What Is Theology and Who Does It? Part 3 (Final)

What Is Theology and Who Does It? Part 3 (Final) May 30, 2013

What Is Theology and Who Does It? Part 3 (Final)

This third installment of the series won’t make much sense without the first two, so please read Parts 1 and 2 before this. This part presupposes those.

Throughout my career as a theologian, I have frequently encountered people who claim, directly or indirectly, that they “do theology” as well, if not better, than professional theologians. But, of course, rarely do they mean theology as I have described it in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Some of those who claim to do theology better than professional theologians are of the anti-intellectual variety and they usually mean they “simply read the Bible and take it at face value.” Often, what they mean by “theology” is what I mean by folk religion.

Others who claim to do theology better than professional theologians are scholars who use their own discipline’s tools and skills to investigate truth about God (and matters related to God). I gave the example of a former colleague who believed he did theology as an anthropologist—better than those of us who practice theology as professional theologians.

Far be it from me to deny that some non-theologians do theology better than I do it. I humbly admit that philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, does theology very well. But he has spent many years acquiring the knowledge and skills of a theologian. He is one of those people who successfully crosses the boundary between philosophy and theology and goes back and forth between them and, to the extent possible, combines them. His recent book Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press) is an excellent example of that.

However, theology (as I have described it in Parts 1 and 2) is not something just anyone can do well. It is a discipline into which one is trained. Of course, a person trained in it may very well do it poorly. There are numerous examples of that! The same could be said of any discipline. Who would claim, for example, that all persons trained in and possessing the skills necessary for philosophy “philosophizes” well? But a few (even many) bad apples do not undermine the discipline as a whole.

As I argued in Part 2, theology, as I described it there, is a church-related discipline; it is not a “free floating” discipline disconnected from any particular commitment or community. The church needs theologians and theologians need the church. And yet, to a certain extent, a theologian’s job is to question the church—not as a chronic skeptic or gadfly but as a faithful prophet. He or she is a servant of the church and at the same time one who challenges the church to examine its beliefs and practices.

So part of the answer to who does theology is—one who has acquired the knowledge and skills to practice theology and practices it in the service of the church.

What are the knowledge and skills needed to do theology professionally well—beyond commitment to the faith of the people of God?

First, a theologian must be conversant with revelation—whatever revelation his or her faith community acknowledges as divine. For the Christian theologian that usually means first and foremost Jesus Christ and scripture. Skill in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics is a prerequisite for doing theology well professionally.

Second, a theologian must be conversant with the tradition(s) of his or her faith community. For the Christian theologian that means the Great Tradition of Christian thought (church fathers, creeds, medieval theology, confessional statements, Reformation traditions, etc.) and the traditions of his or her own faith community.

Third, a theologian must be skilled in the rules of thought and communication—especially logic.

Finally, a theologian must be sensitive to human spiritual experience and the religious experiences of his or her own faith community. He or she must have a sense for the divine as interpreted by his or her own faith tradition. Also, he or she must be conversant with culture and skilled at bringing religious beliefs into creative correlation with culture.

Few scholars without a Ph.D. (or equivalent training) in religious studies and/or theology has that knowledge and those skills. Many with Ph.D.s in religious studies and/or theology still lack them, but that depth and breadth of training is minimally necessary for doing theology professionally and doing it well.

Of course, some of the greatest theological minds did not have doctoral degrees—e.g., Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Nevertheless, they acquired the knowledge and skills described above on their own and in deep conversation with fellow scholars.

I am not arguing that nobody can be a theologian except people with Ph.D.s in religion or theology; I am arguing that theology is a discipline—an orderly way of thinking that works skillfully with sources, norms and tools. It isn’t something just anyone decides to do on their own and then does it—without usually utterly failing.

