What do Theologians do?

Posted by on Jan 8, 2019 in Blog | 4 comments

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It’s a question I’ve been asked often enough, especially after I’ve introduced myself as a pastor and theologian, “So what do theologians do?”

Let’s note the obvious. By definition, theology, being made up from two Greek words theos (God) and logos (the word about, or the study of), is the study of God. By implication then, all those who grapple with the question of God are, in one way or another, theologians. They might be very poor theologians, amateur theologians, professional theologians, perhaps even theologians whose work is widely recognized in the life of the church – but theologians they are. Given the nature of this blog, I would imagine that the vast majority of those who visit its pages are, in the broad sense of the word, theologians.

So what do theologians do and what makes for a good theologian?

First up a warning. Theology is a dangerous business. Though we might begin by feeling that we are in control of the process (we study God) we soon discover that the God we study is the God who studies us. Even as we examine the nature and character of God, we sense the pushback, “You think you are studying me – but actually I am studying your response to what you discover. Never forget, those who study God are challenged to live in the light of what they find.” It is dangerous to be a theologian and to be resistant to change, for you cannot study God and not change. Rudolf Otto in his classic The Idea of the Holy speaks of our encounter with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – and it is probably as well to leave that untranslated from the Latin as it better conveys a sense of the weight of what we experience (though for those who insist on a translation, try the “fearful and fascinating mystery”). To put it crassly, you cannot spend the day contemplating the mysterium tremendum et fascinans and then calmly ask, “So what’s for dinner?”

What makes for a good theologian? Ideally they will play a number of roles, but let me focus on three P words that cumulatively suggest something of the calling of the theologian…

The theologian as pastor

Theologians are given the responsibility and luxury of studying and understanding the history and teaching of the church. They dive into the biblical text, examining it from many different perspectives; they piece together the different genres of scripture, and examine how they have been understood at different times in the history of Christianity, evaluating the different hermeneutical paradigms that have fed various conclusions; they grapple with ethical theory, and explore how different moral priorities have shaped the agenda of the church; they probe the pastoral practice of the church, investigating what has and has not proved helpful; they question the missiological understanding of the church and her relevance in different historical and cultural settings. Theirs is indeed a privileged existence – but the knowledge they gain and the insights they draw are not to be selfishly consumed. They are to strengthen and better the pastoral practice of the church. Their reflection is on behalf of the church and to help it to more faithfully fulfil its mission in the world. Theology, as Stanley Grenz has noted, is for the community of God. It helps pastor and guide those who pastor – and only an unwise pastor is disinterested in the voice of the theologians of the church, for in the end, in one way or another, theologians shape what the church believes and proclaims. True, many theologians speak ahead of their time, and it might take a generation or two before their insights trickle down to the average follower of Jesus – but if you think that what is taught in our churches has not been influenced by the theologians of the church, you are mistaken. Preachers and songwriters popularize the teaching of the church, but theologians help us decide what we give the affirming nod to, and what we reject.

The theologian as pastor grapples with the questions intrinsic to our humanity. They attempt to read the cultures in which we find ourselves, spotting in cultural developments both signs of the divine and the demonic, helping the people of God differentiate between the two, so that the church is faithfully open to the new day God births in the changing eras of human history.

The theologian as prophet

Theology at its best has a prophetic edge. It senses what God is saying to its particular time and setting, and what needs to be said if a better day is to dawn. Whilst theologians deal with timeless truths, they are aware that in different eras some aspects of the faith need to be more forcefully highlighted. They know that Jesus prayed for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, and for things on earth to be done as they are in heaven (Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven). Figuring out what this looks like is part of the responsibility of the theologian. In doing so, they have to evaluate cultural practices of both the church and the wider society – at times to speak a word of encouragement to them, at other times to speak against them.

We need to differentiate between theologians who are faithfully open to what God is birthing in the world, and those who are fearfully closed. Sadly, in our present time I think too many theologians are being captured by the fearfully closed paradigm. Even more sadly, their fearfulness strikes a chord with many, and encourages the church to bunker down into ghettoes of escape, from which it is difficult to spot the ever creative fingerprints of God – for God firmly refuses to be trapped within the confines of the church. From this ghetto, we assume that psychologists, sociologists, economists, scientists, artists and critics are assuredly the enemy and have little – perhaps nothing – to teach us. We listen to them only to dissent. It is a rather negative and depressing exercise and assumes the enemy in those who often should be seen as allies and friends. All truth is ultimately God’s truth, and your average psychologist or sociologist is not desperately trying to get it wrong, but is trying to better understand the world we find ourselves in.

