There Are 3 Types of Theologian

If theology isn't done in the Church and through, with and in Jesus Christ, it’s not theology.

François Gérard, “Teresa of Ávila” (detail), 1827
François Gérard, “Teresa of Ávila” (detail), 1827 (photo: Public Domain)

Since the object of theology is the Truth which is the living God and His plan for salvation revealed in Jesus Christ, the theologian is called to deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his scientific research with prayer.” —Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


There are three types of theologian — or three “models,” as Fr. Gerald O’Collins, who proposed these three types, called them.

These models are all interlocked and all dependent on each other. In offering these types, I am not saying to “choose one and run with it.” We must integrate all three models in our lives of faith.


Theology at the Desk, in the Streets and on Our Knees

The first type is the academic theologian, the theologian in the classroom. Let’s call this type the “theologian at the desk.” This is the professor, the one who systematically investigates the mysteries of the faith and exemplifies the adage that theology is fides quarens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.”

The second type of theologian is the pastoral theologian, the “theologian in the streets.” This is someone who takes his study of theology and uses it to try to actively engage the People of God in an attempt to make the faith accessible. This is one who, having studied the mysteries of the faith, tries to bring that faith to the world and exemplifies the old saying typically attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi — “preach the Gospel always; use words when necessary.”

Recall that most of the Fathers of the Church were not academic theologians, teaching in a classroom, but pastors, preaching and responding to the needs and concerns of their people.

The third type of theologian is the praying theologian, the “theologian on his knees.” This is someone who takes his study of theology and uses it to deepen his relationship with Christ. This is one who, having studied the mysteries of the faith, tries to bring the theology to dialogue with the beloved, Jesus. It’s what we mean by the phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of belief”).

One example of this third type would be St. John Paul II, who famously had a desk in his chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.

Another example would be St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. A priest I know was furious when she was made a Doctor of the Church. He said that her complete theological corpus could fit on the back of a postage stamp, but he was missing the point. She is not a systematic theologian, but she is nonetheless a great theologian, who seeks to deepen her relationship, and ours, with the Lord.


All Three Types Have God as Their Object

So, what do these three types of theologian have in common?

The word “theology” comes from the Greek words theos (meaning “God”) and logos (meaning “word”). So, at the essence, it is the study of God’s word. But the phrase, “God’s word,” means much more than just Sacred Scripture. It also means God’s Word Incarnate made flesh — Our Lord, Our God, Our Savior, Jesus Christ. Theology, then, is studying and learning, praying to and then teaching about someone whom we love, and who loves us.

A diocesan priest especially must be all three types of theologian, but any Catholic can accomplish this by study, prayer and pastoral activity.

I cannot emphasize enough the absolute necessity of being a person of faith, of having a personal and ecclesial adherence to the Person of Jesus Christ, if one wishes to study theology successfully.

I could study every single detail about the Muslim religion. I could know its history, I could explain its practices. I could have terminal academic degrees in all sorts of fields from all sorts of universities. However, I still wouldn’t be a theologian. Why?

It’s actually pretty simple: I don’t believe in the Muslim religion; I do not adhere to its practices or hold its tenets. At best, all I would be is a historian of religion.

The theologian must be a person of faith. He must believe in what he studies and teaches. He must worship the subject of his study, and that subject is Christ Jesus. And he must do so within the Church. Otherwise, it’s only religious studies, not theology.

Our faith is in Christ. We, as Catholics, all of us in our own way theologians, must embrace and believe in Christ. And we need to live our lives as if we believe in Christ, in all aspects of our lives. Otherwise, we’re wasting our time.

And we need to embrace him in the Catholic Church. It can seem that we, as a Church, have never been more polarized. But we have to believe that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ; that she is guided and under the protection of the Holy Spirit; that this Church, the Bride of Christ, who has seen difficulties before and will see even greater ones that which we face now, is safe in the loving, protective embrace of her Bridegroom.

Theology must be done in the Church and through, with and in Jesus Christ. If it’s not, then it’s not theology.