by Roger Olson
May 26, 2013
It may sound like a simple question (or two simple questions), but it’s not. I’ve been a “professional theologian” (someone who gets paid for being one) for thirty-one years and before that I was preparing to be one for several years. The dream of being a theologian probably formed in my mind during seminary. I sensed that I would never understand my Christian faith as fully as I wanted to without being a theologian myself. And I desperately wanted to understand my faith. But the roots of my vocation go back to childhood. I was raised in a pastor’s home and in a “high demand” church. Jesus and the Bible saturated our home, not just our church. And I always had an inquiring mind. After church I would often quiz my father about the meanings of hymns we sang and of things I heard in his sermon or in my Sunday School lesson. I didn’t always find his answers satisfying and that sense of dissatisfaction with answers stayed with me and grew stronger as I matriculated at our denomination’s college where I was spoon fed doctrines and not really allowed to explore them.
The sense that theology might be my calling, however, really dawned in me during seminary. Some of my professors were brilliant, sensitive and very spiritual men and women who encouraged my inquisitiveness even when they didn’t have satisfying answers to my questions. My main textbook in “Systematic Theology” was Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics (3 volumes) and I loved it. Reading it propelled me to read deeper and wider in scholarly theology so that I eventually read in Barth, Tillich, Moltmann, Pannenberg, etc. And, yes, I also read portions of the church fathers and great Reformers—especially Calvin (Institutes). I knew I was an evangelical and determined to remain one, so I explored evangelical theologians. I found Carl Henry dry as dust but Bernard Ramm exhilarating. But my favorite was Donald Bloesch and I read everything I could get my hands on by him.
My own faith family (broadly defined) rejected my thirst for theology and my calling to become a theologian. Nobody in it had ever done that without “losing the faith.” Seminary was routinely called “cemetery” and my determination to study theology led indirectly, if not directly, to my exclusion from my faith family which was saturated in anti-intellectualism. That I was attending seminary was bad enough, but when I announced my acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Religious Studies (with a concentration in theology) at a secular university my spiritual mentors rejected me entirely.
All that is to say that my earliest experiences of becoming, and then being, a theologian - someone who professionally conducts research in and teaches and writes theology - were negative—so far as the people nearest and dearest to me were concerned. I will never forget the day before I left to study theology in Germany (during my Ph.D. work) I attended a family reunion. A dear uncle who was a wonderful Christian, but untutored in biblical studies or theology, took me aside and said “Roger, remember, there’s such a thing as an over educated idiot.” No one congratulated me or patted me on the back or said anything positive about my studies or my calling or my goals. I could easily detect a great hesitation and even uneasiness about what I was doing. It was considered dangerous and a waste of time. They all would have preferred I went directly from college into ministry—preferably as a missionary.
In large segments of American Christianity “theology” is almost a dirty word.
In large segments of American Christianity “theology” is almost a dirty word.
And yet, whenever I explained theology as “faith seeking understanding” or “thinking about God” those same people, my faith family, would indicate that they thought that was something they did—better than any professionally trained “scholarly” theologian. And yet, time and time again, as I listened to and attempted to interact with them, I realized they knew almost nothing about theology. Their “theology” was folk religion. I wanted to move beyond that without leaving my evangelical faith behind.
I hoped to discover a “world” where theology as I understood it—intellectually serious, even scholarly thinking about God (“the science of God”)—would be valued and where my vocation and training would be affirmed and used by people of God. That was my dream... but for the most part it has been dashed.
My advice to young would-be theologians (in the sense I mean the vocation) is be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued. Only go into it if you can’t do otherwise. For the most part, with notable and blessed exceptions, American culture and faith communities will not really value what you do. And you will often, even continually, be confronted with two attitudes among people of faith. One will be that you are wasting your time and theirs and unnecessarily complicating the Christian faith. The other will be that others do what you think you do better.
