(Eerdmans Blog) Five Questions with Oliver O’Donovan

What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring theologians?

It is the idiom of Christian thought that it proceeds in respectful dialogue with a canonical text. The theologian must be able to handle that text intelligently. “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!” Barth told his students, when he was driven out of Germany in the thirties. One has to learn enough from the professional exegetes to be able to make some crucial judgments for oneself. Yet theology needs more than exegesis; it needs questions formed and re-formed by constant reading of the Bible. My advice to a theologian who does not find that happening quite spontaneously, is to go and do something else. The opportunities for further thought should fly open like doors from the reading of Scripture. Not all the questions you will ever ask are there, of course, and they are not framed in the ways that you will come to frame them; but there are the openings, the questions that will build up in the end into the questions you will ask much later. The dutiful doctoral student will, of course, be told to forget the questions. “Don’t try to talk about God and beauty! Just compare Nicholas Wolterstorff and Synesius of Cyrene’s views on God and beauty!” Good advice for an apprentice, who has to pick up some technique before painting the Mona Lisa. But when the apprentice days are over, the questions must still be there.

And then there are the skills, linguistic skills, above all, of reading and writing, whether in English or any other language. I ought, of course, to insist that to read a text properly you must read it in the original language. But since nobody can do that for all texts, and to spend one’s life trying to would leave no time to read or think, there is a compromise to be reached on that. But thinking itself is a linguistic skill. Few people can think effectively in a language with which they are not natively at home. But how much at home is the average native? In any language we learn, but supremely in our own, we ought to make a practice of reading aloud, to get the music, the vocabulary, the modes of logical structuring deeply within our instinctive responses. I could never be a good horseman, not because I could not (in the end) learn how to stay on, but because I could never interest myself in the grooming and the feeding and the messing-out; the horse would always know I didn’t love it. Language, too, needs constant loving by those who expect to be able to ride it on long journeys to great ends; otherwise it will refuse to produce its turn of speed, will head off onto the wrong road, will perhaps throw them from its back.

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