Should Christians be theologians?

017rublev troitsaIt is always entertaining to read the online theological commentary following Trinity Sunday. One of the most popular memes was ‘Heresy bingo anyone?’ (Do a search if you did not see it.) The most strident comment amongst my Facebook ‘friends’ was this:

This morning had to listen to another tediously irrelevant sermon on the lines that Trinity is a difficult subject.

No it isn’t. I am a father, a son and a spirit. So is God. That’s it.

Now get off your backsides and stop reading irrelevant theology and go and visit your parishioners!

As I quickly pointed out, this is the early heresy of modalism—the notion that God is one, and that the different ‘persons’ of the Trinity are just different modes in which he is known. The obvious reason why this has little relation to the nature of God is that we read (particularly in John’s gospel) that the Son was ‘sent by’ the Father, and that the Father and Son ‘send’ the Spirit. I as a father cannot send myself as a son anywhere, whilst I as father remain in the place that I am.

The thread then moved away from the question of the Trinity to the wider question of whether theology matters at all. My interlocutor commented:

I have no difficulty accepting that things work without knowing how they work. I have little idea how a computer, car or television works. I know they do, and have no problem using them. You no more need to be a theologian to be a Christian than you need to be an electronics engineer to watch television.

I think that is an interesting comment and, in my experience, fairly widely held…and completely wrong. First, it suggests that Christian faith is analogous to the kind of passive consumption that TV watching entails. Second, it suggests that the church can be divided into the ‘expert’ providers (engineers) and passive consumers (watchers). Not a small amount of discussion amongst clergy appears to assume this (‘we know what we are doing’) and, sometimes unintentionally, members of congregations collude with this by leaving the theological thinking to the clergy.

41pXyCMep1LAnother Facebook ‘friend’ made a comment in quite a different direction.

Here it is, Trinity Sunday. You’re preaching but in preparation failed to read Gerald Bray’s article on “Trinity” in the New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition. Well, good luck with that.

He was referring to the revised edition of the IVP New Dictionary of Theology (Historical and Systematic) a copy of which I have just been sent. It is a significant revision to the 1988 New Dictionary of Theology, in part by adding and updating articles, and in part by removing articles on biblical theology which some time ago found their way into the 2000 volume New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. The introduction to the original 1988 volume is strikingly relevant to our post-Trinity Sunday discussion:

‘Everything a theologian does in the church,’ said Martin Luther, ‘contributes to the spread of the knowledge of God and the salvation of men’. That may not sum up ever Christian’s attitude to theologians and theology, but it strikes the right note…The Christian whose diet has no theological content is likely to suffer from stunted or unbalanced growth instead of developing maturity of mind and heart.

The dictionary was aimed, it seems, not just at clergy, but at every Christian who is concerned about ‘developing an ordered understanding’ of his or her faith. You might expect that the list of contributors reads like a list of contemporary leaders in evangelical thinking, and in some ways it does. But in fact there is a surprising breadth to it, including what might be described as progressive, post- and ex-evangelicals along the way. This is line with the original vision:

While the common standpoint of the editors and contributors is allegiance to the supreme authority of the Scriptures…no attempt has been made to exclude or minimise diversity of interpretation with these boundary marks.

Not surprisingly, quite a few of the articles focus on the key theological issues as read through the historical lens of the Reformation, particular those that originated in the first edition. But there appear to be a good number of new articles which are highly contemporary—I particularly enjoyed ‘Ethics’ by Jonathan Chaplin of KLICE, which sets out the current agenda and challenges for Christian ethical thinking, and ‘Scripture, Doctrine of’ by Kevin Vanhoozer.

I have bought dictionaries of various subjects since I was a teenager. In each article, you get a distillation of the subject from an expert, and reading dictionaries is a short cut to gaining an overview of a whole range of issues. I love ‘chain reading’, where I move from one article to another by means of the cross-referenced terms, but there is also value in simply browsing, picking up ideas at random as they take one’s interest. They are a great resource in deepening the thinking of the whole people of God.

So what does Gerald Bray say about the Trinity? He starts by noting its importance, and the origin of the term with Tertullian. He then offers an extended discussion of the NT data, particularly noting the relation of Trinitarian theology to Christology. Once Paul talks of there being ‘one God…and one Lord’ (1 Cor 8.6) you have moved in one step from Jewish monotheism to the beginnings of Christian Trinitarian thinking. Bray then explores in summary the early church debates about the Trinity, and mediaeval revisions of this. He looks at the rationalism scepticism of the doctrine starting in the 17th century, and Barth’s reaction to that which led to the renewal of Trinitarian thinking in the twentieth century. The second half of the article might not shape your preaching, but the first half certainly offers plenty of material.

