Seven Marks of a Good Theologian

1. Irenic

Being irenic means that we approach people peacefully. It is the opposite of being quarrelsome. It is wonderful when individuals are passionate about their beliefs but, ironically, these passions can often make a person so militant and hostile no one else wants to listen to him speak! A good theologian always keeps his cool. He does not let the polemics of others cause him to sacrifice his level-headed calmness. When correction is necessary, tact is defined by gentleness. We have to love truth so much that we are gentle.

2 Timothy 2:24-26
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil. 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2Ti 2:25-26)

1 Peter 3:15
But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1Pe 3:15 NAS)

2. Honesty

For the theologian this includes the willingness to admit it, when you don’t know things. The mark of a theologian’s influence is not simply in how much he (or she) knows, but how much he realizes he doesn’t know. The theologian’s job is not to have an answer for every question, but to be able to handle questions in an honest way, since he has wrestled with the issue himself. A good theologian always recognizes his finitude in the face of an infinite God and it shows. Are you a perplexed theologian? Good. Join Paul and Peter.

2 Cor 4:7-9 7
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; 8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

2 Pet. 3:15-16
And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand . . .

3. Adaptability

Are you willing to change your position? What if the evidence was not on your side? Are you led purely by your emotional convictions? If you cannot change, what gives you the right to require it of others? Theologians should always be adapting because they know they don’t have it all figured out.

One of the great illustrations of this is St. Augustine who, at the end of his life, wrote a book called “Recantations.” What courage it must have taken to admit the need to change and adapt so late in life! Good theologians should have a good list of recantations. And you know what? You must be ready to recant your recantation if need be! I find so many people who “convert” to one position or another and wear their conversion as a badge of authority, as if the fact of the change itself evidences the truthfulness of their new position.

4. Transparency

Show yourself to others, warts and all. You are not on a pedestal, polished and clean. You are filled with iniquity, the flesh, and brokenness. The good theologian needs not merely to teach cold hard facts, but to teach by example and identity. If people don’t see their wretched lives represented, at least to some degree, they will be nothing more than a gawked at example. Become real. Walk with a limp and talk with a lisp. Yes, it will take courage, but you need to quit holding your hair back when you vomit. People need to see the mess and smell the stench.

Look to the Psalms for encouragement. Look to Paul’s limp in Romans 7.

5. Networked

You don’t know that much. You are not that smart. The body of Christ is a body, even in the world of theology. You will never be an expert in every area. You need to know who to trust and be willing to lean on others who are “experts” in areas of your ignorance. A good theologian is networked. He or she reaches out to others for help. Build a community that you can bounce ideas off of. Require this community not only to encourage you, but to reprove you when necessary. Oh, and just because someone is dead does not mean they should not join your network.

Prov. 12:15
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.

6. Pastoral

Believe it or not, it is often hard to find theologians who are doing what they do for the right reasons. Though I don’t necessarily consider myself a theologian in the proper sense, I can lose sight of my mission; I can leave my first love. Your passion for theology must come from your passion for God and people. If you don’t have this as your primary motivation, then you need to step back and take ten. It is not about being right, it’s about changing lives.

1 Thess 2:7-8
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.

Matt. 22:37-40
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

7. Dependent on the Holy Spirit

Oh, yeah. Then there is that. Follow one through six and you qualify for nothing. The Holy Spirit is our only hope to energize us toward understanding God. We are fallen, sinful, manipulative, and downright cranky. Doing theology in the flesh is possible. I have seen it. I have done it! I may be doing it right now. Hold on . . . let me pray. . . Okay, back now. Stop every chance you get and bow before God and ask that the power of the Holy Spirit would give you the ability to understand and yield to the truth.

1 Cor. 2:14
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

Was going to put, “A good theologian watches his spelin and gramer close”, but changed me mind.