During my studies in Germany my wife and I attended a Baptist church pastored by a “missionary” from the U.S. It was an English-speaking church with ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. The reason is that my wife and daughter did not speak or understand German. There were a few German-speaking Baptist churches in the city where we lived, but we settled on the English-speaking one for their sakes. (I often attended a German Lutheran church down the street before they joined me for the early afternoon Sunday worship service at the English-speaking Baptist church.) The pastor was a nice enough fellow, but he had no use for theology—except his own folk religious version of it. (He was not a seminary graduate.) I will never forget the Sunday he preached on the Christian’s attitude toward “secular culture.” He ended his sermon with “The Christian’s attitude toward secular culture should be ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up’.” I felt swept up and transported back to my faith family of origin and the college I [had once] attended.
I reveled in my doctoral studies in religion and theology but always held tightly to the broad evangelical faith of my seminary days.
I walked into my first full time teaching position, in a Christian university, thinking my theological training would be valued and affirmed by people of my own faith orientation. It was an evangelical university with a strongly charismatic flavor. I had wonderful colleagues and many fine students—some of who come here occasionally (to my blog). The top administration, however, was just as anti-intellectual and anti-theological as anything I had ever encountered in my childhood and youth. The president (who was also the founder) forbid any philosophy major or department and was clearly suspicious of theology and theologians. He attempted to change course titles that included “theology” to say “doctrine” instead. “Introduction to Christian Theology” (which I taught in the undergraduate department) was to become “Introduction to Bible Doctrine.” Several of my colleagues in both the undergraduate and graduate departments of theology informed me that the president of the university was intentionally “untouched” by theology. Still, and nevertheless, I was left mostly alone in the classroom. I was free to select textbooks without interference and teach theology as I wanted to and felt led to.
I left that university for several reasons, the main one being the top administration’s attitudes toward the life of the mind including theology. I could sense that I could never flourish there as a theologian. And I desperately wanted to enter into the “mainstream” of evangelical academic life by teaching in an evangelical Christian liberal arts college with a seminary (and perhaps eventually teach in the seminary). So I made my first career move—to a well-known and influential, growing evangelical Baptist college and seminary (now a university). I taught theology there for fifteen years and, for the most part, loved it. Again, I had many wonderful colleagues and excellent students. The constituency, however, was another matter. So were some of my colleagues and administrators.
I will never forget the day I walked into the faculty lounge (to get a cup of coffee) and was introduced to a long-time member of the Cultural Studies Department—an anthropologist. He asked me what I would be teaching at the college and I replied “theology.” He scowled and said “Theology? We teach theology in our department.” It was the first shot across the bow of a long-standing debate about theology that would go on for years within the college. Some of my colleagues believed (and they were not alone among evangelical academics) that “theology” is a pseudo-discipline and that “real theology” was taught in other departments (than the Biblical and Theological Studies Department). One colleague in the Arts Department informed me that his works of art expressed Christian faith as well if not better than theology.
Gradually I deduced that I was faced with a new form of antipathy toward theology—as I understood my professional discipline and vocation. It wasn’t anti-intellectual at all; it was simply rejection of formal, scholarly, academic theology as a distinct discipline alongside others in the academy. That rejection stemmed from various impulses; there was no one reason for it. But I found it to be common, not only in the college where I taught but in many other academic and religious communities—both “mainline” and evangelical.
I entered theology as a career, a vocation, a life’s endeavor, for personal reasons of faith. I wanted to understand my Christian faith. But I also expected to find Christian communities that would value and affirm it and me. I at least hoped to be respected if I conducted myself rightly. What I often encountered, however, among both so-called “mainline” Christians and my fellow evangelicals was a suspicion of theology and resistance to it. (I worked for a few years under an administrator who regularly referred to those of us who taught theology as “you theology types” with a sneer in his voice. Most who shared his opinion were not as blatant about their disdain. Later, another administrator told me “Our students don’t need to know anything about Barth or Tillich or any other theologians”.)
Of course, there have been many exceptions. And they have given me hope and strength.
... Overall and in general, however, I have encountered mostly suspicion and resistance to serious, scholarly, academic theology—from secular people (of course), anti-intellectual Christians, and fellow Christians who do take the life of the mind seriously.
