The other day I was confronted by a provocative thought. It formed itself into a question: In recent times, has there been a slow but traceable shift in Christian outlook and emphasis, where Christians, especially in Western cultures, have moved from trusting the word and message of the prophet to depending on the interpretations and understandings of the theologian?
During and since biblical times, today's theologians have by all means had their counterparts, but the task and influence of "theology" and "theologians" as we know them today is a relatively recent development belonging to the Christian Church.
Since following this line of thought, I have encountered a host of implications for my personal faith, the Church, and my calling and identity as a minister of Christ. Here is just one: That the prophet primarily receives the content and authority for his message more or less directly from God, while the theologian takes that message and, through an objective process of rational study and dialogue, interprets and processes it to make sense for himself and his audience.
I have always had a genuine and deep respect for the task and role of the theologian, but if the definition or comparison of prophet and theologian outlined above is accurate, it raises some penetrating questions.
For example, has the way we "do theology" in the Church led us to neglect, devalue, downplay, or suspect the prophetic, transcendent voice resident in the message of Christ, the one that comes more supernaturally and depends less upon the rational and methodological praxis that modern academic theology demands? In other words, have we come to the place where the theological voice has all but drowned out the prophetic voice, and where our ears are predisposed to hear theological interpretation and note the validity of the theological process while we struggle to hear the prophetic voice?
Let me try to make this crucial line of thought a little more down-to-earth. Everyone who has ever embraced a biblical faith knows that the messages that make up the Bible's content contain more than the mere words that are employed to relay those messages. Most of us gladly confess that the grasping of the biblical message must entail more than just a mental under standing of it. We accept the fact that the Bible is more than a set of instructions which can simply be embraced by the human mind, learned, and then put into practice.
When we hear great poetry, we can hear and palpably sense that the words are filled with an almost magical evocation of meaning that transcends the mere arranging of those words in a particularly clever order. The very same words cannot be used in a mundane or merely rational way and still possess the capacity to touch us in the way they do through the soul and the pen of the poet. The right word will not only touch us rationally, it will also touch our heart, it will reach us in regions of our conscious and unconscious being that the same line of thought could not, if it were to be expressed in everyday language.
When it comes to the "prophetic" expressions of transcendent "Truth," there is yet a further dimension present the presence of the Holy Spirit. Hence, of course, our use of the word "inspiration" in its particularly biblical sense.
When we merely "do theology" as we explore the content of the Bible, there is the distinct possibility that we will radically reduce the transcendent content of the biblical message to a study that excitingly exercises the mind while reducing or removing our ability to "hear" beyond the intellect to the recesses of the "heart," where the trans formations we long for can actually occur.
To justly join the transcendent and the rational in today's world is the challenge facing every minister. To allow the prophet in us to speak to the theologian and the theologian to inform the prophet, will make a ministry that really has the power we want so much to see in our ministry. Accomplishing this means knowing and meeting our Lord on levels that we have perhaps not yet met Him, and encountering the Holy Spirit in much the way the prophets and the disciples of Jesus did.
Challenging? Yes. But looking about us, we know that it's the crying need of Christian ministers today.