saturated our home, not just our church. And I always had an inquiring mind. After church I would often quiz my father about the meanings of hymns we sang and of things I heard in his sermon or in my Sunday School lesson. I didn’t always find his answers satisfying and that sense of dissatisfaction with answers stayed with me and grew stronger as I matriculated at our denomination’s college where I was spoon fed doctrines and not really allowed to explore them.

            The sense that theology might be my calling, however, really dawned in me during seminary. Some of my professors were brilliant, sensitive and very spiritual men and women who encouraged my inquisitiveness even when they didn’t have satisfying answers to my questions. My main textbook in “Systematic Theology” was Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics (3 volumes) and I loved it. Reading it propelled me to read deeper and wider in scholarly theology so that I eventually read in Barth, Tillich, Moltmann, Pannenberg, etc. And, yes, I also read portions of the church fathers and great Reformers—especially Calvin (Institutes). I knew I was an evangelical and determined to remain one, so I explored evangelical theologians. I found Carl Henry dry as dust but Bernard Ramm exhilarating. But my favorite was Donald Bloesch and I read everything I could get my hands on by him.

            My own faith family (broadly defined) rejected my thirst for theology and my calling to become a theologian. Nobody in it had ever done that without “losing the faith.” Seminary was routinely called “cemetery” and my determination to study theology led indirectly, if not directly, to my exclusion from my faith family which was saturated in anti-intellectualism. That I was attending seminary was bad enough, but when I announced my acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Religious Studies (with a concentration in theology) at a secular university my spiritual mentors rejected me entirely.

            All that is to say that my earliest experiences of becoming and then being a theologian, someone who professionally conducts research in and teaches and writes theology, were negative—so far as the people nearest and dearest to me were concerned. I will never forget the day before I left to study theology in Germany (during my Ph.D. work) I attended a family reunion. A dear uncle who was a wonderful Christian, but untutored in biblical studies or theology, took me aside and said “Roger, remember, there’s such a thing as an over educated idiot.” No one congratulated me or patted me on the back or said anything positive about my studies or my calling or my goals. I could easily detect a great hesitation and even uneasiness about what I was doing. It was considered dangerous and a waste of time. They all would have preferred I went directly from college into ministry—preferably as a missionary.

            In large segments of American Christianity “theology” is almost a dirty word.

            And yet, whenever I explained theology as “faith seeking understanding” or “thinking about God” those same people, my faith family, would indicate that they thought that was something they did—better than any professionally trained “scholarly” theologian. And yet, time and time again, as I listened to and attempted to interact with them, I realized they knew almost nothing about theology. Their “theology” was folk religion. I wanted to move beyond that without leaving my evangelical faith behind.

            I hoped to discover a “world” where theology as I understood it—intellectually serious, even scholarly thinking about God (“the science of God”)—would be valued and where my vocation and training would be affirmed and used by people of God. That was my dream. For the most part it has been dashed.

            My advice to young would-be theologians (in the sense I mean the vocation) is be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued. Only go into it if you can’t do otherwise. For the most part, with notable and blessed exceptions, American culture and faith communities will not really value what you do. And you will often, even continually, be confronted with two attitudes among people of faith. One will be that you are wasting your time and theirs and unnecessarily complicating the Christian faith. The other will be that others do what you think you do better.

            During my studies in Germany my wife and I attended a Baptist church pastored by a “missionary” from the U.S. It was an English-speaking church with ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. The reason is that my wife and daughter did not speak or understand German. There were a few German-speaking Baptist churches in the city where we lived, but we settled on the English-speaking one for their sakes. (I often attended a German Lutheran church down the street before they joined me for the early afternoon Sunday worship service at the English-speaking Baptist church.) The pastor was a nice enough fellow, but he had no use for theology—except his own folk religious version of it. (He was not a seminary graduate.) I will never forget the Sunday he preached on the Christian’s attitude toward “secular culture.” He ended his sermon with “The Christian’s attitude toward secular culture should be ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up’.” I felt swept up and transported back to my faith family of origin and the college I attended.

