Who Is the Greatest Theologian?

By Bob Hiller

One of the great joys of the sports bar is what we might call the “greatness debate.” You know how it goes: “Who is the greatest point guard in the league right now?” “If you could start a franchise with three players in the league, who would you take?” “Give me your top five post-season quarterbacks after 1980.” Beer-induced passion sets in producing delightfully aimless arguments with no real answers. Everyone has a chance to flex their sports-trivia muscles and pile on the guys with the worst answers (a position I know all too well).

It’s been far too long since I’ve sat in on such a delightful conversation. So, the other week, I was delighted to see a greatness debate ensue on Facebook. They were debating who the best Lutheran theologian in the last 100 years was. Not being an actual friend with the gentleman posting, I decided to operate simply as a spectator for this particular discussion. I found it to be somewhat insightful, though mostly predictable. I agreed with some, shook my head at others, and had to look up some of the names (which just means more reading).

I began to internally debate my own answers. I began to wonder about the criteria which goes into answering such a question. What makes one a “good” Lutheran theologian? Are they a master at distinguishing Law and Gospel? I believe that was Luther’s answer. Do they have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Confessions, Luther, and the Lutheran scholastics? Maybe it’s someone who is able to take all the deep, academic, theological challenges of the day and respond to them with both orthodoxy and wisdom. If I could find someone who does all that, would I be able to find the best theologian of the last 100 years?

In the process of working through this, I was reminded of a quote one of my old Reformed friends shared with me. I believe the quote was from Donald Grey Barnhouse (though I could be wrong on that). He was once asked by a student who he believed was the best preacher in the nation. He responded with something to the effect of, “It’s no one we’ve ever heard.”

It struck me that nearly every answer that I found and every answer I pondered giving were all big-name, academic theologians. These men were geniuses who could write well and communicate well for the Church. But many of them did so from an ivory tower, in the world of theological ideas. For these theologians, theology was an academic pursuit done for the sake of the academy. Certainly, one hopes, the work is done for the church, to enhance the preaching of the Gospel and the making of disciples. But given their (very important) vocations, their theological efforts were primarily, if not nearly exclusively, academic.

I wonder if the answers given to the question were a bit misguided. I wonder if we can even begin to answer the question. After all, I imagine Barnhouse’s wisdom might apply here. The best Lutheran theologian in the past 100 years is some parish pastor of whom no one has ever heard. He simply showed up to preach the text every Sunday, spent time with his congregation so he knew which sins they needed attacked and which bondages they needed to be freed from, and went home in the evening to his wife without ever once considering if he should write a theological book (or self-serving blog, for that matter!). The best theologians of the past 100 years may not have even been pastors. It may have been some man or woman who simply heard God’s Word placed in their ears, trusted it despite the world, and longed to hear it again after a week full of sin and struggle. To play off of Luther’s idea with the priesthood of all believers, the single mother who hears the sermon, prays through her struggles, and does her best to hand the Gospel on to her kids is a better theologian than the chair of the denominational seminary’s systematic theology department.

See, theology, the hearing and speaking of God’s Word, was never intended to be an academic pursuit. Say what you will about Gerhard Forde, but he is on to something when he says theology is for proclamation. God’s Word is given so that it is trusted, relied upon, and handed over into the ears of another in the chaos of the real world. There is certainly important theological work that takes place in the academy. I believe our pastors need to be conversant with that sort of work. However, the real place theology is to be located and encountered is down in the real, flesh and blood life of the sinful saints in our congregations. The best theologians are those who sit with fellow sinners, maybe even in the sports bar, and deliver the crucified Jesus into their ears. They are those who recognize that their ears need to be filled with that same Jesus. The best theologians among us don’t need to have their names known because there is only one Name they are concerned with. And He already knows who they are; He called them by name. For the best theologians among us, that is enough.