menu

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


Browse Our Archives