Letter to an Aspiring Theologian
How to speak of God truly
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer
I was delighted to receive your letter asking about the best route to becoming a theologian. Let me confess up front: I’m still in via myself. My business card should identify me not as research professor but perpetual pupil of theology, though if it did, you probably wouldn’t be writing to me. I need to underline the point: Theology is neither a nine-to-five job nor a career. To know and speak truly of God is a vocation that requires more than academic or professional qualifications. The image you should have in mind is not the professor with a tweed jacket, but rather the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. Becoming a theologian means following God’s Word where it leads with all one’s mind, heart, soul, and strength.
Let me say a few more things about what theology is and why it matters, just to make sure we’re on the same page. Theology is the study of how to speak truly of God and of all things in relation to God. But theologians can’t approach the object of their study the way biologists study living creatures or geologists the earth. God cannot be empirically examined. God is the creator of all things, not to be identified with any part of the universe or even with the universe as a whole. Speaking of God thus poses unique challenges. If God had not condescended to communicate to creatures something of his light, we would be in the dark.
Are you familiar with Thomas Aquinas’s definition? “Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God.” It’s worth pondering these three prepositions.
By God. Only God can make himself known. There is a prior divine self-communication to which all theologians are accountable. You can’t deploy God’s name simply to add support to your pet ideas or favorite agenda. Theologians aren’t fiction writers, either: We’re not making this up, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche notwithstanding. We’re simply children who love their father and want to know him better, who trust their father’s wisdom (Matt. 18:3), and, for that very reason, keep asking “Why?” (this is my gloss on Anselm’s famous definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”).
Of God. There are theologies of marriage, the body, leisure, the imagination, and so forth, but they are theological only to the extent that they relate their objects to God, their author and finisher. Theology is thinking hard about what God has taught about himself and all things in relation to himself.
To God. William Ames, a Puritan, uses language much like Aquinas’s: “Theology is the doctrine of living to God.” Theology is more than an academic exercise, more even than knowing God; it’s ultimately about cultivating godliness, in oneself and one’s community. Theology’s proper ends are both contemplative (I dare not say “theoretical”) and practical.
It’s true, there is a guild of “professional” theologians—mostly academics who populate colleges, seminaries, and university divinity schools—and there are scholarly journals and awards to be had, not to mention salaries and sabbaticals. I know it’s tempting, especially when you’re still a student, to revere or perhaps romanticize your teachers and the lives they lead. The reality—grading papers, committee meetings, critical reviews, etc.—is different. It gets worse: Theology ranks very low on the totem pole of academic status. Banish, therefore, all thought of “success,” and don’t confuse making a living as a theologian with living out the knowledge of God. If you aspire to speak of God, do so to please God, not people (cf. Gal. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:4)—neither the professionals nor their popularly cultured despisers.
In short: If you see God as a means to worldly fame, power, or popularity, please don’t. There are already plenty of people, too many, who speak of God for the wrong reasons, which means they are not speaking truly of the one true God. You aspire to theology, you believe in God, you do well. Yet even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19). Becoming a theologian involves not only coming to know God (theology is simultaneously art, science, and craft), but also becoming a certain kind of person, one whose created intelligence has been illumined by the Holy Spirit.
Knowing God, the gospel of God (what God has done in Christ), and all things in relation to God and the gospel is to know reality. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. When theology proclaims the deep mystery—God’s plan of redemption conceived “before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20) and executed in history—it doesn’t promote cleverly devised myths. It awakens disciples to reality. Philosophers study what is, but the Christian theologian sets forth in speech what is in Christ: reconciliation, a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17–18). The world is passing away (even scientists agree, acknowledging that our sun will eventually burn out), but God’s Word endures forever (Matt. 24:35).
All this to say: I affirm your general aspiration, but have you prayerfully considered whether academic theology is your vocation rather than, say, doing theology in the church, perhaps as a pastor or priest? Assuming I haven’t dissuaded you, I’ll now try to address your specific questions by commending four adjectives that characterize the practice of theology and then three pairs of virtues that characterize its best practitioners. I haven’t forgotten that you also asked about where you might best flourish as a theologian, and I’ll conclude with some thoughts on that.
As to learning how to think theologically, let me begin with four adjectives (Trinitarian, biblical, catholic, and systematic) that qualify Christian theological thinking. Each describes a theological habit of mind that has proved useful in getting the understanding faith seeks.