31 Responses to “Seven Marks of a Good Theologian”

  1. Lisa Robinson May 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Great list. Can I add another one?

    A good theologian studies broadly, especially positions or systems where they have disagreement with the purpose of seeking understanding. No matter how much you can articulate your position against that other side, it is a myopic to argue a position where there is strawmen built up or you learn of the “other side” from those who disagree with it, i.e. those with whom you agree.

  2. CMP, nice! A good theologian is a profound “Biblicist”, also! The Anglican list is rather large, and most are before the Lord now. And indeed the real theologian is a pastor-teacher, always!

  3. How can I hope to remember these unless you put them in the form of a handy acronym? IHATNPD doesn’t spell anything….

  4. Great job Michael. I especially loved your ending statement! God bless you man and thank you!

  5. Robert Eaglestone May 14, 2012 at 10:39 am

    “Your passion for theology must come from your passion for people…”

    There’s a great question (or two) buried inside that statement.

    What about interest in theology for the sake of knowing the faith better? (Possible response: but to what end? Right comeback: to minister to the Church, i.e. passion for people again, as you said. OK.)

    So then, corollary to that: Is it possible to be “into” theology as a desire to follow Christ better? (Maybe not: praxis is rather clearly laid out in the Bible, isn’t it?)

  6. Great message here, thank you! One point to raise. You say, I quote:

    “I can lose sight of my mission; I can leave my first love. Your passion for theology must come from your passion for people. If you don’t have love for others as your primary motivation..”

    Not withstanding St. John Ch 15:12, surely our “first love” should be toward GOD, not people – who we are to love as ourelves. I think we need to watch that we are not tempted to put the work if the Lord before the Lord of the work.

    When everything we do is motivated by love and praise toward God in Christ, it is easier to keep a healthly attitude toward our misison.

  7. Nice list. And I like Lisa’s addition as well.

  8. Wow! I found this article to be immensely helpful. I am a new music teacher at a Christian school and also have a few Bible classes. These points will serve me well as guiding lights to how I interact with students.

    One question, though. You said you don’t consider yourself a theologian in the proper sense. I’ve heard this once before, but from an Orthodox priest. I was taught that anybody who wrestles with the study of God is a theologian, or at least studying theology. I’ve frequently applied the term “armchair theologian” to myself, seeing as how I’ve learned a good deal of my Biblical knowledge from conversations with Pastors online. What does it mean to be, or what did you mean by “a theologian in the proper sense?” Thanks.

  9. What about the stigmata? (And would that count as one mark or two?)

  10. Christopher Rushlau May 14, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    This runs one risk. Let me start with a scriptural stance. Doesn’t Paul mock “super Christians” somewhere, meaning people who are, as it were, body-builders in the faith but not much good in a real-life fight? Especially in a democracy, the fights are all about public opinion, which way is the wind blowing and the crowd drifting. A philosopher has a hard time with a lynch mob. What do you say, “Have a heart!”? You have to be a theologian with them. “What does God think of you?”? In this era of totalitarian information control, where the message can be wall-to-wall 24/7, it’s quite difficult to spot what’s really happening. Then when you bring a sign of the times, people say, “Man, are you crazy? You can’t fight city hall. We can’t risk our careers. We don’t want our kids singled out as trouble-makers.”
    So I’d add “peace-maker”, knowing that this is where the noose, the cross, the prison cell enter the picture.

  11. May I also recommend humility and courage? although, these are included in much of what you have said. The head of my department always says that humility and courage are the two virtues that theologians need – humility to treat one’s opponents charitably, to recognize that one doesn’t have all the answers, and the courage to commit oneself to a position one believes to be true, and to stand on the shoulders of those who have changed the world to write books that probably won’t. As I progress in theology, I increasingly find this to be true.

  12. Really found this to be a good list to keep people honest in their faith and their teaching, thank you for putting it up-and also thanks to Lisa for her additional words! I think it’s good to remember that Christ prayed for unity among his church before he died, it’s in John’s gospel.