The most dismaying party of people who are suspicious toward theology and resist it has been fellow evangelical (or just biblically-serious) intellectuals, scholars and academics—philosophers, biblical scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Many of them openly express the opinion that if “theology” has any value it is what they do and that theology itself, as a distinct discipline, is unnecessary at best and a pseudo-science (like astrology) at worst.
Here are some reasons for that attitude. First, many evangelical scholars, intellectuals, academics have encountered - and been “burned” by - theologians who pontificate. They tend to blame all theologians and theology itself for those who have abused them. Second, many tend to think of theology, as a discipline, as esoteric and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously as a distinct discipline (in the sense the Germans mean by “scientific”—wissenschaftlich). In other words, they view it as speculative at best. Third, and perhaps this is a combination of the first two, many think that theology unnecessarily and even harmfully complicates religious faith, the Bible, and spirituality. One form this takes among some biblical scholars is the suspicion that theology attempts to impose harmony on the Bible—reducing the gospels to one account of Jesus’ life and ministry and forcing Jesus (or the gospel writers) to agree with Paul and vice versa.
Perhaps the single most important, influential reason for the attitude I describe is the opinion that religion is primarily about ethics and/or spirituality and not doctrine. Therefore, the work of theologians is unnecessary unless it is simply the exposition of Christian discipleship and/or spiritual formation.
No doubt some readers will think I am simply whining here—“I don’t get no respect!” (Rodney Dangerfield) Well, not really. I came to terms with this situation long ago even though I still find it dismaying—not because it hurts my feelings but because I think it hurts the churches.
In Part 2 I will explain what I think theology really is and why it is a distinct and important discipline that should be valued and respected by Christians.
by Roger Olson
May 28, 2013
In Part 1, I described two broad types of antipathy toward scholarly, academic theology among American Christians (especially evangelicals). The first is anti-intellectualism (especially toward scholarly study of religion in general and Christianity in particular. The second is scholarly, academic belief that theology is a pseudo-science except as it is done by non-theologians (philosophers, sociologists, artists, etc.). Before proceeding to read this second part of the series, please go back and read Part 1. Without that this Part 2 may not make much sense. I am assuming Part 1 here.
So, everything I have said so far begs an answer to the question “What is ‘theology’—as I mean it here?”
Because of the antipathies to theology I described in Part 1, Stan Grenz and I wrote Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (IVP 1994). It has sold very well and is still being used as an introduction to theology in many Christian academic settings. What I say here will overlap some with that.
My experience has been that when I have the opportunity to explain what I mean by “theology” some opponents of scholarly, academic theology as a distinct discipline acknowledge it—if it is done rightly. Others, however, go deeper into their opposition.
First, let me clarify “scholarly, academic” as qualifiers of “theology.” Most broadly defined “theology” is simply the study of God, thinking about God, the “science of God.” By “scholarly, academic” I do not mean “ivory tower,” “speculative,” “impractical,” or “disconnected from life”—including the life of the church. I mean the study of God, thinking about God that goes beyond folk religion—the very informal, cliché-determined, feeling-oriented thinking about God that many lay people (and some pastors) revel in (e.g., “God helps those who help themselves”).
When I talk about theology as my discipline I am talking about thinking about God (and matters related to God) informed and shaped by research into and reflection on sources and norms. What sources and norms? Revelation (especially Scripture), tradition (in Christian theology that would be the Great Tradition of Christian thought and a denomination’s traditions), reason, and experience. Theology as I mean it is the study of God (and matters related to God such as salvation) shaped by research into and reflection on revelation, tradition, reason and experience.
Who is theology’s audience? For whom is theology done? Well, of course, for a Christian such as myself, the primary audience is God; theology is done for the glory and enjoyment of God—and our enjoyment of him. But the secondary audience is the church—one’s own denomination and the church universal. The tertiary audience is inquirers—whether churched or not.[I would add that the third audience are those non-Christians who show an interest in knowing more about God - res].