Becoming a Christian theologian means developing a Trinitarian habit of mind. On the one hand, everything begins with divine initiatives, the speak-acting of God. God’s creative and redemptive words—“Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3); “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48)—precede all theologizing. Yet we have to approach God’s Word in three ways: God speaks; God speaks himself; God speaks himself through himself. You must always and everywhere give priority to theology’s principal subject matter, the being and activity of the triune God: the Father speaking the Word through the Spirit.
Theology means thinking about all things in relation to God, and it helps to remember that all three persons are engaged in everything God does (I’m speaking as one who on occasion has been accused of “forgetting” the Holy Spirit!). Commit this patristic adage to memory, in Latin and English: Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt (“the outward works of the Trinity are indivisible”). Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God the Father created all things in and through the Son in the Spirit. Why is there good news rather than no news (silence)? Because God the Father has reconciled the world to himself in Christ through the Spirit (what Irenaeus calls the “two hands” of God).
Second, the best way to stay focused on the subject matter of theology is to stay focused on Scripture. John Calvin viewed his Institutes as help for aspiring disciples “to find the sum of what God meant to teach us in his Word.” It’s no coincidence that the most important figures in the history of theology—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth—also wrote biblical commentaries. Roman Catholics enthusiastically agree. When Benedict XVI called Scripture the “soul of theology,” he echoed Vatican II’s claim that “the study of the sacred page” is the very soul of theology (in Dei Verbum).
Given the fragmentation of theological studies in the modern university, I fear that you may find it challenging to establish your biblical bona fides. Some biblical scholars insist on reading the Bible like any other text, and some theologians think that doing theology is a matter of compiling “proof texts” that establish doctrines. There are better ways of reading the Bible theologically.
C. S. Lewis’s distinction between looking at a beam of light and looking along it clarifies what’s at stake. Those who look at the biblical text analyze it from a critical distance. They see the text, but not necessarily what it’s talking about. In contrast, those who look along the text enter into its strange new world. Looking along the text is the best way to resist what Hans Frei calls the “great reversal” in hermeneutics that took place in the eighteenth century, namely, the exchange of the biblical narrative as our framework for understanding the world for some other story (e.g., neo-Darwinism, existentialism, process philosophy—their name is Legion).
The Bible is not an object to examine under this or that hermeneutical microscope. God addresses us in Scripture and requires our response, and that means we do theology in the first and second person (cf. Martin Buber’s I and Thou). Scripture is not a textbook but the Church’s holy script, and understanding it involves reading all the books in the Old and New Testaments as parts of an overarching story. It’s more than narrative, it’s drama: story made flesh, in which readers today have speaking parts. Karl Barth spoke of exploring the “strange new world of the Bible,” and that’s an apt image. The theologian is a kind of cartographer of this new world, this new life, this “theodrama”: the story made flesh of God’s two-handed outreach to the world.
The third thing you must do to acquire a theological habit of mind is to read the Word of God with and for the people of God. You may be tempted to say something original about God. Let me urge you to make sure your brilliant insights are in line with the consensus of the catholic tradition. Those who swim against the stream of Christian tradition risk subverting the logic of the gospel. We’re apprentices to Scripture, and to those who have read it well before us. To become a theologian is to enter into a centuries-long conversation, started by (who knows?) those two disciples on the way to Emmaus who wondered about the significance of what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 24:13–24).
The best theologians are apprentices to Scripture and to the consensual tradition of its interpretation. By the way: That tradition, viewed theologically, is the result of the Spirit leading the whole Church into all truth (John 16:13). Thanks to the Council of Nicaea, you don’t have to reinvent the Trinitarian wheel. And speaking of Nicaea, every aspiring theologian should study the way Athanasius read Scripture to see how the logic of the gospel gave rise to Trinitarian theology. Catholicity is a well-known mark of the Church; it ought also to characterize theologians. Let the gospel be the center of your thinking, but let catholic tradition fill out its content and fix its circumference. Evangelical and catholic are bedfellows, not rivals.
The fourth theological habit of mind involves thinking systematically as we read the Word of God with the people of God. The Bible is much more than a collection of truths to be organized into a comprehensive system. That way leads to what we might call hard systematic theology. I recommend a “soft” systematics that acknowledges a unity to truth, though not like the truth of geometric axioms, which are not suitable for expressing redemptive history. There are things that theologians must make known, but they primarily concern what God has said and done in history. What unifies Scripture is the story of God’s determination to see through his purpose for creation to the end, a story in which Israel and the Church loom large, with Jesus Christ as its hinge and center. If you aspire to “systematic” theology in the sense of articulating the general coherence of what the Church proclaims on the basis of Scripture, you do well. Doctrines such as the Trinity or the atonement are typically either identifications of key persons or elaborations of the meaning of key events in the story.