But the bigger question, with which we began, is the issue of who does theology? As the New Dictionary points out, ‘theology’ comes from the Greek terms meaning ‘speaking of God’—which implies all Christian are theologians. The only question is whether we are well-informed ones! If you are ordained, do you see the task of doing theology as one you share with the whole congregation? If you are not, do you see yourself as a partner in the task of doing theology together? For both parties, the New Dictionary of Theology is a great place to start.

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14 thoughts on “Should Christians be theologians?”

  1. I think your friend who said that the Trinity is irrelevant is onto something. Of course the Trinity is highly relevant – Fred Sanders talks in ‘Embracing the Trinity’ about how the Trinity is fundamental to the Christian life. The Christian life is all about knowing God (e.g. John 17:3), and knowing God is knowing God in truth as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    However… I do wonder whether there is a valid criticism not of the doctrine itself but of how it has often been presented by preachers and songwriters recently. If we removed the doctrine of the Trinity, how many sermons would remain the same? How many of my sermons would remain the same? – that’s a worrying thought.

    Andrew Wilson wrote a blog post a year or two ago ranting about modern songs, one of the criticisms being that they are often not Trinitarian. I think he has a point – how many modern songs or hymns can you think of which praise God for being Trinity?

    You can’t blame most people in the pews for thinking that the Trinity is dry and irrelevant. Unless we continually preach and sing about how one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is good news people are going to think it’s a mathematical conundrum which has no bearing on everyday life.

    This morning I saw a video by Paul Washer which I think is quite relevant. “Behold Your God” – rethinking God Biblically:

    Maybe we need to do Trinity Sunday every Sunday…

    • Thanks Phill. Yes, I agree that dry doctrine which does not relate to life is unhelpful. But I am not quite sure that that is the sum of what my friend was addressing.

      Trinity Sunday is a great opportunity to explore this issue, and why it needs to be more prominent in our thinking. I am not sure it is possible to do that without addressing *some* of the theological issues—not least avoiding things like modalism. I would be happy dwelling on some of the more Trinitarian texts, not least in the Book of Revelation—but that is certainly not about ‘just getting on with our lives.’

      In the previous post I talked about engaging with the economic Trinity—God is truly on the throne; God truly experienced human life; God truly is with us. Prayer is to the Father, through Jesus and by the Spirit. These dynamics are very far from being modalism.

      Do you have the New Dictionary? It is very good.

      • I don’t have the New Dictionary, although your post made me think about getting it! It sounds like it would be useful. I have Gerald Bray’s book on the Doctrine of God and I think it’s very helpful, so a Dictionary with entries of that quality sounds very appealing.

        When I was at college I spent a year studying the Doctrine of God, and it was without a doubt one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done in my Christian life. I’d recommend it to anyone.

        Either way I feel like church leaders would do well to be more intentional in bringing the Trinity more explicitly into worship and preaching – I think it would help people to see it as daily Christian experience rather than far-off academic theology. This is not to say we don’t need to spend more time on issues e.g. modalism – as you demonstrate, it does have practical consequences! But I think many people feel the Trinity is a little beyond them simply because it is presented that way.

  2. In our service on Sunday my vicar did a lot with her 10 -15 minute sermon time, helping us get to grips with the Trinity (and admitting that all analogies break down because God is God and nothing else is!), and landing on how important an (albeit stumbling and developing) understanding of God as Trinity is in terms of experiencing God at work in our lives. She then gave two members of our congregation opportunity to share testimony about how they have experienced God in their lives, which came across as Trinitarian in their language. It was both accessible and encouraging.

    For me this was a great example of ‘theology’ at work in the local church – engaging with the Bible, hearing real life practical examples and outworkings, and leaving people hungry for more.

    I agree with you Ian, we are theologians whether we like it or know it or not, and to avoid it or ignore means we lose our agency in learning for ourselves and become overly dependent on other people’s work (rather than interdependent) and minds to ‘tell’ us what things ‘really’ mean, whether that’s an authoritative voice in the church, the media or a friend. We all have something to contribute as members of the body of Christ.

  3. All Christians do ‘Theology’, but not all Christians are ‘Theologians’ (for that matter, not all ‘Theologians’ are Christian either!) as it is commonly put. The trouble is that we are lazy, and happiest only using the one meaning of the word Theology; that of an academic discipline rather than it’s broader, and historically more authentic, meaning. Theology is an active thing, an ongoing thing.

    I think the key therefore, as you rightly point out, is to better engage people in the ‘process’ of theology and encourage and equip them to both take part in it and feel responsible for it. “Talking about God” (and everything that huge subject entails) is simply not an optional part of being a christian, and we are quite frankly too passive about exhorting people to take ownership of their own responsibilities in the body of Christ! The early church studied the scriptures and talked about God in a corporate, sharing way and even if this caused problems of it’s own, it was worth it.