            I reveled in my doctoral studies in religion and theology but always held tightly to the broad evangelical faith of my seminary days.

            I walked into my first full time teaching position, in a Christian university, thinking my theological training would be valued and affirmed by people of my own faith orientation. It was an evangelical university with a strongly charismatic flavor. I had wonderful colleagues and many fine students—some of who come here occasionally (to my blog). The top administration, however, was just as anti-intellectual and anti-theological as anything I had ever encountered in my childhood and youth. The president (who was also the founder) forbid any philosophy major or department and was clearly suspicious of theology and theologians. He attempted to change course titles that included “theology” to say “doctrine” instead. “Introduction to Christian Theology” (which I taught in the undergraduate department) was to become “Introduction to Bible Doctrine.” Several of my colleagues in both the undergraduate and graduate departments of theology informed me that the president of the university was intentionally “untouched” by theology. Still, and nevertheless, I was left mostly alone in the classroom. I was free to select textbooks without interference and teach theology as I wanted to and felt led to.

            I left that university for several reasons, the main one being the top administration’s attitudes toward the life of the mind including theology. I could sense that I could never flourish there as a theologian. And I desperately wanted to enter into the “mainstream” of evangelical academic life by teaching in an evangelical Christian liberal arts college with a seminary (and perhaps eventually teach in the seminary). So I made my first career move—to a well-known and influential, growing evangelical Baptist college and seminary (now a university). I taught theology there for fifteen years and, for the most part, loved it. Again, I had many wonderful colleagues and excellent students. The constituency, however, was another matter. So were some of my colleagues and administrators.

            I will never forget the day I walked into the faculty lounge (to get a cup of coffee) and was introduced to a long-time member of the Cultural Studies Department—an anthropologist. He asked me what I would be teaching at the college and I replied “theology.” He scowled and said “Theology? We teach theology in our department.” It was the first shot across the bow of a long-standing debate about theology that would go on for years within the college. Some of my colleagues believed (and they were not alone among evangelical academics) that “theology” is a pseudo-discipline and that “real theology” was taught in other departments (than the Biblical and Theological Studies Department). One colleague in the Arts Department informed me that his works of art expressed Christian faith as well if not better than theology.

            Gradually I deduced that I was faced with a new form of antipathy toward theology—as I understood my professional discipline and vocation. It wasn’t anti-intellectual at all; it was simply rejection of formal, scholarly, academic theology as a distinct discipline alongside others in the academy. That rejection stemmed from various impulses; there was no one reason for it. But I found it to be common, not only in the college where I taught but in many other academic and religious communities—both “mainline” and evangelical.

            I entered theology as a career, a vocation, a life’s endeavor, for personal reasons of faith. I wanted to understand my Christian faith. But I also expected to find Christian communities that would value and affirm it and me. I at least hoped to be respected if I conducted myself rightly. What I often encountered, however, among both so-called “mainline” Christians and my fellow evangelicals was a suspicion of theology and resistance to it. (I worked for a few years under an administrator who regularly referred to those of us who taught theology as “you theology types” with a sneer in his voice. Most who shared his opinion were not as blatant about their disdain. Later, another administrator told me “Our students don’t need to know anything about Barth or Tillich or any other theologians”.)

            Of course, there have been many exceptions. And they have given me hope and strength.

            Overall and in general, however, I have encountered mostly suspicion and resistance to serious, scholarly, academic theology—from secular people (of course), anti-intellectual Christians, and fellow Christians who do take the life of the mind seriously.

            The most dismaying party of people who are suspicious toward theology and resist it has been fellow evangelical (or just biblically-serious) intellectuals, scholars and academics—philosophers, biblical scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Many of them openly express the opinion that if “theology” has any value it is what they do and that theology itself, as a distinct discipline, is unnecessary at best and a pseudo-science (like astrology) at worst.