One more thing: You might learn these four habits of mind by apprenticing yourself to an established theologian, dead or alive, and reading all his or her works. You don’t have to agree with every detail; the point is to gain a sense of how to think theologically.
Now that we’ve sketched the kinds of things theologians do, let’s turn to your question about the kind of person you need to become. The short answer is “wise”: a person with understanding who knows how to live out what he knows and does so in ways appropriate to his circumstances. Wisdom is the virtue that regulates and balances all the other virtues, so let me provide a sketch of the wise theologian by describing three pairs of contrasting qualities.
First, faith and reason. Theologians need to believe firmly and think clearly. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord and theology with trust in God’s Word. Anselm says we must believe in order to understand. Every science has to start somewhere, with some given; theology starts by believing that God has spoken in Scripture (the written Word) and Christ (the revealed Word). Only those who read the Bible in faith can read it as Scripture (authoritative divine address). In general, theologians do well to reason from, not to, Scripture.
Logic is but ethics (honesty) applied to the life of the mind. In this sense, reason is neutral. It does not legislate what Christians can believe but rather tells us what follows from the articles of faith revealed in Scripture. Reason exercises a ministerial function in theology. Reason is best viewed in terms of created, fallen, and redeemed human intelligence. Notice what I just did: I practiced what I’ve been preaching about thinking theologically; I thought about human reason in relation to God. Relating things to the triune God by thinking biblically is the reflex of a mature theologian.
Don’t let knowledge go to your head (how’s that for an oxymoron?). As the Apostle Paul warned, knowledge puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1), inflates our pride. The best remedy for this is constant prayer. Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians reveals well the dangerous gap between what we know intellectually about God and our actual spiritual growth. He points out that a “conceptual experience” is no substitute for genuine faith. Theologians must never be content with living at second hand. That’s why prayer is so powerful: Unless we are praying to God, we are talking, as it were, behind his back. In Thielicke’s words, “a theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.” Anselm embodied the tension between faith and reason by writing his Proslogion in the form of a prayer.
Second, joyful truth-speaking and hopeful truth-suffering. To become a theologian, you must be willing to bear true witness and call out false witnesses, casting down idols and ideologies. That’s the shadow side of theology, but the best part is speaking light and truth in astonished indications of God’s goodness. I love John Webster’s definition of theology: “that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ.” Being a theologian means getting to have not necessarily the last word, but the word about last things, “the end for which God created the world” (to cite the title of a dissertation by Jonathan Edwards). It’s not only a good word but the best of all possible words, namely, that God glorifies humans and all creation, magnifying his own glory and subjecting all things to the Lordship of Christ, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). It’s the privilege of the theologian to bear witness to the length, depth, breadth, and width of the cross and Resurrection. Karl Barth is right: “The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all.”
Theologians need to be thick-skinned witnesses (martyrs) to the truth. Paul was accused by the Corinthians of “misrepresenting God” in testifying to Jesus’s Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:15). Fortunately, present-day Western theologians need fear nothing more than metaphorical crucifixion in the courts of academic or popular opinion. You may know of Richard Dawkins’s letter to a London newspaper complaining, “If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?” Yes, I know all about “sticks and stones,” but still . . . Well, you’ll discover that what hurts even more than the slings and arrows of secular critics is the indifference to doctrine in the Church itself.
An Evangelical theologian who shall remain nameless once advised a student, “be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued.” I would add, prepare to be unpopular: Many people resent being told they are not lords of their own lives. Theologians ought not be nags, but they must be “the conscience of the congregation” (Thielicke), reminding people that faith is not the same as anti-intellectualism, and that God is not a supporting actor in their stories but that we have bit parts in his.
Third, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, becoming a theologian requires a measure of boldness and humility—yet another tension you’ll need to preserve. Paul speaks about both in connection to his ministry. To adapt a saying of Luther’s, “a theologian is a perfectly free lord of all disciplines, subject to none.” Theologians are free from the methodological constraints of other disciplines. The theologian must not let any other discipline into the driver’s seat. God is the origin and destiny of all things, and theology knows all things in their relatedness to God. By the way, if and when you need a booster shot in your rhetorical right arm, you may often find inspiration in the display of bold theology in The International Journal of Systematic Theology (and sometimes in First Things). In the present political climate and blogosphere, however, it’s harder to find good examples of humility. That, incidentally, is why Augustine is one of my favorite theologians: He published a whole book rehearsing his theological mistakes (the Retractions).
