What is a Theologian?
A theologian is a person who engages in the discipline of theology. Thus, to understand what a theologian is, one must understand what theology is and how one engages in it as a discipline.
What is Theology?
The word ‘theology’ derives from two ancient Greek words that may be transliterated into English as ‘theos’ (meaning “god”) and ‘logos’ (literally meaning “word”). Thus, if we go by these Greek roots, theology may be roughly understood as “god words” or “words about god”. Of course, this is a highly oversimplified definition, since, in its ancient usage, ‘logos’ had a much wider and more complicated meaning. This wider meaning is evident in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, where Jesus is referred to as the ‘logos’. There ‘logos’ means roughly “the organizing principle of the cosmos.” Nevertheless, this examination of the ancient Greek roots of the word ‘theology’ can help us to begin to picture what theologians and theology are about.
In contemporary English, of course, the suffix ‘-ology’ means “the study of.” Thus, we may further understand our contemporary use of the word ‘theology’ as “the study of God.” Indeed, within the discipline of Christian systematic theology, theology is the specific sub-discipline that tries to give an account of the nature of God—the “doctrine of God”—and thus is a kind of study of God. Understood in this way, theology is an academic discipline with a specific subject matter, much like biology (the study of life), or psychology (the study of the mind or soul), or anthropology (the study of humans and culture)—though the methods and subject matter of theology are considerably different from these other academic disciplines.
In addition to understanding theology as a discipline, a particular theology may be understood as a specific theologian’s account of God or related topics. In this sense, we may talk about the theology of Paul, or the theology of Augustine, or the theology of Martin Luther. In this sense, theology is the particular set of words that a given theologian writes or speaks. Thus, a theologian’s theologizing produces his or her particular theology.
At the most general level, theologians may be divided into two categories. Anyone who spends time trying to make sense of her faith in God fits in the first category. Thus, in this sense, most faithful Muslims, Jews, and Christians are theologians to some extent. These are people to whom Anselm’s famous motto, “faith seeking understanding” might apply: they have faith and their informal ordinary theologizing is an attempt to understand that faith more deeply. The theology of theologians in this category might be developed by way of church teaching, childhood education, role modeling, worship experiences, prayer, etc. I will call the theologians in this first broad category “ordinary theologians”.
However, not all ordinary theologians are conscious of the fact that they theologize. Indeed, most of them would reject the title of theologian, leaving it for theologians in the second broad category, who pursue the discipline of theology in a conscious, deliberate, and systematic way. This category of theologians would include the range of thinkers that are traditionally called theologians, such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, or Wolfhart Pannenberg. I will call the theologians in this second broad category “deliberate theologians”. Deliberate theologians are generally those who pursue theology as a formal discipline—often an academic discipline.
This website focuses on deliberate theologians, their particular theologies, and thus on theology as a formal discipline. In this more limited sense, theology usually has at least three tasks:
- Interpreting the significance of objects, events, and experiences from the perspective of faith;
- Connecting thinking about faith with everything else in life, such as science, culture, and arts;
- Assessing what is true, intelligible, appropriate, or morally sound with respect to these matters.
Thus, in deliberate theological work the theologian aims to sort out what she believes about various theological topics and why. This task may include re-assessment of even her most crucial convictions—which may result in pain and confusion at times. However, in the end, the hope is that theologizing leads to a stronger and wider faith, and perhaps to greater potential for religious ministry.
Although there are deliberate theologians in many different religious traditions—e.g., at least in the three monotheistic faiths—as the examples I have used thus far suggest, the focus of this website will be Christian theology and the deliberate theologians that pursue such theology.
Within the broad discipline of deliberate theology, there are several sub-disciplines. These sub-disciplines include biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, moral theology, and practical theology. Follow the links for more information on these sub-disciplines of theology.
Wikipedia is a further helpful source of information on theology.