If You Had to Choose One Dead Theologian

As of late, I’ve been wrestling with a penetrating question:

If I had to choose one dead theologian to sit under for the rest of my life, who would I allow to disciple me from afar?

That may seem like a weird and random question, but let me explain.  While there are incredible resources out there, is there a person that you would choose to be mentored by extensively?  Not saying that you don’t learn from many, but who is that one theologian if you had to narrow down your list?

Currently, I attempt to read about one book and listen to about 10-14 podcasts a week.  Sometimes, I have so many ideas and thoughts swirling through my head, I’m not sure where they came from.  One idea that I have heard in many different places as of late is to choose one dead theologian (pastor, author, or leader) to whose writings you choose to commit to at a deeply significant level.

While the thought keeps coming at me from different conversations and content, I heard John Piper succinctly mention it in a podcast recently and found this description written by him:

When I was in seminary, a wise professor told me that besides the Bible I should choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought. This way I would sink at least one shaft deep into reality, rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might, in time, become this man’s peer and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue. It was good advice.

As I struggled through this thought due to the near impossible nature of whittling down such a great list of theologians, here’s why I have finally come to grips why this idea is important.

  1. Why One?  A mere sampling of numerous leaders throughout history provides a shallow understanding of many different people’s theology.  Engulfing yourself under the teaching of one theologian allows you to see what is thorough and what is lacking and hopefully, it will develop you more fully.
  2. Why Dead?  Living people have too many unknown curve balls yet to throw.  For the dead ones, we can research the good and the bad, the beginning and the end, the strengths and the weaknesses without waiting for something else to drop.
  3. Why a Theologian?  A theologian is someone who studies God.  That’s a pretty important discipline for any Christian.  By sitting under the entirety of a theologian’s books, articles, and sermons that you can access, you can see the need for a thoroughly developed biblical theology that you personally own.

If you do this right, you should find yourself truly getting to know this theologian.  These theologians can be like Abel to you – “even though he is dead, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4).

If you walk away conforming to every belief and behavior of a dead theologian, you are probably doing it wrong.  

No one is perfect besides Jesus.  Every theologian has something a little off (and so do we).  You will find a flaw, and yet even in that, God can use this mentor to teach you from their shortcomings as well as their successes.

As I struggled to find my theologian, the process became pretty obvious the more I thought about it.  I didn’t have to pick the theologian, I already had.  I began to realize that there is one dead theologian with which I have always felt a kindred spirit.  When I read him, I feel like he gets me.  I get him.  He makes me want to love Jesus more.

I’m now in that process of seeing what it looks like to be more intentional to learn from him in an even deeper way before.

So think about it: if you had to pick one dead theologian to study under, who would it be?    

Travis Agnew is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. He serves as the Senior Pastor of Rocky Creek Baptist Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is What God Has Joined Together.