Everyone’s (Not) a Theologian, But Pastors Should Be

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Theology is the study of God and all things in their right relationship to him. It is concerned with the one whom we love, worship, and adore above all, so it ought to concern all who “worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24). There is much that I can affirm, then, in the popular book by R. C. Sproul titled Everyone’s a Theologian. Everyone already thinks about God, but not everyone does it well. Unfortunately, serious theology has been largely evicted from the communion of saints and relocated to the ivory tower of modern academia. Many believers—and even pastors—have developed a strange animus towards theology, failing to realize that imprecise thinking about God and his redemption in Christ has consequences for all of life.

With this said, I’m convinced that we can cultivate greater appreciation for and participation in theology without cheapening the word “theologian.” Not everyone who thinks about the weather is a meteorologist, and not everyone who thinks about God is a theologian—at least in any meaningful sense. Instead, our focus ought to be on reclaiming the classical vision of the pastor as theologian and the church as a learning community. Pastor-theologians are the primary providers of theological education in the local church and shape the church’s identity as a community of the word.

The following sections first distinguish the obligation of every Christian to increase in the knowledge of God from the obligation of pastors to be theologians properly so-called, and second discuss how the church can be a learning community led by a pastor-theologian.

A Student of Theology vs. A Theologian

First and foremost, every Christian should be intentional in the study of theology—“a lover of learning,” as Athanasius said. “Increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10) and being “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9) is essential, not incidental, to the life of every disciple. N. T. Wright puts it well: “For Christians to ‘grow up’ in every way will include the awakening of intellectual powers, the ability to think coherently and practically about God and his purposes for his people. Paul never plays off spiritual life against intellectual understanding.”

We should never be suspicious of theological education; rather, of hard hearts that fail to walk in the truth. The answer for those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7) is not less learning, but better learning—careful instruction in the true doctrine of Christ (2 Tim. 3:10–4:4)—and sincere godliness. Ordinary Christians should be encouraged to engage in serious Bible study and read books on theology.

Ordinary Christians should be encouraged to engage in serious Bible study and read books on theology.

Studying theology, however, is not the same thing as theologizing—systematic reasoning about God and all things in their right relationship to him. Understanding what is at stake in the work of theology, Gregory of Nazianzus argued in his First Theological Oration (Or. 27) that everyone is not and cannot be a theologian properly-so-called:

III. Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.

It is fitting to consult Gregory on this matter, since he is rightly called “the Theologian,” a title bestowed in honor of his work on the doctrine of God. Gregory goes on to describe the “certain persons” to whom it belongs to theologize:

Not to all men, because it is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are passed masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified. For the impure to touch the pure is, we may safely say, not safe, just as it is unsafe to fix weak eyes upon the sun’s rays.

Gregory later adds that “the permitted persons” are “they to whom the subject is of real concern, and not they who make it a matter of pleasant gossip, like any other thing, after the races, or the theatre, or a concert, or a dinner, or still lower employments. To such men as these, idle jests and pretty contradictions about these subjects are a part of their amusement.” To put it in modern terms, little is gained by calling someone a theologian just because he or she speculates about God at McDonalds or plays the theologian on Facebook.

In the new age of social media, when everyone has a platform, the idea that everyone is a theologian has the potential to embolden careless public thinking about God. The proliferation of reckless speech about the Holy One of Israel should lead many to say with Job, “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:4–5). I recently conversed with a layman who dabbles in theology but does not have the posture of a learner or a high regard for the church’s interpretation of Scripture throughout history. After reading John 1 and Colossians 1, he insisted that only the Son and not the Father is properly called the Creator. This is heresy. It contradicts the opening lines of the Apostles’ Creed. Calling such a man a theologian would only embolden him. But encouraging him to be a humble and intentional student of theology, looking to the church as the primary means through which the Spirit guides him in the interpretation of Scripture, could be fruitful.

Learning Under the Guidance of Pastor-Theologians

As important as it is to honor the work of the theologian, we should never discourage ordinary Christians from aspiring to think high thoughts about God. “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe,” said Gregory, “indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides.” It is precisely because theology is so important to the life of the discipleship community that we should not cheapen the theologian’s role by claiming it for every believer.

Pastor-theologians are the primary providers of theological education in the local church and shape the church’s identity as a community of the word.

Most Christians know this instinctively and chuckle at the idea that they are already a theologian. Faithful Christians want to go deeper into the knowledge of God, but they also understand the need for someone to guide them in their learning. Something has broken down when this is not the case. Throughout church history, this guiding role has been understood as the work of pastor-theologians in the local church. Kevin Vanzhoozer introduces The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision with a warning:

The church, the society of Jesus, is similarly in danger of becoming secular, and in the very place where we would least expect it: its understanding of the clergy. This is not because churches are dispensing with the pastorate, but because they no longer find its theological character particularly exciting or intelligible. The idea of the pastor as a theologian—one who opens up the Scriptures to help people understand God, the world, and themselves—no longer causes the hearts of most church members to “burn within” them (Luke 24:32).

The biblical and historical emphasis is not on the responsibility of individual Christians to be theologians, but on their responsibility to participate in a theological community—a community of the word that is growing in the knowledge of God under the direction of competent, qualified pastors.

In our increasingly complex culture, we need gifted teachers who can guide ordinary Christians in thinking about God and every area of life—from modesty to marriage to masculinity—in light of the knowledge of him. A theology of x is an account of x in its right relationship to God and what he has done in Christ. We need a theology of everything, and this requires serious and prolonged reflection. Central to sanctification is the call to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2), and this includes our thinking about everything under the sun. How can this happen except by theology? The great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope lauds this great and honorable work: “Theology is a light shed upon all the universe; it is the glory of God’s creature, man.”

The church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and pastor-teachers are the ones that God has “given” to the church “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Pastors are uniquely called and qualified to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught,” “to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). They are required to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). R. S. Taylor insisted, “It is the duty of every preacher to be a theologian.” A healthy church should value, celebrate, and honor their pastor’s theological labor of love (1 Tim. 5:17).

Everyone is called to participate in a church that has “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and is overseen by pastor-theologians who are immersed in serious study of Scripture and tradition in service of God’s people. Professional theologians in the modern academy should be immersed in the life of a local church and focus their work on serving the needs of pastors and churches. In a future article, we will explore this relationship in more depth and consider the pastor’s role as a theologian who shapes a culture of theological education in the local church.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.