You Are a Theologian
The case can be made that every Christian is a theologian because every Christian has a theology, whether well thought out or not.1 After all, the word “theology” clearly has to do with God (theos, Greek for “God”), and since the third century at least, theology has been understood to refer to “talking about God” (theos, “God”; logos, “word”).2 When that talk is organized, we have a body of teaching, or doctrine. Some become highly trained in talking about God and in thinking about him in a systematic way. Others, because of calling or life circumstance, never have much chance to develop that level of expertise. Whether trained or not, Christians talk and think about God. In that light, there is a sense in which every Christian is a theologian. The question is, How are we to get better at talking and thinking about God? That question brings us to the matter of method. But what is a method? Theologian Robert W. Jenson explains it well: “A method, of course, is a self-conscious way of going about doing something.”3
When I was a lad, my uncle Gordon showed me how to catch more fish with a rod and reel. Before he tied the hook on the line, he attached a much smaller hook that was free. The big hook was put through the bait or hidden in it. Next, the little hook was placed through the tail of the shrimp or other bait. He called it the keeper hook. Over the years, I have caught some really big fish on that little hook alone. My uncle gave me a way of being better at fishing. He gave me a technique, a better fishing method. He taught me how to improve my fishing success.
What he did reminds me of an old piece of wisdom: It is better to teach someone how to fish than simply to give that person a fish. The difference is satisfying the hunger of the day versus having a way to satisfy hunger over a lifetime. Method matters, and not only for practical things like fishing, but also for finding out the truth of things, especially the things of God.4When it comes to the truth of the things of God, Scripture plays the pivotal role as God’s self-revelation. Indeed, faithful theology is a human project that arises from wise reflection on the self-revelation of God.5 Because it is our reflection on God’s revelation, it is always open to be reformed and corrected by that revelation.
You Need a High View of Scripture
This is the truth of the Reformers’ slogan semper reformanda (always reforming). However, it is one thing to have an evangelical’s high view of Scripture. It is quite another to know how to derive teaching (doctrine or theology) from Scripture.6 We need guidance just as I needed guidance from Uncle Gordon. The need to do so is easily illustrated. I was taught as a new Christian that when Jesus slept in the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee, his human side was showing itself. But when he rose up and commanded the storm to cease, his divine side was expressing itself. It was as though Jesus’s two natures oscillated, first the human and then the divine, taking turns. Later, when I was taught some theology and how to evaluate theological proposals, I saw that this was very much like the ancient heresy of Nestorianism. On this view, Jesus was both a human person and a divine person. The Father had, in effect, two sons in one physical body.7 However, if Scripture is compared with Scripture, and if the witness of the early church fathers is taken into account, then Jesus is clearly one person and not two. As one person, he had both a truly human nature and a truly divine one at all times. Whether trained or not, Christians talk and think about God.
Why does doctrine matter? The importance of doctrine lies in that it answers three normative questions vital to us all: (1) What ought we to believe (orthodoxy, right opinion)? This is the truth question. (2) What ought we to value (orthokardia, right-heartedness)? This is the spirituality question. (3) How ought we to live (orthopraxy, right practice of life)? This is the existential or practical question. Put another way, the head (orthodoxy), the heart (orthokardia), and the hands (orthopraxy) all count as concerns of theology. For example, what ought we to believe about the identity of Jesus? Does our answer matter? How are we to live in the light of Jesus’s identity? If you believed, as many do, that Jesus was merely human, then worshiping him would be idolatry. But if Jesus is a member of the Holy Trinity, then worship is entirely fitting.8
- For an example of an attempt to make that case, see Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God<(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996). Their first chapter is titled “Everyone Is a Theologian.” In my view, they paint with too broad a brush. They contend, “Anyone who reflects on life’s ultimate questions—including questions about God and our relationship to God—is a theologian” (13). For them, filmmaker and actor Woody Allen qualifies as one (14). Given their definitions, it is hard to see the difference between a theologian and a philosopher
- See Alister E. McGrath, Theology: The Basics, 3rd ed. (Chichester, UK: WileyBlackwell, 2012), xii.
- Robert W. Jenson,A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 111.
- The philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) knew that method matters and that the mind needs direction. He had twenty-one rules. Here is his fourth: “We need a method if we are to investigate the truth of things.” Descartes, “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” Wikisource (website), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Rules_for_the _Direction_of_the_Mind, accessed March 16, 2017.
- I take a different view than do Grenz and Olson on the question of the object of theologizing. They argue in Who Needs Theology?, 49, that “Christian theology is reflecting on and articulating the God-centered life and beliefs that Christians share as followers of Jesus Christ, and it is done in order that God may be glorified in all Christians are to do.” This is far too anthropocentric in my view. The primary object of theological reflection is God, not our beliefs per se.
- I am using “doctrine,” “teaching,” and “theology” as synonyms.
- Nestorianism is a wrong view (heresy) of Jesus named after Nestorius (386–451), bishop of Constantinople. Nestorius allegedly taught that the incarnate Christ was two persons: one human and one divine. Whether he actually held the view associated with his name is still debated. See H. D. McDonald, “Nestorius (fl. 428–c. 451),” in New Dictionary of Theology Historical and Systematic, 2nd ed., ed. Martin Davie, Tim Grass, Stephen R. Holmes, John McDowell, and T. A. Noble (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 609–10. Chap. 2 of the book before you aims to show the value of knowing facts like these.
- The doctrine of the Trinity will be the key case in point to which I shall return at numerous places throughout this book. I completed a first draft of this work before I read Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology? In that work they also make frequent reference to the doctrine of the Trinity to support many of their points.
This article is adapted from Faithful Theology: An Introduction by Graham A. Cole.
Graham A. Cole (ThD, Australian College of Theology) is the dean and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. An ordained Anglican minister, he has served in two parishes and was formerly the principal of Ridley College. Graham lives in Libertyville, Illinois, with his wife, Jules. He is a member at Church of the Redeemer in Highwood, Illinois.