April 20, 2011

What is a Theologian?

According to James Dunn, it is someone who:
Belongs to that group of Christians who have seen it as part of their calling to articulate their faith in writing and to instruct others in their common faith, and who have devoted a considerable portion of their lives to so doing (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 2).
And for Dunn, Paul is "the greatest Christian theologian of all time" (3, italics original).

What do you think of this definition of a theologian? Would you want to modify it in any way? How does this definition relate to the work of the pastor? Is the pastor chiefly a theologian? Or something else?

4 comments:

Isaac said...

Well, I typed a huge response, and as happens so often it didn't process correctly, so all is lost.

Suffice it to say that I think this is a decent definition in that it leaves the door open for what vocation a theologian may occupy. It allows for, or even promotes, the understanding that pastors are indeed theologians who 'instruct others in their common faith, and who have devoted a considerable portion of their lives to so doing'

However, is it not true in a sense, that all Christians are called to be 'theologians' to some degree; reflecting on the things of God, seeking wisdom through maturity, and instructing newer Christians?

While there is a level of intellectual responsibility required of all believers, Scripture is abundantly clear that only some are called to the vocation of teaching and preaching - to the vocation of 'theologian'. And those who are called to such a vocation should take special care in every word that we write or speak.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Isaac, good point, and one with which I think Dunn would agree. Just prior to the original quote that I so mercilessly yanked from its context, he writes: "Of course, all who think about and express their faith as Christians can quite properly be called 'Christian theolgians,' or at least be described as functioning theologically." He is making a distinction between the amateur or (so-called) armchair theologian in contrast to those who take the work of theology to be something essential to their vocation.

One thing that really struck me about this quote is that he seems to define 'theologian' in such a way that it does not include an atheist who might write on the Christian doctrine of God as an outside observer. That is, there is a confessional element to his definition. It's not merely someone who writes theology; it's someone "who belongs to that Group of Christians" and writes theology. He is placing a certain confessional element within the definition. And I like that. You?

hamiltonmj1983 said...

I like the distinction you make in your comment, Matt. There should be an understanding that a "big-T" Theologian is a vocation, while a "little-t" theologian should be a title for every Christian.

I disagree that a great Theologian has to be a Christian (where does that leave Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom I would certainly call a Theologian?), but I have difficulty thinking that an Atheist would make much of a Theologian.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Perhaps we should come at it by saying that in order to be a theologian of a particular religion, one should also be an adherent of that religion. This would allow it the definition to work for someone like Heschel with regard to his own religion, but a Christian theologian could still be defined in terms of Christianity. This is an interesting discussion in that not too many years ago, it was generally thought (in academia) that an adherent could not be a serious scholar/theologian of his own religion, because he would not be able to maintain objectivity. I guess people aren't so worried about all that since we now understand that objectivity is a myth anyway.