Ask Steve: What Characterizes a Great Theologian?



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Uneclipsing the Son

by Rick Holland

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2011, Kress Biblical Resources





Question: Steve, I am slowly becoming familiar with such great church theologians as Clement, Augustine, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Martin Lloyd Jones? Can you explain to me what characterizes a great theologian (in contrast to a poor one)?

Answer: Theology comes from the Greek word theos (God) and logia (words, oracles, sayings). Theology is basically the study of God, which includes the study of man, life, purpose, and other importance doctrines of the Christian faith. A theologian is a man who is involved in the science of spiritual studies. He not only understands the things of God, but skillfully teaches it and knows how to apply it.

Because all Christians are commanded to know the truth of Scripture in order to grow in Christlikeness, we are all called, to some degree, to be theologians. We should make it a life’s mission to study the things of God in order to know and obey Him. However, there are Christians who are theologians vocationally (whether pastor, writer, or professor) and become of major influence to the Christian community, and even church history, in understanding who God is and what He requires of us. He seeks to make the entire Bible known to us so that we can better understand the depth of God’s word.

There are a few factors that characterize a great theologian:

Integrity. As with any vocation in the Christian faith, a great theologian must be one who is a man of God. He must be saved and filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18). The filling of the Holy Spirit is the means by which He is experiencing great sanctification, which leads to a life of holiness. If the man is continually grieving the Holy Spirit and is living a debauched lifestyle, he does not qualify as a great theologian, no matter how much he knows. The man whom God uses in this field must be an exemplary theologian who not only teaches theology, but does theology with his life.

Knowledge. A great theologian must have a near encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture and key doctrines of Christianity. Because a theologian is essentially a teacher of God’s word gifted to the local and/or universal church (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11), he must be able to understand the word of God, explain its meaning, and apply it to everyday life. A theologian should have the gift of knowledge (1 Cor 12:28), or else he would be bereft of the ability to know Scripture enough to explain and teach it.

Accuracy. A great theologian must have a truthful understanding of what the Bible says. Even if the theologian errs in minor or undeveloped parts of Scripture (ex. the destination of OT saints before Christ, the exact timing or nature of the kingdom of God), he must be able to discern all the major teachings of Scripture, which includes soteriology, ecclesiology, missiology, and, to some degree, eschatology. In other words, a great theologian should have the gift of discernment (Acts 17:11; 1 Cor 2:14), distinguishing between truth and error as much as possible, in order to be a good teacher of God’s word.

Insight. A great theologian has deep insights into the word of God. He does not merely restate what the Bible says or make general observations about God or the matters of the Christian faith. The great theologian understands the theology behind passages or verses in the Bible. He understands the original languages, cultural and historical contexts, and divine principles of the passage based on careful exegesis, and exposits it skillfully in order that we better understand the word of God. A great theologian can exposit a text and articulate doctrine that clearly explores, defines, and defends the Christian faith. A great theologian’s exploration of the Bible is profoundly deep but understandable, thought provoking but not esoteric, unique but not heretical, brilliant and not dull.

Defense. A great theologian defends the Christian faith against attackers, from both the secular world and professing evangelicalism. In other words, a great theologian is also an apologist. Studying and understanding Scripture theoretically leads the theologian to understand truth and error. Scripture commands the teacher of God to rebuke error and defend the faith (2 Cor 10:5; Jd 1:3), since the devil seeks to destroy the Christian faith, especially through distorting God’s truth. There are many Christians who teach God’s love, the beauties of salvation, and the benefits of Christian living, yet hardly speak on the dangers of heretics and compromise with the world. A great theologian does not ignore the world and the church’s battles. In fact, most of the doctrines we hold to this day (ex. Trinity, total depravity, justification by faith) were defined by great theologians who stood for the integrity of God’s word in the midst of concerted efforts to distort it.

Response. A great theologian is able to produce work that elicits response. I do not mean a response to the theologian’s great talent, but a response to the word of God. Does the theologian’s work cause men to love God more? A theologian can state facts or systematic theology of the Bible, but these things alone do not necessarily transform men or cause them to want to worship God. The question is, Does it cause believers to worship the Lord better because of a deepened understanding of men’s sin, the gospel of Christ, and the consummation of God’s plans for history? If the theologian’s work does not compel Christians to seek God in salvation or sanctification based on the greatness and wonders of God’s character, then he is not a great theologian. A great theologian’s work will influence many towards spirit and truth worship (Jn 4:24), and is usually used by other Christians in their teaching ministry or personal devotions.

These are some of the few main attributes of a great theologian. Authors, life inspiration teachers, pastors, and seminary professors may know much about the Bible and obey it, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a great theologian. In fact, there are many in the last 2,000 years of church history who were characterized as theologians. But there are theologians in the past and present who are known for teaching false doctrines (especially in core issues of the Christian faith), do not have an accurate understanding of Scripture, attack the trustworthiness of Scripture instead of defending it, and do not elicit a response of obedience for and awe of God from the audience. However, a great theologian will do as the commands teachers to do (understand the faith, explain the faith, defend the faith, exhort in the faith, and live out the faith).

This is what characterized fine theologians of the past like Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, George Whitefield, and what characterizes great theologians of the present like J.I. Packer, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, and John Piper.