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.

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Luther on Being a Theologian: Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio

In John Doberstein’s The Minister’s Prayerbook, he discusses Martin Luther’s understanding of the development of a theologian. Luther believed that the “right way to study theology” is anchored in the three rules set forth in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. For Luther “Everything centers around the practice of meditation, for prayer prepares for it and its results are confirmed in the experience of conflict. For Luther, meditation is the key to the study of theology. No one can become a true theologian unless he learns theology through it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 142). The discussion that follows is taken directly from Doberstein and explores each of the three dimensions.

  • Oratio (prayer) is grounded in the Word of the Lord. Prayer is the voice of faith. That is to say, that prayer grows out of the Word of the Lord. “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart” (Bonhoeffer, Psalms, 15). Prayer is “responding speech” (Peterson, 5). “Prayer escapes the danger of disorder and confusion only when it is enkindled by the words of Scripture. From the Word proceeds its inner justification, as well as its life-giving power and the clearness of its petitions. A prayer that does not stick to Scripture will soon become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love and will finally die” (Koeberele, 176-177).
  • Meditatio (meditation) is the continual study of the Scriptures. In 1518, Luther wrote “You should not only meditate inwardly in your heart but also outwardly by repeating the words out aloud and rubbing at the written word (like a sweet-smelling herb), by reading and rereading it, carefully, attentively and reflectively, to gather what the Holy Spirit means by them” (quoted in Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”). Meditatio is grounded in the externum verbum. Luther: “Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook…and their entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments” (AE 3:275). Luther likened meditation to a cow chewing its cud. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 14:1of 1525, he writes: “To chew the cud, however, is to take up the Word with delight and meditate with supreme diligence, so that (according to the proverb) one does not permit it to go into one ear and out the other, but holds it firmly in the heart, swallows it, and absorbs it into the intestines” (AE 9:136).
  • Tentatio (affliction)- God uses tentatio (spiritual trial and temptation) to drive a way from self and to His promises alone. Tentatio happens within the context of a person’s vocation. “Tentatio is testing, temptation, and trial which occurs when God and his word intersect with us and our world” (Pfeiffer, 113). Suffering happens precisely because a person is faithful to his calling. See Luther’s comments on “cross bearing” (see AE 51:195-208). “Peace with God brings conflict and adversity with the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Hein, 33). Pastors are not exempt from tentatio. In fact God uses it to draw us away from our own abilities to the gifts He gives in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Luther is thankful for his enemies: “For I myself…must be very thankful to my papists for pummeling, pressing, and terrifying me; that is, for making me a fairly good theologian, for otherwise I would not have become one…” (Doberstein, 288). “As soon as a person meditates and is occupied with God’s Word; as soon as God’s Word begins to take root in and grow in him, the devil harries him with much conflict, bitter contradiction, and blatant opposition. But these assaults (Anfechtungen) prove to be spiritually counterproductive, for by driving him to the end of his tether, they teach him ‘to seek and love God’s Word’ as the source of all his strength and being. In such a situation of temptation, he experiences for himself the power and truth of God’s Word. Temptation turns the student of God’s Word into a real theologian, because it exercises and reinforces his faith in Christ. He experiences the power of God’s Word in his own weakness. Paradoxically, he sees the presence of God and his grace most fully displayed under its apparent negation in adversity and trouble. Because he bears the word of Christ in himself, he must also bear the cross for it. But, as he bears his own cross, he gets to know himself and Christ whose glory was revealed by his death on the cross. Meditation, then, ultimately elucidates temptation and is itself elucidated by it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 147).

“Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: A Right Way to Study Theology” (287-289) in The Minister’s Prayerbook edited by John Doberstein is taken (in an abridged form) from the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings, 1539” (AE 34:279-288).

The Theologian as Artist

I have been spending time reading about pastoral and practical theology. The next few posts will be connected to this theme. I am enjoying a book edited by John Swinton titled Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care. The following quotes on the theologian as artist come from Paul Ballard’s chapter, “Can Theology Be Practical?” I appreciate his fresh perspective on the task of the theologian.

The artist brings to the creative act, first of all, skills and experience, which are constantly trained and nurtured, often with long practice and patient repetitive copying. Yet techniques are there to become servants, giving freedom to employ them at will and to be dispensed with at need.

The artist brings to the creative act, second, a sense of discipline, the knowledge of how to work with material that has its own properties, strengths and beauty. The task is to draw out the best and to facilitate the creative potential of what lies to hand.

The artist brings to the creative act, third, imagination and attention, the ability to see in the ordinariness the tender realities of the joy or pain, fear and wonder; and so to bring them out that others are enabled to see with new eyes that which is now true yet has, in a real sense, always been true.

The artists brings to the creative act, fourth, a vision of the world, a glimpse of the ultimate that is both beyond reach and yet infinitely near. In our fragment of existence we can recognize the web of transcendence. Henri Nouwen (1986) refers, in one of his diaries, to Rilke’s comments on Cézanne:

Not since Moses has anyone seen a mountain so greatly … only a saint could be so united with his God as Cézanne, in Rilke’s view, was able to be fully present to the present and could therefore see reality as it is. (p.96)

The artist brings to the creative act, fifth, the ability to pour out one’s being into the beloved object, to know that what is made is greater than the maker. In religious language this would be spoken of in terms of sacrifice and redemption.

The artist is the most individual of all people yet never alone. The artist has a compulsion, an energy that cannot but express itself…Art essentially communicates. Its aim is to enable others to catch a vision, discover a truth, experience renewal. Art is a public activity, growing out of and speaking to communal experience. It can focus celebration and shared events; or speak in prophetic judgement. Art can be housed in galleries and mansions or be part of the life of the street or marketplace.