            Here are some reasons for that attitude. First, many evangelical scholars, intellectuals, academics have encountered and been “burned” by theologians who pontificate. They tend to blame all theologians and theology itself for those who have abused them. Second, many tend to think of theology, as a discipline, as esoteric and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously as a distinct discipline (in the sense the Germans mean by “scientific”—wissenschaftlich). In other words, they view it as speculative at best. Third, and perhaps this is a combination of the first two, many think that theology unnecessarily and even harmfully complicates religious faith, the Bible, and spirituality. One form this takes among some biblical scholars is the suspicion that theology attempts to impose harmony on the Bible—reducing the gospels to one account of Jesus’ life and ministry and forcing Jesus (or the gospel writers) to agree with Paul and vice versa.

            Perhaps the single most important, influential reason for the attitude I describe is the opinion that religion is primarily about ethics and/or spirituality and not doctrine. Therefore, the work of theologians is unnecessary unless it is simply the exposition of Christian discipleship and/or spiritual formation.

            No doubt some readers will think I am simply whining here—“I don’t get no respect!” (Rodney Dangerfield) Well, not really. I came to terms with this situation long ago even though I still find it dismaying—not because it hurts my feelings but because I think it hurts the churches.

            In Part 2 I will explain what I think theology really is and why it is a distinct and important discipline that should be valued and respected by Christians.

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  • Trevor Lloyd

    I began my Christian life in churches and a fundamentalist-charismatic movement which was at best ambivalent and usually hostile to ‘theology’ and the intellect, and just plain ignorant of academic theology. Recently, however, I have been exposed to such theology increasingly and am loving it. In the process, I have really been helped by your blog and books, so please know that there are those of us out here who appreciate the journey you have made and are invisible but grateful beneficiaries of it.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks. That helps me keep on keeping on.

  • Lee Majors

    Do you have any recommendations for someone new to Bloesch and Ramm ?

    • Roger Olson

      For Ramm I suggest After Fundamentalism (a bad title for a good book) and for Bloesch I recommend the first volume of his Foundations series on Word and Spirit (theological method). Their early books (ones that influenced me when I was in seminary) include Special Revelation and the Word of God (Ramm) and The Ground of Certainty (Bloesch). Don’t judge their books by the titles!

  • Eric

    I’m really sorry you have encountered so much animosity and resist in your own “family” of evangelicals. I am curious about interaction you have had with Catholic and more so with Eastern Orthodox theologians. I would like to think that they would treat others with more respect than Evangelicals. Is that so?

    • Roger Olson

      I have had many interactions with both RC and EO theologians. Some have been very positive and some not so positive (toward outsiders). I have found that converts from Protestantism to RC and EO are the most likely to be caustic toward Protestants such as myself. Those who grew up RC and EO tend to be more patient.

  • Matt W

    Theology and well-thought-out orthodox doctrines are so important to the Church. I am grateful for passionate and sincere theologians. And am grateful for your voice Dr. Olson in your blogs and books. Good theology makes me want to always read more and dig in to the wonderful truths of our Faith.

  • Steven Seipke

    I grew up in the NAB Conference but attended SWBTS in the mid 80’s. I first encountered Emil Brunner through John Kiwiet and his writings have greatly influenced my life and ministry. I am curious who at NAB Seminary introduced you to Brunner’s Systematic Theology?

    • Roger Olson

      I tried to respond yesterday but I’m not sure it went through this new system. Once again…It was Ralph Powell who introduced me to Brunner in seminary. He passed away last year.

  • M85

    I’m studying “theology” at undergraduate level and i’ve had some similar reactions. I’m a pentecostal so i can understand to a certain degree the kinds of comments people make from that faith tradition. Lots of people really seem to despise “theology” and especially theologians: i would say there is a grain of truth in the fact that theology can be potentially useless or even damaging. I see theology as a tool that can be used in various ways: good or bad.
    I, and i’m sure many others, deeply appreciate your work (books + blog) Dr. Olson. Thanks for always sharing your thoughts and insights with us!

