Verena Naegeli

The lame walk, the blind see, the captives are freed.
(Matthew 11,5)

My Desire? It Is to See Good Doctors in Theology      

What should the specific competence of doctors of theology be? In answering this question, I let myself be inspired by the generally assumed meaning of the word “doctor”, that is, medical doctor. Medical doctors use scientific knowledge to solve practical problems in order to bring about healing. This is what I am longing for: that a “healing competence” in the broad sense of the term becomes also one of the aims of our academic theological training, especially in the biblical sciences. And that intercultural exchange becomes an integral part of that training.

Quelle devrait être la compétence spécifique des docteur-e-s en théologie ? Je me laisse inspirer par l’usage du mot „docteur“, dans le langage courant, qui désigne des docteurs-médecins. Ils/elles lient leurs connaissances spécifiques à des compétences pratiques et aident à guérir. C’est alors mon désir : qu’une « compétence de guérison » au sens large du terme soit recherchée aussi dans nos formations théologiques académiques, notamment dans les sciences bibliques. Et que ces formations impliquent l’échange interculturel.

What is a Doctor in Theology?

A theologian of Kenya returns to his country after several years of advanced studies in Germany. He wrote a thesis on the healing stories in the gospels and he now has the right to call himself Dr. theol. Much honour goes to him (or better?: is granted to him). One day he visits his parents in his native village. Full of pride for him, they organise a great feast. While the family is together, a man comes running and asks the doctor to come with him. A woman has been seized by an evil spirit and needs help. Certainly this doctor who studied the Bible for so long can do something. Everybody follows him, filled with hope. But the doctor of theology is quite unprepared for the cries of the woman. What should he do? He remembers one sentence in his thesis: The New Testament research has shown that „possession“ is a mythological concept. It must be overcome… People realize his uncertainty. Disappointed, they turn away from him.

This anecdote – it exists in different versions – shows a field of intercultural tensions. The African theologian did his doctoral studies in the European-German context. He has gained extensive knowledge in this theological tradition. The vision of the African world, questions that would be asked from his own context, have not been considered. What he has to say on his return, as Dr. theol., has no impact for the people of his country.

The story brings me to the question: what is a doctor in theology? Or more specifically in our case: What is a doctor of Biblical Studies, who focuses, for example, on the healing stories? What can we expect from him or her?

For the people of the African village it seems to be clear: A doctor of theology who knows Scripture has a deep spiritual competence, and that includes a competence at the level of healing. As a doctor he does not have only theoretical knowledge, his knowledge has concrete effects that unfold at the interface between visible and invisible events. Is this an archaic, outdated understanding, coming from the world of traditional healers? They combine specialized knowledge with a practice that aims at healing. Also of Jesus it is told that as an expert of Scripture he had a particular knowledge and that at the same time he healed people (e.g. Luke 2:46–47; 4:31–37; 13:10–17).

If we look at the etymology of the word „doctor“, we find the Latin word „docta / doctus“: educated, learned. A doctor transmits what she has learned, she teaches. But it is interesting to note that in common language the word „doctor“ often refers to the medical doctor, an educated person who not only teaches his knowledge, but also applies it with the aim of healing. The villagers were attributing the Dr. theol. a „medical“ task, as they saw probably also in Jesus – the Dr. theol. par excellence? – the prototype of the doctor (compare Luke 5:31).

Personal Experiences

I am not only concerned with (theological) doctors. I wonder in general in what direction theological work could be directed, in particular the (academic) study of biblical texts which lies at its base. The doctors are significant only insofar as they are assigned a deepened expertise.

I think back to my own beginnings as a theologian. With great interest I started my biblical studies at the University of Zurich and with the hope that the study of these texts would have impacts in my life – healing impacts, perhaps? Bible scholars (doctors) with great knowledge were my teachers. They allowed me to learn many things about the texts, their forms, their history, to question them from a (historical-)critical viewpoint. But the concrete link to life was missing: To what extent did these texts concern me as a young woman? What was their significance for my spiritual questions, my search for meaning? What was their impact on society? The textual study allowed me to discern some theological concentrates. But – according to my teachers – the concrete application needed to be done in another discipline, such as practical theology. Was a doctor of biblical studies also a doctor who contributes to healing? Absurd question! Biblical science became for me strangely arid, captured in itself taking reference only to its own cultural context.

