A good theologian knows what they are doing and why they are doing it, asking the vocational questions of what it means to be a theologian and what it means to do their task well. A good theologian keeps these questions close at hand, since they clarify what it means to be a theologian in one’s own setting.
When these questions shift to the margins, one’s research and thinking often loses direction and a sense of purpose. Theology can easily become an insular activity that is short-sided and unaware of why the great sacrifices of time and resources are put into the task.
And without these questions at hand, it is easy to fall into the intellectual vice of “curiosity,” which performs the academic task in seeking something like comprehensive knowledge or omniscience. This can prove one’s cleverness, but it does not make a good theologian.
Oliver O’Donovan has argued that a good theologian is marked more by their ability to read than by how much they write. It seems that this sensibility is often lost in a publishing driven approach to theology, which values production above all else. It is more important to learn to ask questions of a text than to offer a judgment of a text.
A good theologian is creative—being attentive to the theological tradition without being a slave to it. A good theologian affirms the provisionality of their own work, which is never a final word but one that participates in the ongoing task of theology.
Kevin O’Farrell is a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics at The University of Aberdeen. His doctoral research is on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the exception.