This is a complex question because it requires an attribution of value, which can vary from person to person and generation to generation. But that’s exactly my first point. A good theologian or biblical scholar effectively communicates the content and significance of the gospel within their context.
I make this point first because it is tempting to spend much of one’s life simply mastering the tools of your scholarly trade. But our end goal should never be to master the Bible, but to be mastered by it, and to communicate what that looks like to others. The best theological scholars today, whether Stanley Hauerwas, N.T. Wright, or Kathryn Tanner, are always saying things that perk our ears and allow us to make connections between the world of ideas and the life of the self, one’s family, city, and society (much like the biblical authors themselves). To paraphrase J.I. Packer, there are plenty of people who can articulate orthodox or erudite theology, but few who communicate that theology in a manner that is transformative for their audience.
My second suggestion is a counterbalance to the first. While I think that reading the Bible should not be an end in itself and should always lead to knowing God and helping others along this path, you are less likely to achieve this if you read the Bible poorly. It is necessary to be as erudite as possible, knowing the key languages, the historical context, even modern philosophy and literature. Having a thorough knowledge of at least a couple of major theologians is absolutely essential. Read deeply, but also widely.
Finally, and most importantly, read your books on your knees. The task of being a theologian is next to impossible, not only because it involves great skill, but because there is an existential gap between the theologian and his or her subject matter. We don’t naturally think theologically and, if we’re honest with ourselves, we contradict the very things that we routinely read or say to our students. We need divine grace to overcome these barriers and to turn our hearts into something that they otherwise are not. If we understand this and look to God for help, we can be bold like Luther: if God can speak even through the mouth of a donkey, then he also can speak through me!
Benjamin G. White is full-time instructor of biblical studies at The King’s College, New York City.