The Theologian’s Craft

By Paul Koch

In 1965, Dr. Montgomery presented an insightful and challenging paper titled “The Theologian’s Craft: A Discussion of Theory Formation and Theory Testing in Theology.” (For those interested, it can be found in a collection of his essays here.) His paper was a real attempt to explain to scientists just what it is theologians do. He offers a brilliant comparison between scientific and theological methodologies and in my estimation, he succeeds in his task and builds a compelling case for how we understand and speak about the craft of a theologian.

However, I have often wondered about how his paper ends. Again, he was not writing to pastors or students of theology but to scientists, so his goal is very specific. Yet, it ends with the theologian looking upwards, with a state of wonder and awe. As he says, this is where “theological theorizing finds its fulfillment.” Now, the road to this point is not simple or easy, but when I appropriate Montgomery’s words for my own vocation, I find that this cannot be the end of the task but the beginning. As a preacher, my craft is not focused at reaching that summit but on going back down into the lives of those around me to proclaim to them the revelation from on high. The theologian’s craft is bound up in the messy and ugly lives of my brothers and sisters in Christ, in the bold work of killing and making alive.

Just as the Peter, James, and John are not permitted to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration, or just as the shepherds returned to their flocks after worshiping the Christ child, so also the craft of the theologian goes out into the world through our various vocations. Whether you are a preacher, a teacher, a cabdriver, or a prize fighter, you bear a living Word to a dying world.

One of the most challenging and beneficial aspects of Montgomery’s essay is the basic truth that this task (however we see it’s culmination) is not easy. It is essentially simple. As Gerhard Forde would say, “Theology is for proclamation.” But this simplicity does not make it easy to execute.


In my understanding, this means that the task of the theologian is an ongoing adventure and struggle. Luther famously said that to be a real theologian takes oratio, meditatio, and tentatio (prayer, meditation [on God’s Word], and attack). The theologian is always learning, questioning, examining, and challenging the forms and filters by which he does his work. Satan will launch his relentless attacks through the lives of those the theologian seeks to kill and bring to life. What sounded good and seemed so clear in the study will be pushed to its limits.

I have learned that the theologian’s craft is not a static thing. We are not the anchor firmly secured to the ocean floor. We are not the lighthouse sending our signal through the darkness. We are the ships that are attached to the anchor and are beaten by the wind and the waves, trusting in the anchor who will not let us go. We are the lost and wandering children who trip over the rocks and are mired in the mud, but we’re always guided by the light on the hill back to safety.

Christ alone is our anchor and our light. He is the unmoved in a changing world. We are sent forth, guided by that light and trusting in that anchor to get into the lives of others—when we venture into the twists and turns of our teenage children, when we stand beside our dying friends, when we hold the hands of our aging parents, when we embrace the broken and hurting we find that we are there to employ our craft. We are there to proclaim rich mercies of God’s love.