What is a Theologian?

By Justin Stratis
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Occasionally, when I’m out in the wild, someone might see my ID and notice that little “Dr.” in front of my name. The next comment often goes something like: “Oh, you’re a doctor! What do you practice?” Then comes the confusion as I clarify that I’m not a medical doctor (aka a real doctor), but rather a theologian, which I try to explain as swiftly as possible as “someone who talks about God.” If I were a more competent evangelist, this would surely be my cue to transition smoothly into a gospel message. But the truth is, I’m usually embarrassed. Who am I to stand in front of another human being and admit that my actual profession is to be a talkative expert on the most mysterious and contested topic imaginable?  

And yet, here I stand, I can do no other. I am a theologian—or at least I am called to be one. But what exactly is that? 

More than an intellectual puzzle to be solved

The fourth-century Cappadocian father, Gregory of Nazianzus, once wrote: 

"Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points, but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits." 

Gregory wrote those words during a fierce debate around the divinity of the Son, when there was a danger that God was becoming little more than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. As Nazianzen’s colleague Gregory of Nyssa once famously observed regarding the situation in Constantinople: 

"The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask ‘Is my bath ready?’ the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing." 

Is this all that theology should be—a mere topic to be dissected for the amusement of the curious? 

In response, Gregory Nazianzen set a high bar for those who would dare to speak of God. Such people ought to be “examined,” be practiced in meditation, and above all should be “purified in soul and body.” In other words, theologians should be mindful of the Word of the Lord to Moses: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 

Learning to speak of God in such a way that God is never domesticated

This is a tall order, but one that resonates for me. In my view, to be a theologian is to be one who is learning to speak of God in such a way that God is never domesticated. It’s about becoming the kind of person who, having encountered the Lord’s presence, knows better than to ever try and speak for him. To theologize is therefore not an opportunity for poiesis, or creative conceptual problem solving, but rather for listening, for repentance, for mortification and vivification. But most of all, being a theologian is a matter of learning to see God’s being as a blessing for us in Christ. 

Now, from this, it might seem like being a theologian shouldn’t be a profession at all. In truth, it resembles something more like what Adam Neder calls “a way of life”—less a topic and more a posture, less a pen in the hand and more a head bowed in prayer. In this respect, the old cliché “all Christians are theologians” is true. All believers are called to know and love God, to stand in awe of God, and to be formed into the likeness of Christ our Lord and brother. If that’s what theology is, then surely it’s a vocation for everyone. 

And yet, being a theologian is not just about growing in faith, hope, and love for oneself. There’s a danger in regarding theology as a spiritual practice alone. The study of theology is not an occasion for self-indulgent spirituality—that’s the flip side, I think, of making theology just another topic of conversation. 

In truth, theology needs to straddle these twin dangers. On the one hand, theology should be self-involving; it cannot be idle speculation. One ought not to seek the knowledge of God as if God’s Word were not personally present in all its terrifying and reconciling power. The contemplation of God changes a person—or at least it should if God is indeed the one who is being contemplated. 

But on the other hand, this kind of transformation compels one out of oneself. God’s arrival not only reconciles the individual to her Creator; it also places her in a new relation to others. In other words, God’s presence makes the church, and through the church God relates to the world as it’s drawn towards shared communion in Christ. Those who study theology therefore cannot help but publish the good news. As precarious as speaking of God is and must be, nevertheless, the theologian sets herself in the midst of humanity and wonders aloud at the beauty of the Lord. In this way, theology is both personal and social, both prayerful and homiletic. 

A calling for the benefit of the whole

It's this second, public-facing role that justifies something like a special theological vocation. Not all are granted what Gregory Nazianzen calls the “leisure” (i.e., the time and space) to think about God with the care and seriousness that the topic deserves. Nor, I think, should this be the case. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, it takes a diversity of parts to make up a body. And so, the church recognizes the calling of certain individuals to certain tasks for the benefit of the whole. While all are called to announce the gospel, only some are evangelists. While all are called to serve, only some are deacons. And while all are called to know God, only some are called to take up theological study as a matter of special service for the community. 

And that is what I believe my calling is—to take up theological study as a matter of special service for the community—and it’s a weighty sort of thing to realize. As a vocational theologian, I am, of course, paid a salary by Wycliffe College. But ultimately, I am answerable to Christ’s church, and more specifically in my case, the Anglican Communion. At the end of the day, it’s the church who permits me the time and space to study the content of her faith; it’s the church who must deem my work to be something more than mere idle curiosity or personal development. Consequently, if this permission were to be withdrawn, what would I become if not just another resident of Constantinople offering unsolicited opinions on theological topics for anyone who might listen? What would prevent me from becoming just a holy hermit concerned only for himself and his own private existential questions? 

All this boils down to seeing the vocation of the theologian as a ministry, as all Christian callings must be. A theologian is thus a Christian minister of a certain type: not a genius, not a judge, not a gatekeeper, and certainly not a member of the so-called intelligentsia—but a servant, tasked with helping the church to articulate and live her Christian faith in the world to the glory of God. 

It may not be the most respected profession in the world, but it’s certainly one that’s worthy of our prayers. And it may even be something the Lord is calling you to pursue.


Justin Stratis is Professor of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College. If you enjoyed this post, you may also appreciate, "What do I do with Theological Education?" and "Story of a Calling."