What is theology? Who is a theologian? Why should theology persist?

[Dedicated readers may recall my attempt to help spread the word about a gathering of graduate students of theology (broadly conceived) organized by the Harvard Theology Salon back in February. While I could not attend, I sent the following as a contribution to their study document, Theological Times, which they formatted as an e-zine (not made public, at least as yet).]

By Tkgd2007 [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
I want to express my gratitude to the organizers of this gathering, some of whom have gone out of their way to encourage myself and my colleagues at Princeton Theological Seminary to attend. Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict prevents my presence, and I do not know whether any of my colleagues will be able to participate. Given these circumstances, and the organizers’ desire for the presence of a Princeton Seminary voice, I offer the following reflections. In what follows, I provide brief answers to the What? Who? and Why? questions posed by the gathering’s organizers. All of this is in service to answering the prompt: Why, concretely, should theology persist? For whom should it or will it exist?

First, what is theology? Considered formally, theology is the church’s critical reflection upon its proclamation, in word and deed, of the good news of Jesus Christ – the Gospel. Considered materially, theology is the attempt to describe with conceptual care what this Gospel means for how we understand ourselves and our relationships – with each other, with creation, and with God. Theology is thus the province of a particular community – the church – but is an activity performed for the sake of the world.

Second, who is a theologian? Insofar as theology is the church’s critical reflection upon its proclamation of the Gospel, every member of the church – every Christian – is called to be a theologian. Within the Christian community it is not a question of whether or not one is a theologian, but whether or not one is an intentional theologian and, ultimately, whether one is a good or bad theologian. The quality of one’s theologizing is dependent upon one’s faithfulness in allowing the Gospel to decisively determine one’s theology.

Third, why theology? The purpose for theological existence should now be clear – the church must critically reflect on its proclamation of the Gospel. But, let us take this question as referring to that particular endeavor undertaken by the professional theologian. In this case, the church identifies among its members those who are particularly gifted for the theological task, setting them apart for the task of intensive theological thinking. The task of such a “theologian” is to do what the rest of the church does, only with greater intellectual care and rigor. The professional theologian then, regardless of what other loyalties the academy or society might foist upon her – and these may well be important responsibilities – is first and foremost a servant of the church.

Finally: Why, concretely, should theology persist? For whom should it or will it exist? The answer I must give to this question should now be clear: theology both should and will persist so long as the body of Christ finds itself tasked with the proclamation of the Gospel. Given that this proclamation is the church’s raison d’être, theology will persist as long as does the church. Furthermore, and contrary to Christian eschatologies that imagine the visio Dei as humanity’s ultimate end, it may well be that heaven will ring with celebratory proclamation of the Gospel – and, consequently, hum with the drone of theological discussion – εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.



Jon Coutts said…
I thought this was really succinct and accurate. I wonder if the last point might make more of the part from the first point about theology being "for the sake of the world"? And how would it articulate that point?
Those two points are definitely connected. The basic affirmation is that the church's missionary task is essential to life in covenant partnership with God, rather than accidental, because God's being-with humanity is nothing other than his missionary being - there is no other or higher way of God's being-with us.
Bobby Grow said…
Like this, Travis!
Bobby Grow said…

Would you mind if I quoted this in full at my blog; I think it would be good for my readers to read it as well. I think it is well stated, and makes a clear case for both the place and need for theology and theologians for the Church.
Hey Bobby,

I don't like my stuff being reproduced in full elsewhere, but you're welcome to post a link with excerpts and your own commentary. I'd be interested in your commentary, especially. ;-)
Bobby Grow said…
Alright, I'll do that . . . it's a good thing I asked; I almost just did it ;-). Now you're going to make me work and actually have to think a little, dangit! :-)
I appreciate your asking. Now, get to work! ;-)
Nancy said…
I LOVED this and tweeted your link for all to see!
Christopher said…
Thank you Travis!
Matt Stemp said…
I would be interested in why you chose to emphasise critical reflection and conceptual clarity in your understanding of theology. I also want to push you a little on what I see as a tension between a view of theology as a cognitive, rational discourse about the meaning of the kerygma and your claim that every Christian (however badly or unintentionally) is a theologian. There is a danger here of succumbing to the problem Kathryn Tanner identifies in Theories of Culture of splitting theology into first and second order theologies, whereby second order "intentional" theology is reflection on the Christian community's second order "unintentional" theology. In other words, the view that theology is critical reflection on the Church's proclamation fails to recognise that this proclamation cannot be neatly disentangled from the Church's ongoing self-reflection, including the way Christians have always been involved in the everyday construction of (often unclear) concepts through which they have interpreted and thus proclaimed the Good News. If Christians are already proclaiming the Gospel, and such proclamation is already theological, then (on my view) it seems to be a fundamental mistake to say they could ever be doing 'bad' theology. Either theology needs to be given a broader definition, or theology should be seen as the task of those Christians called to become theologians.
Thanks for the thought, Matt. Everything depends on whether we think it's possible to pass relative judgments on the quality of one's theologizing, whether that theologizing is explicit or explicit. I think it has to be possible if we're to take seriously the idea that the kerygma (Christ present in proclamation) is always critically related to the proclamation in question. The question then becomes to what extent we're engaging in proclamation in such a way as to let that critical relation change our proclamation.

I'd also want to think of proclamation / theology in holistic terms rather than just liguistic / intellectual terms: theology is bound up with praxis.
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