YOU ARE A THEOLOGIAN (BUT ARE YOU A GOOD ONE?)
Written by Doug Ponder on October 4, 2015
Everyone’s a Theologian
“All men reason,” wrote English cardinal John Henry Newman. “But all do not reflect upon their own reasonings.”
Newman’s claim is not some kind of arrogant elitism; it is an observation about an inescapability reality. Everyone has a thought or opinion, but not every thought is equally thought out, equally profound, and equally accurate. All men reason, but not all men reason well.
Swiss author Francis Schaeffer applied the same idea to the subject area of philosophy. Although we tend to think of “philosophy” as being only a technical subject matter that very few people pursue, there is another sense in which every person is a philosopher. “For philosophy also means a man’s world view,” Schaeffer writes. “In this sense, all men are philosophers, for all men have a world view. This is just as true of the man digging a ditch as it is of the philosopher in the university… In fact, philosophy is universal in scope. No man can live without a world view; therefore, there is no man who is not a philosopher” (He Is There And He Is Not Silent, 3).
In a similar way, everyone is a theologian. Everyone. You, me, your neighbor next door, your atheist co-worker, your child too young to speak yet. Everyone is a theologian because everyone was made by God to “study” him—and that is what theology is. Theology is the study of God. Jesus says, “This is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
There’s no one alive who doesn’t have a thought about God—whether they think he exists, doesn’t think he exists, or isn’t sure if God exists. Everyone thinks something about God. Everyone is a theologian.
But not everyone is a good theologian.
It’s not mean to say that. In fact, it’s impossible not to say that. The atheist who thinks God isn’t real and the Christian who worships Jesus as Lord cannot both be right. At least one of them is wrong about God. At least one of them is a bad theologian.
So what makes you a good theologian? Good theologians have three things in common:
1. Right Thinking
The first and most obvious thing that makes you a good theologian is believing what is true. After all, it was Jesus himself who said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Elsewhere the Scriptures tells us to “contend [fight!] for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). And in many places in the Bible Jesus’ followers talk about keeping the faith (2 Tim. 4:7) and “hold[ing] firm to the trustworthy word as it was taught to you” (Titus 1:9).
In other words, the modern movement stresses what is “new” and “innovative,” but good theologians know it is “the ancient paths” where “you will find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). For there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9), especially when it comes to God. Thus, people who talk about “updating” the message of the Bible are not doing anyone any favors. Much worse, they are leading people into judgment, tearing them away from the truth that Jesus says will set us free.
Good theologians know that we are called to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). All the passion in the world without right knowledge is worthless, in other words. It’s like travelling in a fast car down the wrong road; you might be moving quickly, but you’re not making any real progress (Rom. 10:2). That’s why right thinking is the first “ingredient” necessary to make you a good theologian.
2. Right Motives
While God does say, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6), that doesn’t mean that knowledge is everything. Indeed, there are all kinds of ways to “know” God that do nothing for you except make your judgment much worse (Luke 12:47-48).
We should never forget that the Pharisees, religious leaders and experts of the Scriptures, were the ones that Jesus rebuked most harshly during his public teaching ministry. There problem wasn’t a lack of knowledge. Theirs was a problem of the heart. They knew a lot about God, but they pursued that knowledge of God for all the wrong reasons. They loved the glory that comes from human flattery and recognition in the eyes of other people (John 5:44; 12:43).
In other words, they studied God so that they others would delight in them—Look at how smart that guy is! He knows so much about God! He’s so holy!—instead of studying God so that they might delight in him and help others to do the same.
We see the quintessential example of this kind of “bad theology” in the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
His theology was right. It was good that he wasn’t a crook, an adulterer, or a thieving tax collector. It was right of him to thank God for all of that. He was speaking words of truth and light, but his heart was a dark as hell.
He didn’t strive for a life of obedience out of gratitude for God. He didn’t abstain from sin out of a desire to honor his Father in heaven, or not to make a mockery of God’s name. On the contrary, as Jesus makes clear in the story, that man’s motives for obeying God were utterly corrupt. His driving desire was to receive recognition from others “in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1).
There are many other false motives that make you a bad theologian. Seeking to know God only out of the hopes of getting something from him, without caring about God himself (cf. the older brother in Luke 15:11-32). Good theologians, in contrast, not only pursue right beliefs about God, but do so for the right reasons. They love God. They are thankful to Christ. And they want to do everything in such a way that God—not them—is honored and glorified. That’s the second part of what makes you a good theologian.
3. Right Fruit
The heart is tricky, and so it’s not enough to say, “Pursue right knowledge about God with the right heart, and you’ll be fine.” Most people will say that this precisely what they are doing. That’s why God gives us a third “ingredient,” a sort of litmus for determining whether we are good theologians, namely, spiritual fruit.
The word “fruit” is a metaphor, a word picture for the “effects” produced by our way of life. The Scriptures tell us that you will know your beliefs and your heart are in line with the gospel the “fruit” of your life is in line with the gospel. This was the nature of Paul’s rebuke of his fellow-apostle Peter as recorded in Galatians 2. “When [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned… I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” (Gal. 2:11, 14).
The ultimate test of a good theologian, therefore, is not whether he is pursuing truth, nor is it whether he thinks his motives are pure. The final test that God gives us whether or not our life produces the kind of fruit that he says is ‘in step with the gospel.’ In other words, do your thoughts about God produce “the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5)? Is your life full of joy (Phil. 4:4)? Are you humble (1 Pet. 5:5)? When you sin, do you confess it as sin and turn away from it (Jas. 5:16)? Do you “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
God does not measure a good theologian by his knowledge or by his intentions alone, but by whether or not he humbles himself in faith to seek the help of the God who said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Everyone is a theologian, even you. So strive to be a good one, full of the knowledge of God that Jesus says is eternal life (John 17:3), pursuing him out of love and not selfish gain (Ps. 119:36), all of which should result in the praise of his glorious grace and the desire to obey him with all the strength that he supplies (Phi. 2:13).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.