Many years ago I was visiting some friends of my family. The husband’s grandfather was a spiritual mentor of many members of my own family. When he found out about my interest in theology as a scholarly pursuit and discipline he scoffed and pointed me to some books (booklets, really) written by his grandfather—a patriarch of our faith community. I had heard his grandfather’s name all my life—from my parents and relatives. So I sat down and began reading the books. The first one I opened argued that all the divisions of Christianity came about as a result of the Constantinian takeover of Christianity. Before Constantine, the author argued, Christians were united around the gospel and there were no major or serious divisions. They were all in one accord and of one mind and faith. Well, after reading just a few pages I knew the man had no knowledge of the history of Christianity and was not qualified to do theology. I silently put the books back on my new friend’s shelf and said nothing to him about it. I knew he would not be able to handle the truth about his grandfather.

Unfortunately, there are many people in Christian churches and organizations who think they or someone they know does theology well and even better than professional theologians. Usually when I investigate them I find huge gaps in their knowledge and flaws in their skills. They have led many people astray by peddling their notions about God and Christianity.

So, perhaps you want to know who I think are some people who do theology well as professional theologians—people the churches should turn to for help in examining beliefs and constructing relevant doctrines for today. Here are some names. I’m limiting my list to those recently deceased or still living and who are prolific authors. Placing a name in the list does not mean I agree with everything the person believes or advocates; it simply means I consider him or her a knowledgeable and skilled theologian. Also, many of those I link to a particular faith community and tradition write things valuable for others. By no means do I imply that a person’s theological thoughts are of value only to those in his or her faith tradition and community.

For Baptists—Stanley J. Grenz, Bernard Ramm, Millard Erickson, Dale Moody, James McClendon, James Leo Garrett, Paul Fiddes, Daniel Williams, Molly Marshall

For Lutherans—Robert Jenson, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ted Peters, Lois Malcolm

For Pentecostals—Amos Yong, Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Frank Macchia, Steven Land, Cheryl Bridges Johns

For Methodists (United and other)—Thomas Oden, William Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Henry Knight, Susie Stanley

For Reformed and Congregationalists—Donald Bloesch, Donald McKim, Jürgen Moltmann, Alan P. F. Sell, Michael Horton, Leeann Van Dyk

For Anglicans/Episcopals—Paul Zahl, N. T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Michael Green, Christopher Hall, Edith Humphreys, Sarah Coakley

For Anabaptists—Thomas Finger, John Howard Yoder, J. Denny Weaver

For Roman Catholics—Walter Kasper, Franz Josef van Beeck, Catherine Mowry LaCugna

For Eastern Orthodox—John Zizioulas, David Bentley Hart, Bradley Nassif, Kallistos Ware

For Generic Evangelicals—John Stackhouse, Kevin Vanhoozer, Greg Boyd, Ruth Tucker, John Sanders, Scot McKnight

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  • Great series, Roger, thanks!!! I resonate very much, as both a theologian and a church leader.

    I’m often diasppointed by the mutually harmful relationship of a non-theological approach to thinking about God with non-theological approaches to church and the pastoral ministry. It’s hard for pastors to champion theology (in the very best sense of the term and in all the appropriate ways) in a culture shaped mostly by consumerism. I’m a baptist and esteem a bottom-up approach to church, but without theology and tradition this too often degenerates into consumerism and aggregate individualism. Pastors have to meet ‘success’ standards and strive for goals set by church “boards of governors” that lack deep theological understanding and vision.

  • David Rogers

    If one was building a library with limited funds, which one of each of those faith traditions should be a representative start for a good theological shelf?

    • Roger Olson

      Good question. I’ll have to work on that for another post–later. Too much to write and too little time! 🙂

  • Monte Harris

    Hi Roger. Monte here. Where would you classify Stanley Hauerwas? Is he an able theologian? Has Karl Rahner been dead too long according to your criteria? Thanks for these posts!

    • Roger Olson

      It was a hastily composed list. I didn’t include Hauerwas because he seems to me to be more of an ethicist than a “doctrinal theologian.” He doesn’t write about doctrines per se–at least that’s not his main focus. Yes, I left out Rahner because he died in 1984. I tried to stick to those who are alive or were fairly recently. I may have slipped up with a few because I’m not sure when they died. Also, Rahner is simply beyond most people’s comprehension. He wrote theology mainly for other academic theologians.

