Types of Theologians

Posted on August 10, 2016

The university founders and leaders in the high middle ages considered Theology to be the “Queen of the Sciences.” They borrowed this phrase from Thomas Aquinas, but they were applying it accurately. A science was defined then as a legitimate study of any subject involving human existence. Because they had not bought into the Enlightenment separation of the physical and spirit realms, they saw any endeavor to understand something as a science.

Theologians were elevated to a high place in those years. They were given places of honor and privilege at universities and every institution had chairs of theology. The oldest of our world’s schools still have chairs of Theology: Oxford, Tubingen, Bologna, Paris, Cambridge, they all recognize the value of theology.

If you vaguely know what theology is, the name is pretty simple: It is the Study of God and all things to do with God. That sounds accessible and simple, doesn’t it?

Theologians are some of the most brilliant and influential people in the history of the world. You know many of their names, but probably didn’t connect them with theology. They became known for starting churches, changing nations, launching quests and ruining the plans of oligarchies. We need the theologians, even if we don’t like them. They challenge us, settle us, ground us, unsettle us, explain us and leave some things unexplained for now.

But there are more than one kind of theologian. There are, in fact, seven different kinds of theologians. For those who love theology, see if you can recognize the value of each of these. At the end, I am going to propose the need for a type of theologian not often seen.

The “Heretic” Theologian

This is the one who looks at it all a new way and says it in a new way. Sometimes this person actually is a heretic in terms of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Sometimes they are not, but they push the boundaries of what we believe to be true. Martin Luther, Pelagius, Samuel Rutherford, Meister Eckart are all examples of this kind of theologian. In contemporary church circles, we have too many to count. But we need them so when we think we have God all nailed down, these ones push the envelope beyond our comfort zones.

The Systematic Theologian

They lay it down systematically so that generations later, other people can see what was said and believed. Without this theologian our creeds would be a mess, our churches would be struggling to survive and we would have no way of being able to say “here’s where we’ve been”.  Examples of this theologian: Berkhof, Chafer, Calvin, Hodge, Scofield, and Grudem.  They all have a slant to their systematic theologies, but they at least have a system and a coherence. They help us with a launching pad we can shoot off of into other discoveries.

The One-Note Theologian:

They see one point of theology that has either been overlooked or under-appreciated and they keep hitting this note with clarity and vision. Without this theologian, we would count all theology as equally important and miss what Holy Spirit is saying to today’s church. Examples of this person: Finney on Revivals, A. B. Simpson on healing, E. M. Bounds on prayer, Wesley on the Holy Spirit, Warfield on the Millennium, etc. Every generation needs a couple of these. Our generation has spawned several, but we will wait for history to tell us which were most important.

The Academic Theologian:

This theologian takes the works of many and drills down into their works to see the implications, the nuances, the potential pitfalls and the connections between one theologian and another. These theologians see the broader gamut of what has been taught and published and can put all of theology into its categories. Unlike the systematic theologian, they aren’t looking for a system that works together. They are looking for all the varieties of theology that make up the variegated Truth of God. Examples of these: Karl Barth, Carl F.H. Henry, N. T. Wright, Roger Olson, R. C. Sproule. These are the classic theologians we are used to in university circles. Often, these are the theologians everyone reads. I have many Calvinist friends who read Sproule but have never read Calvin. That is often the way.

The Pastoral Theologian:

They are always looking at how theology can be explained simply and practically to those who need to know. They care as much about the non-academic as the academic. They do not want anyone to go away shaking their heads in confusion. They will use a parable instead of a treatise, a story instead of attributions. They are just as solid as any of the other theologians, but they are looking to communicate truth in a way that even the least-educated person will understand. We are so thankful for theologians such as Aimee Semple McPherson, G. Campbell Morgan, William Lane, Greg Boyd, Crysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jeanne Guyon, John Piper, George Whitfield, Kay Arthur, the Apostle Paul, etc. They explain the deepest concepts in the simplest terms and we get it.

The Watchman Theologian:

These recognize there will always be those who carry their own little heresies too far, seeking to devour followers. These theologians are the “watchmen on the wall” that the prophets tell us about. They guard the orthodoxy of the faith so that any “new” revelations will have to pass the test of scrutiny. The danger of being this kind of theologian, is you run the risk of becoming a permanent skeptic. But some have done it successfully. Walter Martin, Ravi Zacharias, Donald Barnhouse, and Hank Hannegraaf are a few people who do this today. Of course, the Inquisition was full of them as well. This is a potentially dangerous group of theologians, but necessary at one level.

The Practical Theologian:

This theologian cannot stand to see Academia take charge of truth. They do not consider theology to be worth talking about unless it can be lived in the real world. They defend the widow and the orphan, feed the hungry, defend the downtrodden, fast to loosen the chains, preach only to change an evil world, and they study the Bible only to live it. Today’s church is seeing more and more of these. They are tired of people who just study the Word and not do it. Shane Claiborne, David Platt, Rachel Held Evans, James Dobson, Oral Roberts, Bill Johnson, Mother Teresa, Jim Cymbala and many others are in this group. They tend to be the most popular of the theologians and many times are not even thought of as theologians since they don’t really care for sitting around discussing theology for hours. They prefer to just get ‘er done.

But there is one more theologian needed in this group. In today’s church, this person is needed more than ever, because there are so many theologians around and all are speaking their own language.

I refer to…

The Bridge-Builder Theologian:

I believe what is missing in this collection of wise people is the theologian that knows how to talk the language of all these theologians. They are the rarest of theological breeds. They help each of these different groups talk to one another and share what they have learned with the rest in a way in which it will be understood. There are a few of these, and even though few people will agree with what they personally believe, their job is not to develop theology, but help each of these different types of theologians to understand each other. They have the true gift of interpretation. They explain what the others are saying in a way we get it. They may go too far and start advocating for these, but they know how to get the point of someone else across well. In the lingo of Malcolm Gladwell, these are the Information Maven Connectors. Examples of these:  Donald Carson, Rick Joyner, Francis Chan, Jack Hayford, Lisa and John Bevere, Donald Miller, George Otis Jr., Leonard Sweet, Rick Warren, and Brian McLaren. They don’t develop new theology, they just explain it so we can understand. May their tribe increase.