Every man is not a theologian

One of the first things they teach you at the Baptist seminary I am attending is that every man must be a theologian. This wording is taken from John H. Gerstner, who really believed that every person must be a theologian. To Gerstner, everyone must be an amateur theologian who believes something about God, even if this knowledge doesn’t take the form of academic or precise terms.

I appreciate what Gerstner was trying to communicate, and I agree on this level: that everyone should think about God and have beliefs about God that are grounded in reality. However, I have come to see that the idea that everyone should be a theologian isn’t quite as great as it seems. For one, I think it dilutes the meaning of the term “theologian.”

For example, I could cut someone open and remove an organ. I wouldn’t be able to do it professionally or according to textbooks on surgery, but I could do it. So am I an amateur surgeon? Must every man be an amateur surgeon?

You might think I’m stretching the analogy, but like medicine, theology (in the Middle Ages called ”Queen of the Sciences”) is an incredibly complex, diverse, and largely esoteric discipline, with its own unique vocabulary and an incredibly large body of background material that must be understood to competently enter into almost any contemporary theological discussion.

Furthermore, over the past few hundred years, archaeological discoveries and new ways of studying the Bible in its ancient context have opened up whole new vistas of understanding. Consequently, the study of the Bible is always developing, with articles constantly being written and opinions constantly changing.

My theological background is Fundamentalist Evangelical. People like me are raised being taught that everyone can read and understand the Bible. But the more people I meet and the more half-baked theology I see, the less I think that is true. Some of the comments and emails I get are so off the wall that I don’t even begin to know what to do with them. Their authors display a complete lack of knowledge, an arrogant attitude (undoubtedly because someone once told them that everyone was a theologian), and a complete unwillingness to acknowledge real data (like Bible verses that say the opposite of what they believe).

Maybe we should stop telling people that everyone is a theologian. Maybe we should stop telling people that anyone can pick up a Bible and expect to be able to interpret it correctly. I realize I probably sound condescending, elitist, and arrogant. But try to understand that my confidence in this idea doesn’t come from any presumption of knowledge on my part. The more books I read and the more knowledge I am exposed to, the more I feel like a minnow in the ocean, barely able to comprehend the sheer volume of data someone would have to be able to compute in order to be able to read and understand the entire Bible in its original context.

Coming to the realization that I didn’t understand most of what the Bible said, that I wasn’t qualified to make dogmatic statements, was a difficult experience for me. But it opened the door for me to begin really learning, to begin consulting the experts, people who have spent years studying one or two paragraphs, computing all the rest of the data for us (ancient parallels, textual evidence, cultural and linguistic issues, etc., etc.) and showing us its implications.

It’s refreshing to me to be able to say, “I’m not a theologian.” I’m not an accredited scholar; I’m not an expert. I can probably show you what the experts say, but I don’t have the immense background and wealth of knowledge to be able to replicate their conclusions myself. And neither do any of the other “armchair theologians” writing theological manifestos on how they have discovered the secret pronunciation of God’s name, or whatever. Most of them don’t even have an elementary understanding of the Biblical languages.

Part of coming to the place where we can begin to understand the Bible is realizing that everyone doesn’t need to be the same. Not everyone needs to be a theologian. Not everyone needs to be a brain surgeon. Not everyone needs to be Jewish. The idea of an equality which overrides all differences is simply not present anywhere in the ancient world and cannot be found in the Scriptures. The whole point of 1 Cor. 12:12-31 is that as believers, we are able to bless each other and operate as one body precisely because we are different.

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6 Responses to Every man is not a theologian

  1. James says:

    For example, I could cut someone open and remove an organ. I wouldn’t be able to do it professionally or according to textbooks on surgery, but I could do it. So am I an amateur surgeon? Must every man be an amateur surgeon?

    Having met you, I am quite confident you are a very good theologian but no, I will not let you perform surgery on me. Thanks. ;-)

  2. MacKenzie says:

    I think there needs to be a balance. Unlike medicine or engineering or other professions, we as Christians have the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand and interpret the Bible. So the statement “Maybe we should stop telling people that anyone can pick up a Bible and expect to be able to interpret it correctly” does cause me to pause – but I also know I can’t just pick one sentence out of your post and if I look at your whole premise, I do agree :-) I have seen what can happen when churches decide that they don’t need a “professional pastor” because everyone can read/interpret the bible and the results in those cases are not pretty – but I’ve also seen what happens in cases where people just blindly follow whatever the beliefs of their church without really studying the Bible for themselves and deciding if those beliefs are grounded in anything. Neither is good for the individual or the church as a whole.

    • Jacob Fronczak says:

      MacKenzie,

      I’m totally okay with amateurs reading and asking questions about the Bible. In my eyes, that’s basically what I do. I believe that all believers should strive for biblical literacy. It’s one of my passions. However, so many people seem to think that their novel interpretation of the Bible has some kind of merit, because they haven’t bothered to do any real study or read any credible material. They just make stuff up. I guess that’s what really bothers me.

      As to the Holy Spirit, that’s a whole other can of worms. I believe the Holy Spirit definitely has a role in applying what we read–once we understand what the words mean. However, understanding the Bible is like understanding any other ancient book. This is true because the meaning of the Bible is carried in human language; the words have meaning because of the language they are in, the cultural and religious context, and other shared information between the original author and the original audience. Figuring this stuff out has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit; it’s the result of hard work and research.

      For example, the Holy Spirit never revealed to anyone that “binding” and “loosing” in Matthew 18:18 refers to forbidding and permitting certain behavior, respectively. Lots of people think that passage refers to binding evil spirits, or something, but it has nothing to do with that. To learn the intended meaning you have to know Jewish legal terminology from the second temple period. As far as I can tell, the first English commentator to realize this was John Lightfoot. Everyone before him (and everyone who has failed to do the research) just made something up, and they all got it wrong.

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  4. Derek Leman says:

    Well-said! For someone reason, many expect to grasp 3,000 year old writings without any study.

  5. Peter says:

    Very true. I think you’ve been a positive influence on me in this regard. Other people have done so much work (lexicographical studies, vast surveys of scholarship on specific areas) that we would be most unwise to plunge ahead without consulting them. For example, how would a novice be able to freestyle an answer to the question “Why does the LXX translate the Hebrew ‘ger’ differently depending on the context?” Academic freestyling is just as problematic as medical freestyling.

    Sincerely,

    Peter

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