  • rvs

    My general sense is that a lot of “Doctor of Ministry” degrees have an anti-theological tenor in their very descriptions/marketing machinery (i.e., real practitioners do not have a lot of time for theological mumbo-jumbo). Indeed, I heard a sermon recently at a large conservative evangelical church wherein the pastor presented doing good deeds in the community as the positive alternative to studying theology in one’s office (a self-indulgent act, presumably).

    Are you preaching to the choir in these theology installments? Are you trying to reach a certain kind of ambivalent audience? Are you tired of hearing that theologians do nothing but pontificate, haha?

    • Roger Olson

      I thought I was rather clear. I’m tired of Christian intellectuals and academics implying that theology is a pseudo-discipline and that what theology studies is better studied by non-theologians.

  • Edmund Conroy

    I guess one question some may ask is – and one I will ask – were there certain ‘key’ names omitted because they perhaps aren’t as good at theology and thus are very loud with their voices – I think of J.I.Packer – though far too ‘reformed’ for my liking… Also William Lane Craig, is he too philosophical? I refer only to two, but two quite well known and ‘respected’ ”theologians” – would it be fair to say there are many who just don’t cut the mustard theologically – were some avoided because they may just be a little too loud [mouthed]? Not sure any of this makes sense, I’m just curious, after reading the three posts, what disqualify some of the loud-mouths (not think of William Lane Craig here), so to speak?

    • Roger Olson

      I just included my favorites, that’s all.

  • danaames

    Thank you for your thoughts on this, and the list. I’m glad you found the encouragement you needed along the way. I attended the Zondervan Pastors’ Conferences in San Diego 2006-2009 as an interested layperson; I heard you in a panel discussion and thought what you were saying made good sense… I was glad to have found your blog, and appreciate your irenic and respectful approach.

    You might be interested in knowing that Edith Humphrey is now Orthodox; she was received the same day I was, nearly 4 years ago.


    • Roger Olson

      I thought she would eventually do that. She and I were on a panel together at Regent College some years ago and we jousted about the role of tradition in theology. I detected that her view was similar to if not identical with that of Eastern Orthodoxy. So I’m not surprised.

  • jamie

    Thank you for this series 🙂 Really interesting list, a lot I’m familiar with, also some new names to check out! I’m wondering why Hauerwas doesn’t make the cut? Is it because he can’t really be located concretely in any one ecclesial tradition, his focus professionally on ethics, or some other reason?

    • Roger Olson

      As I said to another commenter, I omitted him mainly because he is primarily an ethicist. But here is also the difficulty of identifying him with any particular ecclesiastical tradition. I think he thinks of himself as a Methodist, but he attends an Episcopal church and sometimes calls himself a “high church Mennonite” (tongue-in-cheek). So, for various reasons…

  • res2

    I would include “Thomas Jay Oord” in the Methodist/Wesleyan group.

  • Roger Olson

    In many churches, yes. In the one that turned down my offer, I’m not sure. I think most decision-makers in the church just don’t understand “theology” and worry that it complicates things unnecessarily.

  • Guest

    For some reason I can’t get the comment section to send for me today… pls strike/keep any duplicates…
    I would add “Thomas Jay Oord” into the Methodist/Wesleyan group….

  • Rob

    Dr. Olson, I keep up with your blog in part because of your unashamed pietism. Although I see a couple who I might consider under the larger rubric of pietism, Which pietist theologians would you recommend? Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Roger Olson

      Donald G. Bloesch

  • Robert

    Hello Roger,
    Thanks you for an interesting and informative series.
    One question: are you going to make this into some sort of a formal paper or book of some kind in the future?

    • Roger Olson

      I hadn’t thought of that. Much of the material in the series is in Who Needs Theology? And others have said much the same as I have said in this series, but it may not be accessible to many readers. I think the view I expressed here is virtually the same as conservative evangelical theologian Millard Erickson–a former colleagues of mine. See his three volume (especially volume 1) Christian Theology. What I have done in this series is put fairly common ideas shared by many theologians into succinct form.