These experiences are probably one of the reasons why I earned my own Dr. theol. title not in the biblical sciences, but in systematic theology in the end (still with a reference to the New Testament).[1] Working as a pastor I continued my research for a textual interpretation, which is turned towards life, with an impact on concrete situations. But what was I to do with the title of Dr. theol. I now had the right to add to my name? Could it (still ??) be anything other than a sign of accumulated knowledge according to the criteria of a North Atlantic academic tradition?

What helped me on my way – from the North Atlantic context

Encounters outside of the European biblical studies allowed me to progress in my research. I mention here three influences from the North Atlantic context.

a) Creative transformation

Still during my studies in the 80s, I got acquainted with process theology from the United States. It was thanks to a professor of systematic theology at the Protestant Faculty of Montpellier/France.[2] With an openness of horizon that I had not found in the biblical sciences, he was interested in theological concepts beyond his own continent. A central idea of process theology is the „creative transformation“: At all times and in every event a change is possible, thanks to the presence and creative action of God. Process theology is in dialogue with scientific approaches that perceive such „creative transformation“ also in the universe and understand the world and its development not only in a causal manner, determined by natural laws.

A clear orientation towards creative changes was new to me. This encouraged me to search for such transformations in the biblical sciences as well, at the level of method and content. I wondered: Could or should it not be a particular competence of doctors of the Bible to work with texts in a way that they open spaces for creative transformation, spaces for God?

b) The issue of energies

In the 90s I encountered psychoanalysis according to Sigmund Freud. It led me into a process of personal change, as I had not experienced it with academic biblical theology. At the first glance, psychoanalysis stands close to historical-critical biblical sciences (being part of the same cultural context): It is through the „ratio“, by rational research that it wants to get to the bottom of things, know the historical genesis, orient oneself in the reality. But in contrast to the historical-critical biblical sciences, psychoanalysis locates other influences behind what is „reasonable“ (which is expressed for example in the explanatory words of someone or in a written text), namely forces, impulses, desires, fears. They often prove to be the real masters of the situation. They determine the visible „text“. If I really want to deeply understand, I have to consider this.

I was wondering: Shouldn’t Dr.’s include such influences that might be called “energy aspects” in the biblical studies? What masked desires of omnipotence speak in a text? What liberation force lies in them, what search for healing? What are the hidden fears? Bible stories in which demons or angels appear would then not need to be treated as obsolete because of their „mythology“. They indicate an „energetic“ dimension that influences our reality.

This bears an intercultural importance: The African Doctor in theology mentioned in the beginning should have had the opportunity while studying to consider different perceptions of „energy“, different visions of the world – especially including that of his own culture – in order to relate them with perceptions of the European tradition. The situation of the „possessed“ woman of his village would then have had its place. The new Dr. theol. would have been less confused.

c) See and ignore

And finally, since the 70s, feminist theology has accompanied me. It has – even before the intercultural debate – opened my eyes to the fact that biblical science is neither objective nor universal. The context and one’s own interest play a key role in what we see and ignore. Thus, historical-critical biblical research, which has long been carried out exclusively by men had hardly ever examined the role of women in the texts, and if it did, it uncritically promoted patriarchal interpretations.

Today I ask myself: Shouldn’t it lie in the responsibility of a doctor of the Bible to know his own premises and interests toward the text? And should he/she not also know the implications of different textual approaches? What do they allow to discover and where are the gaps? To what extent do they open to a process of liberation and healing, and what do they prevent? What are their cultural implications?

New inspirations – from the African context

Shouldn’t a doctor who examines the Bible…? Couldn’t a Dr. theol…?

