Everyone is a theologian

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer,  a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education. Your contributions are important – please join the conversation!

Those who know me in “real life,” and perhaps especially those who know me primarily on social media, will be aware that I love to cook. I have a lot of recipe books, and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, learning new techniques, exploring regional cuisines, and gaining experience through trial and error. Most people who eat my food seem to enjoy it, and might describe me as a good cook. But none of them would eat a dish I had prepared and commend me on being a good chemist.

Yet cooking is perhaps the most basic and universally practices form of chemistry. Theologian Roger Olson uses this analogy to illustrate the claim that everyone is a theologian:

Suppose an amateur cook decides to improve his skills in order to please guests’ palates with culinary delights. The safest and surest path is to take a course and read a few books. A cook becomes a chef by developing his knowledge and skills of chemistry. Of course this is still a far cry from the science of chemistry as studied and practiced in university laboratories! Nevertheless, there is a certain continuity between the chef’s practice of culinary arts and the chemist’s science.[1]

The same analogy can be applied to other disciplines. For Olson, “theology is inescapable for all thinking, reflecting Christians, and the difference between lay theologians and professional theologians is one of degree, not kind.”[2]

If we think of theology, broadly speaking, as the study of God, then we may say that anyone who seriously investigates the most basic questions of life is a theologian. The question then becomes the degree to which they are a good theologian – and that depends on what they believe they are doing, what their goal is, how well they apply the tools used by theologians, and how plausible their conclusions are in relation to the conclusions of others.

Christian faith is a reasonable faith. It is more, but not less. Christians, who claim to know God, and whose theology and spirituality are informed by such belief, should naturally seek to explore the meaning of God and God’s relation to the world to the fullest extent possible.

In the New Testament, the early Christian convert Paul encouraged his fellow Christians to “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2, CSB), and it would seem that theological enquiry has a part to play in this task. For persons of other religious faiths, similar principles apply, and much of what I will say in this space is readily transferable despite the exclusive claims of Christianity.

No one likes an egghead – in the classroom or the kitchen, the study or the pulpit – and theological knowledge does tend to “puff up” if vices such as pride and arrogance remain unchecked (1 Cor 8:1, CSB). There is no place for vices when it comes to theologising, and if you have not learned to master your vices and cultivate the converse virtues, you probably shouldn’t consider doing theology.

As Christians intentionally engage with theology, they also learn to love God with their minds (Matt 22:37). The pursuit of good theology enriches worship (Jn 4:23f), discipleship (Jn 8:31f), and mission (Matt 28:18-20). While pastor-theologian John Piper may be overstating the case when he claims that “the theological mind exists to throw logs into the furnace of our affections for Christ,”[3] good theologising will almost certainly bring together head, heart and hands in the service of others, and for the glory of Christ.

At its best, theology of all kinds is “faith seeking understanding,” to use Anselm’s famous phrase, though it probably did not originate with him. Everyone is capable of this. Not only does everyone have a theology; everyone is a theologian of sorts – just as every cook is a kind of chemist. Each of us should seek to do our theologising well, using the best tools available, in a spirit of humility and curiosity and wonder, as part of a whole-person response to the gracious self-revelation of God.

This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com


References

[1] Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 19.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Source unknown. Piper makes a similar point here: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/fuel-for-the-furnace, 9 Oct 2012.

Image source: Hodels.com

2 Replies to “Everyone is a theologian”

  1. Thanks for sparking our thoughts, Rod!
    Just a reminisce from me.
    I remember the time when I didn’t have to, reading on of Barth’s Dogmatics volumes. I was free to read it, not forced to study it. It was very much an experience of good theology stirring up the fires of faith. Barth was passionately engaged, deeply enjoying himself, and bringing that joy and passion to me as I read his work much later and in another language.

  2. Nice. ‘Everyone is a theologian’ was one of our mottos when I worked in an adult education role in the UCA. And as I taught many people over the years, I was in turn continually taught by my students, and reminded of the wisdom and knowledge that faithful disciples over many years have to contribute to the theological reflection of the Church.

    Now I just have to bring myself to believe that ‘everyone is a cook’!

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