    Where I perhaps disagree with you is that I do not feel Sundays (services) are the best place to do this. Preaching alone cannot be relied on to equip people ‘do’ theology in the way they need to (although it plays a vital and necessary part). As well as preaching we need to create space in church life to ask questions, to get things wrong, to share experience and practically work out our faith with other Christians, as well as spending time ourselves studying and reflecting (and praying!) without distraction. I think because this is difficult and time-consuming (as well as unpopular to hear), we have simply given up expecting it, to the point where (to my shame) I can be surprised when someone tells me they’ve looked again at something I said one Sunday and had further questions…..

    Doing one thing (preaching) without the other two (discussion/questions & self-reflection) or any combination where something is left out, will leave a church weak, as the responsibility falls on one or two, rather than everyone.

  4. ‘Hear, hear!’ to the observation that “‘theology’ comes from the Greek terms meaning ‘speaking of God’—which implies all Christian are theologians. The only question is whether we are well-informed ones!” I don’t think I’ve made the point as eloquently as you, but I certainly happily point out to the congregation that every time they speak about God (and express their thinking about God) they are being theologians (or doing theology).

    It’s important to remind people of this fact, It takes away an excuse for the (brainless?) attitude of simply dismissing ‘theology’ as academic irrelevance. After all, when someone says “I’m not a theologian, and I don’t believe in all that theological stuff, I just have a simple faith in Jesus” – that person is de facto doing theology …the very thing they are dismissing.

    So when you point out that “The only question is whether we are well-informed ones!” …yes, absolutely!

  5. I preached about the Trinity on Sunday, and split the sermon in two halves. The first was about understanding what the Trinity was, and what the boundaries of Christian belief about God were. I showed them how holding to the boundaries guarded against subordinationism, tri-theism, and – yes – modalism. The second half of the sermon was about practical application to us. (If you like, the first half was immanent Trinity, and the second half was economic Trinity.)

    All this seemed to go well, until the Junior Church came in at the end and shared what they had been doing. Lo, and behold – modalism. Although the little girl who said that H2O could be ‘steam, water, or ice cream’ made me smile. As I noted on Facebook, Sabellius is alive and well, and writing Sunday School material.

    We definitely need informed, biblical theology at the heart of our church life.

  6. The recent Saltley Trust research on ‘What Helps Disciples Grow’ – – suggests there are a number of things which can help Christians to grow in faith, but a key one is that they take some responsibility for their own learning, whether by reading, discussions, formal courses or other things. So yes, I think all Christians do need to be theologians, but I wouldn’t use that language to encourage them!

    • Dave – did you realise that water has a triple-point ie: a combination of temperature and pressure at which all three phases of the substance co-exist (solid, liquid and gaseous), and thus one is not left with an either/or/or scenario, but a both/and/and scenario.

      But I do prefer the existence of ice-cream as an alternative to steam and water, which now proves that the frozen dessert is indeed a natural component of a healthy diet.

  7. Another interesting read thank you. As a member of the laity in the pews I certainly want to be a theological partner with clergy. As an aside, I’d also genuinely interested in any ideas about communicating something of the Trinity to children without falling foul of heresy bingo. I want the children in my junior church groups to be theological partners too.

    • Sarah, one of the better illustrations is to use the sun: the sun gives us light and life but is too bright for us to look at directly (Father); a ray of sunlight comes from the sun but is sunlight present in a particular way in a particular time and place (Son); and during the day we know that it’s light, and see things differently, even when the sun itself is hidden by clouds (Spirit) (that’s the one that’s a bit unsatisfactory to communicate in a sermon…). I’m sure someone’s going to tell me this is another heresy, but it’s the best analogy I’ve come across – and you can get the children to draw pictures to illustrate it!

  8. The impatient element of my character thinks the Trinity was invented (as it’s not a biblical doctrine) by Theologians who needed something inexplicable to waffle about, and it’s served them well ever since – the religious equivalent of Finnegans Wake – It can’t be explained except by the utter evacuation of sense from language, which is why its always asserted, now as its advocates lack the tools of State power to enforce it they sulk in their churches and refuse to debate it, what is truth they muter and slink away, meanwhile they wonder why Islamic apologists listening to the oh so reasonable arguments of non-Trinitarians are now delighting in making ‘apologists’ like James White look complete idiots as they attempt defences where one part if their defence tripped up by another.

    To any who read theology the claim that it is ‘speaking about God’ must raise a smile …surely it’s reading about people who speak about people who speak about people who speak about people who made certain claims that this line of text over here justifies this massive edifice over there and anyway the long and short is don’t believe on the Lord Jesus to be saved no, no; that’s just silly let the bishops determine that ‘whosoever desires to be saved’ must believe only what they teach and welcome to the ministry of information 🙂


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