There are, of course, all kind of disciplines that include “theology” in their name. There is, of course, “philosophical theology.” That’s not what I mean when I claim theology as my discipline. Philosophical theology is thinking about God philosophically—not using revelation or [church] tradition as sources or norms but using only reason and universal human experience. This is akin to “philosophy of religion.” I recognize it as a legitimate and distinct discipline that can be helpful to theology as I mean it, but it is not my discipline and, in my opinion, cannot replace theology as I mean it here and whenever I say I “do theology.”)
There is, of course, also “historical theology” and that is a discipline I also practice—through research and reflection. It is adjunct to theology as thinking about God (and matters related to God)—especially within a specific religious context such as a Christian school or church. Historical theology is the study of Christian beliefs (and worship and ethics, etc.).
In my opinion, neither philosophical theology nor historical theology require commitment to the truth of any revelation or to any church (universal or particular). Theology as I mean it here and as I claim to practice it as a scholar does require commitment to the truth of a revelation, Jesus Christ and scripture, for example, and to the mission of God in and through the church of Jesus Christ.
The Task of Theology and Theologian
The Task of Theology and Theologian
Better than any simple definition of theology, as I mean it and claim to practice it (however imperfectly), is a thick description of it through explanation of its tasks. Theology as I mean it, claim to practice it, and hope to defend it, has four tasks—grouped under two general headings. The two general headings, theology’s two major tasks, are critical and constructive.
Theology critically examines truth claims about God (and matters related to God) in light of revelation, tradition, reason and experience to determine, as much as possible, their truth status (or falsity) using those four criteria. It does this for the churches—to protect and preserve them in the truth of God. The second step under “critical task” is to determine, as far as possible, the importance of true beliefs. Are they essential to Christianity (for example), not to Christianity but to a denomination or Christian tradition, or interesting but not essential to anything?
As for the constructive tasks of theology: Theology attempts to develop cognitive models (doctrines) of God and matters related to God out of revelation, tradition, reason and experience and (second step) reconstruct them to be culturally relevant.
These are extremely simplistic accounts of theology’s tasks, and they do not explore or explain the various possibilities for carrying them out, but I argue they define “theology” and are all necessary to its being “done” adequately. Theology as I mean it does these tasks in that way—using revelation, tradition, reason and experience.
What then is Biblical Theology?
What then is Biblical Theology?
One question that inevitably arises is about “biblical theology.” What is “biblical theology” in relation to what I am calling simply “theology?” As I understand it “biblical theology” has two distinct meanings. First is simply hermeneutics. Second is “theology done faithfully to the Bible.” I affirm both. The first is useful, even necessary, for theology as I mean it, but theology as I mean it here (and in Part 1) goes beyond hermeneutics. Theology as I attempt to do it, evangelical Christian theology, also attempts to be biblically faithful.
Now, let me make some possibly startling claims about theology (and related matters).
Where doctrine does not matter, theology will inevitably be undervalued if not rejected entirely. Or it will be transformed into something else while still being called “theology.” This is a major cause, I believe, for the undervaluing of theology in contemporary American Christianity. To a very large extent, non-fundamentalist Christians have given up on truth that transcends the individual and his or her spirituality.
Theology has many pathologies, but none of them, nor all taken together, negates theology’s importance. Theology’s pathologies are no excuse for discarding or neglecting it.
Theology is a distinct and scholarly discipline within the Christian academic context; it cannot be replaced by any other discipline without major loss.
The church of Jesus Christ is shaped, in part, by beliefs and its beliefs should be reasonable in the broadest sense in light of revelation, tradition, reason and experience. They should be intelligible to thinking people who embrace Christianity’s sources and norms (as they should). Therefore, churches should rely on their theologians for help in shaping worship, mission, proclamation, etc.
Throughout my thirty-one years as a theologian I have found very few churches that valued theology or theologians. Once I volunteered to serve as “theologian in residence” at a church where I was a member. I asked for no remuneration and made clear my only desire was to serve as a consultant whenever the church dealt with matters pertaining to doctrine. I am confident the church declined not for any personal reasons; I was “in good standing.” They simply did not care about theology.
