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Wisdom from Luther

August 12th, 2010

My friend and former colleague, Carl Trueman has begun a series of blogposts on the reformation 21 blog on what Luther understood a theologian to be. In good style, Carl names his original sources and draws out some very useful practical lessons.

Most pastors and preachers are reluctant to take on the label of “theologian” (even though that is what they are for their flock). What is described here can be applied with equal force to all of us who “labour in the Word” and who seek to share the results of our labours with our people week by week.

Here is the text of the first blogpost, with the promise of more to come.

I want to start a short series of posts today on Martin Luther’s understanding of what makes a theologian.  The sources for reflection are primarily two: a passage from his Table Talk (no. 3425; not as far as I know available in the standard English translations) and the preface to the first edition of his German works (1539; available in vol. 34 of the Philadelphia edition of Luther’s works in translation).

The preface contains just three things that mark out a theologian: prayer; meditation; and agonizing struggle.    The Tabletalk lists six: the grace of the Spirit; agonizing struggle; experience; opportunity; careful and constant reading; and a practical knowledge of the academic disciplines.  As the shorter is, by and large, subsumed under the longer, I will use the six headings for the next six posts.

As a prologue, however, I want to draw attention to the fact that Luther does not talk about what constitutes theology but about what makes a theologian.  This is somewhat characteristic of his approach: many people have noted the importance of his “theology of the cross,” which he articulated most dramatically at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518; but the text of the disputation theses do not speak of a theology of the cross; rather they speak of a theologian of the cross.  Theology, for Luther, is the words spoken by human beings in response to the words God has first spoken to them; thus, theology is a personal action; and therefore, there can be no discussion of theology without first discussing the agent, the one who speaks theologically.  Theology is an abstraction unless it is understood as the action of the theologian.

This is an odd idea in a world where the separation of church and academy is now a given.  Theology, like mathematics or biology or literary theory, represents just another object to be studied.  It has become a technical exercise, divorced from the character and identity of the practitioner, a matter simply of learning the techniques or the rules of the game.  In this context, theologians like to think of themselves often as nice people, as socially acceptable, as aspiring to places at the cultural table, as being accepted by others.

But this was not so for Luther: the theologian was one who had been seized by the Word, gripped by the address of God, whose very identity was determined by the this prior address of God which then compelled and shaped any response he might care to give. This process was agonizing, existential, redefining at the most fundamental level the person’s own self-understanding as the huge gulf that exists between Creator and creature in all of its terrifying glory comes home to the theologian and drives him again and again out of himself and to the cross where hangs the Incarnate God.  A theologian — a true theologian — was one who, through agonizing struggle was driven again and again by the Spirit to wrestle with the text of scripture so as to discern its meaning, and then communicate that meaning in the power of the Spirit to others.  As I hope to demonstrate in future posts, nobody who casually bandies around theological ideas, or who talks comfortably about doubt and temptation, is worthy of the title “true theologian” as Luther understood it.

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