Theology is a bit like a spider’s web, in the sense that cutting a single strand of a theological framework can drastically alter the shape of the whole.
A good theologian understands the web from many angles. They can identify the fundamental tenets of an intricate system. They can foresee the potential effects of disregarding those tenets in advance. They can perceive when an apparently obscure issue is being used as a proxy for the underlying disagreement – and when it is not actually an obscure issue at all. They can spot patterns, echoes, allusions, and possibilities.
This obviously requires clarity of thought – but it also demands empathy and a wide-ranging understanding of context, since personal motivations are so often mingled with doctrinal ones.
Maddy Ward is the Henry J. Cadbury Scholar at Pendle Hill, Philadelphia, a Quaker Study, Retreat and Conference Center.