Evaluating theologians

Posted on January 15, 2008

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Ben has opened a poll on the ‘world’s best living theologian’ here. His list of contenders itself will raise plenty of eyebrows (isn’t David Bentley Hart a bit, well, new on the block to be a contender? I’d say the same of Milbank, even, although he has at least written more than one significant book) and generate plenty of comments. Me? I vote for Augustine, on the basis of Lk 20:38…

The interesting question it raised in my mind is how one assesses such a category. What is ‘good’ theology, and what makes a particular theologian ‘the best’? Some answers look attractive, but probably need to be dismissed because they are inoperable as criteria: the ‘best’ theologian is not the ‘most right’, or else who would judge? (At present, I have to assume my own theology is the best on this criterion, because, uniquely I believe, I do not hold to any positions I consider to be wrong…)

Is the best theologian merely the cleverest? Or the one with the deepest knowledge of the tradition? (In that case the winner is almost certainly some French Roman Catholic monk none of us have heard of…) Or the widest knowledge of contemporary thought? (Milbank might well win on that criterion.)

I think a good theologian prays well, first. No theologian who doesn’t has even begun to understand the discipline. And then s/he serves the Church, and his or her particular part of it (down to a local congregation) in humility and faithfulness. Theology belongs to the Church; any theologian divorced from the Church is a bad theologian, however brilliant or knowledgeable. A good theologian has a grasp of gospel values, and would swap everything s/he has written to see one sinner repent, or one broken life healed. A good theologian writes and speaks only to help the Church be more faithful to the gospel, bringing whatever knowledge of the tradition, whatever insight into contemporary modes of thought, and whatever native cleverness s/he may possess, all into service of this one end. A good theologian is marked by humility and cheerfulness, knowing how far short of the mystery of God and God’s works his/her best efforts fall, and knowing that in the good grace of God something of lasting worth may still come from them. A good theologian, finally, does know something, and has some capacity of thought, and so can make a contribution through his/her God-given vocation.

I am not a very good theologian.

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