In the search for a tangible interaction between the text and its interpreters – aimed at healing? – I got a few years ago to Africa. During my travels there I have learned how important biblical texts could be for people in their daily lives. Through literature I found an African biblical science – especially in the southern part of the continent – that has greatly expanded my horizon.

a) No „text interest“ without „life interest“

I then understood very clearly what characterizes a theologian in biblical sciences and a doctor of the Bible: The ability to relate academic knowledge to the vital questions of the people and the availability to scrutinize one’s own point of view. The South African theologian Gerald O. West speaks of „life interest“ that must always go hand in hand with the „text interest“. This „life interest“ is not a mere appendage, only important for those working in the church environment and who then seek a relationship between biblical texts and the situation of the people. According to the West „life interest“ is an integral part of biblical sciences themselves.

Biblical researchers therefore should not keep to themselves by pursuing academic studies in a vacuum. They need – as part of their academic work – to exchange with „ordinary“ readers of the Bible. Thus the questions of the people and problems of society are present and may be involved. Additionally, a variety of biblical approaches come into play. The biblical sciences are enriched at the level of method and content, they enter an open communication process.[3]

b) The „life interest“ of healing: a liberating interdependence

The reflection on the „life interest“ challenged me. It responded to my own search for a Bible reading that has an impact in life. I thus found particularly interesting how Musa W. Dube, theologian from Botswana, understands this „life interest“. Dube analyzes the texts focussing on the healing process. Because according Dube it is with this vital interest that people from her church context read and hear the biblical texts, specifically in the „African Instituted Churches“. For them to read the Bible is not a luxury. They hope to find solutions to their problems in terms of health, economic and social issues. In the same way as they went – or still go – to traditional healers to find spiritual help and practical support, they turn to the Bible and its interpreters: with the same „life interest“.

So what is „healing“ according Dube? She refers to an African understanding. Whether a person is physically or mentally ill or whether she lives in an otherwise „unhealthy“ situation, it is never just an individual problem. The disease shows that in the relational fabric of the person there is something wrong, that the relationships that surround it (him or her???) are out of balance. The issues of health and illness therefore always concern the collective. For a healing process to take place, these relationships must be analyzed and changed positively. According to Dube this may concern the small collective, the family, the clan. But it also affects broader relationship networks: relationships between ethnic groups, nations and continents, relations between social classes and specific population groups such as men and women, people with different skin colours, HIV-positive and HIV-negative people… If these relationships are out of balance, if there are „unhealthy“ power structures, if there is exploitation and exclusion of some and if a healing process is sought, it is essential that all those affected by this situation be involved. The healing of some cannot happen without changes in their relationships to others.[4] Dube suggests a dynamic understanding of healing: She speaks of „a liberating interdependence“ that characterizes healthy relationships. It must always be found again.[5]

This „relational“ understanding of healing – which is strongly influenced by Dube’s (post-)colonial experience – has become very important to me. Its implications touch on a personal level as much as they concern relations between the South and the North. The theological dimension is also challenged: The relationship between humans and God is also a search for liberating interdependence as well as relations in all creation, throughout the entire „web of life“. There are so many imbalances, so many diseases. A search of healing also means: the search for a new relational quality.

c) Liberating Bible studies, aimed at healing

A vast field opens for a doctor in theology, also and especially for the doctor in biblical fields. Musa Dube offers a hermeneutical method she calls „divining method of interpretation“. This method takes the means of (relational) situation analysis as the “diviner”, the traditional healers in her cultural context use them. Applied to biblical texts, this method allows to study the relational fabric represented in the text: is it in balance or not? Where is the problem? Are there perspectives for healing (at the physical, mental or spiritual, political, social, economic… level?) And how can the relational dynamic of the text act positively in the relational reality of the readers?[6]

I tried to work with this method since by adapting it to my own context.[7] What fascinates me: It gives way to traditional academic knowledge, e.g. socio-historical study of the texts, as much as it allows to include approaches that do not require specific training: playful and creative approaches, intuition, life experience, exploring the issues of „energy“. The method allows working together with a text without „hierarchy of skills“. It allows to move towards a „creative transformation“ which takes its beginning already in the way how the study is done – leaving open a „space of God“, a space for unexpected changes in understanding – and action.