  13. Interesting article…well written and thought-provoking.
    I think an irenic approach has its place, unless you’re in the midst of a Sunday School conversation where everyone wants to say “exactly” the same thing with different words or descend into a “this is what it means to me” diatribe. Biblical context does, after all, have its place.

    I believe we should remain irenic when discussing things with nonbelievers.

  14. How much reading should a theologian do in secular literature–psychology and sociology?

    Josh Hunt

  15. Christopher Rushlau May 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    “But what is it that he does?”
    In concrete terms, a theologian does two things: one is that she writes essays made out of paragraphs in turn made out of sentences. The sentences have to use their terms consistently, the paragraphs have to have main ideas, and the essays have to state a claim, present evidence, and say “so what?” to what has been proven (the three parts of an argument by Mortimer Adler’s rule–argument in the sense of a proof of a thesis or claim). The other is that he prays. Perhaps prayer is never consistent or logical or well-evidenced, but rather nothing but cries in the night; but the response to prayer, one’s composure restored, the day’s crisis set in manageable terms, etc., is always God’s argument to oneself. Thomas Merton summarized the life of faith as “do what is indicated” and so the problem is to see. When you see, you can describe, and you know what to do.
    So a theologian cries in the night, and when God grants composure, she writes a…

  16. Nearly all the great theologians (I can’t think of an exception) have been through times of great national or personal suffering. E.g. Augustine’s dismay at the fall of his beloved Roman Empire.

  17. It may be understood in other comments, but a major need among theologians is humility. Are we teachable?

  18. #15 I cannot think of another like John Wesley, who read so much in his day (though Calvin did some humanist reading too, i.e. Cicero, etc.) but he (they) always filtered everything thru the Holy Scripture!

  19. This is rich. A heretic whom the spirit has clearly forsaken purporting to define a “good” theologian.

    When the blind lead the blind both shall fall into the pit.

  20. Mr. Le Vingt-Septieme Nautonnier: I take it that Mr. Patton’s theology might not quite match your own convictions. However, please qualify and/or justify your statement, or else I suggest you retract it.

    I get the impression that Mr. Patton might not be that worried about what I would consider to be an ignorant comment, so I doubt that he will delete it.) I hope we ALL might gain something from Mr. Patton that will shape and refine our quest for God!

  21. @Dan W. … how about THINPAD . . . ? (grin)


  1. Worth a Look: 5.15.12 – Trevin Wax - May 15, 2012

    […] 7 Marks of a Good Theologian […]

  2. A Morning Peacock of Links (5/15) | hobojarpen - May 15, 2012

    […] 4) 7 Marks of a Good Theologian […]

  3. » Blog Archive » Friday Random Linkness - May 18, 2012

    […] Seven marks of a good Theologian […]

  4. Reviews, Interviews, Authors and Books to Note Across the Web « Theology for the Road - May 18, 2012

    […] Michael Patton discusses 7 Marks of a Good Theologian. […]

  5. Weekly Meanderings - May 19, 2012

    […] in my never humble opinion, for both the abuse of pastors, as well as abusive pastors.”Marks of a good theologian by Michael Patton. God thoughts and control: “But how does religion do this? The scientists think that […]

  6. Seven Marks of a Good Pastor « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus) - May 20, 2012

    […] Michael Patton of Credo House has a good post entitled “SEVEN MARKS OF A GOOD THEOLOGIAN,” which I thought equally applies to pastors. Ironically, numbers 6 and 7 really do belong on […]

  7. marks of a good pastor « Blue Chip Pastor - May 20, 2012

    […] Read the whole thing (link to Patton’s blog post). […]

  8. C Michael Patton – 7 Marks of A Good Theologian « Persona - May 20, 2012

    […] out HERE what Patton means by […]

  9. Links and Notes from May 20 2012 | - May 20, 2012

    […] Seven Marks of a Good Theologian Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterMoreDiggRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Daily Links and Notes. Bookmark the permalink. ← Stalking Tim Keller […]

Leave a Reply