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What Is Theological Greatness?

I don’t know how many things I’ve posted or seen elsewhere asking people who they think the “greatest” theologian is, was, or will be. There are all manner of ways of evaluating theologians, classifying them according to different measures of greatness, importance, or influence.

Perhaps some of this begs an important question though: What exactly is theological greatness? What is the proper theological definition of what being a true theologian of the Christian church means? I would suggest that we need a properly theological definition of what being a great theologian might mean if we are to make any helpful or accurate judgments about which of the theologians and doctors of our faith are most worth celebrating and engaging.

I have my own ideas, but first I want people to weigh in: What is theological greatness? What is the theological meaning of being a theologian?


  1. Patrik wrote:

    Good question. I have worked with a formula for theological quality lately that goes “If reading this theological work makes my religious activities (going to mass, praying, singing hymns, whatever) make more sense, then it is good theology.”

    Great theology would presumably include a lot of that.

    But there is another possible route, and I think that one is actually more common. It would be something like: “If reading this creates in me a religious experience of some sort, then its good theology”.

    This is for example why I love Tillich – reading him works this way for me. But not so much the other. The question is the is this really good theology, or is it theology that takes the place of worship? That is, is there a idolatrous element in it?

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  2. Loving servant is the first and greatest quality in my estimation.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    “is this really good theology, or is it theology that takes the place of worship?”

    There is a truly great question that always needs asking.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  4. N. Dan Smith wrote:

    I think of it as spiritual gifts are presented in the NT: to edify the church. There are of course many ways to do that. He gave some to be systematic theologians, some to be historical theologians, some to be biblical theologians, etc. Theology is the communication of the truth of God to his people. So in general, good theology knows its audience.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  5. Geoff wrote:

    As important as ciritcal thinking and expert language and such are to theology, I think what makes a theologian great is the question of whether or not that persons theology functions in the church as something that makes the gospel more clear and Jesus look more worthy of worship, ie, makes Jesus look as wonderful as he actually is. So if theology functions to bring about worship to God it is great and the theologian is in some sense great.

    Also theology should exist to aid the church in obeying Jesus, so if theology functions to give a cognitive framework in which Jesus’ commands make sense, then it is great.

    Also theology should function to do as Tillich says, present the gospel so that people can either accept or reject it.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Geoff wrote:

    But, I don’t know what I’m talking about…to qualify the above.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Josh Furnal wrote:

    “What is theological greatness?”

    knowing when to shut up…

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Orien wrote:

    I am always reminded of Hauerwas’ discussion of life as a brick layer’s apprentice. He gives the illustration that if one wanted to learn to lay bricks by reading an instruction manual, they would likely learn nothing. Whereas if one reads the manual after already having attempted to lay bricks, it would likely be very helpful and describe all sorts of things that you learned that you didn’t know you were learning. He says that this is the role of theology, to try to provide a language that is helpful in sustaining and encouraging the sort of practices that constitute the worship of God. I think that this is the measure of theological greatness: theology that is aware of its role as a pastoral project, always searching for a more adequate language for the practice of the worship of God.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  9. Orien wrote:

    What’s more, i think that this is a simple fact of church history: practice precedes the theological language to justify it (I am of course speaking liturgically, not exegetically).

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Star Nobel wrote:

    Patrik, your comments immediately recalled in me a quote from Hauerwas: “Theology is a servant discipline in the church that, like all such disciplines, can be used by those called to practice the discipline to acquire power over those the servant is meant to serve. As a result, what the theologian has to say about the scripture becomes more important than the scripture itself. Theology is the delicate art necessary for the Christian community to keep its story straight…” p. 16-17
    Hauerwas, Stanley. “Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words.” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2004.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  11. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Via Barth’s reflections on solitude in Evangelical Theology, I addressed something somewhat similar to this question in a post here…if any are interested (it received no comments the first time so it may be utterly worthless!). Peace.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  12. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    I believe that theological greatness can be seen in how it moves those who receive it to worship, prayer, and self-giving acts of love. Great theology should leave us stunned by the goodness of God and the love of Christ, rather than impressed at how clever the theologian is.

    Furthermore, great theology should also have an unveiling function, removing blinders and calling into question assumptions that we did not even know were there so we can see the work of God (and how to participate in it) more clearly.

    A great theologian is therefore a servant of the church, guiding (and chiding) her to be worthy of her calling.

    Friday, October 31, 2008 at 11:10 pm | Permalink
  13. Dave Belcher wrote:

    For those who may not want to read the whole post I linked to above, I quote the following passage from Luther’s Preface to the Wittenberg edition of his Works at the end of the post…it is dripping with sarcasm (classic Luther), and entirely pertinent to theological “greatness”:

    If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it — if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, ‘See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.’ That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ [1 Pet. 5:5]; to whom be the glory, world without end, Amen.

    Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 6:47 am | Permalink
  14. Adrian Woods wrote:

    Tillich cautions that to hold to any particular theology of the past is to hold that theology and/or theologian as idolatry. That is, we as theologians should engulf ourselves in the ocean that is God, meditating on the ideas and revelations of those who have come before us. I think everyone who gets an “insight” or glimpse into the Reality of God are so blinded by Glory that they fail miserably to articulate fully what they see or understand about this reality. In my humble opinion this levels the playing field.

    Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  15. Actually, I think we need to spell out why “theologian” is even a legitimate cathegory. At least some aspects of the scriptures (Matt 23:8-12) seems to discourage hierarchical or expert-like titles within God´s people. And even if we connect “theologian” to the concept of “teaching” in the NT, there is a vast difference between teaching in the context of the gathered church for purposes of encouraging good works (2 Tim 3:16-17) and the modern theoretical and academical context for theology.

    Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 2:50 am | Permalink
  16. Adrian Woods wrote:

    A theologian is not necessarily a teacher, as in the NT.
    Of course, I have in mind the University Academic who brings rigor and insight to the conversation about God. One who thinks through Coherence and Implications of the Kerygma.

    So there is a difference between a Theologian and a Preacher.

    Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  17. Adrian. Would you say that Jesus words in Matthew 23 (1-12) has anything to do with the world of academic theology, and if yes, then what?

    I also wonder if your description of “the University Academic who brings rigor and insight to the conversation about God” is not a little idealistic? Academic theology, in my experience, is largely a closed world who really doesn´t bring much insight into the way most churches and christians live and talk. It´s more about experts talking to experts (and to wanna-be experts…).

    I think we lack a good theology of the theologian!

    Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 7:57 am | Permalink
  18. Matt Meyer wrote:

    At the very least I think this is a funny take on the issue. In the book Peforming the Faith, Hauerwas notes how he responded to being informed that he was named America’s Best Theologian. “When I was told by David Reid, the director of communications in the Divinity School at Duke, that I was to be named “America’s Best Theologian” by TIME magazine, I responded, “‘Best’ is not a theological category. We are judged by whether we are faithful or unfaithful” (note 3, pg. 216)

    Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  19. Adrian Woods wrote:


    I’m not going to lie to you, I am an Idealist. I think of it like this. We need Aerospace engineers to work through the technical stuff of making the plane fly. The pilot neither has the time or necessarily the need to really do what the engineer does. But he needs the engineer to build a good plane and help the pilot make sense of how it works. Now, I the passenger, dont need to know any of that, I just want the plane to fly and land safely.

    The church NEEDS people to critically think through the Christian faith (e.g. the theologian). There is a lot of non-sense out there being passed off as theology. The church ministers and preachers to articulate the faith in way that nurtures the faith of the church. I’m thinking occasionally you can find this all in one person, but my experience is that in trying to do both, one or the other suffers.

    So my thought is the church needs people (like me) who love to obsess about theology and philosophy and think through the implications of what we say or attribute to God. Let these people do the grunt work of theology, so that the ministers and preachers can really focus on the church.

    What say you.

    Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  20. Adrian. Well, I think we over-estimate right thinking, largely due to the influence of greek philosophy upon the christian church. It seems to me that the earliest churches didn´t have this need. I`m not sure right thinking is even a good thing when it´s separated from love (willing and doing the best for other people).

    Therefore, I cannot support even your Lindbeckian of theology as a second order discipline. I think we need teaching, and I think this teaching needs to relate in some ways to science and different aspects of culture etc, but I don´t think we need academic theology in the present form. “Theology” (if that´s even a good word) needs to be done in the context of the church, under the church´s influence, together with the rest of the church and for the concrete needs of the church.

    I´m truly sorry to dismiss what you do for a living, but I don´t do this easy. I have abandoned doing theology within the academy myself due to these reasons.

    Monday, November 3, 2008 at 12:38 am | Permalink
  21. Adrian Woods wrote:

    No apology necessary. That is what dialogue is all about. However, if we were a part of a protestant church, and we disagreed, well I would just leave and go start my own church.

    My issue with your own idealism, is that churches tent toward fideism, which is not an intellectually honest position. Thus the academy is a offer your thoughts to public scrutiny. I see this as a good thing for the church. I’m not sure about the “Lindbeckian” labeling. I would say I am much more influenced by a David Tracy or Schubert Ogden.

    I final comment, EVERYONE has philosophical assumptions and conclusions, often times which they are completely ignorant of. These assumptions influence and in some ways dictate how you understand theology. The more clear we are on what these assumptions are, and how to develop our thoughts more coherently, the better in my opinion.

    Monday, November 3, 2008 at 5:32 am | Permalink
  22. Adrian Woods wrote:

    I really need to proof what I write next time. My grammar is terrible.

    Monday, November 3, 2008 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  23. Matt Meyer wrote:

    If the role of the theologian is to sustain and encourage the sort of practices that constitute the worship of God, how does that role change if that theologian is part of a church that seemingly worships unfaithfully?

    Monday, November 17, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

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