Warning: I am not yet satisfied with my answer to the question I’m wrestling with below, in part because I lack clarity about it in my own mind. This probably means it’s not written very clearly and therefore may be frustrating to follow. Sorry! Proceed at your own risk. 🙂 Also, I’m interrupting the Revelation series just for today; I’ll pick it back up tomorrow.
What makes a great theologian? This is a question my friend Jim asked me and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It could be taken in one of two ways. The first focuses on the theologian her/himself. In this case the answer would include prayer, serious study of Scripture, knowledge of history, commitment to the local church, active discipleship, humility, etc, etc. The second focuses on the theology of the theologian – What makes great theology? I think this was what he meant, or it is at least what I’ve thought about more, so I’ll take it in that direction. In the first comment box I’ll share some resources for each as well as whom I credit for what. First, a brief (chiastic) outline:
Scripture – Great theology takes Scripture seriously. I wish this was obvious, but of course it isn’t. Great theology listens to Scripture as the unfolding revelation of God’s character, mission, purposes, will, etc. Of course I can’t say enough here about what this does and doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “proof-texting” – throwing up a bunch of references to make your argument look biblical without tending to the specific context and nuances of each one, less still to the overall unfolding story that Scripture tells. I do think Scripture must be read canonically or narratively, or whatever word we want to use to emphasize that not every bit reveals God with the same degree of clarity. Let me wrap this up in two specific ways: (1) Great theology is theology you can look at as a whole, noticing its points of emphasis and central or structural themes, and say, “Yup, those emphases, themes, and motifs represent the whole of Scripture and its trajectories well.” (2) Great theology is built on solid exegesis of individual texts in their literary, historical, and canonical contexts.
Kingdom (/Mission/Trinity) – I can’t come up with one key word, but what I’m trying to say is this: Scripture reveals a Triune God on a mission to establish and extend his loving kingdom throughout all creation. Great theology recognizes God’s kingdom-establishing mission as the central organizing theme of Scripture. Of course this was central for Jesus, but it didn’t start there. Creation itself is about God establishing his reign on earth as it is in heaven, Israel was called to be a people with God alone as their King, the prophets talk about God’s kingdom all the time, etc, etc. And of course the extension of God’s kingdom means an invitation to participate in Life of our Three-in-One Communing God. God will one day bring the entire cosmos into this communion of love, joy, justice, and peace. God’s mission is not just to save individuals out of this world but to heal this world so that it accomplishes his original creational intent. And lastly, God’s kingdom must always contend with the kingdoms of this world/the “powers and principalities”/Satan.
Cross – I mean this in three ways. The first is that the cross is the central, most important moment in God’s revelation of Godself. If our vision of God does not make sense of the cross, then it is not Christian theology. I think that’s pretty straightforward so I’ll leave it be. The second thing has to do with what we call “atonement.” One of the first things I look at when evaluating any theologian is how they talk about the cross. If they flatten the many ways the cross (and with it the resurrection, of course) is talked about in Scripture into one model or theory, especially one that isn’t integrally connected to God’s kingdom-establishing mission, then I grade them down, so to speak. Third, a theology of the cross is a theology of resurrection, and is therefore a theology of hope. The cross points forward to the consummation of the story of which it forms the climax. If we eclipse “heaven” we lose earth and everything else as well.
Love – Love must be supreme in our vision of God. People often say that we have to balance God’s love with his justice, but I just don’t think that’s a great way to talk about it. God is just and holy to be sure, but that justice and holiness are part of his love, or we are no longer speaking about the God of Scripture. Of course there is a danger that we’ll define “love” on our own and then force God to fit that box, but that’s why Scripture, Kingdom, and the Cross are so important. God is just but not Justice; God is holy but not Holiness; God is Love.
Community – Once again this means a number of things for me, specifically two. First, theology that is detached from the local church is not great theology. Theology that doesn’t enable God’s people to be faithful to God is not great theology. Period. Second, theology that takes individuals as primary for the purposes of God is not biblical theology. In Scripture the community clearly precedes the individual. What does God do to overcome sin – he calls Abraham as the head of a family, he establishes Israel as his people (not just a collection of individual persons with whom he engages), he forms the church and invites people to experience salvation within her, etc. Salvation is about the church before it is about any of us as individuals, because (once again) salvation is about God restoring and expanding his loving reign through us to all creation.