There has been a blog discussed on facebook suggesting that it might be a good idea for congregations to employ theologians. The blog was taken down, but I did find this article on Christian Century describing Theologians in Residence. Now before we go any further let me be clear I have a vested interest. I am a lay person just about to complete my doctoral studies in theology. So it looks as if the church is about to create positions for people like me. O this is America so it may come about in the UK about the time I am due to retire, so I am not holding my breath.
However I want to question the whole idea, but not for the usual arguments. The usual two are as follows. Firstly that all Christians (Muslims, Jews and Atheist as well) are theologians. That is they have a conceptual frame work that works around the idea of God (even if in the case of most* Atheists this is God’s non-existence). I am quite happy with that, I would encourage such people to work at and thus clarify their understanding as much as possible. Trying to speak honestly about the nature of God is in my opinion a good thing. The second is that the cleric/minister/priest is a theologian in residence, and to an extent they are right. That is the cleric/minister/priest will have spent time in theological education, should have an understanding of the wider debates within Christianity and has a role in helping members of the local church grow in their understanding as well as action, character and devotion to the faith.
However “the Theologian” is not new, not within Reformed circles, it goes right back to at least John Calvin. His five fold ministry was Apostles, Prophet, Minister, Doctor and Elder (yes no Deacon although the role is explained in the Institutes). What I am interested in is the office called “Doctor”. This is what I take a theologian of the Church to be. One thing should be immediately clear, those offices are in order of seniority, “Doctor” is lower than “Minister”. You technically would expect to be more of them, but there have been fewer recognised. Oddly enough it never go to none but you needed to listen carefully to discover who is Doctor and not a Minister. They also tended to fill roles that looked senior to ministers such as being involved in ministerial training.
Apostles and Prophets arise in time of crisis; the Apostles providing leadership and the Prophets warnings. However on a day to day basis they are not needed. He however then folds them back so that Ministers are the common place equivalent of Apostles and Doctors are thus common or garden prophets. Lets look at the two senior roles in ancient Israel Priest and Prophet. The Apostle would map to priest roughly. In one important aspect at least, the priest was entitled to income for his religious role. This is acknowledged for ministers. The snag for this is that the prophet isn’t. If a prophet was a priest then he did get the income as a priest to enable him to fulfil that role but he did not get it for being a prophet. The prophet needed independency to fulfil their role as prophet in ancient Israel. The doctor/theologian needs independency to fulfil their role in the church and the congregation needs an independency from them. A theologian is only as good as the insights that they bring.
So no a theologian in residency is not the way to go. In fact in some ways if a theologian takes such a post then they are compromising their role. They become over reliant on the hand that feeds them and can end up saying what it wants them to say rather than struggling with the word of God.
Remember I said that Doctors of the church should be more numerous than ministers, but few are recognised. They are there, indeed they exist already in every congregation in my experience. They quite possibly have done some extra study, fulfil teaching roles e.g. lay preacher, head of junior church and are known in the congregation for their deep spirituality. They probably make up the core members of your bible study groups. They may or may not be elders and not all elders are Doctors of the Church. Some ministers are, and some are not; just as some priests were prophets and some were not.
*I am aware that there are individuals who would use the badge Atheist, but do not make such a clear statement.