The formation and reception of believer-theologians

But on the other hand….

My college philosophy professor Wallace Roark taught me that cultivating the capacity to “think on the other hand”—to Think Like an Octopus—is the key to becoming a good thinker.

“But on the other hand” is also the necessary segue from my previous ABPnews Blog post on “The theologian-hood of all believers,” which concluded with this paragraph:

That sort of life together happens most fully when congregations promote and embrace the theologian-hood of all believers. Churches do that by forming all believers in the convictions and practices of Christian faithfulness they need if they are to fulfill their vocation as the church’s theologians, and churches do that by being willing to listen to the voices of all believers whenever they speak as the church’s theologians.

It is true that, as Karl Barth observed, “In the Church there really are no non-theologians.”

But on the other hand, believer-theologians must be formed. Birth in the baptismal waters does not automatically confer upon a believer the status of doctor ecclesiae, “teacher of the church.” Believer-theologians must be formed, and their formation is the responsibility of the church in which Christ is present as Teacher.

It is true that Matthew 13:51-52 in context compares disciples to theological teachers.

But on the other hand, they are like scribes “trained for the kingdom of heaven” through a process of rabbinical-style traditioning by Jesus that eventually, but not immediately, prepares them for their commissioning as authoritative teachers by the end of the Gospel of Matthew.

It is true that, as the framers of the “Re-envisioning Baptist Identity” statement trust, “When all exercise their gifts and callings, when every voice is heard and weighed, when no one is silenced or privileged, the Spirit leads communities to read wisely and to practice faithfully the direction of the gospel.”

But on the other hand, the voices of believer-theologians must be received with discernment, weighed in accordance with their formation and their particular role in the church.

Barth wrote of the ecclesial formation of believer-theologians in a section on “Authority under the Word” in his Church Dogmatics:

But it is obvious that before I myself make a confession I must myself have heard the confession of the Church, i.e., the confession of the rest of the Church. In my hearing and receiving of the Word of God I cannot separate myself from the Church to which it is addressed. I cannot thrust myself into the debate about a right faith which goes on in the Church without first having listened….If I am to confess my faith generally with the whole Church and in that confession be certain that my faith is the right faith, then I must begin with the community of faith and therefore hear the Church’s confession of faith as it comes to me from other members of the Church. And for that very reason I recognise an authority, a superiority in the Church: namely, that the confession of others who were before me in the Church and are beside me in the Church is superior to my confession if this really is an accounting and responding in relation to my hearing and receiving of the Word of God, if it really is my confession as that of a member of the body of Christ (CD I/2, p. 589).

All members of the community have voices that must be heard and not silenced, but not all members have first fully heard the confession of those who are before them and beside them in the church. Someone might regard the distinctively Christian doctrine of God as Trinity, for example, as optional or maybe even as necessarily rejected because it supposedly reflects the coercive imposition of arbitrary ecclesial authority backed by imperial power. But such a voice has not been fully formed by the church’s Trinitarian confession, and his or her voice must be weighed accordingly.

This is the point at which there is a proper distinction between the theologian-hood of all believers and the role of those who have distinctive vocations as the church’s theologians: pastors, whose charge includes serving as theologians-in-residence for the congregations they serve by “watching over” the integrity of their telling of the Christian story, and theological educators, whose charge includes the theological formation of these pastors.

The voices of those who have distinctive vocations as the church’s theologians are not infallible. They can lead astray, as indeed they sometimes have. But they carry distinctive weight, and must be weighed accordingly.

But on the other hand, doesn’t allowing for the possibility that some voices may be weightier than others raise the troubling question of who ultimately decides what represents integrity in the telling of the Christian story?

My forthcoming book on the Baptist vision and the ecumenical future includes a chapter on “magisterium,” which has to do with the configuration of teaching authority in the church. It is not only the Catholic Church that has magisterium. All churches, including Baptist ones, depend upon magisterium for the integrity of their telling of the Christian story.

I’m tempted to flesh out that assertion in my next ABPnews blog post. But on the other hand, I think I’ll leave the explanation of that one to the book.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • 5thPew

    David Brooks’s recent column (ca. June 1, 2012) titled “The Segmentation Century” seems to me to have implications for the Christian ecumenical project. I’d be interested in hearing Prof. Harmon’s thoughts in a future blog on if and how Brooks’s column might (or might not) apply to the Christian ecumenical project.