Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Everybody’s a Theologian

Augustine of Hippo (called Saint Augustine by some) defined theologia as “reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity”.

A theologian, then, is someone who engages in the study of theology, or has learned something about God.

Hey, by that standard everyone’s a theologian.

“They Knew God”

My Bible agrees. Paul says of men in their natural state that “they knew God”. They had information about the Deity, even if it was only his “eternal power and divine nature” which, the apostle says, are evident to everyone everywhere “in the things that have been made”. All of mankind has learned something about God in passing, even if they haven’t formally sat down and wracked their brains about him. They have drawn some tentative (and perhaps inconsistent) conclusions about God, even if they have not worked those conclusions through logically or applied those deductions about God to their lives.

We might call them “lay theologians”, but they are theologians all the same. After all, it cannot be necessary to know everything about God in order to be a theologian, or else there would be no theologians at all. Equally, it should be obvious that it is also unnecessary to think correct thoughts about God in order to be a theologian; or else, once again, we could count the total number of theologians in our universe on zero fingers.

Theological; No Ifs, Ands or Buts

Now, if you were to ask a bunch of average Christians, “Are you a theologian?” I’m quite sure at first you’d get some negative responses. After all, it sounds a bit pretentious to give yourself such a title, doesn’t it? But suppose instead you were to ask, “Do you have any beliefs about God?” or “Have you done any serious thinking about what God is like?” Surely he or she would answer in the affirmative. So the average Christian is a theologian even if he wouldn’t use the word, and even if he quite dislikes it.

Equally, so is the average Muslim or Jew or Sikh or Hindu or Zoroastrian, Taoist, occultist or Pastafarian or any practitioner or student of what is commonly called a religion. They all have very definite ideas about God, god or godhood, even if those ideas are that “god” is diffused through every atom in the universe, or that god is me, that god is a tree in the woods, or a space noodle, or manifest in Mother Nature, or that deity is best summed up in the person of Lucifer. All are theologians of a sort.

The Theological Dawkins

If you were to ask Richard Dawkins if he is a theologian, he would probably look at you as if you had three heads and say, “Of course not”. But he absolutely is. Richard has studied God at length — his word, his works and his world — and concluded he doesn’t exist. As a result of his in-depth theological study, he preaches sermons on the subject of God regularly. His theology of God is that there isn’t a God, but it’s still theology: he has reasoned his way to a position on the subject of Deity.

Now, the Bible would say Dawkins is a fool, because “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” But he’s not just an ordinary fool, he’s a theological fool.

In fact, he’s obsessively theological. That tells you something.

Two Kinds of Agnostic Theologian

Finally, there is the agnostic, looking up from his NFL game or his crossword puzzle, or perhaps unwilling to give you the time of day because she’s got to get to the grocery store, the office or the stock exchange. Is he or she a theologian? Surely not. After all, the whole point of agnosticism is that it doesn’t take a position on the subject of God’s existence or nature.

But it really does, doesn’t it. Agnosticism always takes a firm position on the subject of Deity, and it invariably makes one of two theological statements about God, albeit inadvertently: either (1) that God cannot be known, or (2) that if God can be known, he is not worth knowing.

Unstated Thesis #1: God Cannot Be Known

One sort of agnostic says God has not revealed himself unambiguously, so why go to church, read the Bible, or pursue a relationship with him? We can’t be sure enough there is a God or that he can be known to justify acting on our beliefs about him.

The Bible would disagree. The writer to the Hebrews says:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
No, God has certainly revealed himself. This type of agnostic’s problem is that he hasn’t bothered to look yet. Paul says, “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” Jesus said, “Everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

So this first sort of agnostic is a theologian too, and a rebel theologian at that. He has concluded that Deity cannot be known in defiance of God’s unambiguous declaration that he both can be known and wants to be known.

Unstated Thesis #2: God Is Not Worth Knowing

The other sort of agnostic says it’s not completely impossible God has revealed himself, but it’s not worth the effort required to find out. This sort of theologian believes God offers nothing worth having. He says to himself, “There might be a God out there, and I can’t be sure there isn’t, but I can’t think about that right now because I’ve got work to do, life to live, a wife to love and kids to raise. I’m too busy to take the time to think about all that religious stuff, so I haven’t got an opinion on it.”

But he absolutely does. His opinion is that knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ, in whom God has revealed himself once and for all, is ... unimportant.

Wow. What a sad statement. But it’s an essentially theological statement, in that it concludes that having a relationship with God matters less than the other stuff he’s doing right now, which is probably playing golf, making himself a coffee or dozing through the latest on CNN.

We Esteemed Him Not

Isaiah says this about God’s Messiah, his message to the world made flesh:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
There’s more than one reaction to Messiah in that verse, isn’t there. He was despised, he was rejected and he was not esteemed. Speaking of the official Jewish response to Jesus, Isaiah says, “We did not believe he had any value.”

What a mistake. That’s the second sort of agnostic error: it says the knowledge of God given us in his Son is not worth pursuing. And that’s definitely a theological position.

Oh, it’s bad theology, no doubt. Scripture says in Christ are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. Peter says he was “rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.”

So, yeah, bad theology. But it’s theology all the same, because when you drill right down past all the excuses and obfuscations and pretend ignorance, everybody’s a theologian.

What sort of theologian are you?


  1. Hmm, a fertile time for my logic. By your definition then, when you admire and discuss a rainbow with friends that makes you a physicist, and admiring how high a frog can jump makes you a biologist O.O ?

    1. It's admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek. The real point of the piece, which I'm sure did not slide by you, is that nobody is truly agnostic.

  2. Coincidentally just started reading this book in my church book club and thought it is actually quite relevant to the topic of theology. Hope to get some insight from this read as explained below by the author, Kevin Voss. This might perhaps be relevant here too.

    Vost, Kevin. One-Minute Aquinas: The Doctor's Quick Answers to Fundamental Questions.

    Thomas Aquinas lived from approximately 1225 to March 7, 1274. The privileged seventh9 child of an Italian lord and a relative of the imperial family, Thomas nonetheless sought the robe of a poor Dominican friar to live his life as a preacher and teacher. He bore the gift of a marvelously powerful intellect and exercised it to the fullest. In early childhood, his most burning, repeated question to all was “What is God?”

    St. Thomas provides sublimely profound answers to the questions that matter the most — and yet he does not complicate things. He teaches us about our everyday lives: What brings us happiness? What does it mean to be a human being? Why are we here? In what ways are we higher than the animals and lower than the angels? In what way are we made in the image and likeness of God? How can we achieve our utmost potential? How can we become brave, wise, and loving? How can we become better friends? Can we know if God really exists? Can we understand God? How can God be both One and Three? Why did God become man? What does Christ expect of members of his Church? How can we obtain eternal bliss?

    St. Thomas’s philosophia perennis,6 his timeless pearls of wisdom, are as relevant to us today as they were in the thirteenth century. Indeed, in some ways they are more relevant today, because we hear so many attempts to answer such all-important questions by relativistic, secular, and pseudoscientific systems of thought that are so influential now — and also are shallow, contradictory, and wrong! As Blessed Pope John Paul II tells us in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), all men from all cultures and all times want to know, “Who am I? Where have I come from, and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?”7 There’s no surer guide to those answers than St. Thomas Aquinas. John Paul says, “The Church has been justified in consistently proposing Saint Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology.”