Not that we should be naïve. Not all cultural advancement is advancement. It is why the paradigm I advocate for is being faithfully open. The word faithfully is important. Humans have the strong tendency to self-delude and to forget that while they bear the image of God, they are not God. That delusion often sees an unwillingness to self-regulate, and to ask the necessary hard questions. We see promise in all our advancements, but are reluctant to seriously weigh up unintended consequences, and we usually evaluate the value of a step ahead in terms of its worth for us (sometimes simply for it use for me), rather than its value for all of creation.

In their role as prophet, theologians often come up against dissent and abuse. By and large prophets are not popular, as they often have to speak (or write) a challenging word… Most commonly they stress that the current status quo is not acceptable  – which is why you are unlikely to be much of a prophet if you are not open to the new – for prophets urge change.

To be pastorally effective, theologians need to think deeply and compassionately. To be prophetically effective, they need to think deeply and courageously.

The theologian as poet

We need to move from reactionary to creative forms of theology. With imaginations fired with the good news of the Kingdom of God, we need to visualize a world of fresh and new possibilities. Martin Luther King had a dream which helped transform the petty destructiveness of the racist reality in which he found himself. We are now free to dream even more boldly. Though theologians captured by the “fearfully closed” paradigm often specialize in lamenting what has been lost from a long gone era, a more objective look at the world would conclude that much progress has been made. The good news of Jesus has not gone unheeded, and has worked its way into our legal, political, economic and moral frameworks. True, that work is far from complete, but progress has definitely been made. While racism has not been abolished from the world – only the most extreme defend it (albeit that their are signs that it could re-emerge). Having grown up in Apartheid South Africa I can assure you that that was not the case 30 or 40 years ago. And oh the freedom that comes with that – of being able to see that every human being has indeed been made in the image of God. Or we could think of the liberation of women around the world… a work still in progress, but significantly further ahead than it was a generation ago. And again – oh the freedom that comes with this.

Why “oh the freedom that comes with this”? Demographically I fall into the pale, male and stale category. For most of human history this demographic has called the shots – and been in power. Powerholding is its own form of bondage – for you fear that you have much to lose. The reality is that when we lose our fear of one another, we welcome a chorus of fresh new voices to the table – we dream new dreams – we discover that our faith speaks in ways we have not yet heard. We might even become poets – writing a new reality, spotting beauty in neglected places, or overlooked passages of scripture. For example, the stale, male and pale are unlikely to spot both the horror and the tender beauty in Genesis 16 and 21:8-21. Only a female voice, and perhaps only an oppressed female voice, can help us to understand something of what is going on in the story of Hagar – and dozens of others beside.

The opening chapters of the Bible tell us that the first human responsibility was to name creation – to give animals and birds a name. In my book The Big Picture I speak of this as the responsibility to build a world with a better name – to recognize that while God creates the world, it is not a completed creation. Though the responsibility may take our breath away, we are invited to continue the work of creation as stewards of all God has made. We are even told that we bear God’s image… in other words we represent God to the world. This gives us the courage to dream. Rather than simply lament what is broken in the present form of this world, we should be poets – writing a new world into being, dreaming of a different reality which must first be visualized (and visualized in the light of Christ, in whom all things hold together), then spoken about, then crafted into being by our pastors, engineers, politicians, counsellors.

Theologians deal with the loftiest of questions. Theirs is a creative art. They must speak the world that should be into being… and they do that as they think deeply and creatively of all that God has revealed to us in Creation, in the Scriptures and through the history of God’s people in the world – and all this with a Christological lens, as they evaluate all things in the light of Jesus. Rather than being fearful of the future, they visualize a world yet to be crafted. They are poets – ahead of their time to be sure, but confidently pointing to a world that will be birthed, for their ultimate assurance is of the coming reign of God. Theologians who are poets never use this as an excuse for escape (God will sort this out, so there is nothing for us to do), but as an opportunity to invite people to a new and better reality… a new and better reality that starts today and continues tomorrow.

What then do theologians do?

As pastors, they think deeply and compassionately.

As prophets, they think deeply and courageously.

As poets, they think deeply and creatively.

Pastors, prophets and poets, and always in a way that is compassionate, courageous and creative.

Enough alliteration… as always, nice chatting.

PS This post was not written as a form of advertising, but to state the obvious, if you would like to study theology, Vose Seminary (where I serve as principal) is a sensational choice…


  1. This is an outstanding treatment of the topic.I was at a church leaders conference a few months ago and the keynote speaker stated emphatically that the church needed less theology and more sociology and anthropology. The statement troubled me greatly because I happen to think the church (at least the evangelical/Pentecostal part of the Christian family) needs more theology not less. If our speaker had read this post before he spoke to us I think he might have had a different perspective on theology.

    • Thanks Rod. It is a worry. The trouble is that when we discard serious theology we open ourselves to a raft of crank theories, and very selective readings of the biblical text. I so appreciate what you do in your field.

  2. I’m looking forward to receiving your posts. God bless you.

    • Thanks Steve. Welcome to the blog.


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