  • David Graham

    Thanks for the encouragement. As a theology student who serves in a charismatic evangelical church (in Canada), my experience has confirmed much of what you express, especially the “religion is about ethics” attitude. Do you think that perhaps an anti-theology sentiment is endemic to evangelicalism, given that a sectarian ecclesiology is inevitably inhospitable to theoretical complexity and historical awareness? In other words, perhaps the problem is that much of evangelicalism is plagued by a fundamentalist view of the church within which “theology types”, due to their resistance to simplistic answers and appreciation of the thinking of “outsiders”, emerge as a threat to the faith’s purity (and thus the denomination’s subsistence). What do you think?

    • Roger Olson

      I’m not sure about the link with ecclesiology; I see problems with theology and theologians in denominations of different ecclesiologies.

  • Roger,

    Thanks for posting this. As one who just finished my doctorate and is beginning to teach in an evangelical seminary (while also pastor a church), this was very helpful to read. I too understand my work as focusing on theology proper, and I do feel the push back between the biblical scholars (who see systematics as needlessly harmonizing) and the “philosophical theologian” who are feel of confessionalism. I look forward to your next post.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Hey Roger, you said,”One form this takes among some biblical scholars is the suspicion that theology attempts to impose harmony on the Bible—reducing the gospels to one account of Jesus’ life and ministry and forcing Jesus (or the gospel writers) to agree with Paul and vice versa.”

    I’m not exactly sure I understand what this means.
    I do have to agree that it doesn’t take pursuing becoming a theologian to get the dander up of the fundamentalism I’ve grown up in. Just asking that one question past their comfort zone brings on the lowered eye brows and short tone. There have been some serious changes within my family towards me in just investigating things theological. Keep pressing on my man.

  • John Smith

    Roger, I need to leave a note here of thanks to you for this and a couple years of reading your blogs (and books). A bit of my story. I’m 62, and I’m a recovering independent fundamentalist. I grew up and attended independent fundamental churches for the first 40 some years of my life. I’ve been in a United Methodist church for about the last couple decades. The hierarchical denominational structure annoys me (I’m our church’s lay leader and lay delegate so I’ve been to many West Ohio conferences), but at least here among these flawed Christians like me I’ve been able to explore, learn, study and test theology in real life without someone condemning me or questioning my faith in Christ.

    For me, theology is simply learning who God is, knowing Him, and how to live life with Him. Someday, now sooner than later, I will meet him. I don’t want to be a stranger. I know I am a failure at living life like Jesus. I wonder how Abraham and others got to be friends with God? How did the disciples learn to be friends with Jesus? Can we also be friends with God? Is that a possible reality? For me, this is theology – the work of knowing God, loving Him, and living life with Him, despite who I am and as I am. This sounds very self-centered and it is.

    A crucial little book in my life was a Moody Press paperback of condensed entries from John Wesley’s journal. My devoutly Methodist grandmother gave it to me when I was a teen, and I still have it. Wesley was a flawed man, but he wanted more than anything else to know God and Christ and experience the love of God and Christ, and to spread that Holy Love. That appealed to me even back then. In my 40’s, after a failed marriage and other life changes, I found refuge in my current Methodist church. But Wesley did theology and applied it in practical ways. His way of doing theology made sense to me. His understanding of the character of God and particularly of grace made sense. It also gave hope.

    It has been a pleasant and delightful surprise to discover relational
    theology. Oddly, it was Calvinist J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God
    that opened my eyes to such a thing as knowing God. His preface to his
    book struck me personally. The discovery of relational theology connected with Wesleyan theology has helped me to learn grace and mercy, truth and beauty, in a more unified context. It also helps me make sense of the bible as a whole.

    This is getting terribly long and I apologize, but the point is that to me all of life is theological. In a way that anthropologist was right, they can do some theology. But theology is so much more than any one discipline. In fact, it seems to me that theology is an umbrella that covers all academic disciplines. Or maybe maybe better, more like cosmic strings that penetrate and intertwine all academic disciplines and indeed all of life.

    It seems to me that we humans cannot avoid theology. It engulfs us, penetrates us, ensnares us. We may deny theology, but we cannot avoid theological experiences and it’s effects on our thinking and even emotions. Theology can feel like seaweed entangling us, holding us under water and drowning us. Or it can feel like dry dust choking us. Or it can feel like a cool summer breeze bringing refreshment and new life to us. It can feel like Love itself if we let it.