Occasionally I have approached pastors and worship leaders with a comment about something theological and have usually been rebuffed. Here’s an example from many years ago. The guest preacher’s sermon was about the “imminent return of Jesus Christ” and resonated well with the eschatology believed by most members and pastors of the denomination which was clearly premillennial. Immediately after the sermon the worship leader had the congregation stand and sing “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” which is blatantly postmillennial. (I knew the worship leader was not postmillennial and doubted that any church member or attender was, either.) I approached the worship leader after the worship service and asked him if he noticed the dissonance between the sermon and the song. He didn’t. I had to explain it to him. He said “Only you would notice that.”
To me, that’s a sad admission. A worship leader, like every staff member and leader of a church ought to at least be inclined to listen to and take seriously what his or her own denomination’s trained theologians have to say. Unfortunately, my experience is that that is rare. The result is often a lack of intelligibility, coherence, in preaching, worship and mission.
A good Calvinist friend of mine says “If we are to get the message [of the gospel] out, we must first get it right.” I agree. I’m not at all convinced the majority of American Christian lay people or pastors (or church leaders in general) agree or care—in any way that would be corrective or transformative.
In Part 3 I will deal with who is a theologian—that is, who does theology (as I mean it here).
by Roger Olson
May 30, 2013
This third installment of the series won’t make much sense without the first two, so please read Parts 1 and 2 before this. This part presupposes those.
Throughout my career as a theologian, I have frequently encountered people who claim, directly or indirectly, that they “do theology” as well, if not better, than professional theologians. But, of course, rarely do they mean theology as I have described it in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Some of those who claim to do theology better than professional theologians are of the anti-intellectual variety and they usually mean they “simply read the Bible and take it at face value.” Often, what they mean by “theology” is what I mean by folk religion.
Others who claim to do theology better than professional theologians are scholars who use their own discipline’s tools and skills to investigate truth about God (and matters related to God). I gave the example of a former colleague who believed he did theology as an anthropologist—better than those of us who practice theology as professional theologians.
Far be it from me to deny that some non-theologians do theology better than I do it. I humbly admit that philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, does theology very well. But he has spent many years acquiring the knowledge and skills of a theologian. He is one of those people who successfully crosses the boundary between philosophy and theology and goes back and forth between them and, to the extent possible, combines them. His recent book Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press) is an excellent example of that.
However, theology (as I have described it in Parts 1 and 2) is not something just anyone can do well. It is a discipline into which one is trained. Of course, a person trained in it may very well do it poorly. There are numerous examples of that! The same could be said of any discipline. Who would claim, for example, that all persons trained in, and possessing the skills necessary for, philosophy “philosophizes” well? But a few (even many) bad apples do not undermine the discipline as a whole.
As I argued in Part 2, theology, as I described it there, is a church-related discipline; it is not a “free floating” discipline disconnected from any particular commitment or community. The church needs theologians and theologians need the church. And yet, to a certain extent, a theologian’s job is to question the church—not as a chronic skeptic or gadfly but as a faithful prophet. He or she is a servant of the church and at the same time one who challenges the church to examine its beliefs and practices.
So part of the answer to who does theology is—one who has acquired the knowledge and skills to practice theology and practices it in the service of the church.
What are the knowledge and skills needed to do theology professionally well—beyond commitment to the faith of the people of God?
First, a theologian must be conversant with revelation—whatever revelation his or her faith community acknowledges as divine. For the Christian theologian that usually means first and foremost Jesus Christ and scripture. Skill in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics is a prerequisite for doing theology well professionally.
Second, a theologian must be conversant with the tradition(s) of his or her faith community. For the Christian theologian that means the Great Tradition of Christian thought (church fathers, creeds, medieval theology, confessional statements, Reformation traditions, etc.) and the traditions of his or her own faith community.
Third, a theologian must be skilled in the rules of thought and communication—especially logic.