This method emerging from the African context is of course just one possibility among others. It meets my desire to be – as Dr. of the Bible – not only a person who knows something about the texts, but helps to ensure that these texts can unfold their transforming force – e.g. healing stories.

„The lame walk, the blind see, the captives are released: Let’s become good biblical doctors!

One more time the question arises: Could the African doctor in theology have contributed more effectively to the healing of the sick woman in his village, if the training had been different? We do not know. The desire to contribute to healing does not guarantee success. And what should not characterize a doctor of the Bible is the hidden desire of omnipotence in wanting to act miraculously – instead of God. We carry His strength in „earthen vessels“ (2 Corinthians 4:7). Paul, who created this image, has himself experienced limits of healing (2 Corinthians 12:6–10).

But certainly the doctor could have been better prepared for the situation. Inspired by biblical texts and reinforced with practical experience he could have tried to get in connection with the woman possessed by this force of „evil“, with the people around him and with God. He might have gone to the traditional healer in the village to learn his vision of things. Together with others, he would have thought about the structures and relationships in which the woman was, on the economic, social and spiritual level – in order to detect the problem and to seek healing.

But at this time I also tell myself: The anecdote is of European manufacturing. It does not really describe an African situation. Because even though the biblical training of my African fellows could be academic and abstract, they still preserved a great sensitivity to the needs of the people around them. The problem was rather that their spiritual commitments and their academic knowledge seemed sometimes to exist side by side without an internal link and without a lively interaction.

The question then arises to myself, as a European theologian: Does my biblical research which is oriented towards healing, do my interactions (exchanges???) with others have as a consequence that I actually participate in the healing process – in a concrete area? Do my studies have the effect that healing texts spread their light – in my own life and the lives of others? I hope so. At least this is what I strive towards.

And I carry the desire inside me for new theological training places from which good doctors of the Bible can come out. I long for a biblical science that jumps and dances in a new way, which sees what is essential for our time and is liberated from its academic ivory tower (Luke 4:18 and 7:22). Such biblical research can only be intercultural. It is accessible for people with different backgrounds – academic or other. Its approach to the texts is very varied.

In some respects the network „Tsena malalaka“ responds to this desire: The basis of the network is our relationships, in an intercultural context. We work with Bible texts, we discuss our different approaches, and we discover new forms. We are – I feel – all in search of liberating transformations and healing processes – in our own context and in the big world, whose well being is close to our heart. Our exchange is punctual, on the web, or when we meet in one country or another, when we organize a conference or write a book together. We hold our exchanges in huts and tents, during a visit to (being visiting???) each other. We try to share as equals knowing how much the (material) possibilities and liberties (of travel) are unfairly distributed – as we belong to a European or African country.

I carry my eyes on Jesus – the Dr. theol. of the Gospels – and I see that he too was going from one place to another, often crossing borders. He found himself as a guest with others and surely this changed his views. These meetings have opened new prospects for healing (e.g. Matthew 15:21–28).

Maybe one day there will be a special label „Dr. theol. – Tsena malalaka“?


Response by Yvette Rabemila
Thank you, Verena, for these pertinent theses about doctors in theology. I will limit my comment to three points:

The anecdote about the young African doctor: this famous anecdote reminds me some cases of Malagasy doctors: ours are all affected in the superior teaching in theology. I have no doubt as to their competences in academic matters – their diploma being the result of so many years of superhuman effort and of personal sacrifice (to live for a long time in Europe or the United States, far away from family is not easy for everyone).

