Devout Theologian

May 10 2005 | by

WE ALL KNOW what it means to be devout, but what's a theologian, you may ask. The short answer goes like this: a theologian is one who does theology, either as a teacher or as a researcher. What's theology? It's a way of finding out the truth about God, the world, and ultimately, about ourselves as humans.


I am a theologian. And I am fascinated about this science called theology. Theology, as I understand it, deals with basic life questions, such as: Does God exist? What can we know about God? What can we say about God? Where does our knowledge about God come from? Does it come from God him/her self? From others? From ourselves?
Theology raises questions even a small child can ask. Does God converse or communicate with us on earth? How so? How does God speak to us? With or without words? Does God send us good thoughts? Does God enable us to love God? Is there a spiritual dimension to life which we must acknowledge? Are there moments in our experience and history that cast light on this great mystery we call God? What will become of us after we die? Will we live on in another form?
Have you ever found yourself asking these tough questions? If so, you yourself are already doing theology, even if you don't know it, or even if you don't believe you've answered these questions in a satisfactory manner. To study theology is to help you ask and answer such questions better than you have up to now. It also allows you to make up your own mind about these basic questions.
Just what is theology? It may be defined as 'God-talk'. Theology is a reflection on God and our relationship to God using reason or our own 'smarts'. It's to understand with a view to faith or, we might say that theology is having faith with a view to understanding. In other words theology touches on faith and also asks how faith is possible. A theologian attempts to think through what's implied when we say that our relationship to God gets to the core of who we are. To be human is to be in touch with the mystery that is God.
One does not have to be a theologian in order to be saved. My grandparents were extremely religious, attending two to three Masses every day, reciting the rosary daily and reading scripture, yet they were not theologians. However, they were very pious and close to God, and that's what counts in life. They had their priorities straight.

Francis and learning

What can we say about Saint Anthony as a theologian? Did not the early followers of Saint Francis have few friars who were ordained priests? Yes, that's true. The early followers of Saint Francis for the most part were not ordained priests, but remained lay brothers their entire lives. Saint Francis himself never felt worthy enough to be ordained a priest, but remained a deacon all his life so that he could preach with permission of the local bishop.
However, we find many learned brothers among the first followers of Saint Francis. These learned friars had attended schools or universities before becoming friars. And they now wanted to see studies fostered in the order. At first Saint Francis was opposed to the study of theology in his order for two reasons: one, he was afraid that his friars would lose their humility and simplicity; two, Saint Francis did not consider study integral to their vocation as friars.
Even though Saint Francis opposed the study of theology in his young order, he did tell the friars to honour and reverence all theologians, and those who impart the most holy words of God, as those who minister to us spirit and life. Saint Francis feared that if his friars were led by a spirit of curiosity, they would find their hands empty on judgment day.
Saint Francis wanted his friars to grow strong in virtue so that when the time of trouble and tribulation came they may have the Lord near to them. In times of troubled water, books will be tossed into corners and niches because they will be of no use, thought Saint Francis.
He did not make these statements because the study of God's word displeased the Saint. Rather, Saint Francis wanted to keep his friars from a needless desire of learning. He wanted his friars to be devout rather than half-wise out of curiosity.
How did it come about that Anthony became a theologian when Saint Francis was initially sceptical about the study of theology for his young group of friars? The early friars found themselves in a position where they needed to preach against the various heretical groups prevalent at the time such as the Albigensians and Cathari.

Francis' bishop

In order to preach effectively against heretical doctrine, the friars needed to know theology. After he entered the Fraternity of Saint Francis, the brothers begged Anthony to teach them theology. Before he assented to their request, Saint Anthony wanted the blessing of Saint Francis on his enterprise.
Sometime after November 29, 1223, Francis wrote the following letter to Anthony: Brother Francis sends greetings to Brother Anthony, my Bishop. I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers provided that, as is contained in the Rule, you do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion during study of this kind.
Why does Saint Francis refer to Saint Anthony as my Bishop? The Latin term which Francis uses, episcopus, literally means supervisor or inspector. Francis transfers this word to theologians who minister 'spirit and life'. St Francis had the idea that once preachers and theologians receive episcopal approval, they share in the bishop's office of teaching and preaching.
The words, do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion, imply that the study of theology ought to occur within the framework of devotion and prayer. Francis suggests, then, that devotion and prayer are primary, whereas theology ought to take second place in the lives of the friars.
The exemplary life of Saint Anthony made it easy for Francis, then, to change his attitude about the study of theology among his friars. Saint Anthony became the first lector or teacher of theology in the young order. He founded the course of studies in theology at the convent in Bologna, Italy, which over time became well-known as a Theological Institute.
What can we say about Anthony as a theologian? I should note that our Saint did not leave us with a comprehensive theological treatise like the systematic works of Saint Bonaventure or John Duns Scotus. The demands placed on Saint Anthony as a preacher did not give him enough time to develop a theoretical work in theology.
What Anthony did leave us, though, were two series of sermon outlines which serve as a concrete and practical introduction to what's called homiletics or the science of preaching. These two sermon outlines furnish us with a good insight into what is today called the field of spirituality.

Theology: tempter of pride

How ought we to characterize the spirituality of Saint Anthony as portrayed in his sermon-outlines? We can confidently assert that it has a Franciscan flavour. How so? It's both practical and effective. There's an emphasis on the human side of Christ and the Cross. It stresses such virtues as poverty, contemplation, plus the cultivation of the ordinary virtues such as humility and simplicity.
The sermon outlines show quite clearly the method Anthony employed in doing theology on the practical level. Anthony begins by selecting a text of scripture and picking out a few key words. He then interprets these key words in the light of other scriptural texts. In doing this work of interpretation, Anthony looks a the root meaning of key words, and refers to the light the Church Fathers, such as Saint Augustine, shed on the text.
What lesson can we learn from all of this? Learning can puff us up so that we think ourselves superior to others in terms of knowledge. The life of Saint Anthony teaches us to keep our priorities straight. God calls us to be humble and devout. We are to imitate our Saint who never let the study of theology interfere with his living of the devout life.



Updated on October 06 2016