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Only Christian believers can or should be theologians Essay

Using quotations from at least three written texts (ancient and/or modern), argue the case for or against the view that only Christian believers can or should be theologians

Before attempting to answer this question, one must define some principles of the nature of Christian theology. It is obvious that anyone may create a theology based purely on ideas from one’s own imagination, with no boundaries or guidelines to it. Such a theology may be creative, intelligent, and reasonable, but could not be classed as Christian theology. Something must act as a rule and a guard, lest the Christian religion break down into nothing more than dispersed, individual, self-made theologies. Theology in a Christian context must and does find its foundation in Scripture, “the supreme authority to life and thought” (Vanhoozer 1998, p. 380).

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Now that the thing that is to be interpreted in the building of Christian theology has been identified as Scripture, one may ask the question of who is able and qualified to interpret it. In 1860, Benjamin Jowett published his essay, “On the Interpretation of Scripture”. He argued that the Bible should be regarded as any other ancient collections of literature, using tools of literary and historical scholarship. He implied that a critic who stands apart from traditional beliefs and practices is in a better position to find the true meaning of the text, as these traditions had obscured their true meaning. In other words, only those with the right scholarly tools and who were willing to suspend any belief in the text that they may have are able to correctly interpret it (Vanhoozer 1998, pp. 378-379).

However, Jowett’s view of interpretation omits the spiritual and the ethical dimensions of Biblical interpretation. Vanhoozer writes:

To call the Bible Scripture does not make its warnings or its promises something other than warnings or promises, but rather reorients them to the larger purpose of “making wise unto salvation… “.

(Vanhoozer 1998, p. 380).

Jowett’s approach to interpretation requires an objective reading of the text. But can one properly interpret the Scriptures from such a standpoint? To answer this, one must examine the relationship between the reader, the text, the author, and the story. Upon reading, the reader reads the text, and in doing so reconstructs the author in his own imagination, creating an ‘implied author’, and bringing the story to life (actualising the text) from the marks on the written page (Voelz 1995, 1997, pp. 218- 219). Voelz goes on to state that the intended recipient of the text is:

…a reader of whom the author is conscious, one who may also be called “implied”. And this implied reader stands in the same relationship to the actual reader as the implied author stands to the actual author; he is, again, a construct, not in the real world, and he is detectable (only) in the text. Who then is a valid interpreter of a text? It is he who conforms to the expectations of the author. It is he who conforms himself to the given text’s assumptions. It is he who becomes the implied reader – and only such a one – of a given text. Which means that an “objective” reading of a text is not only impossible; it is not to be desired!

(Voelz 1995, 1997, p. 219)

One can see that what is needed for correct interpretation of Scripture, is a subjective, rather than objective reading of the text. Voelz argues a reader interprets within a community, having developed the beliefs and attitudes of the implied reader, through discussion, experience, and training within that community which understands and appreciates the context of the “implied reader”. Therefore:

A valid interpreter of a text… is that person… who assumes the role “required” as it were, by a given text – who becomes the reader “implied” or called for by that very text. And such a one is formed to assume that role by a community, a community which has assumed that role itself.

(Voelz 1995, 1997, p. 220)

This, however, does not make every Christian community’s interpretation infallible, because humans err; thus different Christian communities often disagree on the interpretation of certain parts of Scripture. But, as the Church is a community within which these documents were produced, received, and preserved, Vanhoozer states:

[The] Bible is more likely to be misunderstood by an unbelieving and unaffiliated individual than by a believing and practising member of the church.

(Vanhoozer 1998, p. 378)

In the case of the New Testament, the books were produced, received, and preserved by the Christian community, and following Voelz’s argument, one has to be within a Christian community, and taught to read Scripture by that community, to be able to correctly interpret the New Testament.

The issue of the interpretation of the Old Testament is one that is referred to in the New Testament. Speaking of the reading of Scripture by the Jews:

Yes, to this day, whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.

(2 Cor. 3:15-16 ESV)

According to Paul’s argument, the Jews do not believe, therefore they cannot, in their unbelieving state, be the “implied reader” of the Old Testament Scriptures. Apparently, simply being within the Jewish community is insufficient to correctly interpret these Scriptures, as more than a simple, straightforward understanding of the Hebrew text is needed. Luke 24:45 ESV reads, concerning Jesus and his disciples, “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Minds must be opened, veils taken away. The Christian community must teach readers to interpret even the Old Testament books. Only within the Christian community can one’s mind be changed in the proper way (Voelz 1995, 1997, p. 226). The reason for this is clear from the New Testament’s claims regarding the Christocentricity of all Scripture, Old and New Testaments:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…

(Jn. 5:39 ESV. Cf. Mt. 2:4-6, 14-15; 1 Cor. 10:11, 15:3-4; 2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 9:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:10-12)

In order to be within the Christian community, one must adhere to and confess its creeds. Voelz writes:

Therefore, to adhere to the creeds gives one an orientation to the books of the NT…. which is “congenial” to them and which… allows/enables one to interpret them in accordance with their intention… [Adherence] to the creeds enables one to “matrix” the signifiers and meanings of a text for interpretation and then to interpret that matrix in a way which is “congenial” to the text, for the creeds are of one piece with that text and provide, as it were, the interpretive “key,”…”determinative for the meaning of the complex signifiers under construction”… [The] creeds help to determine which readings of Scripture are the apostolic/Christian readings which may legitimately be drawn from them.

(Voelz 1995, 1997, p. 222)

It was precisely the misuse of Scripture by heretics, which caused the early Church father, Tertullian, to write regarding them:

[We] oppose to them this step above all others, of not admitting them to any discussion of the Scriptures. If in these lie their resources, before they can use them, it ought to be clearly seen to whom belongs the possession of the Scriptures, that none may be admitted to the use thereof who has no title at all to the privilege.

(Roberts & Donaldson 1994, 1995, Vol. 1 p.250 -Chapter XV of On Prescription Against Heretics. See also: chapters XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX pp. 250-252)

Tertullian’s belief was that the Scriptures were the property of the Christian Church alone, and not to be handled by those outside of it. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, against the Valentinians, wrote:

[They] endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

(Roberts & Donaldson 1994, 1995, Vol. 3. p. 326 -Chapter VIII of Against


In conclusion, there seem to be many problems opposing the idea of those outside of the Christian Church being theologians, not least the question of motive, as the early Church fathers addressed. For these reasons, I believe that theology is a matter only for those within the Church.


* Roberts, A. & Donaldson J. (Editors); 1994, 1995; Ante-Nicene Fathers; Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

* Vanhoozer, K. 1998; Is There a Meaning in This Text?; Leicester; Apollos/IVP.

* Voelz, J. 1995, 1997; What Does This Mean?: Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World; St. Louis, Missouri; Concordia Publishing House.

* The Holy Bible – English Standard Version; 2001, 2002; Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway Bibles

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