At what point can a person start going around saying they are a theologian? One of my aims in writing this blog is to work on seeing myself this way. I don’t have a PhD or a Masters in Theology. I don’t even have a Bachelors. So what is this all about?
When I was at Theological college a lecturer once asked us to raise our hands if we considered ourselves ‘scholars’. As I recall very few people did. Perplexed, he said: “but you all are!”
And I thought: “I’m not.”
I have realised that this feeling of being an imposter is something that can affect everything, and is very common even among people who are quantifiably successful in their field. Even if I was a recognised scholar and had several published monographs on suitably obscure topics, I imagine I’d feel the same. I feel very similar about calling myself a writer. Writers write. I write. I’m writing right now but it feels like a label that is for other people and not for me.
Moreover, Theology is all about God. God. God is infinite, ineffable and indescribable. Can any human really call themselves a Theologian? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that no-one is a Theologian except God, because only God has a brain big enough to comprehend His own Eternal Self.
And yet, we believe in a God who reveals Himself and who in His kindness makes truth about Himself available to all humankind. He does this through the written Words of the Bible and the incarnate Words of the World. His ultimate self-expression is in the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, about whom the Bible testifies (Luke 24:25-27, John 5:39-40 etc.) To put it simply, we can know true things about God through His Word and His World.
To riff off Ai Weiwei, “Everything is
politics theology, (Everything is art)”.
In other words, we’re all Theologians, but some of us are really bad ones. (I might be that kind).
A Ladder of Books
So what’s the point? Is this one of those “you’re unique, just like everyone else” situations? Isn’t it just that we use the word Theologian to mean something different from what it maybe should mean, to refer to that special class of people that has a recognised academics status, or position in the church or wider society?
The reason this question concerns me so much is that in many of the churches I have been a part of, and amongst my Christian friends, there is a tendency to equate this position or label with a lofty class of super-smart individuals, who know more about God and therefore probably know God more. We treat academic knowledge as holiness and unconsciously act as if Dr Dr Reverend so-and-so is on higher plane (closer to heaven) than Joe or Joanna Bloggs in the congregation. They may have a lower level of education or literacy but a vast amount more experience of living life in His presence, of practising faithful obedience in hard times, or of explaining big truths in simple terms to those who don’t know the Lord. We frequently equate maturity with knowledge and make the mistake of thinking that knowing about God’s Word is the same as obeying it.
It is a dearly held conviction of mine that God has made each of us with a unique perspective on His word. I’m not saying the Bible has an infinite number of possible interpretations or that it means one thing to one person and something completely different to another. Theologian and Bible Teacher Jen Wilkin writes beautifully of God’s unchanging character:
“Like the tallest mountain peak on the horizon, from generation to generation, God stands unchanging, immutable, anchoring the landscape of human existence as all else around him ebbs and flows, blossoms and withers, waxes and wanes.”
The unchanging nature of God Himself is something like an immense and beautiful mountain, and we can extend that metaphor to the unchanging nature of God’s Word. It never changes but it may look slightly different in different lights and seasons, and from different angles. No one person or demographic (or personality type) could ever fully understand it, let alone express everything important there is to say about it. To put it another way, we all have blind spots, some of which will never leave us, no matter how clever we think we are.
Honey for my honey
We need the Bible to understand the world around us, but what is equally true but more often forgotten is that we also need the world to interpret the Bible. We could use Psalm 119:103 as an example:
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth”!
Let’s imagine we have never tasted honey. We have a Hebrew expert with us who can explain the syntax and the imagery here. She’s very helpful and can absolutely help us to understand the verse better to some extent. Likewise the Old Testament scholar who explains that in Ancient Near Eastern cultures the symbolic value of honey. (It’s a thing!). These things have value. But then let’s imagine someone (they could be anyone) just pulls out a jar of honey and hands round spoons. That would be perhaps the only true way to understand the verse: to experience the phenomenon in the world that is being referenced. Since all of us have experienced the world differently, we all have insights to offer to help one another understand the Word, and therefore the One Who Speaks a little better.
That is why, if we leave the Theology to the ‘Theologians’, we’re going to end up weaker, untested and with much worse spiritual eyesight. We need to read God’s Word in the company of a diversity, of ages, ethnicities, genders and cultures. I’ll never forget the privilege it was to read the beginning of Luke with a Pakistani Muslim friend, who spotted in the text things I had never seen. She helped me to see what it may have meant existentially for Elizabeth to have her “disgrace.. amongst the people” taken away, (Luke 1:25) as she shared with me the disgrace that she faced after suffering a miscarriage, and the way that people avoided her in case her sadness was somehow infectious. I loved the Lord and His kindness to the despised and the wretched that day, and rejoiced with Mary that He is a God who is “mindful of the humble state of his servant…” I’m not saying that my friend in general is a good theologian. She doesn’t have eyes of faith or the Holy Spirit to shine a light on the text for her (although I pray that one day she will.) All I am saying is that she had something to offer that only she could share in that moment, an extremely poignant insight that would have been missing for me had I read the text a thousand times more.
We rightly require our teachers to be deep theological thinkers, who are granted time to spend grappling with thing that might be beyond the rest of us, in order to explain and clarify and pass on truth to others. This is an important job and not everyone could do it. Just like not everyone could teach primary school children or fix cars. We need to be careful to remember that godliness doesn’t come just from listening to the word but by doing (James 1:22). Doing, living His way in His presence in obedience to Him by the power of His grace.
So then, here I am saying: I am a theologian. And you are a Theologian and the Lord calls all of us to know His Word, His World and above all Himself and to teach one another what we know.