When I was in seminary I read a little booklet On the Character of a True Theologian by the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Witsius. The faculty at RBC recently read it together. We commend it to you as a concise summary of what it means to be a theologian.
Witsius’ short essay has a long history among theological students. The nineteenth century Church of England minister Charles Bridges hailed the original Latin essay for its elegance, beauty, and heavenly unction. In 1856, Witsius’ “little work” was translated into English by the Free Church of Scotland minister John Donaldson and endorsed by the great William Cunningham. The tract was then circulated among divinity students in much the same way that Benjamin Warfield’s The Religious Life of Theological Students is today. Select portions of Witsius’ work were also published by the “association of gentlemen” at Princeton Seminary in The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review. Their reasons for printing the essay in the journal underscore its value. “The elevated thought and ardent piety of the whole, together with the manifest importance of the subject, and the known wisdom of the author, will suggest themselves to the reader as sufficient reasons for its insertion.” In other words, this is a really good essay by a really good theologian on a really important subject.
Witsius wrote the work for his “inaugural oration” as professor of theology at the University of Franeker on April 16, 1675. He begins by reflecting on how from childhood his parents reared him for a life devoted to “doctrinal and practical instructions.” But Witsius recognizes that no amount of training can fully prepare one for the task of teaching theology. Reflecting on his own sense of calling to Franeker, he confesses, “I have not sought after this place by unworthy artifices nor indeed by any improper efforts.” He received his post from “the unanimous wish of the prince and nobles and the concurrent earnest desire of the whole Church.” For Witsius, the call to teach theology was not the result of opportunism but the result of “a distinct call from God.”
The point of the lecture is to outline the traits of a true theologian (vero theologo). “By theologian,” he explains, “I mean one who, imbued with a substantial knowledge of divine things derived from the teaching of God Himself, declares and extols, not in words only, but by the whole course of his life, the wonderful excellencies of God and thus lives entirely for His glory.” These comments have clear biblical warrant. As the Apostle Paul might put it, a theologian must watch his life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). For the remainder of the essay, Witsius sketches a portrait of the theologian as a student, a teacher, and a Christian. Of course, these three go together. “For no one teaches well unless he has first learned well; no one learns well unless he learns in order to teach. And both learning and teaching are vain and unprofitable unless accompanied by practice.” Let’s look briefly at each of these points.
First, the theologian as a student. According to Witsius, a true theologian “must lay the foundation of his studies in the lower school of nature and from every quarter of the universe.”
He has in mind subjects such as science, philosophy, history, languages, and the arts as well as logic, grammar, and rhetoric. But as important as these subjects are for students of theology, Witsius contends that theologians should graduate from “the lower and merely natural school to the higher fields of Scripture study.” He simply states, “A true theologian is a humble disciple of the Scriptures.” But in order to understand Scripture “in a spiritual and saving manner,” a theologian must “give himself up to the internal teaching of the Holy Spirit.” In short, we must not only be students of the Bible but also disciples of the Holy Spirit.
Second, the theologian as a teacher. Witsius argues that contemplation facilitates communication. We teach others what we have first learned for ourselves in God’s Word by the Holy Spirit. He states, “For it is when he goes forth from the sacred mount of contemplation, his soul replenished and radiant with the purest light, that he is best fitted to communicate that light of reflection to others.” One of the chief goals of teaching theology is to engender a greater love for God in our students. We must craft our teaching in such a way that our students will be “built up in faith, glow with love, and grow up in the likeness of Jehovah.” As theologians, we teach so that the knowledge of God might prevail in the church.
Third, the theologian as a Christian. Witsius introduces the last section of his essay with a penetrating question: “But with what heart, with what success, will that man labor who has not first sought to be himself fashioned after the image of God?” To be true theologians, we must possess what we commend to others. Our lives must correspond with our theology. Unbelieving theologians “destroy more by their wicked life than they build up by their sound doctrine; they are a disgrace to our most holy religion.” To be a true theologian, you must be more than an outstanding researcher and instructor, you must know and love Christ. “And how, I ask, is it possible that he who knows the truth as it is in Jesus, should not be inflamed with His love and sanctified by His truth?” On this point, Witsius is adamant. “I do not hesitate, in the strongest manner, to deny that that man is a true theologian or knows anything of divine mysteries as he ought to know, who has not by that knowledge escaped from the pollutions of the world and the dominion of sin.” To be a true theologian, Witsius insists, you must truly know God.
Dr. John Tweeddale is academic dean and professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College.