The Right Temper for a Theologian

Every Christian is a theologian. We are either good theologians or bad theologians. That is, our theology is either sound/biblical or unsound/unbiblical. Yet it is possible to be a sound theologian in terms of the content of what we believe, yet to hold our faith in the doctrines of God’s word in an unsound manner, to have an unhealthy temper as a theologian. We typically associate the word “temper” with anger, and certainly angry theologians rarely serve the church well since they fail to hold or speak the truth in love. But the word “temper” can also refer more generally to “character” or “quality.” In January of 1867, soon after the close of the Civil War, Dr. William Swan Plumer was installed as the Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology (i.e., Systematic Theology) at Columbia Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, filling the post formerly held by Dr. James Henley Thornwell. His inaugural address was entitled “The Right Temper for a Theologian,” and it was reprinted in several formats during his life and after his death. The character qualities Dr. Plumer mentions are not merely to mark seminary students, pastors, and seminary professor, but every believer  should examine his or her life by them. What sort of a temper do you have? We consider the first three in this post.

Plumer begins with the importance of a lack of prejudice. “Nothing is more opposed to our advancement in learning than a state of mind forearmed against the truth…When one is in such a state that he will not examine evidence and truth with a good degree of impartiality, it is certain that he will go astray. When men come to God’s word, not to be taught, but to teach, not to learn the mind of the Spirit, but to find some way of supporting error, or of evading unwelcome truths; when with avidity they seize anything favoring their dogmas, but carefully avoid whatever wars against their preconceived opinions, they effectually exclude themselves from the high way to any large attainments in theology.” We must come to the study of Scripture with a teachable spirit, willing to be corrected, to have our opinions challenged. We must recognize that we do not know everything, and what we do know from God’s word we can always know more accurately.

The first leads us naturally to the second aspect of the right temper for a theologian: unaffected modesty. “The greatest proficients in every branch of knowledge have been tenderly conscious of their own weakness and liability to err…He, who is grossly ignorant of his own faults and deficiencies, who greatly overestimates his abilities and attainments, will hardly advance in anything good or great. He, who has real piety and much knowledge of himself, must be lowly, far removed from flippant self-conceit.” Plumer challenges the proud theologian, “We might almost as well not meditate on divine things at all as to think in the self-sufficiency of a proud heart. If one has a great idea of himself, the presumption is that it is the only great idea he is likely ever to have.” Humility is the foundation of knowledge, for it is only the man who knows that he does not know as he ought to or could know who will listen and learn.

The third quality that Plumer mentions is profound reverence for all that is sacred. We live in a day and age that has done so much to do away with a sacred/secular dichotomy, that in many cases the entire concept of “sacredness” has been eradicated from our thought and faith altogether. This is bad, especially as you seek to do theology. We must not deal lightly with divine truth. As Plumer wisely declares, “Too much solemnity and holy reverence cannot be exercised by any who would advance in the knowledge of the truth…God’s truth will profit no man who is incurably addicted to levity of mind respecting divine things. Of all dispositions none is more unfriendly to the successful study of religious truth than a fondness for jesting with sacred things. Luther said: “Whom God would destroy, he first permits to sport with Scripture.” When Pilate said, “What is truth?” he could not have asked a graver question. But his conduct immediately after showed that he could have asked no question in a less reverent state of mind.”

There’s more to come, but for now let us pray that the Lord would give every one of His children openmindedness, humility, and awe as we handle His holy word.



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