Review: On the Character of a True Theologian (by Herman Witsius)

Herman Witsius (1636-1708), a Dutch pastor and theologian, has supplied the Christian church with a valuable piece of writing.  In his small book, On the Character of a True Theologian, which is more like a tractate, Witsius delineates the various characteristics of a true and sincere theologian.  It should be noted that Witsius has in mind here what we would call today a “professional theologian” (although this is probably a poor choice of words).  Perhaps a better term would be ministerial theologian.

He defines a theologian as one “imbued with a substantial knowledge of divine things derived from the teaching of God Himself [the Scriptures], declares and extols, not in words only, but by the whole course of his life, the wonderful excellencies of God and thus lives entirely for His glory.”[1]  He goes on to outline the theologian as a student, a teacher, and a man (i.e. considering the manner of his conduct).  “For no one teaches well unless he has first learned well; no one learns well unless he learns in order to teach.  And both learning and teaching are vain and unprofitable unless accompanied by practice.”[2]

I. The Theologian As A Student
Witsius begins by noting the elementary studies of a theologian, which may be summed up as consisting of a liberal arts education.  The first of these is a contemplation of the glory of God as revealed from the design and beauty of creation itself.  Although general revelation is not sufficient to make one wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (Rom. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 3:15), there are still benefits to be gained through a contemplation of it (Ps. 19:1-6).  The second of these elementary studies is a knowledge of the sciences of logic, grammar, and rhetoric.  “The former [logic and grammar] furnish rules for definition, division, and arrangement; the latter teach the art of discoursing, not only with purity and precision, but also with elegance and effect.”[3]  The third elementary study of a theologian consists of a familiarity with philosophy and history, so as to spur him (the theologian) on to higher attainments and to be well-acquainted with the world around him.  Lastly, the theologian should apply himself to acquire a working knowledge of different languages, especially the original languages of the Holy Scriptures.  What better way is there for the theologian to understand deeply the things of God than to understand those things in the languages they were originally written in.

Whatever is sound and judicious in human arts, whatever is true and substantial in philosophy, whatever is elegant and graceful in the wide extent of polite literature, all flow from the Father of Lights, the inexhaustible Fountain of all reason, truth, and beauty; and all this, therefore, collected from every quarter, ought again to be consecrated to Him [Phil. 4:8].[4]

As noted, these are but elementary studies, and Witsius’ would not have the theologian spend too much time in these pursuits, but would desire that he “rise from that lower and merely natural school to the higher fields of Scripture study.”[5]  The wisdom of God is to be found in the Scriptures; indeed, they are the wisdom of God.  Witsius notes:

In the richly stored books of Scripture, and nowhere else, are laid open to our view the secrets of this more sacred wisdom.  Whatever is not drawn from the Scriptures, whatever is not built upon them, whatever does not exactly accord with them—however much it may recommend itself by assuming the guise of superior wisdom or be upheld by ancient tradition, by the consent of the learned, or by dint of plausible arguments—is vain, futile, in short, a mere falsehood….  Let the theologian be ravished with these heavenly oracles—let him be occupied with them day and night, let him meditate in them, let him live in them, let him draw his wisdom from them, let him compare all his thoughts with them, let him embrace nothing in religion which he does not find there.[6]

The true and sincere theologian, in other words, must primarily be concerned with the Scriptures.  He must diligently read, study, meditate upon, and live according the word of God.  The theologian must demonstrate proper exegesis, thus supporting his assertions respecting the meaning of Scripture.[7]  “A true theologian is a humble disciple of the Scriptures.”[8]

Further, the theologian must be a disciple of the Spirit, having a spiritual mind.[9]  He must, in other words, be a saved man, having been spiritually appraised (1 Cor. 2:10-12).  Whereas the Bible is the theologian’s school, so the Spirit is his teacher.

He who is a student in this heavenly school not only knows and believes, but has also sensible experience of, the forgiveness of sins and the privilege of adoption and intimate communion with God and the grace of the indwelling Spirit and the hidden manna and the sweet love of Christ—the earnest and pledge, in short, of perfect happiness.[10]

It is not mere intellectual knowledge, in other words, that the theologian is after.  Such knowledge is useless if it has not been effectual in the heart and soul of the theologian.  Witsius concludes, “the theologian, by these steps and under the teaching of the Spirit, will reach such a degree of knowledge as to see, in his own light, God the fountain of light and to rejoice in Him and the knowledge of Him with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”[11]

II. The Theologian As A Teacher
Witsius next leads into a delineation of the theologian as teacher.  What the theologian has so devoted himself to in his studies, he is then to faithfully communicate to those the Lord has placed under his charge particularly, and his reach generally.  “After he has, under the guidance of the Spirit, reached a deep-seated vein of divine truth, he is able so skillfully to open it up that an overflowing fountain of water, springing up to everlasting life, bursts forth to allay the thirst of his brethren.”[12]

Witsius goes on to note that such teaching endeavors must be engaged in through a sincere love for the brethren and for God.[13]  Such unfeigned love for God and the brethren will lead the theologian to commit himself to the faithful proclamation of God’s word:  “And teaching thus, from unfeigned love, he will not for lucre corrupt the Word of God, use flattering words or a cloak of covetousness; neither for men will he seek glory, nor study to please them, but God alone who searcheth the hearts.”[14]  The theologian must be committed to guarding this sacred deposit, not resting in worldly innovations that dilute or pervert God’s word.[15]   The theologian too must ever seek to teach the Scriptures with clarity and simplicity for the better edification of the people.

That thou mayest rightly preserve that dignity, speak with simplicity, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; so shaping all thine instructions, that thy flock may not have their minds filled with worthless fancies but be built up in faith, glow with love, and grow up in the likeness of Jehovah.[16]

The theologian, then, is first a student and second a teacher.  But both of these endeavors are conducted in the sphere of the theologian’s life.

III. The Theologian As A Man
Witsius concludes his delineation of the theologian with a look at his life:  “But with what heart, with what success, will that man labor who has not first sought to be himself fashioned after the image of God?  And this [is] the last of the qualifications…, a spotless purity of life, corresponding to his profession.”[17]  A theologian must conduct himself in a manner that is worthy of the gospel and the doctrines he has so studied and placed before the brethren, lest he tare down what he has so diligently labored to build up.  The theologian should be able to reiterate Paul’s words with a clear conscience: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9).

The qualifying words “true” and “sincere” are to be questioned if such a theologian fails to accompany his study and teaching with a holy life characteristic of the holy God he professes to know and proclaim.  Witsius’ words are fitting:

I do not hesitate, in the strongest manner, to deny that that man is a true theologian or knows anything of divine mysteries as he ought to know, who has not by that knowledge escaped from the pollutions of the world and the dominion of sin.  For thus saith the Lord, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free [Jn. 8:32].[18]

Such is a fitting conclusion to this delineation of a true ands incere theologian.  Those ministers of God, whether they are currently in training or seasoned in years of service, would do well to take to heart Witsius’ principled work.  Considering the brevity of this work, I would recommend that one use this book as a preliminary reading to Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry.  Bridges discusses in more detail what Witsius has faithfully presented to us here.  I should point out here that Witsius’ book, On the Character of a True Theologian, is a difficult book to find.  The best place to find this work would be Amazon or eBay.  Good searching!

[1] 27.

[2] 28.

[3] 29.

[4] 30.

[5] Ibid.

[6] 31.

[7] 34.

[8] 35.

[9] Ibid.

[10] 36.

[11] 38.

[12] Ibid.

[13] 39-40.

[14] 40.

[15] 41.

[16] 43-44.

[17] 44.

[18] 45.

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