Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

Every Christian a Theologian – an Equivocation

I am not a theologian. On the occasions when I say this I have an important reason for saying so. Not infrequently, I thus make myself the target of a quote from Karl Barth:

Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian.

It is interesting that nobody has ever quoted the next few lines, which it seems to me they would:

How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term (extracted unceremoniously from Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction,” 40-1)!

(In searching for the source of this quote, which I’d forgotten, I found this post, which makes some excellent points based on the Barth quote. I have extracted the two snippets above from that site.)

Now I don’t disagree with Karl Barth’s comments on this issue, but I do disagree with the way in which the quote is often used.

Let me give an example from my own field–languages, specifically biblical languages. There are people who have an interest in languages. There are those who have an interest in linguistics, and who actually discuss the forms of their language or dig into details of semantics. Then there are those who make a professional study of such things.

I could make an excellent case, I think, for the claim that everybody is a linguist. We all have to communicate. We all have to deal with meaning. Thus, we all deal with semantics, whether we use that label or not. But quite frequently I will hear someone say, “That’s just semantics!” Well, if we’re dealing with an utterance intended to convey meaning, any discussion of what was meant is a discussion of semantics.

So I think it’s silly to say that a particular issue of meaning is “just semantics.” Similarly, you will, as Barth notes, hear Christians, including preachers, putting down the idea of theology, as though one can be a follower of Christ without thinking about God, or as though in thinking about God one can afford to be careless.

Yet just because someone does a bit of thinking about semantics, or grammatical forms, or phonology, doesn’t mean I’ll call that person a linguist. I studied biblical languages both for my undergraduate degree and then for my MA. I took either a year, or at least a concentrated quarter that was advertised as equivalent to a year, in 11 languages. In several languages I took much more than that. But I don’t call myself a linguist except in a very narrow sense.

Why? Because there is a difference in learning a number of languages, and in learning and thinking about the nature and structure of language. I’ve taken a number of graduate courses in linguistics, and I can tell you that while the two types of study interrelate, they are not the same thing.

Similarly, my own training is in biblical languages, not theology. I do not mean that I have never encountered theology, or that I don’t think about theology. Nor do I mean that there is no theology involved when I teach. In fact, I am generally very concerned to check my theological statements more carefully, for the very good reason that I am not a theologian.

I took an undergraduate minor in religion, but almost all of my courses there were in biblical studies. In graduate school, while my concentration for the MA in Religion was Biblical and Cognate Languages, I was required to take a certain number of hours in departments other than those in my concentration. So I took church history, in the form of a class in patristic Latin. Not to mention the exegesis course in Galatians in which I used the Greek text while everyone else used English. I’ve probably read more theology each year since I left graduate school than I did in my entire course of study.

I think that we can easily be very guilty of an equivocation in this case. What I mean by saying I’m not a theologian is that theology was not and is not my area of professional study. There is a difference between biblical languages, biblical studies, and theology, not to mention differences between different branches of theology. I consider this an important distinction to make, especially when I’m asked to comment on a matter of theology, and the questioner believes my opinion should have special weight because I know Greek and Hebrew. In theology I speak as a layman. It is, of course, worthwhile to note that I have studied more theology than the average person in a church pew, but the distinction still remains valid.

Every Christian is a theologian, I believe, in the same sense as every human being must be a linguist. It is somewhat silly to use language to disparage the meaning of language, and it is somewhat silly as well to claim that theology is unimportant as we follow Christ.

But theologian != theologian, necessarily!


Leave a Reply