    Anyway, thank you for your expressions of theological longings, questions and challenges. God has worked through your writing to help people like me. I look forward to your next posts.

    May God bless you and your family, your students, and may His Holy Love fill our hearts and help us to continue keeping on and spreading His Holy Love.


  • Adam Nigh

    Loved this, Roger, both because I have had several of the interactions you describe myself, but more so because in my case those interactions have been the minority. Many in my church family don’t quite understand what I do, but most still seem to assume that it has value. So I appreciate not having to face the basically universal hostility you have.

  • bcolbert

    Thank you so much for this post! I graduated about a year ago with a Bachelor’s in theology, am pursuing a Master’s, and will be pursuing a PhD or ThD. I love theology and the life of the mind, but I too have faced a LOT of the same anti-intellectual criticism from well-meaning pastors and friends. I’ve got the whole, “Much learning has made thee mad” speech many times, and I always seem to be told to “watch out for clever academicians” etc. I’m an evangelical, and I want to remain an evangelical, but so many evangelicals seem to be so suspicious of thinking! Anyways, thanks again for this post!

    • John Duffy

      “Much learning has made thee mad”; isn’t this what Festus said to Paul in Acts 26:24? My understanding of Christianity is that Paul is a positive example of Christianity and that Festus was entirely wrong when he said this. How then would this scripture reference argue against the life of the mind?

      • Roger Olson

        And yet Festus’ accusation is often quoted in popular culture and sometimes by Christians to support anti-intellectualism.

        • John Duffy

          Exactly my point.

  • Rene

    Dr. Olson:

    A friend mockingly asked me if I thought everyone in the church
    should be a theologian. I told him that I thought everyone is a
    theologian. The question is whether the church will help us to be good
    ones or bad ones.

    I had a similar experience to yours. I also wanted to explore my faith and I had great hopes that the church would help me. It wasn’t to be. We’ve spent the last forty years building mega-churches, providing high-quality praise bands and trying to be relevant rather than truthful.

    I grew up steeped in the ‘folk religion’ of the conservative evangelical church. Someone once said to me that if there is one thing that characterizes conservatism, it’s fear and suspicion. He was right and I learned quickly never to challenge the status quo because you will be viewed with fear and suspicion.

    I’m 58 and tired. I seriously question whether there is anything I can count on the church for. This weekend I am going to a local pub for a Theology on Tap gathering. It’s a group of Catholics who meet together to discuss theology. It may turn out to be the best way to grow in my understanding of my Protestant faith (in addition to reading my favorite forums).

  • Bobby Grow

    Great post, Roger. And as a younger “theologian” (although I don’t currently get paid for it other than royalties from our edited book and freelance writing I have just started doing), I have experienced the same kind of disdain. Someone recently told me that what I do is fine as a hobby, but what I should really focus on is sharing in people’s hurts and tribulations, and this would be a real form of ministry and theology (as you note in your point on ethics above). Also because of I am a fan of Barth, someone just told me that I am one of God’s worst antagonists … wow!

    Anyway, this resonates with me, Roger. I keep ideally thinking that in my encounters with other Christians at church, that once they find out my background etc. that maybe they would like to dialogue about questions they have always had about God etc. So far this is a very rare experience for me, usually folk just get quiet, and go “that’s interesting” (in re. to me being a “theological type”).

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this! More theologians need to be transparent about this so we can bear each other’s burdens (Gal 6).

  • Luke

    What are your thoughts on Mark Noll’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”?

    Separately, your experience sounds like an example of the foot saying to the eye, “I have no need of you.” Have you thought about the issue along these lines? It’s almost as if Western society is emphasizing the wrong bits of individualism and not really caring about the community in an effectual way, and Western Christianity has followed suit. Result: the Body of Christ is in shambles.

    • Roger Olson

      I tried to respond yesterday, but apparently my response and approval of your comment didn’t get to my blog. I am having trouble with this new discussion format. Yes, I agreed with much of Noll’s assessment but felt that he over-emphasized the “guilt” of certain religious traditions for it (e.g., the Holiness movement).