But there is a problem when the new doctor has to give the inaugural speech at the beginning of the academic year of the faculty of theology. It is an occasion to give an insight into his/her doctoral thesis. Unfortunately, the assembly present at this moment unites people who are more or less intellectual, and many of them, after the service, admit to have understood nothing of this beautiful speech. The preaching of certain doctors is also hardly comprehensible to simple members of the congregation.                                                               To be useful to others, the doctor thus needs to have the feet on the ground. He/her has to readapt to the realities of the country. Better still, during his/her research years abroad, he/she needs to be aware of what is happening in the home country and in his/her church that keeps evolving constantly. He/her has to keep track of local culture and see his/her interaction with the Gospel correctly. Indeed, those people who the doctor spends time with aside from his/her colleagues and his/her students need inputs that are related to their daily lives: they don’t have the time nor are they interested to think a lot to try to understand the beautiful words of the doctor.

The place of the healing stories in the Bible in general and in the New Testament in particular: it is important not to forget these stories. This helps us to better understand the mission of the Son of Man with his people. In the Malagasy context, in our churches, healing is the business of the “shepherds” who attribute each illness, especially mental/psychological illnesses to a demonic act. The laying on of hands to exorcise the patient and to free him/her of the grip of Satan is the appropriate measure in the case similar to that in our original anecdote. The shepherds are consecrated laypeople (men and women: there are more women than men!) for the ministry of healing, of freeing (delivering???) and of encouraging those who are in need.                                                                         Their training is biblical and lasts two years. They can have very low levels. They perform their ministry with or without their pastor. In principle, the pastors are the official shepherds, but the reality often looks different… they often leave the task to lay on hands to the shepherds, which means that a doctor is not necessarily a shepherd. Thus, if the anecdote had taken place in Madagascar, I think one would have automatically run to a shepherd instead of a doctor.

The Church certainly needs doctors, and will always need them. They are the teachers. Thank God that there are servants of God who have this calling. I knew someone who never wanted to pursue his studies until the doctorate despite repeated encouragement by his professors. His argument was that he wanted to be pastor of a congregation and not professor of theology: he didn’t need this diploma to perform the pastoral ministry on the level of the congregation…                                                                                                                 Today, our Protestant University with the system Licence-Master-Doctorate encourages young (and also less young) pastors to continue their studies until the doctorate. Perhaps indeed the doctors “made in Madagascar” will not risk to encounter the above-mentioned problems… I hope so.                                                                                                 But the danger, I think, is always there, if the “life interest” mentioned by Gerald West, quoted by Verena, doesn’t correspond with the “text interest”. This is the condition “sine qua non” for the success of doctors in their church, wherever they are.

With this, I conclude that a doctor who can at the same time care for a congregation or take up an additional responsibility besides teaching has better chances of improving him or herself, compared to those who remain exclusively in their academical en vironment.


[1] Verena Naegeli, Wo rührt das hin? Wort und Leiblichkeit im Johannesevangelium und bei Sigmund Freud, Zürich 2000.

[2] André Gounelle, Le dynamisme créateur de Dieu. Essai sur la théologie du Process, Montpellier 1981.

[3] Gerald West, Interrogating the Comparative Paradigm in African Biblical Scholarship, in: Gerald West, Hans de Witt (ed.), African and European Readers of the Bible in Dialogue, Leiden 2001, 37–64. This article gives a good overview of West’s thinking by searching the dialogue between an African and a European hermeneutical approach towards the Bible. See also: Gerald West (ed.): Reading Other-Wise; Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with Their Local Community, Atlanta 2007.

[4] Read more in: Musa Dube, Divining Texts for International Relations: Matthew 15:21–28, in: Ingrid R. Kitzberger (ed.), Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Reviewed, Leiden 2000, 315–328 and: Musa W. Dube, Divining Ruth for International Relations, in Musa W. Dube (ed.): Other Ways of Reading, African Women and the Bibel, 2001, Atlanta/Geneva 2001, 179–198.

[5] Musa W. Dube, „Divining Ruth For International Relations“, in: Musa W. Dube (ed.), Other Ways of Reading, African Women and the Bible, Atlanta/Geneva 2001, 193 and 194.

[6] For more information on the „divining method of interpretation“: see indications in footnote 4.

[7] For more information visit the site:

(Translation from French: Evelyne Zinsstag)

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