About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Theologian as Polymath?

In Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird quotes from David Bentley Hart:

Theology requires a far greater scholarly range than does any other humane science. The properly trained Christian theologian, perfectly in command of his materials, should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have a complete formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the texts and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should be thoroughly trained in philosophy, ancient, medieval and modern, should have a fairly broad grasp of liturgical practice in every culture and age of the Christian world, should (ideally) possess considerable knowledge of literature, music and the plastic arts, should have an intelligent interest in the effects of theological discourse in areas such as law or economics, and so on and so forth.

David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 177–78, quoted in Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2013). Kindle edition.

Straight after this quotation, Bird comments, ‘I do not presume to think that I have all of these qualifications and proficiencies; only a polymath could.’

To be honest, I’m not sure anyone could claim to possess all these things, not even a genuine polymath! And without having seen the wider context from which the quotation is taken, I suspect – or I hope! – Hart’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. But this does lead me to wonder if it’s realistic or even desirable to expect any one theologian, even a ‘properly trained Christian theologian’, to be so learned and expert. While there is no doubting that some people are simply brilliant, a person’s knowledge doesn’t develop in total isolation. True knowledge is surely gained through interaction and dialogue with others.

I submit that this means that theology and biblical studies – and, indeed, other disciplines – are enterprises that can only be done properly communally, or rather, in communion. Theology and biblical studies are disciplines and practices of the Church. In practice, this means that no one person, including the ‘properly trained Christian theologian’, needs to possess all the skills and gifts that Hart lists above. What I lack, others will have; and where others will struggle to contribute, I will fill that gap. While polymaths undoubtedly exist, the Church has no need of them.

NB: Currently, the Kindle edition of Evangelical Theology is a mere £7.99!


  1. Terry, for all my admiration for David Bentley Hart, I suspect that in writing this description of the ideal theologian he is obliquely referring to himself. After all, he is highly erudite. I know this is a hermeneutics of suspicion, but his professional biography I think warrants my assumption.

  2. I thought that, too, Natan, but I thought I'd give Hart the benefit of the doubt.


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