Me? A Theologian?
The spiritual "There Is a Balm in Gilead" (The United Methodist Hymnal, 375) includes advice for those who "can't preach like Peter" or "pray like Paul." Perhaps you place yourself in that category. Yet if you are responsible for a Sunday school class, a Bible study group, or a leadership position in the Christian education ministry of your church, you will probably be considered one of the resident theologians.
What does that mean? Let's consider the teacher a paraprofessional staff person. (By "paraprofessional," I mean someone who is on staff in a leadership position in Christian education and formation, but who does not have a theological degree, certification, or other formal training that leads to official credentialing.)
Your ministry is vital and needed, and you want to do your best. The idea of being a theologian may sound lofty and difficult to attain, but it need not be that way. The famous theologian Karl Barth was once asked about what he thought was the most profound theological truth. His audience, expecting a lofty and difficult response was surprised, and probably delighted, when he began to sing, "Jesus loves me, this I know"
To be a theologian means that you can reflect critically on ideas, concepts, and teachings by and about God. A theologian will examine Scripture, learn from biblical scholars, think about Scripture contextually, and find ways to apply it in real life. This can be a very complex and heady task, yet anyone who has an idea about God formulates some sort of theology. As "resident theologian," you will do this in your own context. In addition, you will probably be called upon to help others do the same things.
How do you acquire and sharpen your skill as a theologian? First, you need some proper tools, starting with a good study Bible. There are numerous study Bibles on the market, including the New Interpreter's Study Biblepublished by Abingdon (available through Cokesbury). The Scripture text includes well-researched footnotes that explain terms and concepts, cross-reference Scripture verses, identify important figures and places, and so on. (I feel as if I'm reading the Bible "naked" if I don't have one with notes in it!)
Other reference tools will be an important part of your personal library and may already be in your church library. While a commentary series is better, there are one-volume Bible commentaries available, also from Cokesbury or other religious publishers. A Bible dictionary and atlas will round out a basic library. We may like to think that God will open up Scripture and reveal to each of us individually just what a passage is supposed to mean, and certainly God can. In addition to this inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we may also realize that what was evident to a community several thousand years ago is not readily evident to us in a different culture and different era. That's why commentaries are so important. They bring us more up to speed with what the original Bible audience already knew.
Your own practices will then take you to the next step in critically reflecting on the meaning of Scripture and on God's activity in the world. While it may sound simplistic, the first step is to think about what you read or see on more than just the initial, words-on-the-page level. I have heard so many people read the Bible as if it were a newspaper just the facts; what you see is what you get. The Bible is typically much more nuanced than that.
Consider the story of Naaman, the Aramean general in 2 Kings 5. (Stop now, get a Bible, and look it up). What happened? At first glance, we see a powerful man with a nasty disease who went to the prophet Elisha to be cured. This is one story that is rife with detail, yet there is much we don't know on the surface. How far did Naaman travel? How long did it take to get there? How much was all that loot worth that he carried as gifts? Why did he want a load of dirt to take home? What did it mean in the Jewish faith community, for whom this story was intended, that a Hebrew prophet used the power of God to cure a conqueror? What does this story tell us about God, about God's abilities, and about God's preferences for the use of God's power for foreigners? What is there about that context and activity that translates over several millennia to our time and place? What can that story possibly mean to me, here and now?
When you begin to think and to "think between the lines" you're on your way. One way to do that thinking is through visualization; that is, to see in your mind just what the action is. Consider the story of Jesus, who healed the paralyzed man let down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). (That's right. Stop and read this one too.) Now visualize every single detail.
As you follow the story, think about how full the room is, what the temperature might have been, the noise level in the crowded house with someone walking on and digging through the roof, how the crowd would react with the debris from the ceiling falling on them from the digging, how the crowd might have felt when they witnessed the miracle, the way in which the Pharisees interpreted events differently from other witnesses, how the healed man left the crowded room.
In addition, consider who is present and who isn't. Who is the subject of the teaching or action, who are the "bystanders," and who is absent? What is the context, and what is the point of this audience being together or being addressed in some way (as in a congregational letter from Paul, for example)?
The next step is to consider the consequences and implications, because these are the life lessons for us that help us see that Scripture addresses us now. This is how we know God and what to expect of God in our own lives. How we view the character and activity of God and how we understand God to work in the world from these experiences of Scripture is theological work and reflection.
From experience with the Word of God, we move to experience with life (and vice versa). Our essential theology (I believe God to be like _____ and to act like ____) becomes a lens through which we interpret the things that happen to us and to others. For example, I see God offering love, comfort, and strength; so when I am seriously ill, I believe that God will see me through somehow (even if I die). Conversely, we may also use the things that happen to us as a lens through which we formulate our understanding of God's identity and activity. For example, my seriously ill child died, and I was wonderfully sustained in my grief. Surely God looked out for us because of all the prayers offered for me and my family. Or that theology can take quite a different turn. For example, my child was seriously ill and died, so God must be either cruel, absent, or uncaring.
The Long and Short of It
Our doctrine of Scripture (what we believe about the Bible as God's Word and how we apply that belief) colors our theological thinking in another way that is worth mentioning. United Methodist theology encompasses a very broad spectrum of belief, so we have faithful United Methodist Christians at every stage in the conservative-to-liberal theological continuum. It follows that the way we interpret the same Scripture will vary, depending on our theological bent. For example, someone who holds to a mostly literal interpretation of the Bible as God's direct and unchanging word will generally operate on the principle that the Bible means what it says. Someone who regards the Bible as an evolving word that is open to new activity of God will operate on the principle that the Bible means what it means.
Similarly, various theological views (our doctrine of God) are shaped in different ways. Some people will understand God as Immutable. God's Word and decision is not open to change or negotiation. God has a plan, works the plan, and does not change the plan. On the other hand, some people will hold a process theology that says that God has (or may have) a plan, but that plan can and will change because life changes. God will make "course corrections" or allow the plan to unfold without a predetermined end because God allows us to have free will and to participate in how that plan unfolds. These theological views will engender sharply different interpretations of God's presence and intent in life events, ranging from "everything that happens is God's will" to "everything that happens is in God's care, but not necessarily by God's design."
Me? A Resident Theologian?
All Christian believers are called to be theologians because if we love God and wish to serve God, we must think about who God is and what God does. We must consider who we are as God's children and who God is as our Divine Parent. We must take seriously our call to have the mind of Christ and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, which requires us to have a thoughtful relationship with God as Son and Spirit.
If you are a teacher or other leader in your educational ministry, others will look to you to model theological thinking. Some will rely on what you think (and how you think) to help them determine what they believe and how they act on their faith. In fact, this will happen regardless of whether you want it to, feel prepared for it, or even realize it. If that seems a little scary, take heart that maturing theologically is a process that takes time. We learn from one another and help one another. God is always at work, desiring to be known and empowering us to have that relationship.