Defining Theology (Who is a Theologian?)

Posted: March 21, 2010 by Greg Burkheimer in Theology

One of the first classes I took with the Theology Program through Reclaiming the Mind ministries dealt with the question of defining theology. We were each asked to write a one or two sentence definition of theology. My definition was, “The study of the nature and attributes of God and His relationship with creation.” I thought this was pretty good! After all, I have heard worse. After discussing some of the definitions, we began to look at how others have defined theology.

“The science of God or of religion; the science which treats of the existence, character, and attributes of God, his laws and government, the doctrines we are to believe, and the duties we are to practice; divinity; (as more commonly understood) the knowledge derivable from the Scriptures, the systematic exhibition of revealed truth, the science of Christian faith and life.” –Webster’s Dictionary

“The Science of God and of the relations between God and the universe.” –A. H. Strong

“The study or science of God.” –Millard Erickson

“Rational discussion respecting the deity.” –Augustine

“Thinking about God and expressing those thoughts in some way.” –Charles Ryrie

It was interesting that while some definitions were very elaborate and specific, others were very broad and generic. We were encouraged to think about theology in a more broad sense.

Who is a Theologian?

Why is it that many Christians do not see themselves as theologians? How many times have Christians begun a theological statement with, “I am not a theologian but…” Is this a problem in the church today? Some may say it is while others might see it as a good thing!  I believe a theologian is anyone who has asked the ultimate questions of life: Why am I here? What is life? What happens after death? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why is there something instead of nothing? Using a more broad definition, even an atheist who claims that there is no God would have a theology.

The question is not, “Who is a theologian?” but “What kind of theologian are you going to be?” Are you going to be a good theologian, or a bad theologian? This is a more accurate question because as one writer put it, “not all theologians are equal.”  In an issue of Christianity today from 1982 R.C. Sproul wrote,

“We live in what may be the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization…We must have a passion-indeed hearts on fire for the things of God. But that passion must resist with intensity the anti-intellectual spirit of the world.”

That was over twenty five years ago and I must ask, how well have we resisted?

Arenas of Theology

Theology was divided into six categories. Tabloid, Folk, Lay, Ministerial, Professional, and Academic.

Tabloid Theologian: One who constructs his or her theology based on naïve hearsay information that has no basis in fact and very little, if any evidence to be believed. Many times people are Tabloid theologians because of the theology’s appearance of originality. As well, it can be “Cutting edge” in many people’s minds.

Folk Theologian: One who uncritically and unreflectively constructs his or her theology according to traditions and religious folklore. The Folk theologian is often very dogmatic and militant about his or her beliefs.

Lay Theologian: A layperson, who constructs his or her theology and who, unlike the folk and tabloid theologian, is… (1) More reflective upon learned theological concepts. (2) Likely to formulate a system of beliefs which distinguishes between essential and non-essential doctrine. (3) More critical of unfounded traditions. (4) Willing to use study tools.

Ministerial Theologian: A layperson who constructs his or her theology and who unlike the lay theologian is… (1) Educated in theological methodology. (2) Able to use study tools and resources at a more effective level. (3) Able to openly critique personal theology against competing models. (4) Intent on devoting more time to reflection so that theological integration can take place.

Professional Theologian: One who constructs his or her theology and makes a living doing so. They usually are… (1) Didactically purposed toward lay and pastoral theologians. (2) Conduct practical original research. (3) Critically evaluate common theological trends and folk theology. Often accused of, “quenching the Spirit.”

Academic Theologian: A professional theologian who constructs his or her theology with an overly speculative and critical spirit. His dialog can usually only come with other theologians. It is often called “Ivory Tower” theology

We were encouraged to practice theology in the arena of Lay, Ministerial or Professional ,  and to avoid the Tabloid, Folk, and Academic.

—–Tabloid——Folk ——Lay—–Ministerial—–Professional—–Academic—–

The class was concluded with two Latin phrases

Credo ut intelligam “I believe in order to understand”

This Latin phrase first put forth by Augustine, then popularized by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Augustine’s full statement was “I don’t understand so that I might believe, but I believe so that I might understand.”  This idea gives emphasis to the priority and necessity of belief in the Christian intellectual pursuits. One cannot truly and fully understand spiritual matters unless he or she first believes them to be true.

Fides quaerens intellectum “Faith seeking understanding”

This Latin phrase coined by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) meaning “faith seeking understanding.” This is one of the earliest definitions of theology. It starts with the assumption that we are believers and as such, we are seeking to understand our beliefs better.


I left this lesson with a broader definition of what theology is and who is a Theologian. I realized that everyone, including the atheist, has a theology. The arenas of theology helped me to categorize different beliefs and I found myself evaluating my own theology more critically.

  1. Good summary Greg!!! I have encountered a bunch of “tabloid” theologians who want me to read the book from the latest prophecy guru on what is taking place in the world today.

    There were two great lectures done by John Piper and D.A. Carson on “The Pastor as Theologian” and “The Theologian as Pastor” that I found very helpful:

  2. Greg Burkheimer says:

    I still remember watching some religious programming around the time I went through this lesson where God was apparently giving people gold teeth! I instantly thought tabloid! Folk theology can be a little trickier to identify. Some folk theology is pretty easy like, “Peter at the pearly gates” and different denominational dogmas. Others are not so obvious like, “all sins are equal in the site of God”. Thanks for the link

  3. Keamegile Lebee says:

    Hello, sir!

    I am a man of 44 years of age from the Republic of Botswanana.I have a Certificate in Theology and a Diploma in Ministry, including an Associate Degree in Public Relations & Personnel Administration. Having gone through your material, I was very impressed by your explanations and categorisation of theologians. I have applied to various institutions for a B.Th. program. However, I am not content with the curricular being offered. I need a B.Th curriculum with Biblical languages, but not exceeding two years in terms of study through online or postal correspondence mode. I am desirous of obtaining the following credentials and subsequently teach theology at Bible College, University and Seminary levels: B.Th., Th.M. and Th.D. Lastly, is it possible to study for a Th.D. having graduated with a M.Div. (Ministry) with 90 credit hours? Thank you for opening my mind; I do not desire to be some sloppy theologian:tabloid, folk and academic theologian, too!

  4. Cruisers says:

    this is nice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s