  • Steve Dominy

    As a pastor with a deep love and appreciation for theology thanks for this series. I’ve read from a little over half of your list of theologians, so thanks for some names that are new to me!

  • M85

    Dr. Olson,
    I’m so surprised you didn’t include Clark H. Pinnock! Even though i don’t agree with him on everything i would have thought he would have made the list….
    Anyway thanks for another excellent post.

    • Roger Olson

      An oversight on my part. I would put him under Generic Evangelical even though he was Baptist. I especially recommend his Flame of Love.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    One of the most brilliant and articulate theologians I’ve ever encountered is Dr. C. Baxter Kruger. A current 35 minute video interview on the subject, “Jesus Is the Center of all Things,” may be viewed at: http://www.gci.org/yi/kruger4

  • Lee Ann Brooks Chupp

    These posts made me very sad. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and MIND.” I think I need what theology can provide to my faith. I cannot imagine being in a church like you described – but having grown up in evangelical churches in TX, I’m sure I was. Now I live in New Jersey, but the one good thing about it is the evangelical churches here definitely value an intellectual approach to Christianity. In fact, I get to attend a lecture series in NYC hosted/founded by Eric Metaxas called Socrates in the City. N.T. Wright speaks at in on occasion.

    I appreciate your list and look forward to reading some of the the theologians you posted. Also, I especially appreciate your blog. It has been very helpful to me.

  • bobbygrow

    I know you just included your favorites, but I would like to add one of mine to your ‘For Anglicans’ list: John Webster (formerly at Aberdeen, now at St. Andrews). He is utterly brilliant, and one of the best theologians I have ever read whom obviously writes in service of Jesus Christ and His church.

    Anyway, great series of articles, Roger!

  • Erik

    I’m not sure, but I think Amos Yong is into process theology. I respect his level of intellect but as a Pentecostal I can’t say that I really look to him for theology, speaking for myself.

    • Roger Olson

      I know Amos personally; he is not “into process theology.” He is probably the most outstanding Pentecostal scholar alive today.

  • Kathleen

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    Thank you for writing this series. I really enjoyed reading it. I know you are talking about theology as a discipline, but I have a question about it as a layperson. I am wondering what you think about how laypeople can be part of encouraging and facilitating deeper theology in our churches. I am not a trained theologian. I have read widely and studied for myself, but not nearly as much as someone who does so as a career. But at the same time, I think the best things I have to offer my church are my passion for truth, love of learning, and intellect. Do you have any suggestions for how someone like me might serve the church well with their minds without being a professional theologian?

    • Roger Olson

      One way is to speak to the pastor(s) and other church leaders (elders, deacons, etc.) and ask for some avenue in the church where you can learn more deeply about the Christian faith and where you can contribute to others’ understanding. Then, of course, read, read, read! Choose a specific area of Christian theology and dive in, become knowledgeable and reflective about it, and then volunteer to teach an elective class–not as an authority or expert (those are not well-appreciated categories) but as an interested person who would like to facilitate learning and discussion. If you are turned down flat or ignored, consider finding a different church.

  • residentoftartarus

    Here’s what I think is the main problem at the level of the local churches. For most lay people, the work of theology (properly understood) is both vitally necessary and important but already finished. Of course, the date at which this was done will vary from denomination to denomination. In any case, the main task now, they would say, is to engage in ministry with this theological foundation firmly set in place. To question that foundation at this time, even in the hopes of improving it, is to open up a can of worms that can only lead to unnecessary division and possibly undermine the theoretical underpinnings of the church’s activities. Although entirely left unstated, I think it’s this kind of pragmatism that discourages ongoing theological work at this level.

    • Roger Olson

      I’m sure you’re right–about one reason theology is not popular in churches among lay people (and many pastors). It seems to them to unnecessarily complicate what is settled and open up a can of worms that can only lead to argument, dissension and division. But the alternative–their alternative as you describe it–risks allowing Christian belief to become dead orthodoxy and irrelevant to culture.

      • residentoftartarus

        I completely agree. I am very sympathetic to your work as a Christian theologian.