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Who Is a Vocational Theologian?

Every Christian is not a theologian. 1 Well, at least not a vocational one.

Who is a Vocational Theologian?

Once I had a conversation with a well-respected New Testament scholar about how you get the title “scholar,” probably out of pride, hoping one day to be referred to as one. He more or less said that “scholar” is not a title that you give to yourself, but a title that others give to you. If you call yourself a Bible scholar, but nobody else does, you are likely self-deceived. But if a handful of credible sources refer to you as a scholar, then, well, you just might be a Bible scholar.

That leads me to another time when I asked a systematic theology professor for his thoughts on a popular evangelical pastor. “He’s not a theologian,” he said. Was this professor correct? It depends on how we define the word “theologian.”

Although all Christians are general theologians 2in the sense that they are encouraged to read theological literature, read and obey the Word, and think big thoughts about God, every Christian is not a vocational theologian. What the professor was trying to say, I believe, is that the pastor obviously fits the criteria of a general theologian, but not an academic one. 3 Making the differentiation between general theologians and academic theologians is important because loosely attributing the title “theologian” to anybody and everybody without making qualifications may undermine the work that vocational theologians do to serve the church through scholarship.

So who is a vocational theologian?

My subjective prequalifying criteria to determine who and who isn’t a vocational theologian cited below is not engineered to neatly apply to all persons in all situations, but serves merely as a general rule. There are, as they say, exceptions to almost every rule.

Ordinarily, however, those who are vocational scholars will fulfill the following benchmark:

1. Ordinarily, a vocational theologian will have a Christian-related PhD from a reputable academic institution.

Not just a high school degree, a bachelor’s in something, or even an MDiv or a DMin. Certainly these credentials are worthwhile achievements, but they are typically not advanced enough degrees to give you the title of an academic theologian, and usually are not enough to get you a teaching position at a reputable university. Most good universities and academic publishing houses require a PhD to get your foot in the door. Every vocational theologian has a Christian related-PhD (as opposed to, say, a PhD in Mathematical and Computational Sciences), usually in Bible (Old or New Testament), theology, or history.

2. Ordinarily, a vocational theologian will occupy a part-time or full-time teaching post at a reputable academic institution.

You don’t just have a PhD, you’ve been evaluated and deemed fit to use it to teach somewhere. The reason why this matters is because there are a lot of men and women who get PhDs who end up doing nothing with them. Vocational theologians don’t just get the certificate; they use it for good through teaching at a reputable academic institution.

3. Ordinarily, a vocational theologian will write academic material suited for college and seminary students, pastors, etc.

Although some academic scholars will write both esoteric and accessible material for a popular lay audience, those who write exclusively accessible material for lay Christians are generally not considered vocational theologians. Examples of material that are academic are: articles in a seminary journal, biblical commentaries, Greek and Hebrew lexicons, general theology books targeted at seminary students and pastors, and so on.

Are there exceptions? Yes. Like who? Like those who serve as both as full-time pastors and part-time seminary professors, men who have retired from academia, people who are so high-profile that they now write and speak full-time, etc. In general, though, vocational theologians will fit the mold as cited above.

I’m not trying to make real theologians feel self-conscious, but I do think a dose of humility will benefit the guy who has read 27 pages of one theology book and suddenly thinks he’s on the same level as N. T. Wright.

Let me also hasten to say that I believe every believer should seek to love their Lord their God with their minds through growing in the knowledge of God. In this way, we are all general theologians who are called to obey God’s word and contemplate the deep things of the divine. But we’re not equal theologians just because we’re in Christ. Some are better than others. And academic theologians deserve to be distinguished from general ones.

My charge is not to debate about semantics or attempt to provide cookie-cutter criteria to determine who and who isn’t a vocational theologian, but to simply pay respect to those who give their lives and make their living through studying and teaching Christian theology. We should be thankful for them. And we should never seek a title out of pride.

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  1. I’m using the terms “theologian” and “scholar” interchangeably in this post.
  2. Some prefer the word “practical” instead of “general.” Although it is common to distinguish between general theologians and vocational theologians, I think I first heard the difference from a seminary professor.
  3. I’m using the terms “academic” and “vocational” interchangeably in this post one.

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