  • Rory Tyer

    Yes, Dr. Olson – please know that there are many people who have benefited from your writing and from the spirit in which you write who don’t have a chance to share that with you. I will share with you here that I appreciate your work / ministry greatly and am grateful that you find time to both do academic theology in its “traditional” contexts and engage in the blogosphere (something that is a crucial and important part of cultural engagement!). Thank you for your care for the church, for your front-and-center-ing of a centered-set evangelicalism that self-consciously appreciates various traditions, and for your willingness to be personally vulnerable on the journey.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Jim Turner

    You articulate a grief that could break the heart and the spirit of those who desperately need to understand God and His work. My prayer is that you will continue to find the fire to explore the unpopular and put it in print to challenge those you describe above. Could we even hope to know God if we are not willing to wrestle with Him as Jacob did?

  • Erin

    Thanks, Dr. Olson, for a thought-provoking post. As a PhD student in biblical studies your perspective resonated with me immensely. I too have encountered the anti-intellectualism you describe in evangelical churches, and I’ve also experienced disdain for my theological education in particular because I am female. However, in regard to your second concern regarding the mudslinging that can go on between academics, I wonder if it sometimes doesn’t go both ways — especially between academic theologians and biblical scholars. I’m thinking in particular of Brazos’s line of theological commentaries, where at least Reno’s commentary on Genesis has an undercurrent of impatience at best and disdain at worst for biblical scholars throughout most of the commentary. Perhaps both disciplines need to be better at recognizing the value and merit of working together? I know I’ll always be grateful for the theology students in my department for sharpening my thinking and exegesis, and I hope they would say the same about me.

  • Monte Harris

    Thanks for your honesty and clarity, Roger. I was introduced to your work at seminary in The Story of Christian Theology. My source of discouragement in theological discussions was more the rhetorical stance than the content so much. Whenever I would attempt discussion, others would want to debate. This is fine, until I experienced more just being talked at than any real dialogue. I’m sure it exists. Maybe I just need to harden/thicken my skin. But then again, I hear that’s not necessarily a good thing. I look forward to reading your second part.

  • Phil Faris

    Great topic, and I’m only sorry I’m a few days late. I refer pastors and friends and Bible college students to your ‘Story of Christian Theology” as the best way to actually discover what theology is and what theologians do. I also oversimplify your position on the Calvinism versus, uh, the other side debate as an illustration of how theologians go beyond the Bible in staking out their distinctives.

    Regarding the value of big “T” Theology Studies, I’d like to add another perspective to what some conservative Christians have against theology per se. That is, the concept of the “development of doctrine” can be seen as implying a sort of inspiration for diverse theologies. One doesn’t need to buy into that concept, of course, to be a real theologian–but most seem to.

    I help teach hermeneutics and am writing a textbook on that. I place “theology” as step 4 in the process or practice of “doing hermeneutics” but call it “traditional interpretations”. Your historical theology book is fantastic for establishing the narrative of how theology flows down through the ages. If most of the naysayers could read and grasp that narrative, they would be more able to discuss the merits of theology without demonstrating both ignorance and bias.

    I also whimsically say, “Everyone should study Systematic Theology to discover how to pigeonhole the beliefs of others; and they should study Historical Theology in order to see where their own silly beliefs come from.”
    Not all skeptics about theology are anti-intellectual. The book “Jesus Wars” is just one presentation of how “theology” has and can still lead to murder and mayhem between self-identified Christians.
    Personally, I don’t think a Bible teacher can have any credibility unless he can place his own interpretations of Bible passages within the Great Conversation of historical Christianity. However, I must confess to my own firm rejection of big “T” Theology as having much merit as a guide to writing a personal statement of faith today. It’s value lies more in warning believers against falling under the spell of the ubiquitous pseudo-rational departures from sound doctrine.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks for the compliment about The Story of Christian Theology, but I’m not sure what you mean by “Big T” theology. I’m not sure I was defending what you mean by that.