Being a Christian has something to do with believing. Our great ecumenical creeds begin with “I believe” or “We believe”. The key article in our churches’ constitutions deals with the “Confession of Faith”. Believing and having faith exceeds that which we know. Faith and prayer make us receptive to God’s action through the Holy Spirit. It is in this context that I ask the question, “Can a theologian be a Christian?” If I were to ask, “Can a Christian be a theologian?” this essay would be rather short and the answer a resounding “YES”. However, posing the question as I do does not make the answer that simple.
Theologians will tell you that theology is a science. Modern theology uses a systematic approach to the acquisition of knowledge. It uses formal techniques and procedures in the study of Scriptures. As such most would agree that theology is a science.
Modern theology has become liberal theology. To understand the problem which confessional Christians have with liberal theology it might help to know the difference between theology in Europe and on this continent. European theology, such as in Germany, is taught at state-owned faculties of universities. There are some theological schools that are owned by Christian churches, but most Lutheran pastors have been trained at faculties of theology. In contrast theological seminaries on this continent are paid for and owned by Christian denominations. Churches finance their seminaries in the anticipation that their institutions produce pastors. However, theological faculties in Germany see it as their task to produce theologians. Theology students in Germany study theology for 4-5 years and then pass their theological examen. The church then takes over to make pastors out of these theologians. In Lutheran churches in Germany it takes two years of vicarship under the guidance of the church to be followed by another examen conducted by the church upon which a candidate is ordained as a pastor.
On this continent there are some universities that have a faculty of theological studies such as Harvard Divinity School which is Harvard’s University’s non-sectarian school of theology and religious studies. But most education of pastors in the USA and Canada takes place at seminaries that have a close relation to the church and are staffed mostly by professors who are also ordained pastors. But many theological books our seminaries use are produced by European theologians who are under no obligation to any Christian denomination. Such books are very useful to read and know, but one must realize that they may not have been written by persons who share the faith. Theologians are not required to be confessing Christians. They are only required to be theologians. Their personal faith or the absence of faith is their private matter.
It follows then that while a Christian can be a theologian not all theologians are confessing Christians. That may explain why confessional Lutherans have difficulties with what some theologians say if they promote teachings and practices that are contrary to Scripture.
To be a Christian one has to believe that Jesus is Lord. “Jesus is Lord” was actually the first Christian creed and the confession of faith upon which one was admitted into the Christian community. The first Christians, including the disciples of Jesus, did not consider themselves to be theologians in the way theologians understand themselves in modern times. They were witnesses of the lordship of Jesus because through faith they had experienced the living Lord Jesus as lord and savior. They had that special bond of faith with Jesus.
Theology as an objective science was unthinkable for the early church. How could you be objective and distance yourself objectively from Holy Scriptures, the subject of your study? They all, in a very personal way, through faith, got to know Jesus and accepted him as their Lord.
Even we think that it is not possible to undertake an objective study of a person we love like our spouse. Medical doctors wisely refuse to treat their own family for precisely the same reason. You can not be totally objective about a person you love.
However, to become a theologian one has to be willing to be totally objective and open- minded. Theology is about examining historical facts, scriptural accuracy and viewing biblical passages in the light of other historical information.
Luther in that respect was not a theologian because he read Scriptures through the eyes of faith. It was a faith that was tested and defended by the church fathers and believers throughout the history of the church. The church had gone wrong in some aspects of its teaching and practices. That was to be corrected by letting Scriptures speak for themselves.
For Luther theology was the faithful servant of the church. It was so faithful and loving that it could not let the church go on with teachings and practices that contradicted Scriptures.
Most of current protestant theology would be offended by being viewed as a servant of the church. Most theologians view theology as an objective science that can be subject to nobody and nothing except that which is proven by human reason.
Modern protestant theology starts with the assumption that there is an objective truth. That truth is independent of what a church teaches or a person may personally believe. Theology is always evolving. There will be a host of candidates for theological doctorates who will come up with some new knowledge, for such is the nature of a dissertation.
Faith is always personal just as much as love is always personal. Faith and love are twins. Believing is beloving. Confessional Lutherans have their faith affirmed by the Lutheran confessions which adds a corporate dimension to their personal faith. Does that mean that there is no objective foundation to what we believe? By no means!
I made the decision to be in the company of Luther. Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. The Holy Spirit spoke through people, but it was God who inspired them.
God speaks in the Bible. I find theology to be a helpful tool in understanding Scriptures. But I do not allow reason to dominate all my thinking. Reason does not logically lead to love. Reason does not cause two people to single out each other to get married. But both, reason and love originate in the same brain. Reason by itself is not always sufficient to guide my decisions.
I have known and read theologians who produced good theology within the boundaries of faith. I have also met theologians who have subordinated their faith to reason.
Faith becomes impoverished if it is limited to what I can understand. It limits God to my mental capacity. Since God surpasses all understanding there will always be that element of mystery in my faith. But what I know, for example, as represented by the Apostles’ Creed, is sufficient even though I do not know all the answers. In the end it is not knowledge, but faith, hope and love that abide.
Can a theologian be a Christian? Yes, but being a Christian does not automatically come with being a theologian. Being rich in the knowledge of liberal theology is similar to being rich in money. It makes it more difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven unless a theologian makes room for the peace that passes all understanding.
The problem boils down to the question of how reason and faith can coexist. Liberal theology believes in the supremacy of reason. Liberal theology understands God by standing over God. Confessional theology understands God by standing under God.
Confessional theology acknowledges that God can act in ways that pass human understanding. God has acted in miraculous ways in the past and can still do so in our times. Whereas liberal theology subjects faith to reason, confessional theology augments reason with faith.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” Jesus, in Mark 10, 15.