Thielicke has some powerful things to say about the temptation to treat truth as a prideful possession. He calls the tendency to look down on those who don’t know as much as we think we do “the disease of theologians.” The cure is to love the truth more than our possession of it. You’ll find this to be especially the case when it comes to theologians’ preferred interpretations of Scripture.
That reminds me. Luther’s adage has a part B: “the theologian is a perfectly free servant of all disciplines, subject to all.” It’s important in reading Scripture not to make theology a trump card for dismissing the work of biblical scholars and, for that matter, scientists. Augustine rightly rebukes those who interpret Scripture while ignoring the natural scientist’s knowledge of the world: Instead of embarrassing themselves and bringing disgrace on theology, they ought to shut up and listen.
I’m aware that I’ve only scratched the surface. To pursue these matters further, you should investigate, in addition to Thielicke, Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Mark McIntosh’s Divine Teaching, Kelly Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians, Avery Dulles’s The Craft of Theology, and Ellen Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Minds. (You asked for summer reading recommendations.)
So there you have believing and behaving as a theologian. Let me conclude with a few words about belonging. The question is: Where and with whom are you most likely to flourish as a theologian? As to where, I’ve already mentioned some pitfalls of doing theology in and for the academy. You requested a “top ten” list of theological schools. That’s tricky. I need to know more about your background, what you’re looking for, and future plans. I’ll say this much: Don’t despise the M.Div. degree just because it takes longer, often involves learning the biblical languages, and requires an internship. There is much to be said for reading Scripture in the original languages and for pastoral experience. It’s erroneous to equate theological education with theological degrees—call it the sheepskin fallacy.
In one of his own letters to an aspiring theologian, C. S. Lewis warned, “sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.” It’s a caution worth remembering. Lewis readily acknowledged that some are called to be theological teachers (cf. Eph. 4:11). And, of course, on one level, all Christians should be biblically and theologically literate. Not everyone can be a doctor, but we should all know first aid. Would that all the Lord’s people were theologians (cf. Num. 11:29)! The serious point is that whatever your location, your theology should build up the Church in the knowledge and love of God so that it can worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23–24). You can do this as either a pastor- or professor-theologian.
I’m struck by the parallel in Psalm 96:8–9: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor.” Ascribing means setting forth in speech those joyful indicatives that describe God and his works, and this elicits worship. Sound doctrine prompts doxology.
Finally, with whom should you do theology? In the old days, most of my students identified with a particular confessional tradition. This is no longer the case. We often hear that millennials are more interested in spirituality than organized religion, hence the decline in denominationalism. I know you expressed interest in being a “free-range” theologian (that’s my term, I know, but it’s better than your “lone ranger,” which I fear comes close to the way church historians often describe heretics). Recall what I said above about the importance of reading Scripture in communion with the saints.
I understand your consternation at being forced to act like a consumer in deciding which particular communion to join. But consider: Just as there was no contradiction between belonging to one of the twelve tribes and belonging to Israel, so there is no necessary contradiction between being local (or even confessional) and catholic. Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). There is much to be gained by inhabiting a particular theological tradition (a dwelling place), but confinement to a single room (or, as some translations have it, “mansion”) can be suffocating. The important point is that, whichever room you occupy, you should aspire to building up the whole house: preserving the integrity of its witness, orienting its worship, and increasing its wisdom.
Would that there were competent doctors in every house—in every place where the people of God dwell—in order to nourish them and keep them well. Becoming a doctor of the Church involves more than not doing harm: Our vocation is to speak the truth in love and love the truth (the way of Jesus Christ) we speak and those to whom we speak it. If I speak in the tongues of pastors and professors and have not love, I am a noisy guru, not a theologian. The Church is the theologian’s natural habitat; its edification in truth and love his primary concern; its communion with the triune God his greatest prayer, hope, and joy.
I know you’re concerned that you may not be intelligent enough to become a theologian. Well, God doesn’t call people to do things without giving them the necessary equipment. You would do better to worry about avoiding the theologian’s occupational hazards (blasphemy and heresy). Aspiring theologians, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21)—and from what I call Feuerbachian slips, the convenient fiction that God is identical to our best thoughts about him.
A last exhortation: Why not approach the whole issue of whether and how to become a theologian (and where to go to study) theologically? Read Scripture, pray, and worship with other saints. As you do, keep an ear out for divine prompting. After all, one way for faith to seek understanding is to step out in faith. If you’re reading between the lines, you’ll realize that I view all of life as “a little exercise for young theologians.” Godspeed!
Kevin J. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.