Finally, a theologian must be sensitive to human spiritual experience and the religious experiences of his or her own faith community. He or she must have a sense for the divine as interpreted by his or her own faith tradition.
Also, he or she must be conversant with culture and skilled at bringing religious beliefs into creative correlation with culture.
Also, he or she must be conversant with culture and skilled at bringing religious beliefs into creative correlation with culture.
Few scholars without a Ph.D. (or equivalent training) in religious studies and/or theology has that knowledge and those skills. Many with Ph.D.s in religious studies and/or theology still lack them, but that depth and breadth of training is minimally necessary for doing theology professionally and doing it well.
Of course, some of the greatest theological minds did not have doctoral degrees—e.g., Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Nevertheless, they acquired the knowledge and skills described above on their own and in deep conversation with fellow scholars.
I am not arguing that nobody can be a theologian except people with Ph.D.s in religion or theology; I am arguing that theology is a discipline—an orderly way of thinking that works skillfully with sources, norms and tools. It isn’t something just anyone decides to do on their own and then does it—without usually utterly failing.
Many years ago I was visiting some friends of my family. The husband’s grandfather was a spiritual mentor of many members of my own family. When he found out about my interest in theology as a scholarly pursuit and discipline he scoffed and pointed me to some books (booklets, really) written by his grandfather—a patriarch of our faith community. I had heard his grandfather’s name all my life—from my parents and relatives. So I sat down and began reading the books. The first one I opened argued that all the divisions of Christianity came about as a result of the Constantinian takeover of Christianity. Before Constantine, the author argued, Christians were united around the gospel and there were no major or serious divisions. They were all in one accord and of one mind and faith. Well, after reading just a few pages I knew the man had no knowledge of the history of Christianity and was not qualified to do theology. I silently put the books back on my new friend’s shelf and said nothing to him about it. I knew he would not be able to handle the truth about his grandfather.
Unfortunately, there are many people in Christian churches and organizations who think they or someone they know does theology well and even better than professional theologians. Usually when I investigate them I find huge gaps in their knowledge and flaws in their skills. They have led many people astray by peddling their notions about God and Christianity.
So, perhaps you want to know who I think are some people who do theology well as professional theologians—people the churches should turn to for help in examining beliefs and constructing relevant doctrines for today. Here are some names. I’m limiting my list to those recently deceased or still living and who are prolific authors. Placing a name in the list does not mean I agree with everything the person believes or advocates; it simply means I consider him or her a knowledgeable and skilled theologian. Also, many of those I link to a particular faith community and tradition write things valuable for others. By no means do I imply that a person’s theological thoughts are of value only to those in his or her faith tradition and community.
For Baptists—Stanley J. Grenz, Bernard Ramm, Millard Erickson, Dale Moody, James McClendon, James Leo Garrett, Paul Fiddes, Daniel Williams, Molly Marshall
For Lutherans—Robert Jenson, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ted Peters, Lois Malcolm
For Pentecostals—Amos Yong, Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Frank Macchia, Steven Land, Cheryl Bridges Johns
For Methodists (United and other)—Thomas Oden, William Abraham, Kenneth Collins, Henry Knight, Susie Stanley, [Thomas Jay Oord (Wesleyan) - res]
For Reformed and Congregationalists—Donald Bloesch, Donald McKim, Jürgen Moltmann, Alan P. F. Sell, Michael Horton, Leeann Van Dyk
For Anglicans/Episcopals—Paul Zahl, N. T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Michael Green, Christopher Hall, Edith Humphreys, Sarah Coakley
For Anabaptists—Thomas Finger, John Howard Yoder, J. Denny Weaver
For Roman Catholics—Walter Kasper, Franz Josef van Beeck, Catherine Mowry LaCugna
For Eastern Orthodox—John Zizioulas, David Bentley Hart, Bradley Nassif, Kallistos Ware
For Generic Evangelicals—John Stackhouse, Kevin Vanhoozer, Greg Boyd, Ruth Tucker, John Sanders, Scot McKnight
*annotations are mine own - re slater (res)