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We are all theologians, but which kind?

Written by: on November 9, 2016

Who Needs Theology? By Stanly J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson

“Taking faith into life means looking at the society in which we live through theological eyes.” (p. 127)

“We invite you to set out on a journey toward becoming a reflective lay Christian theologian anyway.” (p. 135)

“Perhaps the largest hurdle or greatest chasm between the merely knowledgeable lay Christian thinker and the truly reflective lay theologian is the ability to think about Christian truth critically and constructively.” (p. 145)

This is one of those books that if I had a lot of money I would buy a copy for all of my Christian friends who either don’t think that theology is important or don’t realize that theology is not just for the erudite or professionals. Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson have done a great job writing an accessible defense of theology for everyday Christians.

The authors begin by assuring us that all persons are theologians because theology is just “faith seeking understanding” (p. 24). Believers should want to be reflective Christians engaging in critical thinking. Christians should strive to be at least lay theologians, and as they mature serve as ministerial theologians in church, and some may be called to be professional theologians.

Different types of theology lay along a spectrum of reflection – “Folk Theologians” are not reflective. These are our brothers and sisters who repeat things like, “doctrine divides” or “only how I feel about Jesus matters”. These are babes in Christ. (Heb. 5:12,13)

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The defense of theology in this book would help these friends to see that studying about God is not only appropriate, but necessary (p. 12,13).

Lay theologians have begun the reflective process and begin to study the Bible more. They start asking good questions. Ministerial theologians are somewhat trained and can lead others in the church. They have done a lot of reflective thinking. They are increasing in maturity (Heb. 5:14).

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Professional theologians have the training to instruct others in theology. A seminary professor for example, guides students into deeper reflective practice and more advanced critical thinking skills.

At the other end of the spectrum are the academic theologians. They dwell in a little world of their own and reflect so deeply that they appear to be cut off from every day Christian living. The following is a typical example (selected from dozens of the same):
“The Influence of Qur’anic Frames of Reference on Trinitarian Discourse in Select Medieval Christian Arabic Texts” (To be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 15-17, 2016, San Antonio, Texas, by J. Scott Bridger.) I’m sure this will be very interesting to some people. Personally I would only get a copy of this nice man’s text to use as a soporific for insomnia.

After defining and defending theology and setting out the two main tasks of theologians (critical and constructive), Grenz and Olson explain to newly enthusiastic students how to go about becoming a competent lay theologian. This road map would be invaluable to a Christian who has decided to agree that they can know God better with some effort.

Just knowing more about God is not enough. The reflective practitioner will want to know how to relate what they are learning to life.

Most of us asked the question, “Where is God in all of this?” after reading Anthony Elliott’s book on Contemporary Social Theory. Where indeed?

In my lifetime I have seen two parallel social trends intensifying over the years. People are getting ever more selfish, me-first, and individualistic. At the same time Christians are pulling back out of the public square. They have little influence left. At our church, most admitted that they are afraid to witness about Jesus out loud in public places. There are lots of reasons, but I believe one reason may be that Christians haven’t studied the Bible and theology as much as they should have. Maybe they are not “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks (them) to give an account for the hope that is in (them)” (I Pet. 3:15). Maybe they don’t understand that the question is not “Are you a theologian?” but “What kind of theologian are you?”

As practicing lay theologians we should have ready answers to the problems of the world. We should be looking at our society with theological eyes, ready to listen to our culture, use critical thinking to analyze what is happening, and respond with love and a desire to serve, even sacrificially as Christ did, for others. (pgs. 127-129)

Lastly, Grenz and Olson invite Christians to strive for a high level of reflective thinking – a synoptic vision of the biblical message, the theological heritage of the church and contemporary culture. (p. 147) This won’t be accomplished quickly by the budding theologian, but it is a target to aim for. Love for God and a new understanding of how we can serve Christ better should be all the motivation one needs.

About the Author

Mary Walker

7 responses to “We are all theologians, but which kind?”

  1. Very true Mary…people are appearing to get more selfish and egocentric. It is a disturbing trend in my therapy practice. It does make me wonder how much influence do Christians feel like have and why are not having a greater influence? Christ is very attractive when properly introduced.

  2. Great Post Mary! In our society today we need sound theology so badly! Folk theology or blind faith way of thinking is destroying the church. Some of the expressed views and commentary I have heard and read for lay people is frightening. Now more than ever we need to be listening to our culture and use critical thinking to ask the challenging questions that will cause us to either reexamine our convictions or reaffirm them.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Mary, what an excellent post. I really like the theme of reflection the runs through the book. You’ve highlighted it well. We’ve talked a lot about reflective practitioners and with this book it’s becoming clearer how that plays out in the everyday life of the Christian. As I mentioned in my post, I do struggle with the idea that everyone is a theologian. However, every Christian must reflect on the Scriptures, history, and culture and then practice accordingly. You are right…our response with love and a desire to serve is the key. Thank you!

  4. Our society is self-centered and demands instant gratification. I see it has being no different than the culture in biblical days. Where is our culture going? Let’s look to our theology. History tells us – all the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, but God saved the righteous. Abraham fought for them by speaking on their behalf. We must speak to God on their behalf. Jesus did for us.

  5. Geoff Lee says:

    “In my lifetime I have seen two parallel social trends intensifying over the years. People are getting ever more selfish, me-first, and individualistic. At the same time Christians are pulling back out of the public square.”
    I agree Mary and I think this is only going to intensify as an increasingly pervasive secular liberalism takes hold. We will face increasingly difficult challenges to speak clearly and cogently to the culture in which we swim in the years ahead.

    • mm Katy Lines says:

      I would counter, Geoff, that it has always been difficult to speak good news into specific contexts. I don’t think it is getting harder (or easier), just changing. Because cultures are not static but always changing, we as followers of Jesus must continually re-translate/recontextualize the good news of Jesus for our neighbors (and ourselves).

      I would suggest that we are in the midst of a huge worldview shift (modern to post-modern and beyond), that forces/challenges us to look at the gospel and our relationship with our neighbors in ways we historically have not had to for a long time.

  6. mm Katy Lines says:

    I have a number of friends– theologians, biblical studies profs– who attend the joint annual American Theological Society (ATS) and Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meetings. These are friends with whom I eat meals at work. Grenz & Olsen would place them within the realm of academic theologians. Most of what they do is raise questions, suggest possibilities. Seldom do they suggest that what they have to say is the final word. Many of them are active in their congregations as elders, teachers, and occasional fill-in preachers. Part of their job (especially as professors) is to “translate” what they are researching in a way to make it understandable to their students and fellow congregation members.

    I appreciate the connection you make, Mary, between reflecting seriously on our theology and critical thinking. It’s as if you were reading our texts syntopically!

    Also, Mary– LOVE the Calvin & Hobbes comic! Which are you? I usually see myself in Hobbes’ role (except I’m mostly real).

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