What Makes a Theologian

Oswald Bayer wrote a fine book titled Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. In this book he summarizes Luther’s thinking on what makes a theologian and what rules should govern the theologian. Luther argued that a theologian is made through six things.

  1. The grace that is worked through the Holy Spirit
  2. The agonizing struggle
  3. Experience
  4. Opportunity
  5. Constant, concentrated textual study
  6. Knowledge and practice of the academic disciplines

Luther goes on to say that three rules should govern the life and task of the theologian.

  1. Prayer
  2. Meditation
  3. Agonizing Struggle

I love the intersection of experience, suffering and study in Luther’s thought on the development of a theologian. It takes more than books and a degree to make a solid theologian. As the quote goes, “a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

One must know the roaring of a condemning conscience and the silencing power of the gospel to bring the good news home to others. One must know the power of the old man, the agony of daily repentance and the sweetness of forgiveness to instruct others in the fray.

The theologian has to know both sides of a theological concept: the objective and subjective. It is not enough to know about the love of God in Christ. By the Spirit he must know what it is to be loved by God in Christ. The theologian must be desperate, humble and dependent. Prayer, meditation and trust in the Holy Spirit are critical elements of theological development and maturity.

The theologian understands the tension that Luther touches here. God alone makes a good theologian and yet the theologian is responsible to study, pray, meditate and agonize. He must hoist the sails and position the mast, all the while trusting that the wind of God will blow on him.

Theologians are limping men and women—men and women who have grappled with God, have been destroyed and been made new. They are people who know the sweetness of the gospel because they know the depths of sin and judgment. They are people who know the landscape of God’s word intellectually and experientially. They are people that know God and you know it when you engage them. God, make me one of these.

The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience

In salvation God gives himself to us. The Father gives himself in giving his Son and his Spirit. The Son gives himself in taking the cross. The Spirit gives himself in his coming to indwell us and work in us. It is nothing short of amazing for God the Spirit to make his home within us. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is astonishing. He comes to reside in us and with us in order that we might experience the realities of God’s saving work in Christ. Gordon Fee captures this dynamic of the Spirit’s work in his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Here are a couple helpful quotes from that book.

“That the love of God is is the foundation of Paul’s soteriology is expressly stated with passion and clarity, in passages such as Rom 5:1-11, 8:31-39, and Eph 1:3-14. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is what gave concrete expression to that love; through Christ’s suffering and death in behalf of his loved ones, God effected salvation for them at one moment in human history. The participation in the Holy Spirit expresses the ongoing realization of that love and grace in the life of the believer and the believing community. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit is how the living God not only brings people into an intimate and abiding relationship with himself, as the God of all grace, but also causes them to participate in all the benefits of that grace and salvation, indwelling them in the present by his own presence, guaranteeing their final eschatological glory.”

In his summary of Pauline pneumatology he lists seven things that are at the heart of Paul’s viewpoint. Number one is the “absolutely crucial role the Spirit plays in Paul’s Christian experience and therefore in understanding the gospel…to be sure the Spirit is not the center for Paul—Christ is ever and always—but the Spirit stands very close to the center, as the crucial ingredient of all genuinely Christian life and experience.”

I really appreciate Fee’s emphasis here on experience. The Spirit is interested in taking what has happened outside of us in Christ and working it into us. He aims to help us feel the heart of God behind the facts of the cross. He aims to help us feel the heart of God behind the facts of the cross. The objective historical reality of God’s love was expressed on a tree outside Jerusalem. That love was intended to be experienced. The Spirit makes this objective reality a subjective experience.