Everyone is a Theologian

There is a statement that I hear way too often, and it is one that makes me sad and angry:

I am not a theologian.

Most often, I hear it when I am teaching a class of some sort, and have shared a thought that seems contrary to what someone has spent most of their life believing.  Sometimes it is said when I have shared some information that someone has never heard before.  Most often, however, it comes when I am engaged in a conversation with someone during which we are sharing what we believe, and my conversation partner ends up “stuck” as they try to describe their understanding of something.

“Well, I haven’t really thought about it as much as you have,” they say. “I have a pretty simple faith. I’m not really a theologian.”

I hate that, and I try to never put someone who is earnestly trying to talk about God in that kind of place.  I would like to ask you to never say anything like that, ever again in your life.  I want you to remember something very important: We are all theologians. While it is true that some of us are more formally trained in theology (to greater and lesser degrees), this group of people are not the only ones who can claim to be “theologians.”  That title belongs to everyone, and we need to begin reclaiming it.

To be a theologian simply means that you “talk about God.”  That’s what the word theology means: (from the Greek) theos = god; logos = words or speech.  To be a theologian means that you try to put your ideas about God into words.  More specifically, because of what our scriptures say, we can say that the task of theology is our attempt to describe what we understand about God, what we understand about creation, and what we understand about the relationship between that two.  You can, honestly, have any kind of theology that you want.  There is no one, right way to think about something (despite what many so-called theologians might say).

Theologies are not created equal, however.  Some do a better job of describing God (at least according to other people), and they are instructive to the rest of us whose theological understanding might be lack in comparison.  There are many of these “better” theologies and they all have a few things in common.

They are consistent with the Bible. Any good Christian theology has its origin in the Bible.  The logic is sort of circular, but Christians believe that God was revealed to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ and that the Bible is the best witness we have to who Jesus was and what he did.  You’re theology does not have to be considered a “Biblical Theology,” but the themes of a Christian theology does have to be consistent with the themes of the scripture.

They are Good News. When it comes to theology, the opposite of Good News is not Bad News.  It’s Irrelevant News – news that is nice, but doesn’t mean anything important.

Imagine that you have just pulled into your driveway after being fired. You’re struggling with how to tell your spouse, and I run up to you and tell you that you daughter is at a friend’s house playing. That would be interesting news to hear, but, in the context of the moment, irrelevant.

Now imagine that you’ve just pulled into your driveway and your house is on fire.  You’re very scared and worried about your family, and I run up to you and tell you that your daughter is at a friend’s house playing.  In that moment, knowing where your daughter is constitutes good news.

Too often our theologies are full of interesting things that are true, but they are irrelevant to people’s’ lives.  They don’t address the situations in which people are living.  They don’t offer answers to questions people are asking.

They are humble. One of my favorite stories from the history of my religious tradition is of the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  This document is notoriously staid and unrelenting in its perspective, and, likewise, those who love it are vigilant about it superiority.  The story goes, however, that the gentleman who moderated the meetings during which this document was written would begin each session by saying to those assembled: “Remember, gentlemen, we could be wrong.”

A good theology will be one which says the best thing it knows how to say at the time, and, yet, leaves room for growth in our understanding of God.  There are things about God which I believe are eternally true, but I also believe that I don’t know what those are and that my ability to grasp what God is up to (hopefully) grows as I live my life.

If I have the same theology today as I did yesterday, then I need to take a hard look at some things.

They produce good ethics. One reality which I find very amusing is when I have people tearing me down for having what they deem as “incorrect theology.”  To them, anything I might say is an affront to the glory of God and I must be stopped at all costs.  I’m actually fine with them up to this point.  They are welcome to their opinion.  It’s the way they do it that I find wrong.

Jesus, himself, said that he came to do some things (give sight to the blind, set captives free, etc.).  Theology produces action, and if it is a faithful theology it produces good actions.  To my point above: if our theology allows us to treat one another badly, then we need another theology.

They are bold. No one ever came to understand the saving power of Christ because of an unassuming theological viewpoint.  Good theology shouts the Good News from the mountaintops.

We should never be afraid of messing up as we try to describe the great things God has done.  How is it wrong to try to tell the world all the marvelous things you’ve experienced?  Sure, we always try to be more clear and consistent tomorrow than we were yesterday.  But that should never stop us from speaking.  We’re not going to do God any harm be giving it our best as we proclaim Christ’s Grace and Peace.

Theology is actually something we all do, and something we all need to do. No one of us has a monopoly on thoughts and ideas about God.  Please share yours with each other so that, together, we might better share it with the world.

So…What do you believe about God, creation, and the relationship between the two?

8 thoughts on “Everyone is a Theologian

  1. This is really well done Landon and a terrific and easy read on something that hurts my heart as well. But you create a very easy rubric through which people can see that they have skin in the game of the “God conversation.”

    Under the section on “Good News,” my theology professor simply said that any good theology has “existential cash value.” I’ve always like that, and think you’ll appreciate it too.

    Peace and all that’s good. Your partner in the Open Source Church,


  2. Landon,

    The new direction of this site is really exciting – and so desperately needed. This particular entry is a hint at why: we need to know this, and we need to share this. We are all theologians. It’s good stuff.

    You know me well enough to guess, I would think, that I’m right here with you. I’ve always seen my ministry as the gift (both given and received) of companionship on the journey, even moreso than as leader or guide. We’re all still learning – some of us started earlier than others, some of us go farther, but all of us need other people with us to help it make sense.

    I’m sharing this post with the mentors list-serv of EfM (Education for Ministry) as well … this program of intensive Bible study and theological reflection only WORKS because of this very idea. You’ve said it so well, I think mentors will find it a helpful thing to share with their seminar groups.

    Looking forward to the next steps of this journey …

    • Thanks for passing this on to the list-serv!

      I like what you’re saying about “all of us need other people with us to help it make sense.” Some of the most sense making people I know of are not in professional ministry.

    • I’m struggling with where this conversation went on the EFM mentor listserv. Yes, I believe that everyone is a theologian – and that we should all be doing theological reflection. That’s the call of the Christian… HOWEVER, there was a turn in the conversation that said, “well, everyone can do it..we don’t need the professional theologian.” I am not a professional theologian and believe that we desperately need people who spend more time thinking about this stuff than I do. And I think about it quite a bit…

      I don’t think that I ever convinced the group that the loss of professional (not ‘real’) theologians would be hugely detrimental… to all of us..

      I would appreciate thoughts on this…

      • Hey, Heather.

        There absolutely is a need for the so-called “professional” theologian. These are often the folks who push the boundaries and bring clarity to issues of theological thought simply because they have the time to do so. What I am endeavoring to do with this post is to make clear that the content of theology comes from the lived experience of a person, not the ether. Just because some one is a “professional” does not make them right, but they can (if they are humble about it) serve to shed light some significant light on a situation by asking a question they learned about that others in a community haven’t.

        But my plumber could also do that, so….?

      • Landon: Thanks for this…that’s a helpful way of phrasing that.

        I was NOT saying that I disagreed with your post…I was disagreeing with the direction that the EFM list that discussed it. I think that you and I are much on the same page (especially with the comment below). I just didn’t have the words to articulate why we can’t blame theologians for all of the Christian wars of history and why we should just throw them out because “we can do it ourselves.”

        I don’t have time to do all of that theology by myself. 🙂

  3. Everyone is a Theologian, Pt. 2: Verifiability vs. Truth « The Metanoia Project

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